Dubai exhibition sheds light on rich history of African art

Ever-Present, a group exhibition at Efie Gallery, offers a glimpse at how art from the continent has evolved over time

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Efie Gallery’s new group exhibition is an enlightening insight into the history, diversity and the rich narratives of African art.

Entitled Ever-Present, the exhibition dispels the idea that African art is a new trend and concisely displays a glimpse into the history of art in the continent through a range of works by artists from all over Africa.

“Every artist in the exhibition is basically a timeline for African art history,” Efie Gallery co-founder Kwame Mintah tells The National.

Covering painting, photography and sculpture, the artists on show also encompass different generations as well as political and social eras that affected the continent. The oldest artist in the exhibition was born in 1899 and the youngest – nearly 100 years later – in 1992.

“The whole idea of the exhibition is trying to correct the message that almost all of the African art market has boomed out of nowhere, but we've been practising for years,” Mintah, who is British-Ghanaian, adds.

The range of work presents viewers with an overview on how contemporary African art has evolved over time.

One highlight is the work of documentary photographer J K Bruce-Vanderpuije, whose photographs are being shown in public for the first time.

Born in 1899, Bruce-Vanderpuije was one of the first Africans to capture Ghana through film, providing an insight into Africa that was different in approach to a westerner.

This distinction is why Bruce-Vanderpuije's work was not only more nuanced from an artistic point of view, but also made history in a profound way.

In 1948, Bruce-Vanderpuije famously photographed the British head of police Colin Imray’s shooting of Sergeant Adjetey, Corporal Attipoe and Private Odartey Lamptey at the Christiansborg crossroads. His photos of the shooting, which were used as evidence in court, became one of the catalysts for Ghana's independence.

“While he captured history, he also created history as well,” Mintah adds.

Bruce-Vanderpuije photographed everything from his country's fight for independence to the energy and richness of every day life, as well as stunning portraits.

While the photo of the Christiansborg crossroads shooting isn't on show at the exhibition, another important photo by Bruce-Vanderpuije's is on display. In 1957, Bruce-Vanderpuije captured the moment that “Ghana became Ghana” when the first prime minister and president of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, gave a speech announcing the new name of the country.

There is also the work of Kenyan artist Maggie Otieno who explores how people connect with each other through her sculptural works. Her stylised figures are large and commanding yet appear light and engaged in silent moments of contemplation.

The work of Ghanaian painter Betty Acquah is also a highlight in the exhibition.

Using the technique of pointillism, Acquah’s painting on one level captures Ghanaian women in moments of joy. At another level, her work is a dazzling example of the relationships between movement colour and composition creating a complex yet cohesive visual experience.

Mintah hopes that Ever-Present will change people’s perceptions on African art and history.

“In Ghana, there's a saying, ‘Sankofa’, which basically means that ‘in order to go forward, you have to go backwards,’” he says.

“You have to understand your history, understand who came before (you), before you can even progress, before you can know who you are. I just want any Africans coming to understand that we have an art history, which is often not talked about. For anyone else who's not from Africa who sees the show, I want them to become more aware of what came before the current African art market boom.”

Ever-Present runs at Efie Gallery, at Al Khayat Art Avenue, Dubai, until July 1

Updated: June 13, 2023, 8:18 AM