/ 14 August 2023

African art needs more investment

Helensebidi Piccreditstephanieveldman(1)
A painting by South African artist Helen Sebidi. Photo by Güliz Özbek and Stephanie Veldman

In Europe, the Renaissance in the 15th to 16th centuries witnessed an extraordinary revival of ideas and achievements, particularly evident in the arts. Today, Africa stands at similar crossroads and we must seize this opportunity to invest in our future. 

With abundant human capital and natural resources to reimagine our economic growth, we can create a revitalised art culture that broadens our horizons. Through dedicated investment to grow and support infrastructure, training, and education in the arts, we can catalyse the reinvention of the African economy and global leaders in the creative industries.

We must create and foster a more sustainable and thriving art sector, which will benefit artists and cultural institutions and also contribute to economic growth, cultural tourism and foster an appreciation of Africa’s creative contributions to the world. 

In recent years I have seen how Africa’s most prominent contemporary artists, and the international profile of emerging African and Malagasy artists has benefitted from the growing cultural infrastructure of the continent.

We need to ensure that more and greater targeted investment, and financial and practical support is in place both to directly benefit artists’ careers and to contribute to wider cultural and economic growth. By driving a more widespread appreciation of African art we can foster an environment conducive to the blossoming of artists, their art, and venues for public interaction with art.

Museums, galleries, and other physical locations for art matter so much because they act as hubs to inspire artists and empower them with the right tools to create next-generation art and spur Africa’s development.

Art is not just visually attractive and a vital means for the transmission of ideas, it is also economically beneficial to millions, contributing billions to our economic development. Museums offer a vital platform for artists to showcase their work to a wide audience, obtain recognition, invite commercial opportunities and act as custodians of cultural heritage. Art extends beyond the confines of museum walls, making its impact felt throughout society.

For instance, Nollywood, Nigeria’s answer to Hollywood, is poised to become one of the country’s greatest exports, with an annual growth rate of 19.3% from 2018 to 2023, currently contributing 1.42% to the national GDP. Similarly, in South Africa, the creative industry accounts for 3.6% of employment, attracting further jobs, investments, and tourism. Investing more in our arts is far from a waste; it represents a venture that offers a multitude of economic and social benefits to millions of people.

African art has too often either been hoarded outside our borders or under-appreciated by our domestic market, but we have an opportunity to change this trajectory. We must curate a new generation of prominent art museums that can support and house one of Africa’s most significant and thriving industries. 

African contemporary art is now displayed from London’s Tate Modern to the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, and millions of visitors appreciate African art when they visit these cities. They go to these cities because the infrastructure exists that fosters the appreciation of African artists and their work. In 2019, the Louvre Museum in Paris attracted 9.6 million visitors, while Morocco, Africa’s most visited country, received 13.11 million tourists.

But how do we cultivate artists and support their journey from students to practitioners, to help fill the galleries with high quality contemporary African art? Like microfinance investing, we must start by encouraging small donations and philanthropic initiatives that can quickly create a multiplier effect. While museums act as hubs, we must give artists at the grassroot level the tools they need to feel empowered and unleash their creative spirit. 

A further example demonstrating how small donations at a local level can support the growth of the creative sector and empower African artists to have control over the narrative of the continent, is a recent partnership launched by Dr Yaya Moussa, founder and president of the Africa Prime Initiative, a platform dedicated to celebrating Africa’s talent and successes. 

Grants worth up to $2 000 per artistic institution are able to spearhead the advancement of the careers of five artists at the national and regional level. In Namibia, this saw five artists receive the funds to help fund their careers, providing a vital lifeline to an underappreciated sector. It is my hope that we will be able to see some of these young, thriving, and talented artists featured at some of our largest national museums in the years to come.

The Zeitz MOCAA in Cape Town, where I am a trustee, and museums such as the Museum of African Contemporary Art Al Maaden in Marrakesh and the Rwanda Art Museum in Kigali, have become a beacon of modern contemporary African art, and this was achieved through not only generous donations but also the business acumen to notice a gap in the market. Often referred to as an energy greenfield because of its immeasurable capacity for renewable energy, Africa is also an “artfield”, with a virtually limitless capacity to create new waves of African art.

The critics and tourists are waiting in New York, Paris, Milan and London. Let’s invite them to explore Africa’s vibrant art scene. All we’re missing is the proper recognition and investment in what art can do for the economy, culture, and people.

Hasnaine Yavarhoussen is a trustee at the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, founder of Fonds Yavarhoussen, a philanthropic trust focused on the development of Malagasy art and culture, and chief executive of Groupe Filatex, Madagascar’s largest private power producer.