Meschac Gaba, Museum of Contemporary African Art 1997 - 2002 (Art and Religion). © Meschac Gaba. Centro Atlantiko de Arte Moderno

Tate announces acquisitions of African art

Rebecca Atkinson, 02.11.2012
Nicholas Serota outlines new international networks and acquisition committees
Tate Modern in London has announced a new programme of acquisitions of modern and contemporary African art as part of its wider moves to further broaden its collecting beyond Europe and North America.

The gallery has an annual acquisitions budget of £4m-5m, and has earmarked just under £2m on a number of international initiatives in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East and Asia.

At a briefing yesterday, Tate director Nicholas Serota announced a number of new acquisitions from Africa including a Portrait of a Man by Nigerian artist Aina Onabolu, who is considered the first modernist painter working in West Africa at the turn of the 20th century.

Next summer, Tate Modern will dedicate a wing of its galleries to two contemporary African artists, Meschac Gaba (b.1961, Benin) and Ibrahim El-Salahi (b.1930, Sudan).

A two-year project entitled Across the Board will consist of a series of events featuring emerging African artists, including performances in The Tanks and in three African cities – Accra in Ghana, Douala in Cameroon and Lagos in Nigeria.

The projects and acquisitions are part of a partnership between Tate and Guaranty Trust Bank. This has also created a new curatorial post focusing on African art.

Chris Dercon, director of Tate Modern, said: “Tate is committed to building a truly international collection, showing African artists as part of a global history of modern and contemporary art.”

Tate Modern has also announced new international networks in the Middle East, Latin America and Asia. This includes a curatorial partnership in Brazil and a museum training programme to support the National Museum of Oman.

Two new acquisition committees have also been launched; one will focus on Russia and Eastern Europe, the other on South Asia.

Serota said that new acquisitions will be integrated within displays rather than used to illustrate pockets of work. The gallery’s international acquisitions policy focuses on historically important work from the 20th century; collections of work around established artistic practice; and works from emerging artists.

Serota denied that acquiring artworks from Africa and elsewhere was about “removing” cultural heritage from its country of origin: “Art cannot be defined by national geographic boundaries.”


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Rebecca Atkinson
MA Member
Online Publications Editor, Museums Association
02.11.2012, 11:41
At the press conference where Tate announced this news, a few journalists raised concerns about how this move might be perceived – ie, a rich western museum like Tate going to African countries to buy up art.

They also queried whether this might leave museums in African countries at a disadvantage, possibly unable to compete financially to buy works. In addition, what about all the people living in countries like Sudan, Benin etc who will be unable to see artworks produced by their countrymen without having to fly to London.

Tate responded by pointing out there are great collections of African art in African museums. In addition, Tate’s work with museums and artists in Africa will encourage shared learning and new partnerships.

Finally, Elvira Dyangani Ose, who holds the new curatorial post at Tate to focus on African art, argued that this is about putting African art in the mainstream and broadening our understanding of modern art history and contemporary art practices away from purely Western cannons.

What do you think? Is this a case of history repeating itself (eg the Parthenon Marbles, Egyptian antiquities etc) or have we moved on from that?
MA Member
12.06.2013, 15:01
Western cannons (sic) did much damage in Africa, to lives, property and culture. But Western canons could do much to promote African art by recognising its various forms (as did Brancusi, for example)