Reshaping the African Arts Narrative in the Age of Social Media

As the demand for diversity that recognises Africa’s innate prowess grows, so too does the market for art that reflects and evokes it.

The arts establishment is confronted with a new generation of creatives that are spending less time in galleries and more time in newsfeeds. Is this the end of art as we know it? 

Past is Prologue

Plaque (detail): Equestrian Oba and Attendants, Edo peoples (Benin Kingdom), 1550–1680, brass, H. 19 7/16 x W. 16 1/2 x D. 4 1/2 in. /49.5 x 41.9 x 11.4 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Plaque (detail): Equestrian Oba and Attendants, Edo peoples (Benin Kingdom), 1550–1680, brass, H. 19 7/16 x W. 16 1/2 x D. 4 1/2 in. /49.5 x 41.9 x 11.4 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

From as far back as 77 000 years ago, African kingdoms have been wielding their natural bounties of precious metals, clay, fibres and other materials into some of the world’s oldest forms of art. From royal brass plaques that flanked the Benin Empire to The Divine Golden Stool of the Asante Nation in Northern Africa; and from narrative Khoisan paintings to the Shona people’s stone sanctuaries in Southern Africa, there is no single standard, aesthetic or function for African art.

One can, however, identify common threads that informed the development of art among the continent’s diverse kingdoms: themes that wove through the spiritual, the maternal and the natural (to name just a few). Accompanied by folklore, performance and orature as essential forms of storytelling, art throughout Africa has arguably been championing mixed media before mixed-media was a thing.

Fast-forward 77 000 years: “African Art” is doomed. That is, animal skins and tribal-everything - some of the products of a centuries-old perception of Africa as a ‘country’ of raw material and unrefined society - are swiftly being overturned by art produced by African artists, for Africa, at a globally competitive scale. One of the immediate functions of art being produced in Africa today is the reclamation of African heritage, beauty and life itself.

Bringing this closer to home

Three South African artists provide important insights into how commercial, ideological and social success can be achieved with their practices and today’s technology.

  • Atang Tshikare is a street-artist, illustrator and maker with creativity passed down to him from his father and grandfather, and a business brain from his mother (as he puts it). The result: Zabalazaa - which means “to hustle” - a studio and platform for artists and makers to collaborate, experiment and break with convention. As an artist, Atang does not fit into a single category or lean on a particular medium. Instead, his practice is guided by colour, utility and collaboration. As a commercial venture, such fluidity might seem like a recipe for instability. However, Tshikare’s career is on an upward trajectory both globally and locally through design exhibitions, magazine features and the occasional global news spot.

image: zabalazaa.co

image: zabalazaa.co

As his art business grows, his roots sink deeper into the soil from which his talents came. Atang has recently started offering apprenticeships for young people with motivation but limited means. Offering a constructive space for youth who find themselves with few mentors or exposure to art as a viable profession is an endeavour that Atang does not consider extraordinary, but has indirectly contributed to a culture of art and business as spaces of learning too. He’s not alone in this thinking either.

  • Kent Lingeveldt grew up in the Cape Flats and has built a career as a photographer, skateboard-shaper and professional skateboarder. At the heart of his business, Alpha Longboards, is a deeply personal love for skateboarding itself, as well as the opportunity to make high-quality handcrafted skateboards to a global market.

Image: alphalongboards.com

Image: alphalongboards.com

Kent grew up skateboarding, a sport which exposed him to a new way of seeing the world. Public benches became obstacle courses, and this experience lent itself easily to photography with a refreshing perspective. Collaborations with other local artists are key to Alpha Longboard’s commercial and artistic development, whilst social development informs Kent’s entire philosophy. Making art that is both locally made (from local materials) and functional as a tool for youth cultural development is another example of art and business reinforcing its roots. This is a localised model that travels well too. Alpha longboards and skating workshops have made their way as far afield as Bremen, Germany, in part thanks to Cape Town’s booming tourism industry and professional skateboarding’s global culture.

  • Buhle Ngaba is an actress, director and author of the recently released e-book, Girl Without A Sound. The book is her latest creative project, a distinct departure from performance and theatre, but consistent with her personal passion for instilling self-confidence in young, black girls. What began as a concept shared on Facebook with a relative, turned into a stream of pre-orders for a book that hadn’t even been written.
Image: girlwithoutasound.com

Image: girlwithoutasound.com

Recognising a real need but lacking in multimedia resources, Buhle teamed up with an illustrator, photographer, web designer and media expert, among others, to produce a collaborative work of literary art. Designed to impact the lives of young girls across South Africa, Girl Without A Sound was made available in two languages, free to download and will soon be turned into a hardcopy book. The response to the book has been overwhelmingly positive, with an expertly coordinated digital and traditional media launch.

Moving seamlessly between digital and traditional, and soft and hard copy, are key component of successful scaling within South Africa, where equal access to ICT infrastructure is still a significant barrier for digital art and media.

What do Tshikare, Lingeveldt and Ngaba have in common?

Each artist occupies a space as a black, African artist in an art world with an historically, predominantly anti-black narrative. This presents a significant barrier to the nature of art produced - art that might censor itself in order to sell. However, these artists are not waiting for that narrative to change. They are reshaping it - not purely out of commercial or artistic pursuit, but out of a deep-rooted social imperative. In doing so, each artist has created their own market.

Three key philosophies underscore the work of these three artists:

  1. The deeply personal can be a catalyst for the professional. Part of the beauty of art is that it is expected to be personal. Part of the tragedy of business is that it is not. These artists prove that cultivating a passion into a profession is possible, even with limited resources and know-how.

  2. Both art and the business of art can be socially conscious by nature. Giving back is less of a nice-to-have than it is an imperative for artists who have had to overcome systemic challenges.

  3. Local is global. By combining context, personal heritage and an explicit focus on using local material, localised products resonate much more with global markets. Finding the global niche or subculture into which one’s art fits or supports is another common element, as Alpha Longboards does for the global skateboarding community.  

Two practices thread their respective practices together: Collaboration and Word-of-Mouth.

In an age where everyone and anyone can be an artist, a maker or a writer thanks to tools like Instagram, MakerBots and Medium, professional artists need to work creatively in order to stay creatively revved up and still pay bills.

Through a culture of collaboration with other artists, Atang, Kent and Buhle reflect the collectivist values inherent in African society - values that suggest that if we all help each other, we all benefit.

By promoting work chiefly through dedicated networks of supporters such as friends, collaborators and friends of collaborators, these artists demonstrate the enduring value of word-of-mouth and relationship-building with people first, and digital networks as a “natural” byproduct. The result is an enduring network of earned media - the kind that sees all businesses stretch to loveable brands in order to achieve.  

One things is increasingly evident: Art and Education may soon be redundant concepts.