Contemporary African artists have been gaining ground on the international art market (a boom that’s been confirmed through record sales at auction) and now Signature African Art — the latest addition to the London gallery scene — aims to introduce a new generation of African artists to UK and European audiences who have to date been underrepresented in the West.
The London location will mark the launch of the gallery outside of Africa, where it has been based in Lagos since being founded by Rahman Akar in 1992. Since then, Signature has established itself as one of the leading galleries on the African continent, and has been pivotal in shaping contemporary West African art working with leading artists including El-Anatsui, Ablade Glover and Kolade Oshinowo.
A taste for Modern and contemporary African art began to enter the mainstream nearly 10 years ago and — unlike many other emerging geographic collecting categories — has maintained market momentum. Launching a space in London is also testament to the gallery’s international plans and the fact that artwork made by African artists is starting to increase in value as the industry develops. Pieces by Nigerian artists were worth $7.2m in 2018, according to the Nigeria Art Market Report, up from $3.8m in 2015.
The gallery will open its London space on 11 March 2020 with a presentation of new paintings by the celebrated Nigerian artist, Oluwole Omofemi. While the artist has been exhibited across Africa including a major show at the National Museum, Ibadan, Nigeria, this will be his third and most ambitious exhibition in Europe to date.
Entitled The Way We Were, the exhibition will be arranged across the gallery’s basement and ground floors, and is formed of 12 large-scale portraits of women and children, as well as a number of smaller works specially commissioned by the gallery.
In the words of the artist, each is a celebration of Afrocentric pride, as well as reflection on the post- colonial era. The British artist Claudette Johnson has talked of the ‘fiction of blackness’ that colonialism left in its wake and of the need for people to assert their identity through their own stories. Omofemi embraces this idea, focussing on the importance of hair amongst black communities.
While hair has always been a signifier of status and identity, Omofemi looks back to recent history, to The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and ’70s, and the natural hair movement. This encouraged black people to eschew European styles for afros, a move that was championed by popular icons such as Jimi Hendrix and Diana Ross.
The subject matter that preoccupies many of Africa’s contemporary and Modern artists has proved pertinent often emanating from their experience of living in Africa, yet the issues they talk about, from gender rights and sex, to migration and trade, are relevant and meaningful to global audiences — Omofemi’s work is no exception.