A Guided Tour of Contemporary African Art in New York City

Evelyn Owen is a writer and curator living in New York City. She is currently a Mellon Curatorial Fellow, based between The Africa Center and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. While 1:54 and Artsy launch their online partnership with a panel discussion in NYC on Tuesday 9 September, she gives us a guided tour of the best contemporary African art scene in the city.

Before all eyes turn to London next month for the second edition of 1:54, there’s time to take a quick detour to another of the world’s artistic hubs: New York City. How does NYC’s contemporary African art scene compare to London’s? Who are the movers and shakers, and where can you see work by up-and-coming artists? Here’s the lowdown…


Let’s begin with the place that many art-lovers start in NYC: the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Met has one of the world’s biggest and best collections of “traditional” African art, but when it comes to modern and contemporary art from Africa, it is just getting out of the starting blocks. The museum’s small collection includes a handful of works by well-known artists like El Anatsui and J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere (the latter represented at 1:54 by CCA, Lagos), but predictably the biggest presence by far is William Kentridge; the Met holds over twenty works by him, including the fantastical multimedia installation The Refusal of Time. With its five dreamlike video projections and the rhythmic pumping of a wooden machine at its heart, this piece embodies the nervous energy and kaleidoscopic, troubled beauty of much of Kentridge’s recent installation work.

Kentridge is also a big hit at the Metropolitan Opera, which has staged his production of Shostakovich’s The Nose, and at the Museum of Modern Art, which owns a whopping 128 pieces by him and presented a survey of his work in 2010. MoMA has also built significant holdings of works by other South African artists including Cameron Platter (represented at 1:54 by Primo Marella Gallery) and Claudette Schreuders, many of which were included in the 2011 exhibition Impressions from South Africa, 1965 to Now.

Jumping boroughs, Brooklyn’s eponymous Museum is fast becoming the place to go for impressive solo shows by well-established artists like Wangechi Mutu and El Anatsui, both of whom had survey exhibitions there during 2013-14. Nearby, MoCADA (the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts) offers a lively programme featuring up-and-coming artists of African descent. Last year’s Six Draughtsmen was a highlight; six female artists of Nigerian descent who explore drawing in their practice were presented together, creating fascinating conversations around line and mark-making. One of them, Nnenna Okore (represented at 1:54 by October Gallery), also presented an installation and talk down the road at BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music) this summer as part of DanceAfrica. Although completely static, Okore’s organic hanging form filled the atrium of the Fisher Building with all the grace and dynamism of a dancer.

Nnenna Okore installation at BAM
Nnenna Okore installation at BAM

Back in Manhattan, a few more museums deserve a mention. Like MoCADA, the excellent Studio Museum in Harlem hosts exhibitions and performances featuring artists of African descent; its premises are much more roomy than its Brooklyn cousin’s, however, creating space for shows like The Shadows Took Shape, last winter’s dazzling exploration of Afrofuturist aesthetics. The New Museum has recently hosted a number of interesting Africa-related shows and events with a critical, conceptual slant, including a “Curator’s Perspective” talk from 1:54 curator Koyo Kouoh. Last but not least, the long-awaited Africa Center (formerly the Museum for African Art) is hosting a one-day festival in its still-under-construction raw space later this September, featuring installations by in-demand artists Emeka Ogboh (represented at 1:54 by CCA, Lagos) and Meschac Gaba (In Situ / Fabienne Leclerc).

…and for good measure, even though strictly speaking it’s not in NYC, visitors to the area should definitely take a trip to the Newark Museum in New Jersey, whose Present Tense exhibition shows off the institution’s growing permanent collection of contemporary art from Africa.


The contemporary African art gallery scene in NYC is an intriguing mix of new arrivals and old-timers. In the first camp is Taymour Grahne, a TriBeCa-based gallery that opened as recently as September 2013, and aims to create a “global space” for art in the heart of the city. At 1:54 the gallery will be representing Algerian-born, Paris-based artist Fayçal Baghriche.

Among the old-timers, Chelsea’s Skoto Gallery is perhaps the most well known; since opening in 1992 it has played an important role in exposing New Yorkers to work by many of Africa’s most prominent artists, and at least initially was operating at a time when most galleries and museums seemed barely aware that contemporary African art existed. (The Contemporary African Art Gallery on the Upper West Side, now on hiatus, was founded a few years before Skoto and was another early starter in the city’s contemporary African art market.)

Elsewhere in Chelsea, Jack Shainman Gallery has represented a handful of artists from the continent since the early 2000s, and David Krut Projects has given a platform primarily to South African artists since around the same time. In recent years a growing number of other galleries in this art-obsessed neighbourhood have also quietly added artists working in Africa to their international rosters. In many ways, it’s no longer a case of going to check out “the gallery that shows contemporary African art”, but of checking out the galleries, and encountering some great art from Africa along the way.

Wangechi Mutu exhibition at Brooklyn Museum
Wangechi Mutu exhibition at Brooklyn Museum

And more …

Besides museums and galleries, where else do New Yorkers get their Africa-flavoured contemporary art fix? Well, the artistic hot-spot of Chelsea offers more than just galleries. The Walther Collection Project Space concentrates on global contemporary photography and hosts exhibitions, talks and other programmes relating to the Walther Foundation’s extensive collection, which boasts work by artists including Sammy Baloji (represented at 1:54 by Galerie Imane Farès), Romuald Hazoumè (October Gallery and Magnin-A), and J. D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere. A stone’s throw from the Walther Collection is the Highline, a raised park of walkways and greenery built on old elevated railroad tracks, which last year played host to El Anatsui’s Broken Bridge II, a gargantuan installation of mirrors and rusting recycled tin clinging to the side of buildings overlooking the streets below.

And what about art fairs? Frieze NYC, the Armory Show and Volta NY have seen a couple of Africa-based or Africa-focused galleries set out their stalls – notably Cape Town’s Stevenson Gallery – but so far, New York City does not have its own contemporary African art fair, and much of the major buying and selling seems to be taking place across the pond. Meanwhile, African art and artists are increasingly taking to the stage in places (especially galleries) that do not specialise in art from the continent, yet present it as part of an expanded sense of what “contemporary art” involves. Perhaps most exciting is the growth of international collaborations and organizations moving between several locations; 1:54’s event in NYC this week points to the potential for trans-national conversations, which can only be a good thing for contemporary African art and artists on both sides of the Atlantic.

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