Geneva, crossroads of African pictorial diversity

Geneva, crossroads of African pictorial diversity

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In a backyard in the rue des Grottes, a young black man, seated on a low wall, observes the shop window in front of him. The nonchalant attitude, the lively look, Painter Obou is an Ivorian artist, modern ambassador of the Dan mask. Past the door of the Filafriques gallery, his characters in bright colors, with urban looks, all of whose faces are hidden behind traditional masks, create strangeness. The room is small and communicates with the WaxUp Africa shop.

“With these masks, I try to establish a game of questioning, explains Peintre Obou. Masks are used during ceremonies. And when I exhibit in a gallery, it’s like a ceremony, but in the 20th century and in Europe. The mask was our belief and I claim it. Artist of his time, the Ivorian created large mural frescoes in the popular district of Abobo, in Abidjan, and decked out Beyoncé and Jay-Z with his favorite accessory in one of his works, made from a photo seen on Instagram. Under the name Obou Gbais, he is also a rapper – masked in his music videos, that goes without saying.

Dynamic and urban vision

Using the mask as an emblem is not innocent. Although demonized by the settlers, they have never stopped collecting them, just like traditional statuary. “My work also questions the questions of decolonization, of restitution of these objects, many of which appear in the great European museums”, confirms Peintre Obou. An archetype of African culture, the mask unconsciously refers to a folk art of rural origin. The dazzling development of contemporary African art on the international market, on the other hand, gives a dynamic, urban and innovative vision of the continent’s artistic creation. Like many of his colleagues, the artist plays on this contrast.

Just before or just after confinement, Geneva saw no less than five contemporary African art galleries flourish, while Lausanne hosted one. Collectors or lovers of these new artistic expressions, all these gallery owners are driven by the desire to share their passion. For Carine Biley, who opened the Filafriques gallery last March and has just teamed up with her brother Joseph-Olivier to develop it, “we are currently witnessing a liberation of African artists. By liberation, I mean that they cut themselves off from Western influences to express themselves freely from what they have at hand.

Intellectual landscapes

Interest in some of these artists is of course not new. The Ghanaian sculptor El Anatsui or the Malian painter Abdoulaye Konaté – to name just two – have long been in the catalogs of collectors. But the current tidal wave is of another order: the increase in the number of new listed African artists seems to be following exponential growth, further accentuated by the effect of the pandemic. “For two or three years, the prices of many young artists have doubled, tripled or even multiplied by ten”, explains Cedrik Pages, who opened in June 2021 with his partner Benjamin Noël Vanderberghe the Bloom gallery, in the heart of the Old Geneva.

Read also: Namsa Leuba and Flurina Rothenberger: transversal creativities from Africa

You can currently see a collective exhibition of South African and international artists, with a large majority of women, entitled Inner Landscape. Each has chosen a particular material to depict “the distinctive intellectual landscapes and ecosystems of South Africa”. Each and everyone has chosen a particular material for depicting “South Africa’s distinctive intellectual landscapes and ecosystems.”

Concept store and Dakar branch

At the Galerie Brühlart, women artists are also exhibited in order to create “bridges between cultures”. And also because “choosing to be an artist when you are a woman, and more particularly in Africa, is a life choice that involves fighting on a daily basis and giving up certain things”, explains Mona Brühlart, whose clean space presents for a few more days the funny mandalas of Prina Shah, a Kenyan born of Indian parents.

Opposite, at 24 rue des Vollandes, the two co-managers of the Ilab gallery, the Cameroonian Véronique N’Daw Dunoyer and the Nigerian Besigin Towne-Gold, receive us in their living room with shimmering designer furniture. Their credo? “To show a different Africa, to show the effervescence of cities like Abidjan, Dakar…” To do this, they designed their space as a place of life as much as of exhibition with furniture, ceramics, jewellery. They regularly host workshops and events, including the awarding of the Kourouma Prize at the 2021 African Book Fair. On the wall, the faceless characters of Moustapha Baïdi Oumarou, the artist they are presenting at the start of summer, gently evoke the loss of identity, the quest for recognition, a more human vision of the world. An art that seems “at home” in the benevolent setting created by the two friends and associates.

In Carouge, at the Galerie Les Arts du Soleil, Madina Ba works from the heart. Last year, she opened a space in Dakar, realizing that the African bourgeoise becomes a buyer of contemporary art “claiming her culture and seeking to support her artists”.

And Africa created art

It is difficult to identify what has allowed this cultural reappropriation. No doubt, as often, a story of comings and goings. Rich in their strong traditions, the so-called “negro” arts were a source of inspiration for many European painting currents of the 20th century: Fauvism, Cubism, Surrealism and many others. It is enough to think of certain works by Picasso or more recently by Basquiat to be convinced of this. In 1989 in Paris, The Magicians of the Earth, first major exhibition devoted to “non-Western” contemporary art, begins to move the lines, like The Black Review, which reveals from 1991 to 2000 the modernity and creativity of the plastic arts of the African continent and its diaspora. At the same time, the Biennale des arts de Dakar was launched.

Read also: The invention of contemporary African art

In 2005, the first major exhibition devoted to contemporary art from the continent, AfricaRemix, exhibited in Düsseldorf, Paris, London. Gradually galleries are opening in Africa, including that of Cécile Fakhoury in Abidjan. Their European counterparts – Saatchi in the lead – open their doors to artists from the continent. Within a few years, art fairs devoted solely to contemporary African art were born: 1-54 in London, AKAA in Paris, Invest Cape Town Fair, Art X in Lagos.

In Lausanne, Olivier Chow manages the Foreign Agent space close to Ouchy. The line of his gallery is nourished by his taste as a collector. Figurative and pop works rub shoulders with pieces by some of the greatest designers of the continent or the diaspora: Hamed Ouattara, Jean Servais Somian, Bibi Seck. For him, these arts have been ignored or undervalued for too long. As soon as they were made visible, their richness, their diversity, the relevance of their thinking quickly won over. “Currently, the whole ecosystem is developing. Artists from English-speaking Africa, probably because of the economic dynamism of the countries from which they come, are the most popular. You have to go and see the collective exhibition this summer Summer Flings with, among other things, a few works created especially for the occasion by the Cameroonian artist Franck, one of which shows Bamileke dancers in front of the Federal Palace in Bern….

Also read: Maurice Mboa and his paintings which are serene enigmas

Confrontation of cultures, inspiration from heritage, use of artisanal or recycled materials, the contemporary art of the continent and its diaspora is protean, curious and connector. Many affluent African Americans became consumers of African art. Many exhibition curators and gallery owners are now Africans or of African origin.

Today, when this art has fully entered the international scene, it is important to distinguish its nuances. “We always generalize by saying “Africa”, as if it were a country. We want to show the diversity of each region, each culture and create interactions between emerging and established artists with their colleagues from other countries and continents. The art world in Geneva is waking up again and we are delighted,” concludes Cedrik Pages.

To read in addition: Zurich is the new black

Six galleries to discover

Bloom Gallery

Emerging and established artists. Price of the works: from 2000 to 100,000 fr.

Until August 27: “Inner Landscape”, with South African and international artists: Bonolo Kavula, Gabrielle Kruger, Georgina Gratix, Kate Gottgens, Mary Sibande, Marlene Steyn, Michaela Younge, Mongezi Ncaphayi and Wallen Mappondera.

Geneva, Grand-Rue 2.

Brühlart Gallery

Emerging female artists. Price of the works: from 500 to 7000 fr.

Until July 23:Prina Shah – Between The Lines”.

Geneva, rue des Vollandes 21.


Emerging artists. Price of the works: from 500 to 5000 fr.

Until September 16:Painter Obou – Seduction”.

Geneva, rue des Grottes 32.

Foreign Agent

Emerging artists. Price of the works: from 3500 to 15,000 fr.

Until September 10: “Super Flings”, with Franck Kemkeng Noah, Ousmane Bâ, Isaac Zavale, Nicolas Lambelet Coleman and Goncalo Mabunda.

Lausanne, avenue d’Ouchy 64.

Ilab Gallery

Emerging or established artists, design, accessories, fashion, events. Price of the works: from 900 to 100,000 fr.

Until July 31: “Moustapha Baïdi Oumarou – Reconnections II”.

Geneva, rue des Vollandes 24.

The Arts of the Sun

Emerging artists. Price of the works: from 500 to 10,000 fr.

Until September 30 (reopening mid-August):Wilfred Mbida – Inside the Silence”.

Carouge, Market Square 20.

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