African Art

6 Contemporary African Artists You Should Know

Natalia Tiberio 18 July 2022 min Read

The contemporary art scene is booming in Africa. Artists are getting more attention and recognition, taking part in the most prestigious art fairs and exhibitions around the world. From painting to video and performance, there is an immense number of talents, bringing attention to colonialism, identity, and the climate crisis. Below, you’ll meet six artists leading the contemporary arts in Africa and beyond.

1. Julie Mehretu

Ethiopian-born, New York-based Julie Mehretu (b. 1970) is already an acclaimed artist. She uses large-scale paintings to discuss themes such as migration, urban development in the world’s peripheries, and climate change. Her abstract works take elements from architecture, cartography, and Arabic calligraphy, creating layered images with multiple perspectives about the social issues we face today. 

Mehretu’s work has been included not only in many biennials, including Istanbul, Sao Paulo, and Venice but also in the prestigious documenta (13). In 2021 the Whitney Museum in New York exhibited her first career survey.

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2. Yinka Shonibare

Yinka Shonibare CBE RA (b. 1962) is a British-Nigerian artist that became known for using brightly colored “African” textiles (in fact Dutch wax-printed fabric produced in Indonesia and then sold back in African countries). His work mixes historical references with humor and satire to question colonialism, race, and globalization through sculpture, painting, installation, film, and photography. 

Shonibare is one of the most celebrated contemporary artists being awarded and honored by the British monarchy with the titles of MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) in 2004 and CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) in 2019. These titles are granted to citizens for outstanding contributions to the arts and sciences. In addition, in 2013 he was named Royal Academician by the Royal Academy of Arts and received the Whitechapel Gallery Art Icon Award in 2021. 

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3. Wangechi Mutu

Exploring the themes of gender, femininity, and objectification of black women, Wangechi Mutu creates a personal language that references nature and the organic world to shape an ethereal dimension. Mutu was born in Kenya in 1972 and moved to New York in the 1990s to study Arts and Anthropology. Her interest in animals, plants, and metamorphosis paved the way for her to produce the hybrid female-animal figures present in her paintings, collages, sculptures, and films. 

Mutu’s work is part of collections worldwide and is extensively exhibited in the US and Europe. In 2015, she participated in many biennials including, Dak’Art (Dakar), Moscow, and Venice. In 2019 she was commissioned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York) to inaugurate a space at the museum entrance that will be dedicated to contemporary artists. Mutu created large bronze sculptures (Seated I, II, III, and IV)  that were exhibited until the fall of 2020.

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4. Abdoulaye Konaté

The Malian artist Abdoulaye Konaté (b. 1953) works mainly with textiles using traditional craft techniques to create installations and large panels that almost resemble paintings. He assembles colored pieces of fabric into abstract compositions using locally sourced materials. Konaté’s art draws attention to environmental, political, and humanitarian issues that, not only Mali but many other colonized nations, face in the globalized world. 

His work has been shown around the world in collective exhibitions and individually in the UK, Italy, and Germany. In 2002 Konaté was awarded Chevalier de l’Ordre National du Mali and Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres de France, adding to the many awards the artist has received. 

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5. Tracey Rose

Artist Tracey Rose (b. 1974) works through performance, photography, video, and installation using her body as a focal point. The South African artist discusses feminism, gender roles, and racial topics and she is known for creating powerful political statements. Her practice is influenced by 1970s experimental performance art.

Rose has participated in numerous high-profile exhibitions in Africa, Europe, and the US, including biennials (Dakar, Venice, Johannesburg) and documenta (14).

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6. Amoako Boafo 

The youngest of this (humble) list, Amoako Boafo (b. 1984), rose to fame soon after the Black Lives Matter movement and is one of the biggest promises of contemporary African art. Born in Ghana with studies in Vienna, Boafo mainly paints portraits influenced by Egon Schiele and his striking style. He explores and questions the limited views people often have about Black people and uses finger paint to put a deeper connection into his portraits. 

In 2021 the artist collaborated with the fashion house Dior for a celebrated menswear Spring/Summer collection. Already part of museum collection’s like the Guggenheim (New York) and Albertina (Vienna), this May, Boafo debuted his first solo museum exhibition at Contemporary Arts Museum Houston.

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