/ 14 November 2023

Paris art fair week and black representation

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A visitor takes photos of a painting by US artist George Condo entitled "Female Portrait Composition" on display at Hauser & Wirth Gallery stand at the Grand Palais Éphemere as part of Paris+ par Art Basel show in Paris, on October 18, 2023. (Photo by Dimitar DILKOFF / AFP)

In the folds of the Seine, Paris — with its age-old echo of revolutions, where cobblestones have borne both protest and promenade — awakens once more. 

As an unyielding centre of insurrections, the city’s inherent toughness is captured in every stone, marking the tempo of both uprising and leisurely strolling.

During the Paris+ par Art Basel art fair week in late October, this resonance became clearer, urging one to attune — art, as a testament to existence, is constantly evolving, always in conversation, seeking its deserved place. 

It’s during this time that Paris’s storied past weaves into the present, delineating where history brushes against the now.

The city pulses with life, at a juncture where ancient and contemporary seamlessly coalesce, highlighting the intricate dance between age-old traditions and modern reinvention. Art is not a static entity but a dynamic occurrence, an active verb unfolding in real time.

It’s found in the hushed whispers against walls adorned with murals, in the soft dialogues tucked away in corners, and in the audacious masterpieces that screamwithout uttering a word.

The streets of Paris during its art fair week are not merely pathways; they are living testimonies, echoing the melodies once played by Gerard Sekoto, retracing the steps where Pablo Picasso once danced, and whispering tales that James Baldwin penned.

Amidst this symphony, the sheer euphoria of being a South African in the city, especially during the Springboks’ Rugby World Cup triumph, charged the Parisian air with an electric vigour. This energy, palpable and pulsating, courses through the city’s veins, illuminating its essence. 

Paris, with its historic standing as an art and culture nexus, firmly re-established its global significance during the famed art fair week.

Seven art fairs unveiled their treasures, solidifying the French capital as the undeniable epicentre for global art aficionados. The most prestigious, the Paris+, steered by the distinguished Art Basel group with Noah Horowitz at the helm, witnessed a noticeable absence of South African galleries and black artists.

Major names like Stevenson and Goodman, previously seen at the flagship Art Basel in Switzerland, were notably missing.

Yet, the vibrant presence of the SMAC Gallery was unmistakable.

Their choice to spotlight Benoni-born Simphiwe Buthelezi was ingenious. Her creations, a blend of materials ranging from steel to Zulu glass beads, were a sensation, underscoring herinnate talent and the gallery’s visionary approach. 

The positioning of galleries within art fairs often reflects the ever-evolving contemporary art scene. Paris+’s commitment to budding galleries gave voice to Galerie Carole Kvasnevski and illustrates a continued renewal and vision. 

Zanele Muholi’s monumental success the previous year was rivalled by this year’s installation in the Tuileries gardens of their sculpture The Politics of Black Silhouettes (2023).

Set not far from where Saartjie Baartman voiced her final words, art poignantly conveyed the enduring struggles and achievements of black identities.

Joël Andrianomearisoa, the renowned artist who represented Madagascar’s inaugural participation at the Venice Biennale, displayed his distinct vision not only at Macaal but also at Koyo Kouoh’s Zeitz MOCAA. His glass and metal artwork Serenade and the Triumph Of Romance (2023), gracefully positioned in the garden, amplified conversations through its research and experimentation with materials and sentiments.

Could it be that the upward movement of black figuration to prominence — a trend that has surged with vigour in recent years, is over?

A gallerist, whom I’d prefer to keep anonymous, exclaimed with exasperation: “Thank God! If I see another painting of a family album, I might just collapse.”

This perspective becomes clearer in the face of juxtapositions. A gallerist’s weariness with recurrent themes of familial reminiscences stands in stark contrast with the awe-inspiring works of maestros such as Henry Taylor, whose exhibition at Hauser & Wirth was not just a testament to his brilliance but a resounding affirmation of the relevance of black figuration.

His canvas isn’t merely cloth and colour; it’s an epoch, a history, a narrative.

Artistic trends aren’t mere whims that ebb and flow with the tides of popular opinion.

They are mirrors, reflecting back to society its deepest fears, aspirations, struggles and triumphs. 

To consider the black figuration’s seeming retreat as a sign of its waning relevance is to engage in a superficial reading of art’s purpose. It’s not an ebb; it’s a deep inhalation, a momentary pause to gather momentum for the next wave, the next exploration, the next revelation.

The AKAA (Also Known As Africa) art fair, initiated by Victoria Mann, arose as a key platform championing African art eight years ago. Located at the Carreau du Temple, this fair has morphed into a microcosm of the vast African continent and its diaspora.

Over 30 galleries and 100-plus artists wove an enthralling tapestry of stories, histories and experiences.

With stalwart galleries’ continued allegiance and the debut of newcomers such as MCC Gallery, Primo Marella Gallery and Afronova, AKAA is sculpting a global artistic fraternity.

South Africa was prominently represented, with notable works by Ayanda Mabunu, Mpho Feni, Sizwe Sibisi, Aviwe Plaatjie, AO Ntshabele and numerous others. 

The booth by Kalashnikovv Gallery, hosted by MJ Turpin and Matt Dowdle, showcased Isaac Zavale’s artwork, which perfectly encapsulated Johannesburg’s spirit of commercial innovation. 

Alongside Zavale, artworks by Turiya Magadlela and Ayanda Mabulu offered incisive commentary on the socio-political dynamics of South Africa.

Emilie Demon’s Afronova, a notable advocate for African contemporary art, represents an array of distinguished artists, emphasising the vast artistic talent from the continent. It showcases works by talents such as Sibusiso Bheka, known for his urban narratives, and Lawrence Lemaoana, famous for his fabric artworks.

Other featured artists include the captivating photographer Alice Mann and the abstraction-focused Dimakatso Mathopa. In addition, Cape Town’s Ebony/curatedgallery presented works by artists such as Lisa Ringwood, Hugh Byrne and Haneem Christian.

The ensemble also highlighted Congolese artist Zemba Luzamba, known for his socio-political depictions. 

The Lusophone influence was evident and impactful at both Perve Galeria (Lisbon) and Movart gallery (Luanda). 

At Perve Galeria’s booth, the evocative paintings of Portuguese artist Teresa Roza d’Oliveira offered deep insights into the cultural ties between Mozambique and Portugal, drawing from her profound relationships and addressing themes such as gender rights and diasporic challenges.

On the other hand, at the Movart gallery, Mario Macilau, a former street child and winner of the 2023 Prix Roger-Pic, showcased monochrome photographs that delve into the stories of marginalised individuals, highlighting their resilience and the human essence amidst vulnerabilities.

Both artists use their mediums to portray stories of connection, adversity and strength.

From other parts of the continent, standout names like Franck Lundangi, Delphine Diallo and Tegene Kunbi left a lasting impression with their distinctive works.

Lundangi’s fusion of African and European styles was compelling. Kunbi’s award- winning paintings, inspired by Ethiopian textiles, resonated through their vibrant colours and rhythmic patterns.

Diallo’s poignant mixed-media photographic collages shed light on the diverse identities of the African diaspora. It was especially uplifting to witness David Brolliet, a Swiss collector, securing one of her works.

I witnessed Binelde Hyrcan signing a photograph from his fantastically challenging 2019 project In God We Trust at 31 Project.

There’s no art fair without its accompanying dinners and afterparties, including an invitation to Gagosian’s residence for the unveiling of Italian arte povera artist Giuseppe Penone’s work, the White Cube dinner in honour of the exceptional artist duo TARWUK and Thaddaeus Ropac’s opening for the remarkable Jamaican artist Alvaro Barrington.

As the swan song for the AKAA art fair, we gathered at the illustrious Soho House.

The afterparty was so sought-after that many collectors, galleries and artists were unable to gain entry, as the venue reached capacity.

With martinis and Johnny Walker Blues flowing freely, I dedicated my DJ set to the global protests for peace. Blending afro house, amapiano, dubke and cutting-edge electronic Arabic music, I crafted a quintessential Globalisto set.

My aim was to welcome everyone, regardless of class, colour, religion, race or gender, to partake in a communal dialogue. Through this, I hoped to emphasise art as a potent catalyst for resistance, peace, love and unity.

Instagram: @mo_laudi