Eight galleries arrived from Africa to exhibit at the 10th edition of EXPO Chicago, the largest art fair of the United States Midwest, from the 13th until the 16th of April, 2023. Featuring over 170 galleries, representing 36 different countries and robust programming, the exposition drew 32 000 visitors including local and international collectors, curators and museum leaders.
EXPO Chicago was born as a continuation of Art Chicago, which ran from 1980 to 2011 is credited as being the first American large art fair. The new incarnation and its 10th edition confirmed the fair’s ambition to become a global event. The eight African galleries that decided to make the trip, compared with only two of last year’s edition, were pleased with what they found: lots of interest for their artists and a local community with strong connections to the African continent.
Although about 70 percent of the exhibitors came from the USA, African and African American art stood out. Figurative painting by black artists has been on the rise for a few years now, finally revealing to the American public how ‘Blackness’ represents itself. However, in most of the booths of the American galleries, the African and diasporic art on display adhered to an aesthetic, largely drawn from West Africa, which could soon end up going out of fashion as trends tend to do. One wonders whether this is the result of a white gaze; partial, one-dimensional, embracing only what is coherent with their idea of Africa and whether there is more to see. And there is. A larger variety and richness of expressions could be found in the presentations of the African galleries among which there was no homogeneity of styles or media.
Here is our exploration of what they had to offer.
Ebony/Curated, Cape Town
John Newdigate and Ian Garrett. © Maurita Cardone
In the main section, Ebony/Curated from South Africa was at EXPO Chicago for the first time. They exhibited works by Hugh Byrne, Craig Cameron-Mackintosh, Kimathi Mafafo, Anico Mostert, John Newdigate and Zemba Luzamba. Dominating the scene were large glazed porcelain vases by John Newdigate and Ian Garrett, longtime collaborators who have found alchemy between colours and forms. The lavish polychromy and the inviting curvy shapes of the vases created a delicate contrast with the ordinary scenes and the quiet and empty spaces of Anico Mostert’s paintings on the walls of the booth. Also on display is ‘Free Spirit’, a large painting by Congolese-born and Cape Town resident, Zemba Luzamba, which seems to interrogate the audience on what it means to be free and how to achieve freedom.
The gallerists were happy with the response received from the public. Although they were new to the fair and still needed to create long-term connections, they said, they were able to make some sales and felt that there was interest in their artists.
Southern Guild, Cape Town
© Maurita Cardone
Another new entry to the fair was Southern Guild from South Africa which presented a booth full of some of their leading artists. Welcoming visitors was a large bronze self-portrait by Zanele Muholi. Widely known for her black-and-white photography depicting the LGBTQ+ community in South Africa, Muholi recently expanded her practice to include sculpture. Some of her new works will be exhibited at her solo show, opening at Southern Guild’s Cape Town gallery in May. Equally towering in the space of the booth were two ceramic and bronze sculptures from Zizipho Poswa’s recent solo show inspired by the hairstyles traditionally worn by Black women across the continent. On the external walls, a display of talismans made with found objects by Toronto-based artist Oluseye for his ongoing series ‘Eminado’ seemed to be in dialogue with the organic blackness of the rubber compositions by Congolese artist Patrick Bongoy. Inside, catching the eye, was the intricate calligraphic pattern of a large work that Iranian artist Kamyar Bineshtarigh excised from his studio walls, an abandoned clothing factory where immigrant women from Iran used to work. Other exhibit artists included Andile Dyalvane, Kamyar Bineshtarigh (Iran/South Africa), Patrick Bongoy (DRC), Dominique Zinkpè (Benin) and Stanislaw Trzebinski (Kenya).
Gallery 1957, Accra
Aplerh-Doku Borlabi. © Maurita Cardone
Gallery 1957 from Ghana whose booth was crowded featuring mostly Ghanaian artists including Gideon Appah, Aplerh-Doku Borlabi, Araba Opoku, and Eric Adjei Tawiah. The latter, a protegee of Amoako Boafo, creates distinctive portraits using nylon sponges, inspired by the cleaning of his mother’s body in the mortuary. The use of humble materials is a staple of contemporary Ghanaian art and here is also found in Aplerh-Doku Borlabi’s portraits where faces are made of coconut sheath. Together, they create a collection of characters that invite the viewer to look deeper, past the plasticity of the bodies. Only two of the artists on display were not from Ghana, Patrick Alston from the US, whose gestural paintings clashed with the colourful figurations of his fellow exhibiting artists, and Nadia Waheed from Saudi Arabia whose allegorical and dreamy scenes add to the quite overwhelming feel of the booth.
WHATIFTHEWORLD, Cape Town
Courtesy of WHATIFTHEWORLD.
Within the ‘Profile section’ of the fair, dedicated to solo booths and focused projects by established international galleries, was gallery WHATIFTHEWORLD , for its second time at EXPO Chicago. This year the gallery arrived from South Africa with a presentation of works by Athi-Patra Ruga, including two lightboxes of stained glass and steel, wool tapestries and works on paper. In his work, Ruga creates alternative identities that are a mashup of contemporary pop styles and African traditional aesthetics with which he seems to be masquerading the traumas of colonial history. His mythical world and characters create a space not only for self-reflection but for political discourse with an eye to history. The presentation was quite successful, the gallerists told us.
First Floor Harare, Harare
© Maurita Cardone
Four of the African galleries were found within the ‘Exposure section’, which highlights solo and two-artist presentations from galleries 10 years and younger and which this year was curated by Aimé Iglesias Lukin, Director and Chief Curator of Visual Arts at Americas Society in New York. One of these was First Floor Gallery from Zimbabwe, debuting at EXPO Chicago with a presentation of works by Zimbabwean artists Gresham Tapiwa Nyaude and Helen Teede. The works of the two artists who are the same age but one man, the other woman, one black, white the other, shared the walls of the booth, creating an interesting dialogue between Teede’s gestural compositions in black and white or one colour and the colourful grotesques of Nyaude’s figures.
Afriart Gallery, Kampala
© Maurita Cardone
Another gallery in the ‘Exposure section’ was Afriart from Uganda with new works by Ugandese Charlene Komuntale and Tanzanian Sungi Mlengeya. With their two distinctive ways of representing a women’s experience, the artists create stories that require the viewer to question their own gaze. In Komuntale’s digital paintings, women are portrayed with their heads covered by cardboard boxes wrapped in tape that reads “not fragile”, inviting re-evaluations of the female body and its assigned roles. In Mlengeya’s works, dark figures of women in powerful plastic poses are painted against plain white backgrounds, symbolizing the space of freedom and possibilities. Together, the works of the two artists create a booth that reads as a commentary on social norms and roles, deconstructing patriarchal narratives and reappropriating representation. As stated on the gallery’s website, “Their work is representative of a new vigour among young, African, and Black women artists who assert their space and voice on the global scene.”
© Maurita Cardone
First time at EXPO Chicago Nigeria’s kó Gallery presented a solo exhibition of ceramics by artist Ozioma Onuzulike for its. Inspired by El Anatsui, who was his professor at the Nsukka School in Southeastern Nigeria, Onuzulike creates large-scale ceramic installations that hang like tapestries. These surfaces with a soft and flexible appearance are created by thousands of ceramic beads, each fired through multiple kilns, imitating natural elements, such as palm kernels, honeycombs and yam tubers. The result is abstract and concrete at the same time, transcending the physical nature of the individual elements of the work and yet affirming the physicality of the work itself. An apparent minimalistic aesthetics is contradicted by the richness of the texture and the complexity of the materials. Drawing from traditional craftsmanship and infused with symbolisms and references to colonial history, the works take on an environmental and socio-political significance. According to the gallerists, the presentation attracted lots of interest and they are already planning collaborations for new shows in the U.S.
Martin Art Projects, Cape Town
© Maurita Cardone
For its second edition of EXPO Chicago, this young gallery from South Africa chose a solo presentation of a new body of work by Mohau Modisakeng. The artist, who represented South Africa at the 2017 Venice Biennale, is better known for his photography, film and performances. This is the first time he uses the medium of painting and he does so by choosing a palette of greens, blues and magentas that give a nocturnal and slightly surreal feel to the portraits. The figures represented here are young men and women painted on the background of lavish vegetation. Despite their youthful appearance, the confidence with which they inhabit the space of the canvas gives them an ancestral look, as if the forest around them had conjured their presence from the past, making the unseen visible. One of the paintings in the booth, Phahamong III, was selected by The Seattle Art Museum, as part of the Northern Trust Purchase Prize, which allows three American art institutions a year to acquire a work of their choice in the Exposure section. Another of the institutions that won the prize, the St Louis Art Museum, also chose a work by an African artist, Irawo II by the Nigerian Wole Lagunju, represented at the fair by New York-based Montague Contemporary.
Maurita Cardone is a journalist and editor working at the intersection of art, ecology and social justice. After experiences as reporter, editor and head of service in Italian publications including Il Tempo, Il Sole 24 Ore, and La Nuova Ecologia, since 2011 she has been based in New York City. Between 2013 and 2017, she was the managing editor of the online magazine La Voce di New York, before going back to her real passion, freelancing. Her work has appeared in many Italian publications and she regularly contributes to Il Giornale dell’Arte and Artribune. She wrote and produced the award winning documentary Shadows of Endurance and is currently working on a new film about wrongly incarcerated artist, Billie Allen.
For more information, please visit EXPO Chicago.