Six Contemporary West African Artists You Should Know

Artists of West African origin are making a significant mark in the world of art; from painting to sculpting, they are creating unforgettable pieces, breaking down walls, and cracking ceilings in the process.

London, UK. 23 March 2018. Technicians present "Untitled", 1989, by El Anatsui. Preview of Modern and Contemporary African Art sale at Sotheby's, New Bond Street. The auction took place on 28 March 2018. Credit: Stephen Chung / Alamy Live News

West African art has always been rich in tradition, history, and customs, and is a strong influence all over the world. The art serves as a conduit for telling the story and history of the region’s greatness, the tragedies faced by many, and the spirit of resilience forged in those moments of tragedy.

African art also tells the world of a proud, dignified and intelligent Africa they might not have aware of, with research showing some Nigerian ceramic sculptures to date back to 500 BCE.

Galleries all over the UK and parts of Europe are full of ancient art taken from West African countries like Ghana, Mali, Nigeria and many others.

Most of the artwork was taken by the British during the invasion of Nigeria and in particular the Benin Empire in 1897.  The Nigerian Government have requested the return of these artifacts to to their rightful owner, however, the British Government have shown a reluctance to do so. As such, a European summit will be held in 2019 to discuss how best to deal with the situation.

“The moral case is indisputable. Those antiquities were lifted from Benin City and you can argue that they ought to go back. On the other hand, the rival story is that it is part of world art history and you do not want to take away African antiquity from somewhere like the museums in Paris or London, because that leaves Africa without its proper record of antiquity.” John Picton, former curator of the National Museum in Lagos.

In recent times, West Africa and Sub Saharan Africa have not been quite so synonymous with art and world-renowned artists but there are African artists who are breaking barriers all over the world. With innovative and unique pieces, they are taking the usually exclusive world of art by storm; using their art to send a message and raise global awareness of social issues occuring within the continent, and with Sotheby’s auctions in tow…the world is beginning to listen.

Here are just a few talents from the region.

Babajide Olatunji

Babajide Olatunji, a 28 year old self-taught Nigerian hyper-realist artist, was born and raised in Nigeria. He is incredibly talented and skilled and has gained a strong international following. In 2014 at the TAFETA gallery in London he unveiled his exhibition entitled ‘Tribal Mark Series’. His works have also been exhibited in Dubai, New York, and Lagos.

Hyper-realism is a genre of art that resemble high-resolution images.

His extremely detailed paintings employ the use of strong overtones to draw attention to some of the dying cultural practices in contemporary Nigeria, thereby contributing to the ongoing discourse on the issue of identity.

Speaking on his talent, Babajide said he “had a thirst for artistic expression and drew endlessly growing up. I decided to pursue art as a focus in 2011 when I was in university. It was the easiest means of making ends meet while I studied”.

As his work continues to grab critical attention internationally, the world really will be this young Nigerian’s oyster.

Toyin Ojih Odutola

Toyin Ojih Odutola, is another Nigerian visual artist born in Ife and raised in Alabama. Forbes magazine featured Odutola in its 2012 list of notable individual in the art and style category, and she is yet to disappoint.

Her self-portraits are sharp and striking and mostly done in black ink, pencil, pastel and charcoal. They produce a strong image that can’t help but hold one’s attention. She has permanent exhibitions and collections all over the USA, and explores various themes in her work, but mostly race and gender.

“To be black today is exhausting enough, but then to be a black image-maker, I have two choices: I can address this frustration that I’m feeling, not just as an artist but as a person, and engage in that in my work, and much more. Just bringing to light a field that isn’t associated with Africans but spotlight on Africans who are doing it and doing it well and gaining worldwide attention.”

El Anatsui

Ghanaian Artist, El Anatsui is one of Africa’s most influential and prolific sculptors and has received international recognition for his work, he creates objects expressing various social, political, and historical concerns. He uses unconventional materials like chainsaws, power tools and aluminium bottle tops in many of his creations to “draw connections between consumption, waste, and the environment”

Aboudia Abdoulaye Diarrassouba

Aboudia Abdoulaye Diarrassouba of Ivory Coast is based in New York and has his work in galleries all over North America and Europe. His artistic style is very street focused and full of colour but also full of stories and heavy messages, almost from a child’s point of view.

He said this about his artistic style: “My work is similar to that of a journalist writing an article: I was simply describing a situation, in order to create a record of my country’s recent history. But even before the crisis, I worked on similar themes: childhood in the streets, poorness, and child soldiers. I’m an ambassador of the children – they do writings on the walls, their wishes, their fears, I’m doing the same on my canvas. I’m like a megaphone for these children.”

Kehinde Wiley

Kehinde Wiley although well known in the contemporary art world, he has recently become very well known in pop culture. He studied at San Francisco Art Institute and later attended Yale for his Masters in Fine Art. The New York based artist recently had the world’s eyes on him when he unveiled his official presidential portrait of former president Barack Obama.

Wiley is known for his hyperbolic, larger than life portraits of African Americans and has been commissioned by big names like LL Cool J, Michael Jackson and VH1.

“So much of my work has not been fully investigated. Many people see my early work simply as portraits of black and brown people. Really, it’s an investigation of how we see those people and how they have been perceived over time. The performance of black American identity feels very different from actually living in a black body. There’s a dissonance between inside and outside.”

Peju Alatise

Peju Alatise is a painter and a sculpture, writer and poet, who originally trained as an architect but was drawn to art and was inspired by other artists. Alatise is one of the first of three Nigerian artists to have her work exhibited at the Venice Biennale’s 57th edition.

Alatise’s most famous piece is ‘Missing’ which was her interpretation of the tragic story of the kidnapped Chibok girls. She explores women in Nigeria and the political and religious issues the country is dealing with.

Artists of West African origin are making a significant mark in the world of art; from painting to sculpting, they are creating unforgettable pieces, breaking down walls, and cracking ceilings in the process.

As their talent continues to force open the doors of a once exclusive world, their endeavours will inspire generations to come…and rightly so.