Art Basel: Africa Gets In At Last

If it’s mid June it must be Basel, the saying goes. It’s when the Swiss industrial city astride broad loops on the Rhine in northern Switzerland hums with the presence of who’s who of the global art industry: gallerists, dealers, mega collectors, curators, auction house reps, art publishers, film makers and, increasingly, showbiz celebrities and narcissistic exhibitionists. An executive of a major auction house, or museum, or a famous gallery who’s never been to Basel is like a Cardinal who’s never been to Rome.

The 46th Art Basel (June 18-22) was a milestone for Africa. The Mother Continent got a head room in the big tent – after many years knocking on the portals of the world’s biggest, star-studded, megabucks art fair showcasing and selling modern and contemporary art. In other words, art that is cutting edge, profound, serious, facetious, provocative, stimulating, nihilistic, trashy-kitschy and, generally, beautifully wow! All served in panoply in the fair’s 2+1 aircraft hanger-size halls.

A Jolly Jamboree

I’ve been covering the six-day business cum jollification jamboree for a decade and half now. Each year I board Tram No 2 from the Central Station. As it wends its way through the cobbled streets of old Basel, crosses the ornate Wettstein Bridge and I alight into the teeming, heaving sprawl of the Messeplatz, Art Basel’s citadel, my heart pounds lub-tub,

lub-tub, lub-tub. It’s like crossing paths with an old lover and realising the passion remains as intense as ever. Each year I tell myself the show can’t get any bigger, smarter. But it does.

Art Basel is organised around eight sectors: galleries, feature, statements, edition, unlimited, Parcours, film and magazine, which together provide a vast menu of 20th and 21st century creativity, in painting, sculpture, installation, film, video, photography, print and live performance.

Until recently Art Basel remained a closed shop to Africa, in terms of exhibitors with booth space in the Galleries, namely, Hall 2 – the minted, core business and raison d’etre of the fair.

Director Marc Spiegler got tired of my question at media time: “When are you going to let in Africa?”

Thing is, a galleries worldwide apply each year but not more than a handful are added to the long-standing list of 280-300. South Africa’s Goodman Gallery has held fort for Africa among the exhibitors, dominated by American and European houses.

Yes, some African artists including El Anatsui, Kader Attia, Yinka Shonibari, William Kentridge, Cheri Samba, Ablade Grover and Mikhael Subotzky have had their work exhibited and sold in Basel by American and European galleries. And that’s the way it’s been.

A disclosure: in 2011, at a cost of $10,000 from own pocket, yours truly fronted an application by Nairobi’s world famed Gallery Watatu.

The application didn’t muster a pass but hope was kept alive for a retry.

Alas, as the omens would have it, Watatu ceased to exist after 45 years following the intestate death of owner Adama Diawara in late 2011 and ensuing ruinous tug-of-war among family members over his estate.

This year was a sea change for Africa even if representation in the lucrative Galleries sector in Hall 2 remains a chimera. The excitement for Africa was in the architects Herzog de Meuron remodeled Hall 1, a place I find the most mojo for it’s the home of Unlimited, Magazine and the Auditorium, venue of “Conversations Salon.” What started as an opening day briefing for journalists by Art Basel directors has grown into a buzzful public-experts forum. The platform of 20 or so short talks, panel discussions and general brainstorming bring much-needed intellectual gravitas to a fair that risked being seen as little more than the pursuit of Mammon.

Open to the public with no entry fee, ‘Conversations and Salon’ helps share knowledge on best practices in the art world. Sample how creatively polemic these encounters can be: there was a Salon themed “The Caribbean is the Future of Art.” (!) Pity, I missed this one.

A straw poll showed the Africa-guested events this year were among the most popular. Congrats, Conversations and Salon curator, Mari Spirito, for bringing some of the continent’s éminence grise, and burgeoning stars, to come share their experience. There was not a vacant seat in the auditorium during “Works in Progress: Building New Art Institutions in Africa,” held on the second day of the fair. Cultural consultant András Szántó moderated a panel by Marie-Cécile Zinsou, founder, Benin’s Fondation Zinsou; Touria El Glaoui, founder, 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair, London; Koyo Kouoh, artistic director, Raw Material Company, Dakar; Mark Coetzee, director/curator, Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, Cape Town; and Raphael Chikukwa, chief curator, National Gallery of Zimbabwe.

There was a healthy clash of ideas including the polemic about why some prefix “African” to contemporary art made by Africans. Why not? Isn’t it in the same vein as there’s a Chinese contemporary art, or African football, European football, American soccer? A useful illustrative tool, with no negative connotation, period. Also, some took umbrage at those who claim

African art/artists “have now arrived.”

Not so, someone riposted. African artists were always there, vibrant on the continent and in the diaspora – just that, we weren’t significant in the international space or on the world market. Precisely. Daren’t it be said that we haven’t really arrived if we’ve never showcased or performed or sold in an international arena such as Art Basel, or in its two other venues, Miami and Hong Kong? Or, in Frieze, Masters, Venice, FIAC, Joburg?

Cameroonian Barthélémy Toguo shared Salon, “Cultural Producers” with Ethiopian Aida Muluneh, moderated by Marie-Ann Yemsi. Bomi Odufunade (Dash Rallo art advisory) moderated Salon, “Collecting Africa” by Nigerian Prince Yemisi Shyllon and South African Bruce Campbell Smith, on the passion, motivation and skills for building a collection. Simon Africa

Remix Njami moderated Salon, “What can Contemporary Art Do,” of panelists Jean Lamore, Moataz Nasr, Chris Dercon and intellectual dandy, Dr Bonaventure So Bejeng Ndikung.

Kudos to Njami for his scintillating curation earlier in the year of Divine Comedy: Heaven, Hell, Purgatory; Dante Alighieri’s 14th century masterpiece revisited and given an Africa twist via paintings, videos, sculptures, textiles and photography by Wangechi Mutu, Yinka Shonibari, Muluneh and others at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, Washington. The

show had debuted at the Frankfurt Museum of Modern Art last year.

Unlimited and Transcendental Messages

By general consent, 2015 Unlimited, the platform for large-scale art with transcendental messages, was the best in years. Curated for the fourth year by Gianni Jetzer it lived up to its reputation as a place where art becomes truly unbound. Unlimited, which used to be called Art Unlimited, is located at the far end of Hall 1, the most cavernous space at the fair.

If an art piece is less than a 10-ton truck it gets lost in there. That said, Cameroonian Pascale Marthine Tayou’s medium-size sculpture of tree branches poking out of a wall and adorned with recycled plastic bags, held its own among the 74 exhibits. The didactic Tayou can be quite cluttered in his installations but his Unlimited piece was sheer delight in its simplicity. Its message of environment protection awareness and going Green also resonated with the crowds, shown by the stream of selfies taken in front of it.

Algerian-French Kader Attia was at his subversive best, with his “Arab Spring” installation in which, to the delight of VIP onlookers on opening day, the hoodie-clad iconoclast hurled rocks into his assemblage of 16 glass display cases; a reference to the looting of antiquities during Egypt’s political unrest. Five years ago at the same venue Attia ruffled a few feathers with his “Coucous Kaaba” a black cube placed in a sea of couscous grains and spot lit in a darkened enclosure. Think Kaabah, think holy Mecca?

Indeed, Art Basel 2015 brought to mind Nigerian art scholar Olu Oguibe’s comment that “we must lay to rest once and for all the idea that Africa is a place of naive creativity and bricolage.”

Other crowd pullers at Unlimited were Ai Wei Wei’s stacked bikes, Maha Malluh’s huge cooking pots, Jeppe Hein’s Illusion III, a massive mobile of steel beams, glass panes and mirrors cantilevered high above to trace intricate forms at regular intervals. And the most sensational, sea sickness inducing art of all: *Egocentric System, *a live performance by

Julius von Bismarck. Each morning the gangly, monk-bearded Berliner climbed into an UFO-like saucer, which spun round and round all day long. Von Bismarck read, ate and mostly slept on a mattress in the saucer, clambering out to go home when the contraption was switched off at closing time. What some would endure for the love of art!

A Frisson of Drama

While Art Basel runs like a well-oiled machine year after year, once in a while tension erupts among dealers and management. As reported by the Artribune magazine published on site during fairs to provide a daily account of what’s going, the grandees in Hall 2, who must sell art or die, nearly rioted when on landing in Basel to set up their stalls they found out management had overhauled the floor plans, moving this gallery here and that one there. For these old timers and big hitters, that’s verboten. Apparently, management backed off, and the changes were limited to tweaks here and there.

Except for my old friend Tony Shafrazi whose booth, for years implanted at first-turn-right from Main Entrance, had vanished. Now, in coded practice at high-powered fairs, “first-turn-left” or “first-turn-right” after the main entry translates as top-notch, premium booths; reserved for VHWs (very heavy weights).

Did Mr Shafrazi sit out 2015 Basel? He’s too big to be relegated elsewhere. Some years back, I was interviewing Shafrazi and was about to pose a not so kosher detail in his CV when his assistance, Kiko, kicked me from under the table.

Here’s the juice. A hot-headed student in New York in early seventies, Shafrazi went and defaced Picasso’s Guernica during a brief stay at the MoMa. Lorhavmercy – he spray-painted “Kill Lies All” on the hallowed opus, allegedly in protest of the Vietnam war! Thankfully, the handiwork was removed with ease from the varnished surface. Yours truly never claimed to be a hard-hitting journo so I took Kiko’s advice and canned my danger-zone question.

Talking about booths, Shafrazi’s old corner was occupied by a gallery whose name I can’t recall but had a large red and green Keith Haring which I was told was snapped up for a seven-figure moments the VIP preview opened.