Cultural resurgence highlights Africa’s place in the new world

I recently wrote about how the global geopolitical environment has resulted in a second “scramble for Africa” through increased investment and strategic partnerships from countries as diverse as Russia, Brazil, China, the US and Japan (“Africans must direct the new scramble for their continent”, October 16).

Another important by-product of Africa’s economic and political ascendancy, which rarely gets commented on in the financial news, is Africa’s attendant cultural ascendancy.

This has been articulated through cultural diplomacy with exchange programmes and museum partnerships, but more importantly also as raw cultural power, which has seen Africans assert their intellectual and social achievements on the global stage. It has also translated into commercially lucrative sales of African arts and artefacts, and a reinvigoration of Africa’s cultural industries.

Economic growth on the continent has minted several new ultra-high net worth individuals and family offices with disposable income to signal their international cultural capital. But it is not only Africans who are buying and engaging with the themes of contemporary African art; the market is fast becoming one of the hottest on the art buying and investing scene.

Africa’s cultural resurgence has also expressed itself in the crucial global art fairs such as Frieze, Art Basel and the Venice Biennale, and in wholly Africa-focused art fairs such as Africa 1:54, founded seven years ago by Morrocan Touria El Glaoui.

The reconfiguration has seen Africans such as Senegal’s Felwine Sarr storm into Art Review’s influential 2019 Power 100 list for work interrogating postcolonialism. Sarr was personally commissioned by French President Emmanuel Macron, alongside Bénédictine Savoy, to audit the museum collections France acquired during the colonial period.

Amid these developments in the past few weeks I have attended some astonishing art exhibitions and events, which made me think even more about Africa’s place in the world. Two of these stood out in the context of postcolonial cultural and economic production: the Royal African Society’s annual lecture, delivered by British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare last week at the prestigious V&A Museum, and SA artist Mary Sibande’s I Came Apart at the Seams, launched at Africa 1:54 and showing at Somerset House until January 5.

Shonibare’s thoughtful lecture explored contemporary repercussions of colonialism and unfettered capitalism, such as the refugee crisis and economic and environmental displacement. Sibande, in her first solo UK exhibition, also presents photographic and sculptural works that explore the power of the imagination and righteous anger in shaping postcolonial identity, and as is apparent, so do several African artists showcasing work internationally.

The prominence of postcolonial and neo-imperial themes and interrogation of the colonial project in cultural production signposts that the balance of power in economic and cultural partnerships between Africans and other countries will be carefully monitored for both micro and macro aggressions. This is especially poignant given that the UK’s post-Brexit trade and economic “Global Britain” strategy highlights Africa as a market through which to leverage the Commonwealth network.

At 54 countries, the Commonwealth bloc is ostensibly still vibrant and powerful, but if the cultural fallout from Africa’s meditations on the colonial relationship is anything to go by, readjustment of expectations for being first in line for deals and partnerships should be to avoid a rude awakening.

Similarly, for investors exploring the African opportunity for serious and respectful engagement with Africans as equals, and acknowledging the still-keenly felt effect of the colonial legacy, could result in better outcomes for all parties.

Such an approach is backed by empirical evidence in international business — when things go wrong with market entry or in the boardroom it is often the result of some cultural misunderstanding. Incorporating such insights into doing business in Africa is a perspective that demands nuance in investment analysis and theses. Ergo: a mindset that recognises African countries are not just “markets and economies” but also cultures and societies.

• Dr Masie is a London-based economist who advises organisations on the international investment environment. She is a fellow of the Wits School of Governance, a former senior editor of the Financial Mail and the former corporate relations manager of the Royal African Society.

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