As a media partner for Art Africa Fair, Nataal surveys its inaugural
outing in Cape Town

Nataal was a media partner for the recently concluded Art Africa Fair in Cape Town. The ambitious inaugural event was hosted by Art Africa magazine at the Watershed on the V&A Waterfront and called upon five curators - Salimata Diop, Uche Okpa-Iroha, Pierre-Christophe Gam, Thembinkosi Goniwe and Ruzy Rusike - to create a museum-style exhibition showcasing a hugely rich and diverse array of talent from around the continent. Rather than gallery-focussed booths, artists were grouped together conceptually and within a social space. The aim was to create a thoughtful and interactive collective show attracting new audiences to, and stirring fresh discussion around, Africa’s fast evolving art scene.

“I was intrigued by the vision for the fair and what debates would arise between the curators, each from different parts of Africa and with different points of view,” says Diop, who is also the artistic director of AKAA art fair and has curated numerous shows in Senegal, France and the UK. For Art Africa Fair, she paid special attention to the Bright Young Things exhibit and award, which recognised eight change-making artists. “What the artists all have in common is that their work, through a range of creative processes, is talking about subjects that are political, current and real. They are aware of the impact they could have on their world and committed to fighting for it. That is why I called this shortlist No Fairy Tale. Of course they are dreamers, and some of the work is delicate, poetic and romantic, but it is also so engaged.”


Among them was Ivorian photographer Joana Choumali who showed Adorn. This series of portraits lauded the often-maligned trend adopted by some Senegalese women for wearing excessive make-up. Emphasising their surreal looks with kitsch accessories and Rococo frames, Choumali revels in her subjects’ self-empowered image making. “These women are aware of the game they are playing in society, and enjoy it. We’re asked to be seduce by them and question who decides what beauty really looks like,” Diop comments.

Kenya's Tahir Karmali explored the idea of one’s identity being both validated and limited by official documents via a delicate paper and thread installation using his own family’s IDs and photographs. DRC’s Patrick Bongoy’s figurative rubber sculpture, entitled The Revenants III, evoked the violence of forced migration and the healing power of creativity. Benin-born photographer Laeila Adjovi won the Bright Young Things award for Malaika Dotou Sankofa, a fictional character, short text and photographic series that acts as an allegory for freedom. Her angel sprouts wings and liberates herself from the colonised mind.

South African artist Siwa Mgoboza used local shwayshway fabric and other textiles to form tapestries that speak to his concept of Africadia. “There is so much othering around the world at the moment that I wanted to create an alternative space that brought everyone together regardless of race, sexuality or gender,” says the Michaelis School of Fine Art graduate. “The strong women who raised me have always prized the highest quality fabrics, and had a natural confidence and swag despite having never seen a Parisian catwalk, so these works are also my ode to them.”

“What the artists all have in common is that their work, through a range of creative processes, is talking about subjects that are political,
current and real”

Uche Okpa-Iroha curated the photography and lens-based section of the fair under the banner Afrokainosis. The Nigerian photographer and educator is founder of the Nlele Institute and is currently developing a research project that rewrites African histories from within. “I’m tired of the representation of Africa from western media and visual institutions. This is not the truth,” Okpa-Iroha says. “We must tell our own personal and regional histories, get critically engaged with our own environments and get deep down to the underbelly. Only then can we talk qualitatively about it. Let it be a balanced story.”

Okpa-Iroha selected individual portraits by Mozambique photographer Mario Macilau, the latest project from Nigerian travel collective Invisible Borders, which documented areas of their country often portrayed as no-go, and highlights from Yasser Booley’s book South Africa At Liberty, which brings together 22 years of images capturing the country and it’s people since the end of Apartheid. And South Africa’s Thembinkosi Hlatshwato presented intimate portraits of his family. “He shows the nuances and the unity through the subtlety of shadows, and how religion effects our thinking. It’s that proximity and closeness to one’s subject that is important to me,” Okpa-Iroha explains. “It’s not just about aesthetics but the connection between the work and the viewer. It must be relevant.”

Gam, art director, designer and founder of the cultural platform Afropolis, curated the fair’s social hub and debuted his long-term project, Sankara The Upright Man. Incorporating sculpture, photography, textile prints, set design, drawings, and digital manipulation, his immersive installation presented Thomas Sankara as a Christ-like figure. Gam's fictional artefacts and compositions appeared seemingly bright and playful yet aimed to explore the legacy of the Burkinabe president’s influential pan-African beliefs. His ideas around Africa’s political, economic and social self sufficiency and cultural agency still resonate as clearly today as when Sankara was assassinated 30 years ago.

“It is essential to work together and use the art of story-telling to uplift our creative landscape”

The final curation was entitled A Flagrant Arcade and was a dialogue between Goniwe, an artist, art historian and researcher at the Wits School of Arts, and curatorial grad student Rusike. Their edit highlighted innovative artistic interventions across all mediums that wrestle with pertinent social attitudes and human experiences of our everyday. Here South African artists dominated, including a large chair sculpture and performance by Francois Knoetze, black and white photography by Tshepiso Mazibuko, a mixed media tapestry by Lawrence Lemaoana making his comment upon mainstream politics and media, music-meets-motorbikes from DJ Invizible, and fashion by Lukhanyo Mdingi. The latter showed his SS17 collection Purgation, and lookbook shot by fellow Cape Townian Kent Andreasen.

Mdingi also joined the panel for the Nataal talk at Art Africa Fair alongside two more local photographers, Rudi Geyser and Kyle Weeks, and myself. The discussion aptly centred on new visual narratives being told about contemporary South Africa by cross-disciplinary collaborations. “It is essential to work together and using the art of story-telling to nurture and uplift our creative landscape is,” Mindgi said on stage. “It’s my belief that our chosen mediums can create an ethical community in the world and reflect on the power of a collective over the individual.”

Photography John Pillemer