The Changing Face of African Art

The Changing Face of African Art

Raphael Dapaah is the founder of Dapaah Gallery – an art agency and consultancy specialising in art from Africa and the global diaspora. This Black History Month we sat down with him for an open conversation about his journey into the art world, and the triumphs and challenges facing Black artists today.

Haja Marie Kanu

5 min read

To Dream is To Hope (Epistles of Hope Series), Cyril France, 2023

What was your personal journey like into the artworld?

Contemporary art was my first real passion and love. I ended up pursuing a more “traditional” career path in law and politics. When I graduated, I got a policy job and ended up working on Brexit policy. It was one of the most strenuous and emotionally taxing times of my life. I needed my own exit plan – excuse the pun.

I still maintained my interest and involvement in art. As a collector, I met a lot of artists (primarily Black British artists at the time), and I built a great rapport with them. People around me knew me for being a collector, and they would pick my brain about artists they could potentially buy for their homes. I became an art advisor by default. 

Tell us about Dapaah Gallery.

I started Dapaah Gallery informally in 2015 but I “stuck both feet in” in 2017.

When I would visit galleries, I would notice if their rosters were exclusively men artists. I'd say, “Oh, you know, you've got a really strong lineup – have you considered these women artists from Nigeria, or Cameroon.” Then an artist friend of mine, REWA, asked me “why don't you actually consider this as a full time gig – formalise it rather than doing it just as a passion?”

REWA, Otu - Odu Society, 2023

I took on the role of her agent. I used that as a platform to then essentially scout other artists I felt were exceptionally talented, and help them gain representation with international galleries. Over time I began to hone in on the type of artists I wanted to work with, and the type of galleries who I wanted them to be represented by. Dapaah Gallery evolved into an arts agency, management service, curatorial service and advisory platform.

Who were some of the artists that you were working with in those early days?

By virtue of location I was working mostly with Black British artists and artists of  West African heritage like Sarah OwusuRahim AmarteyEmmanuel Unaji, Koby Martin, and REWA.

What are some of the challenges facing Black British artists today?

There's a cultural fracture that means that Black British artists don't get the look-in they deserve. The tastemakers in the art world are the established professors, critics, gallerists... Their appreciation for art is based on their lived experience. They find it hard to resonate with the perspectives of Black British art.

I work internationally and I deal with different markets and I would say in my experience, the most progressive and open minded market has been the US. The British market, specifically London, is very much conservative.  If you don't come from one of the “good” art schools – Slade, CSM, the masters programme at Goldsmiths – they typically won't give you a look in. These art schools are incredibly competitive, and it’s even tougher for Black students to break in. I’m a disruptor because I don’t come from that art school model either.

Communing, Smell the Flowers While You Can series, Megan Gabrielle Harris, 2023

Do you feel like there have been any real concerted changes for Black artists since the racial reckoning that followed the 2020 uprising?

There was already an uptick in contemporary African art in 2020. What the Black Lives Matter movement did was make it a lot more urgent, more pressing. It made everyone look around and ask themselves “What role am I playing to perpetuate this imbalance and what good things can I do to counter it?”

There was definitely tangible change. Post- 2020, galleries that didn't traditionally represent black artists or contemporary African artists at all began to introduce more into their roster, give them solo shows, and include them in art fairs and exhibitions of note.

It’s promising, particularly in the UK context which is typically a slow burner.

I also want to spotlight South Africa because  the cultural landscape is a very white dominated space. Now we're seeing Black South Africans come to the fore. It’s long overdue. They're not just taking up space – they're calling the shots.

You now spend most of your time on the continent, what inspired the move?

I've grown up in a family that has always prided in our cultural heritage and I've always been connected –  visiting and fostering familial and business ties. I've always been looking for some way to be more involved on the continent. Once I started working primarily with artists based on the continent, it gave me more access to go back and forth.

I realised that I could conduct my business where I feel most at home, whilst also being in close proximity to the markets.

Eting Nyum Yi Nkeato II (Great Expectations II), Nobody Be Like Woman series, Enighe Amba, 2023

Is there much dialogue between the art people are making on the continent and in the diaspora?

In the early part of the 2010s, right when contemporary African art started showing signs of life, it was very separate. African African artists based on the continent were really drawing on the experience of being Africans on the continent. And artists in the diaspora were doing the same –  like if you go to the States, artists there are responding to their unique lived experiences and circumstances. Over time I've seen a kind of convergence of themes of subject matters – it's not just pure hardship and grief and strife.

I also looked for those artists who were producing works that were counterintuitive. To counter the narrative being pumped out in the market and show that African art is not one dimensional, it's multifaceted. I think this all boils down to the fact that we're undergoing an African cultural renaissance. We're now actually becoming a genuine melting pot of experiences. It's like one big gumbo.

What three words would you use to summarise this current moment?

Growth. Possibility. Abundance.

Tangled Embrace, Richard Mensah, 2023

Go Deeper

Dapaah Gallery is curating the duo solo show of Enighe Amba & Cyril France at Copeland Gallery in London from 19th-23rd October 2023.

While African Art is having a moment in the present, it has a diverse and complicated history for example the ongoing debate around the Benin Bronzes.



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