Black History Month (BHM) has been observed every October in the United Kingdom for the past 34 years. The month-long celebration is an opportunity to understand African culture and heritage beyond the usual narrative of racism and slavery. It aims to highlight the achievements of black people from around the world and show what they have achieved despite decades of discrimination and overcoming the odds. To kick off BHM 2021 whose theme is ‘Proud to be’, ONGOLO would like to celebrate three leading contemporary African artists whose work has been showcased at leading museums, art galleries and auction houses around the world.
Wangechi Mutu (Kenya)
Wangechi Mutu discovered her love for art when she was studying for the International Baccalaureate programme at the United World College (UWC) Atlantic in Wales. She was born in 1972 and raised in Nairobi where her father owned a paper distribution company, which inspired the budding artist to start drawing from a young age.
After high school, Mutu obtained a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Coopers Union in New York and then did a master’s in sculpture at Yale School of Art. Living in New York gave Mutu access to the art world and allowed her to quickly perfect her craft. Her work is mostly centred on femininity.
Her work has been exhibited in galleries and museums all over the world, including San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, The Contemporary Austin (Texas), the Miami Art Museum, Tate Modern in London, Centre for Fine Arts in Brussels, the Studio Museum in Harlem in New York, Museum Kunstpalast in Düsseldorf, Germany, the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. In 2019, her sculptures were commissioned for the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Chéri Samba (Democratic Republic of Congo)
Cheri Samba was born in 1956 and developed his painting skills by selling sketches of scenes from a popular magazine called Jeunes pour Jeunes to his friends. At the age of 16, he left for the capital, Kinshasa, to pursue art without his family’s knowledge. Having been rejected twice by studios, he started building a client base by presenting himself to unsuspecting clients as the lead commissioner at a studio where he was just an intern. He eventually opened his own studio in 1975.
Samba is widely considered to be one of the most famous contemporary African artists. He originated the style of ‘popular painting’, which is an amalgamation of photo realism comic and bubble text. His work is known for its depiction of everyday Congolese and African life using humour and hard truths.
His international breakthrough exhibition ‘Les Magiciens de la Terre’ was curated by Jean Hubert Martin and opened in Paris in 1989. In his long career, Samba’s work has been shown globally including at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York and the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London. The largest collection of his work is held by the Contemporary African Art Collection in Geneva.
Abdoulaye Diarraśsouba (Côte d’Ivoire)
Abdoulaye Diarraśsouba, also known as Aboudia, was born in 1983 in Abengourou, Côte d’Ivoire. His father kicked him out of the home at the age of 15 when he insisted on pursuing art. He was homeless for the next few years as he studied at the Centre Technique des Arts Appliqués in Bingerville. He moved to the capital, Abidjan, where he graduated from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in 2005. Like Samba, he had a bumpy start and was rejected by galleries who often mocked his painting style.
His breakthrough came during the civil conflict following the disputed 2010 Presidential election. Aboudia locked himself in his studio and produced 21 paintings depicting the civil war, which won international acclaim from the art world. His work was exhibited in the Galerie Cécile Fakhoury in Abidjan in 2012-14, as well as Europe and North America.
His work is now included in major international collections, including the Jean Pigozzi Collection of African Art at the Contemporary African Art Collection (CAAC) in Geneva, the Saatchi Gallery in New York, the Nevada Museum of Art, as well as at art galleries in his home country, Côte d’Ivoire.