Market Chats: What The Rise of Noldor Artist Residency Tells Us About the Burgeoning Contemporary African Art Market

Kwaku Osei Owusu Achim in Junior Fellow Studio, Institute Museum of Ghana. Image courtesy of Institute Museum of Ghana.
Pavilion Courtyard, Institute Museum of Ghana. Image courtesy of Institute Museum of Ghana.
Museum Gallery, Institute Museum of Ghana. Image courtesy of Institute Museum of Ghana.
Team photo of Institute Museum of Ghana. Image courtesy of Institute Museum of Ghana.
Junior Fellow Studio II, Institute Museum of Ghana. Image courtesy of Institute Museum of Ghana.
Kwabena Lartey in his studio. Image courtesy of the Institute Museum of Ghana.
(Left) Foster Sakyiamah; (Right) Detail of Sakyiamah’s work. Images courtesy of the Institute Museum of Ghana.
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From an in-demand artist-residency to becoming an “accidental market maker”, Noldor Artist Residency in Ghana is achieving great strides towards its grand vision. Here’s why.

TEXT: Denise Tsui
IMAGES: Courtesy of Institute Museum of Ghana

 

Pavilion Courtyard, Institute Museum of Ghana. Image courtesy of Institute Museum of Ghana.
Museum Gallery, Institute Museum of Ghana. Image courtesy of Institute Museum of Ghana.

 

Over the last couple of years, the contemporary African art market has been quickly gaining traction. In 2020 Artsy published an article examining the potential of the sector to stay buoyant amid the pandemic. And again in 2021, with the meteoric rise of artists such as Aboudia, Isshaq Ismail, Amoako Boafo and Emmanuel Taku—whose works are seeing explosive hammer prices and bidding wars at auction—contemporary African art caught the eyes of those following the numbers. But numbers are nothing more than an indication of a collecting trend and does not reflect the true state of a region’s arts infrastructure—or lack thereof. In Ghana, West Africa, where commercial galleries are still far and few in between, and cultural institutions have no public funding, all eyes are on Noldor Artist Residency, and its newly opened sister institution, The Institute Museum of Ghana.

There are four factors, in his opinion, that are influencing the burgeoning global interest in contemporary African art, Joseph Awuah-Darko, collector, and founder and director of Noldor Artist Residency, tells me. Born and raised in London, the 25-year-old speaks with confidence and a distinct British accent. Firstly, the market for African contemporary art is largely undervalued, such that galleries are seeing opportunities for growth in its price points. “I think this is the least interesting truth,” Awuah-Darko insists. Second, he says, is that there’s “a taste level that has manufactured, or that has manifested for Black figurative portraiture, and by artists from the continent and from the diaspora authentically.” Adding to this is the rise of institutional recognition demonstrated in the growing number of museum acquisitions and art prizes for the continent, and the diaspora. The fourth reason, according to Awuah-Darko, is the increasing number of programmes and ways that emerging artists are able to receive support to for their practices and careers. This is where Noldor Artist Residency and The Institute Museum of Ghana comes in.

 

Team photo of Institute Museum of Ghana. Image courtesy of Institute Museum of Ghana.
Junior Fellow Studio II, Institute Museum of Ghana. Image courtesy of Institute Museum of Ghana.

 

On The Path To Sustainability

“We are essentially Ghana’s first contemporary museum, and that comes with a lot of responsibility,” Awuah-Darko explains. “The vision is to be one of the most formidable cultural institutions that display and celebrate African contemporary art throughout history, and also to accommodate the repatriation of some really important pieces of contemporary art in a meaningful way.”

Established in 2020, Noldor Artist Residency may be a young programme, but having already received more than 200 applications for its few coveted places, it has already seen immense success—owing to the passion of Awuah-Darko, and his team, including curator Rita Mawuena Benissan who has been pivotal in the cultivation of the programme. Residencies are four weeks long, while fellowship tenures may be up to one year. In addition to an onsite studio space, residency artists and fellows are also given an additional two years in which Noldor continues to support them, whether that is by way of assistance with acquiring artist materials, access to studios, publicity, or connecting them with museums, galleries and fairs—the latter of which may be the most vital in an industry that thrives so heavily on opportunities arising from having personal connections.

“It’s a very holistic way of nurturing emerging artists, but also, it’s very grounded in a sense of pragmatism, and making them understand what it means to navigate their growth essentially,” says Awuah-Darko. Sharing similar sentiments, Benissan, who is also a practicing artist, tells me what sets Noldor apart is the dedication to supporting the artists, “building up who they are as an artist and who they are as a person too.”

Noldor’s financial endowment is essentially funded by three streams. Firstly, through the generous support from a community of dedicated donors across New York, Dallas, Tel Aviv and Paris; secondly, supplemented by Awuah-Darko himself; and lastly, from artists who have pledged a body of work since the institution went public. Since Ghana has no public funding for cultural institutions, Awuah-Darko explains, the generosity of these artists is “an act of service above self” and demonstrates the collective vision for a sustainable art ecology in Ghana.

“I think a major pain point that we are addressing is the largely underserved emerging artists within the diaspora, and the continent, and addressing the needs of how to navigate the global contemporary art ecology as African contemporary artists in this very frenzied space,” he says.

For 26-year-old Benissan, who was born in Abidjan, Côte D’Ivoire, and raised in the US, her encounter with the grassroots art scene of Ghana has only been over the past three years, yet already she has observed what a change motivation alone can do for aspiring artists. She believes Ghana’s participation in major art world events such as their Pavilion at the 59th Venice Biennale really helps to highlight Ghana’s potential to be “the art hub and melting pot for West Africa,” which in turn gives artists motivation. “But I think what we really do need more of are mentors and curators who are also Ghanian because then we’re able to see a version of ourselves in them,” says Benissan. Looking ahead at the future of the residency, she hopes, “For Noldor, that we are able to incorporate more mediums just so that people can also feel if they’re not a painter, that their art is also valued.”

 

Kwabena Lartey in his studio. Image courtesy of the Institute Museum of Ghana.
(Left) Foster Sakyiamah; (Right) Detail of Sakyiamah’s work. Images courtesy of the Institute Museum of Ghana.

 

The Unintentional Trailblazer

The first Noldor residency artist is none other than current market darling Emmanuel Taku. An extremely talented painter whose powerful, stunning imagery forges a new portrayal of Black portraiture, Taku has made incredible strides in the global art circuit, most recently working with mega-gallery LGDR to show 10 new paintings in the gallery’s Hong Kong space coinciding with the recent Art Basel Hong Kong.

For those that attended the fairs in Hong Kong, two Noldor residency artists were also spotted at the city’s homegrown fair, Art Central, at the booth of Art Perspective who are now representing Foster Sakyiamah, a 2021 artist-in-residence, and Kwabena Lartey, a 2021 visiting fellow. While Lartey’s intensely grabbing works focus on the sorrows and trauma that Black individuals have gone through in their lives, Sakyiamah’s vibrant portraiture are oft inspired by his surroundings. The artist even cleverly created his own painting tool using the sole of a shoe.

“I never really anticipated that we would become such a de facto gatekeeper of commercially successful emerging artists,” says Awuah-Darko. “But what I do think what we have been able to do is build a sensibility and an alignment with truly important emerging contemporary artists, and have played a formidable role in their starting chapters, as far as their careers, in giving them the freedom to become the best versions of themselves.”

Awuah-Darko has partnered with nine galleries so far—both locally in Ghana and around the world—with Noldor serving as a conduit through which artists can gain exposure and access to galleries for commercial access. Art Perspective is the first in Hong Kong; the only other gallery currently partnered in Asia is in Seoul, South Korea.

“I think it’s been interesting to see the Asian hot spots that embrace the artists that we nurture,” says Awuah-Darko who tells me they have seen a rising interest in collectors in Hong Kong, even a frenzy for Sakyiamah’s paintings recently. “I think Hong Kong is a very dynamic and important part of the art world.”

Awuah-Darko admits they have unintentionally become “accidental market makers”. While he believes Ghana is in dire lack of critical voices around art, he emphasises their mission to trailblaze the development of an art infrastructure in Ghana, and a global discourse for African contemporary art. But of course, the art market does not exist independently of discourse and vice versa.

“I’ve found that critical discourse around painting or work normally rises more ardently when there’s a lot of commerce around it,” says Awuah-Darko. “The objective was to create a safe space for creative proliferation and growth of emerging practitioners. And so, I think that it’s funny how those two are correlated.”

Will all this market frenzy for art from the region result in the opportune development of a sustainable art ecology in Ghana and global discourse for the genre? One certainly hopes so.

 

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