Nothing in recent years has divided popular opinion amongst people of African descent more than China’s involvement on the African continent. Whilst some warmly welcome the sorely needed direct investment and China’s business-only approach, others have expressed their concern about the rise of a new colonial power cloaked in the attire of transparent and mutually beneficial partnership and trade.
The jury is still out on whether China should be perceived as a friend to Africa or as a potential threat to her independence, but in the world of contemporary art, China’s increased involvement and patronage has been unanimously embraced, especially by contemporary African artists.
Over the past decade, with growing economic hegemony and global influence, Chinese investors in Africa’s raw materials have also become collectors of Africa’s contemporary art, driving the value of the work of the frontier market artists and creating a ripple effect of greater demand for contemporary African art.
One artitst in particular who has benefited immensely from the cultural patronage and interest of the Far East in Africa is Ghanaian artist, Jonathan Kwegyir Aggrey.
Aggrey is a sensational artist to say the least. A specialist in the watercolor medium, a master artist amongst his West African contemporaries and an ambassador of Ghana to watercolor artists internationally, Aggrey is one of the continent’s most prolific and promising artists. Uniquely, whilst many contemporary African artists, including Aggrey, have enjoyed patronage from across Europe, England and France, especially, and increasingly from local collectors in Nigeria, Ghana and South Africa, notably, Aggrey has enjoyed considerable attention and support from curators, collectors and even museums in China.
I sought to discover why China is investing in contemporary African artist from the perspective of the artist, especially one whose work now hangs in a well-established museum in Qingdao, a sea port city in China, far removed from the artist’s own studio in Ghana’s coastal capital city.
“African art has come a long way in the history of human development. It is gaining global attention and the world is accepting it. The Far East, especially China, has opened her doors to embrace different cultures and diversities, seeking to understand the African people and their ways of life,” said Aggrey, in an interview with Polo Lifestyles in November.
“I received my first invitation from China in 2014 as the one and only African watercolorist selected amongst 18 other international watercolorists to show my work alongside Chinese watercolorists at the Qingdao International Watercolour Biennale. Four of my paintings were subsequently collected by the Qingdao museum as part of their permanent collection.”
One of China’s leading curators at the Qingdao Art Museum commented that, “Jonathan’s use of fine lines in his work to depict the poles and ropes around the canoes is reminiscent of Chinese calligraphy writing.”
Further to his work being exhibited and collected in Qingdao, Jonathan has exhibited annually since 2014 in China in various art fairs, exhibitions and tours, such as the well-attended and prestigious annual Silk Road International Arts Festival held at Xi’an City in China.
So what does this all mean as far as China’s involvement in African is concerned, and for contemporary African art?
I would say that it is a clear indication that China’s relationship with Africa is more complex than most know, and beyond the business-only mantra, there does appear to be a great appetite to understand the culture and heritage of the continent in which China has committed to invest $60 billion.
For contemporary African artists like Aggrey, this means a greater platform and audience to showcase their work to the fastest growing economy in the world with the fastest growth rate of self-made millionaires and billionaires globally.
If London and Paris are currently the meccas of African art today, I would keep an eye open for the rise of Shanghai and its role in the contemporary African art world tomorrow.