Becoming a Bright Young Thing
It is fair to say that the contemporary African art sector has a strong preoccupation with ‘emerging’ artists. Despite the vibrancy and vigour of new ideas developing from the continent, much of what gains visibility internationally has been filtered through usually externally mandated ideological conventions, and ideas of what young African artists should be talking about and which mediums they ought to pursue in order to meet the market and critical acclaim. Inevitably, with the lack of internationally engaged galleries on the continent and limited resources, this means that many gifted practitioners – who don’t necessarily fit the sanctioned narratives – have little or no opportunity to break through.
Solo exhibitions in particular are crucial to any artist’s practice and career development, and yet they are exceptionally difficult to secure – in Africa especially. There are not sufficient professional exhibition spaces and galleries, and out of those available few want to take on the risk of giving over the whole space to a young untested artist, with no guarantee of sales. As a result, really important growth opportunities are out of reach.
First Solo emerged with the aim of addressing this very need. First Solo is an intensive individualised residency supporting each participating artist in producing a professional experimental solo exhibition. Four very different artists took part in the pilot year:
Cristiano Mangovo, Carnivale, 2017. Acrylic on canvas. Images courtesy of Right at the Equator, Department Foundation Los Angeles. Photography: Injinash Unshin.
Cristiano Mangovo (Luanda, Angola), a committed painter, evolves the Western medium through the prism of contemporary Angola – a country forging a unified identity after years of civil conflict. A society coping with sudden wealth from oil discoveries while recovering from the trauma of war, is still forming its own post and de-colonial identity, where extremes are both brilliant and stark at the same time. His figures comprising deformed heads, riff on the surrealism of Magritte and the jarring drama of Francis Bacon, but have the relentless energy and colour of the here and now of Luanda.
Bouvy Enkobo, My personal season, 2017. Acrylic on canvas. Images courtesy of Right at the Equator, Department Foundation Los Angeles. Photography: Injinash Unshin.
Bouvy Enkobo (Kinshasa, DRC) – a painter – aims to make space to speak poetically about things close and urgently important to him. Sidestepping the pressures of stylisation common in his environment, Enkobo forges his own voice to speak to the syncopated precariousness of life in Kinshasa to produce symphonic celebrations of colour and form, underscored by a yearning for a place where life feels less like a high wire act.
Mapopa Hussein Manda, Born Again, 2017. Spraypaint, collage and paint on cardboard. Images courtesy of Right at the Equator, Department Foundation Los Angeles. Photography: Injinash Unshin.
Mapopa Hussein Manda (Lusaka, Zambia), is an artist exploring and experimenting with his role and responsiblity as a social commentator. Working with layered collage, text and paint, he explores the densely contested and interconnected space between art, spirituality and politics within Africa – as a language, questioning the idea of self-determination given colonial history, religious subjugation and cultural inundation. Is there a way to go back while going forward, is there a way to go forward without repeating mistakes of the past, is there a way of ever putting behind the weight of history and human folly? Manda’s works pose loaded questions and create doubts, while throwing impossibilities in the face of blind optimism and would-be faith.
Shamilla Aasha, Ties that Bind Part 2, 2018. Fabric, stencil and acrylic on cardboard. Images courtesy of Right at the Equator, Department Foundation Los Angeles. Photography: Injinash Unshin.
Shamilla Aasha (Bulawayo, Zimbabwe), a mixed media artist, practice uses the narrative properties of her materials to explore contemporary Zimbabwean cultural concerns through the prism of her mixed heritage (Indian and Shona). Merging traditional and new fabrics, sewing patterns, pages of old books and writing, Aasha’s works cherish a plural and diverse heritage, acknowledging frictions for women in particular between tradition and modernity but with an unequivocal optimism for an evolution of a complex, rich and beautiful contemporary way of being.
The exhibitions produced by all four artists mark a break through in their personal practices but also opened pathways for new exchanges and conversations about art among artists on the continent – motivated and guided by a vision of self-determination.
Valerie Kabov is an art historian with a focus on cultural policy and economics. She is the co-founder and Director of Education and International Projects at First Floor Gallery Harare.