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Africa’s art market grows even amid adversity

While many European and US art fairs, biennials and other larger cultural events have been—and continue to be—cancelled or postponed well into 2021 due to concerns related to Covid-19, their African counterparts are going ahead—with caution. They are, however, finding not only support but success, stoking optimism for more emerging markets amid a global economic downturn.

“Cancelling was not an option,” says Nicole Siegenthaler, the manager of FNB Art Joburg in Johannesburg, South Africa (until 18 November) is going ahead in an online-only format, as many fairs have done, but also with two distinct sections. The first part of the fair is a virtual and augmented reality exhibition put on by Gallery Lab, which started as an online sales platform for emerging galleries and artists and launched its first physical space in 2019. The second will be a pared down online presentation that includes more established galleries such as Goodman Gallery and Red Door. Siegenthaler adds that African galleries have always had to be “innovative”.

Perhaps the most influential step that the fair has taken is to relax its exhibitor selection rules to include presentations by independent curators and galleries that do not have a bricks-and-mortar space—previously a disqualifier for applicants to most major fairs. Siegenthaler says that this decision is timely, given that the pandemic forced all dealers to conduct business outside of a physical gallery space. It is also more reflective of how the art ecosystem functions across the African continent, since full-scale physical gallery operations remain in the minority compared with online ventures.

Indeed, responsiveness to a rapidly changing world has required lots of last-minute decisions. Art X Lagos, Nigeria’s pre-eminent art event, was postponed from 6-15 November to 2-9 December in solidarity with the ongoing #EndSARS protests against police brutality that have pervaded the West African country for weeks. The protests began at the beginning of October in response to the violence perpetrated by SARS, Nigeria’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad, which was launched in 1992. The unit stands accused of carrying out unjust arrests, discrimination, extortion and torture of innocent citizens and, since the protests began, thousands of young Nigerians protesters have been subject to violent, deadly crackdownscarried out by government soldiers.

When the fair goes ahead in December, it will now include a new section, New Nigerian Studios, which will present 100 protest works, created by artists after the fair’s leadership put out a call for works documenting the historic civil uprising.

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