Due to this paucity of representation of African art galleries, some of us in the African contemporary art community might have expected that this substantive show of force at Art Dubai will “mark” all triumphal arrival of African contemporary art galleries on the art market. If this was the expectation, it was unrealistic. However, what Marker did create was a sense of awareness of the breadth of the art market among many contemporary art organisations operating across Africa, which have been sheltered from the art market by years of philanthropic funding. Sheltered from the risks but equally from the rewards and opportunities. It also raised awareness of the skills and professional engagement that needs to be built up inside the African contemporary art community if we are to become the rightful beneficiaries of the growing awareness and appreciation of African contemporary art internationally instead of following the predictable paradigm of becoming the unvalued developer of talent and net exporter, like all too many other African domestic industries.
Now the art market does not have any special rules when it comes to selling and it is important to recognise that when knowing how to engage. While art as a product is special, when we deal with it as a product, we are in a market place and with people who buy and sell and trade in all sorts of things all the time and reduce things to time, money, value and profit.
As African contemporary art galleries begins to gain a foothold in the international art market, having begun to make a mark in the critical sphere, they need to realise that the learning curve is steep. In this sense, entering the art market at Art Dubai was in many ways, like being thrown head first in the deep end. To some inexperienced observers of the art market the conspicuousness of money, business and wealth in Dubai seems like a guarantee of sales of almost anything, including art. This is definitely not the case. Unlike more established art fairs in Europe like Art Basel or Frieze or Art Cologne in cities and countries, Art Dubai is not based in a city with an established art collecting culture. As a result, Art Dubai has the double uphill task of both establishing itself as an art fair and creating a collector culture in a city where everything is new and has to be done from scratch.
Having taken some time to analyse Art Dubai 2013 from the market perspective and speaking to a number of exhibiting galleries like London’s Bischoff/Weiss, Bolsa de Arte from, Porto Alegre (Brazil) or Sfeir-Semler from Beirut/Hamburg several things became very clear. Most of the exhibitors saw, Art Dubai as part of their long-term marketing strategy. They were, coming to the fair primarily not to sell but to develop new contacts and collectors and deepen engagement, which may in the future yield sales not only in Dubai but also in their home bases. For anyone who visited the Sharjah Biennale running concurrently with Art Dubai in the neighbouring Sharjah Emirate, it also became eminently evident that some of the bigger name galleries like Yvon Lambert or CRG Galleries New York, who were making a debut at Art Dubai, were doing it to leverage the participation in the Biennale of the artists they represent. Moreover, the vast majority of international exhibitors, from Australia’s GAG Projects to Paris/Brussels’ Almine Rech and New York’s Alexander Gray Associates, brought to Art Dubai not Australian or French or US artists but rather Australian/French/American artists of Middle Eastern origin, taking the low risk, slow approach to engaging the Dubai market and with a consciousness of the sensibilities and sensitivities of their might be patrons. These calculations and strategies and interplays of relationships between fairs, biennales and museums are the realities of the art industry today and need to be mastered by newcomers.
For, while most of the African participants in Marker, are highly experienced and established art professionals and institutions in their own fields and countries, they were by and large novices to the art market and this level of engagement with the industry. It is perhaps not surprising that the experience of the fair may not have been the easiest of undertakings, for some as much at odds with their operational as well as curatorial modus operandi.
An international art fair if anything is a place, which forces you to have your feet firmly on the ground, where experience and expertise count for 80% of success. The other 20% of success is having international quality product in a market that has limited interest for niches and ultimate interest in sustained quality and merit that can reach beyond national borders and beyond national prices. It was not a surprise, that Solle Cisse’s works at Raw Materials Company were a hit with international curators and collectors. The work stood out for quality, which was not constrained by its geographic or cultural provenance but rather leveraged by it.
Negative comments about engaging with the art market are much too common among art professionals in the not-for-profit sector, yet it is a blinkered proposition and a self-defeating one, especially in the African context. Taking a look at the interplay between Sharjah Biennale and Art Dubai, should be sufficient evidence to dispel the notion that the for-and-not for profit sectors of the industry do not have a symbiotic relationship. African artists and galleries do not need to compromise on quality or play up to the market to gain attention or sales, however they do need to be international market ready and to know what being market ready means.
One of the most positive things to be carried away from Bisi Silva’s Marker at Art Dubai is that African galleries, rather than European galleries representing African artists made their presence known in a substantial way. Moreover they stood out as a contingent, with (unintentional) courage to show their local artists and represent their contemporary art rather than accommodating the local market tastes. This is the courage and integrity that we can and should sustain going forward.
Whatever the perceived difficulties that Marker “Africa” had at this year’s Art Dubai, they are minor teething problems and an unavoidable part of growing maturity of our domestic art scenes and galleries. There is no room for discouragement and all the room in the world for thinking soberly and strategically about what it takes and what we need to learn and achieve to become equal partners in the art industry. As in other spheres of human activity political and ideological independence is not possible without economic independence and art world really is no different.
In her review of Marker for Contemporary &, Christine Eyene raised a questions about what lessons are to be learnt from Marker in the lead up to 1:54 the first contemporary African Art Fair in London this year, running as a satellite to Frieze. To my mind the answer is unequivocal. Non-engagement with the art market is not an option if we are to build up our domestic art sectors that are viable and to deliver to African artists on the promise of viable professional careers.
Equally evident to my mind is that African galleries need to be smarter and more strategic leveraging art market opportunities. Unlike many of our international counterparts, we live with realities of higher costs of transport and travel and no capital investment or lines of credit or bank loans to support new gallery businesses and limited to non-existing local markets. The challenges are huge, we cannot pretend they are not, but equally huge are the imperatives to realise the dreams of the talented artists on the continent for genuine recognition and economic independence.
The 1:54 Contemporary art fair will be another opportunity to make a statement of arrival and claim to a rightful place in an art market and a context that is developed, robust and expansive. This opportunity is not an unambiguous one. Participation in 1:54 is open to any gallery exhibiting an African artist. If African galleries don’t step up their place and their opportunities to engage and learn and develop, will be taken by European and American galleries already making a profit from exhibiting African artists.
These are the options and lines in the sand in Dubai or elsewhere.