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Social media and black pride are shaping some of the African continent’s rising artists represented in the Image Swing collection

Whether you are perusing an auction or art fair dedicated to contemporary African art, it will become immediately clear that African art is currently dominated by portraiture. If you look at some of the most prized African artists operating in the global art world, you’ll find that their practice is characterised by this traditional art genre.

Treatwell Mnisi, Hair is the Crown. Courtesy of the artist.

Zanele Muholi is a good example. The South African artist, who is the subject of a major survey exhibition at the Tate Modern, London, is known for the self-portraits series (Somnyama Ngonyama) – in which they (the artist identifies as non-binary) wear all-manner of outfits and accessories to challenge and replay stereotypical ethnographic portraits of black people. Prior to that Muholi was known for portraits of black lesbians in her native country.

Amoako Boafo, the Ghanaian artist based in Austria, has attracted the attention of museums and collectors in the United States with his distinctive approach to painting – with his fingers – and portraiture. The bold vivid colours that define the outfits of his sitters, combined with the unique manner in which he renders the skin of his black subjects has made his work highly collectable. In December 2020, his portrait of Baba Diop (2019) fetched over $900 000 at Christie’s Hong Kong sale.

Image Swing, an art leasing company and art dealer based in Los Angeles, has its roots in South Africa and is closely tapped into established and fresh artistic expression on the African continent. Given this, it is perhaps not surprising that their collection boasts African artists pushing the limits of the portraiture genre.

The impact of social media on self-representation has certainly fed into the renewed popularity of portraiture in Africa.  Never before have people had more control over how they are perceived by others. While you might think this would put artists out of work, the complications these new technological tools present, have become grist for the artist’s mill.

Banele Khoza, Too Many Voices, 2017.Banele Khoza, Too Many Voices, 2017. Courtesy of the artist.

Banele Khoza’s art has largely centred on the anxieties entailed in the blurring of the private and public via Facebook or Instagram.  This Swaziland-born artist’s self-portraits are nothing like the selfies he posts on social media. It is through art that colours, handwritten words scrawled alongside his images and expressive lines are able to relay his inner dialogue.

The editioned print titled Too Many Voices (2017), is one of two works by Khoza on offer by Image Swing. In this idiosyncratic illustrative style artwork, Khoza employs a tangle of messy, uncertain lines to depict a subject in a state of agitation and confusion. Multiple portraits encircle the head of the main subject – presumably the artist. This relays not only the multiplicity of selves but the difficulty for an artist to deliver on a single-definitive self-portrait. Of course, this struggle has plagued artists for some time – most famously Pablo Picasso. However, for Khoza and his generation, this dilemma is tied to the pressure to be continuously posting new images, representations of the self. How is it possible in such a context to craft one cohesive persona, Khoza seems to ask?

Zemba Luzamba, Social Report, 2018. Courtesy of the artist.Zemba Luzamba, Social Report, 2018. Courtesy of the artist.

Strictly speaking, the Congolese painter Zemba Luzamba would probably not be pegged as an artist concerned with portraiture – but rather one interested in the construction of masculinity through dress, gesture – appearances. He is particularly concerned with the African elitists who cultivate respectability and accrue power through their public personas.

A quick perusal through the Image Swing collection, which has perhaps one of the biggest public collections of this artist’s oeuvre, will quickly establish the ubiquity of suits in Luzamba’s art. This may create the impression that he is depicting men from a different era – where a dapper well-fitting suit was a businessman’s weapon of choice – but the cellphones in their hands roots in them in present times.

In the painting,  Social Report (2018), a row of men in suits are not facing the viewer, but instead the cellphones they are holding. In this way, the artist cunningly draws our attention to the fact that men in power, no longer rely on the painted portrait to affirm their status or capture their likeness for the masses – as was once the burden of this genre. Instead, the camera, social media channels, are now used in the service of communicating a position. Though, of course, it is harder for leaders to shore up a certain and authoritative identity when through the sheer of volume of images and messages they unwittingly expose themselves.  As always Luzamba is intrigued by what lies beneath the surface of the ‘suit’.

Oluwole Omofemi, Face to Face, Courtesy of the artist.Oluwole Omofemi, Face to Face. Courtesy of the artist.

For many African artists, portraiture is utilised as a vehicle to assert pride or revel in their African-ness. For the Nigerian artist Oluwole Omofemi this isn’t only articulated through his depiction of beautiful young black women, but their bouffant or long hairstyles. This is a recurring characteristic of his art. As such Image Swing has on offer an oil painting by this artist, Face to Face, in which a young woman is depicted with unusually long hair, hanging past her waist. It almost serves as a protective layer around her petite frame. This is also the case in a Treatwell Mnisi work offered by Image Swing, though his female subject is less retiring. Titled Hair is the Crown, the artwork immediately evinces the way artists are celebrating African beauty via portraiture.

Mary Corrigall is a Cape Town-based art consultant and founder of Corrigall & Co. It is an art research consultancy that maps developments in the African Art Ecosystem. The African Art Ecology: A Decade of Curating (2018), South African Art Market: Patterns & Pricing (2019) are some of the in-depth reports they have published. 

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