A new report shifts the debate about who continent's most successful artists are.

Who are Africa’s most important artists?

Otobong Nkanga
Otobong Nkanga, 'Social Consequences II—Choices we make', 2009, courtesy of the artist. Photo: courtesy of Lumen Travo Gallery, Amsterdam and Galerie In Situ – Fabienne Leclerc, Paris.


A new report is asking what success in the African art world should be measured by, and by whom. Cape Town-based art research consultancy Corrigall & Co have been tracking and studying the exhibition practices of Africa’s top 20 curators over a decade-long period – and they have discovered that the art world’s most familiar suspects might not be all that familiar after all. 

Their research report, The Top 50 Artists & the Top 20 Curators Who Validated Them, investigates which artists from the continent have automatically enjoyed a level of ‘validation’ through their participation in or selection for important exhibitions. The report then tables the number of exhibitions each artist participated in that was curated by one of the Top 20 curators – ranging from Koyo Kouoh (recently announced as the new chief curator of the Zeitz MOCAA) and Azu Nwagubogu to Okwui Enwezor, Gabi Ncgobo and the late Bisi Silva – between 2007 and 2017.

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Topping the list, unsurprisingly, is South African photographer Zanele Muholi, but many of the other names will be surprisingly unfamiliar to the South African art scene, which is often considered one of the most developed on the continent. Muholi’s top ranking on the report is followed by Bili Bidjocka from Cameroon, Otobong Nkanga from Nigeria, George Osodi (also from Nigeria), Algerian artist Kader Attia and Kudzanai Chiurai from Zimbabwe – many of whom have never has work appear in a South African exhibition. 

Zanele Muholi

House and Leisure reached out to Mary Corrigall, award-winning art journalist and academic, to find out why so few of the ‘top tier artists’ haven’t yet been represented on the local art scene.

‘Curated exhibitions in South Africa tend to be curated by local curators who are still trying to rewrite our art canon, so their focus has been on South African artists,’ Corrigall explains. ‘It is also expensive to bring works and/or artists to South Africa and small budgets have shaped this slightly parochial view. Simon Njami's Africa Remix and the Joburg Biennales introduced South Africans to art from beyond our borders but there have been very few large-scale block-buster type exhibitions with a pan-African view. Museums and foundations, particularly in Cape Town (such as the Zeitz MOCAA and Norval Foundation) have embraced a more pan-African approach to collecting [and] exhibiting. Bigger galleries in SA with a focus on selling at international fairs understand that the rest of the world is interested in art from around the continent, not just South Africa, and have secured representation of many of the artists on the list who are not South African.’

Kudzanai Chiurai
Kudzanai Chiurai, 'Genesis', 2016, Image Courtesy Goodman Gallery.
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Corrigall tells House and Leisure that the list came about when the team behind it started noticing inconsistencies in the way listicles presented ‘important’ African artists to ‘watch now’. 

‘We noticed that the same artists' names kept popping up and it made sense to start joining those dots and seeing which artists were consistently selected and validated by Africa's top curators,' she says. 'In this way we could offer up a list that would not be the result of our own tastes or preferences but of those belonging to the continent's most prominent tastemakers. We were curious to know which artists they collectively enjoyed – this could be due to the fact that an "invisible" tick-list of African artists exists or that this group of artists represent certain qualities about expression from Africa and/or their respective country's that speaks of the ultimate 'contemporary moment'. Either way it made sense to discover who they were. The results were both surprising and very expected.’

To read the full report, which reveals much more about the way artists are ‘validated’ and which powers create these inconsistencies, head to the Corrigall & Co website