All About African Art with Curator Atim Oton
Curator, entrepreneur, designer and editor Atim Annette Oton is adding to her many, many accomplishments by curating Amref Health Africa’s inaugural ARTBALL, kicking off next Wednesday in New York. We sat down with Oton to get the inside scoop on collecting Contemporary African art, and to get some insight on her curatorial faves. Check out her collection up for bid at Paddle8, or grab tickets to the event, which honors Wangechi Mutu, for yourself here.
– This is the inaugural Amref ArtBall celebrating Contemporary African Art, with so many other art non profit events, what sets this event apart from the others?
The ArtBall stands on its own because, from what I understand, it is the first to focus solely on Contemporary African Art (we have brought together art from across the continent – 11 countries which include: Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Congo, Egypt, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, and Tanzania). It is also unique in that the organization is African. Amref Health Africa was founded nearly 60 years ago, with headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya and a staff of which 97% is African. They truly represent “African solutions with African expertise”. Therefore, it makes for a perfect partnership between the artists and the non-profit.
– Wangheci Mutu is being honored with the Rees Humanitarian Award, how did this come about?
We are honoring Wangechi Mutu not only for her work with AFRICA’SOUT, but also for her work as a contemporary activist artist as a whole. Over the last 15/20 years, Wangechi’s artwork has helped elevate the contemporary “African artist” to a level that says they are just as important as “American/European artists” and the like. As the largest African-based NGO, who has been training health workers and working to build and highlight the incredible breadth of human resources across the continent. We want to celebrate the ‘power of Africa’ and maintain our distinctly African brand. To do this, we need to celebrate those who already do and know and understand and represent that.
– How did you get your start as a curator of African Art?
It took me a while to get here. I was born in Nigeria with an American mother who collected African art and grew up around it including trips coming to the US to sell art. I did my first curatorial project on women architects in architecture school in New York, and I knew I would do it full-time, later in my life. After graduate school in London, I returned to New York to work professionally in architecture and was at most of the exhibitions looking and seriously studying art – African art – in particular, and by 2000, I left architecture, because it was limiting, to become the Associate Chair of Product Design at Parsons School of Design. There, I began curating and working on installations at Parsons Galleries in New York, ICFF Shows in New York, Salone del Mobile in Milan, Biennale Internationale Design Saint-Étienne in St. Ettienne, France, House of Design, Hallefors, Sweden and Altos de Chavon in the Dominican Republic. I also began my company, Calabar Imports in 2004, where I focused on small solo exhibits of emerging black artists in Brooklyn – Laylah Amatullah Barrayn in 2006 had her second exhibition with me and Ramona Candy also exhibited in my space. I took a break to grow my company and last year, Deirdre Scott of the Bronx Council on the Arts reached out – to ask about working on Bronx:Africa at Longwood Gallery– we had years back talked about Africans in the Bronx and doing an exhibition. I joined the team as a curator – focused mostly on public engagement. This year, I opened a small exhibition space in Harlem – Calabar Gallery to showcase the work of Africa, African American and Caribbean artists, and serve as the curator. For Amref, I was recommended to Natalie Kates, the event producer for Artball because I do understand the scope and breadth of African art and would deliver a collection of artists whose work speaks to the diversity on and off the African continent, in Europe and the US where some reside and work.
How many artist who are participating in the inaugural Amref ArtBall made works specific to the event?
Three artists made work specific to healthcare and Amref: Paa Joe’s sculptural piece work focuses on honoring healthcare workers, Mederic Turay focused on equal health for women and children while Michael Soi produced a painting on visiting a doctor to highlight the importance of checkups.
– What are the artist and what are the works?
With 31 artists at the beginning, mid-point and end of the career – the 33 pieces curated spans almost 100 years of Contemporary African Art – illustrates the variety of styles, social and political engagement of these artists and the countries they represent. The work showcases select emerging, established and masters of African art from George Lilanga, Imo Nse Imeh, Ibou Ndoye, Anne Ntinyari Mwiti, Frederic Bruly Bouabre, Soly Cisse, Mederic Turay, Burns Effiom, Doba Afolabi, Tahir Carl Karmali, Wanja Kimani, Paa Joe, Michael Soi, Ify Chiejina, Wiz Kudowor, Nowinde Vivien Sawadogo, TAFA, Armand Boua, Eto Otitigbe, Claude Gomis, Saidou Dicko, Esther Mahlangu,Tessa Teixeira, Erikan Ekefrey, Ibrahim Ahmed, Tabitha WA Thuku, Kgalalelo Gaitate, Richard Ketley, Alioum Moussa, Chriss Aghana Nwobu, to Sapin Makengele.
– What is the difference between a Contemporary African Artist and African American Artist?
A Contemporary African Artist is an artist from, and of the continent: Armand Boua born on the continent in Ivory Coast while Ify Chienija is an emerging artist who was born in the US with parents from Nigeria – she considers herself an African artist born overseas. Contemporary African Artists like most utilize a dynamic combination of materials, methods, concepts, and subjects challenging traditional boundaries. Birth, language, experience, culture and the interplay of connection to and against the continent form the narrative of an African Artist. There is a difference in the narrative of the African American artist – their culture has traces of Africa but it is centered on America – from history to everyday life.
– What are your Amref ArtBall picks for someone looking to collect Contemporary African Art?
This is a difficult question because the work was curated with the idea that all pieces are great picks. From a new collector with a budget under $5000, I would suggest Ibou Ndoye’s AfroPunk, Nomwinde Sawadago’s Tante 1, Tahir’s photograph from his Jua Series, Michael Soi’s The Doctor’s Visit, Tessa Teixera’s Freedom for Self 2, Alioum Moussa’s Apollo 13 and work from Ify Chiejina’s Bu obere nwa / Was a Little Girl and Ibrahim Ahmed.
For a collector looking for emerging artists – I would suggest Mederic Turay, Soly Cisse, Saidou Dicko, Wanja Kimani, Sapin Makengele, Armand Boua, Erikan Ekefrey Tahir Carl Kimani, Imo Nse Imeh, Kgalalelo Gaitate, Ify Chiejina, Ibrahim Ahmed, Michael Soi, and Nomwinde Sawadago.
For established artists, I would recommend Doba Afolabi, TAFA, Burns Effiom, Tabitha Wa Thuku, Eto Otitigbe, Chriss Agaha Nwobu, Ibou Ndoye, Anne Mweti, Richard Ketley, Alioum Mouusa, Claude Gomis and Tessa Teixera.
For a collector looking for masters, there are definitely 5 must haves: Paa Joe, Wiz Kudowor, Esther Mahlangu, George Lilanga, and Frederic Bruly Bouabre.