Contemporary African art: two artists to follow

[07 Apr 2023]

The first is Moroccan, the second Beninese: M’barek Bouhchichi and Moufouli Bello have both generated international interest, but still have very modest auction profiles. We take a closer look at the work of these two artists who both paint figurative portraits, a genre that has been very popular at auctions for a couple of years.

M’barek Bouhchichi

M’barek Bouhchichi lives, creates and teaches art in Tahanaout, Morocco, where he conducts his creative and pedagogical activities with heart and conviction. Teaching art is a real commitment for him, because it involves playing a decisive social role by participating in the construction of contemporary creation in his country. This essential mission also allows him to stay in touch with new generations and the societal changes brought about by young people. In sum, the artistic practices of M’Barek BOUHCHICHI are nourished by a dual commitment: to remember and question history, while being deeply open to modernity.

Born in 1975 in Akka, Bouhchichi began to paint at the age of nineteen. Over the years, his work opened up to a variety of mediums and he has made an impression with his installations, whose ‘conceptual and poetic materialism’ always involved an analysis of social systems, particularly the mechanisms of discrimination against the dark-skinned Berbers from southern Morocco. In 2020, the Pompidou Center in Paris acquired one of his installations. Entitled Imdyazne #3 (2018), the installation consists of 13 sticks leaning against a wall. Made of wood and copper, the chiseled sticks are inscribed with the verses of the poet M’Barek Ben Zida (1925-1973), a black peasant-poet from Tata who practiced Ahwach, a form of oral poetry accompanied by music, dance and often practiced in the form of games. Through Imdyazne #3, M’barek Bouhchichi gives new shape to the words of the poet. But – as Omar Berrada expresses it in a superb text devoted to the artist under the title “Memory and Matter” – by shedding new light on the activities traditionally associated with blacks in southern Morocco, M’barek Bouhchichi transcends the established concepts of space and work. He takes samples from social reality and converts them into physical shapes”.

Since 2018 when Bouhchichi’s work was shown at the 13th edition of the Dakar Biennale of Contemporary African Art and at the London edition of the 1-54 art fair (represented by the Voice gallery in Marrakech), his work has been championed by a growing number of museums and galleries, including Selma Feriani (Tunis), Valentina Bonomo (London) and Atelier 21 (Casablanca). International collectors have therefore only been exposed to his work for four years. However, in Morocco, Bouhchichi has been famous for a long time and his works have joined a number of prestigious local private collections and some are already returning to the auction market. In 2017, the Compagnie Marocaine des Oeuvres et Objets d’Art in Casablanca sold a rubber engraving measuring nearly two meters long, Moroccan Pattern #1 (2017), for more than $5,000. In 2021, Artcurial in Marrakech sold an untitled portrait (Sans titre, Untitle: see image) fresh out of the artist’s studio for around the same price. That result, at twice Artcurial’s low estimate, sent a favorable signal regarding the artist’s return to painting.

Indeed, Bouhchichi’s decision to return to painting will undoubtedly attract more private collectors, who are more inclined to buy works produced on classic supports rather than installations, which often involve heavy logistics (storage, exhibition methods, conservation, etc.). In 2022, his installation Terre (Earth), consisting of a multitude of small terracotta heads in different colors, sold for just $3,500 (at the low end of its estimate) during a charity sale at Sotheby’s New York for the benefit of the Norval Sovereign African Art Prize 2022. Collectors apparently lacked the nerve to support the first of his installations to be offered at auction. Nevertheless, Sotheby’s global network of collectors is now aware that M’barek Bouhchichi is an artist to follow.

Moufouli Bello

By generating notoriety and stimulating demand, exhibitions can have an immediate influence on an artist’s market, both primary and secondary. The pedigree conferred by certain exhibitions and the increased visibility of works relayed by the press allows young artists to join the art market train quickly and their works to be spotted as candidates for major international sales.

This has been the case with Moufouli BELLO, a 35-year-old Beninese artist who lives and works in Cotonou. The young woman began to find her audience in 2017 on the occasion of the exhibition Afrique: Le grand Festin, organized in Vienna (Austria) where she exhibited alongside the Cameroonian artist Barthélémy Toguo who uses his international notoriety wisely to promote his cadets. In 2000, in Bamileke country in Cameroon, Toguo created the Bandjoun Station foundation motivated by a desire to ensure that Africa and Africans are masters of their artistic production and that they develop with greater independence.

Three years after the Viennese exhibition alongside Toguo, Moufouli Bello consolidated her place in the coveted sector of committed African painting by participating in another group exhibition: Say My Name: Signature African Art. Presented by filmmaker Ava DuVernay, the exhibition aimed to put the Black Lives Matter movement at the heart of London’s artistic scene from October 2020 via the work of thirteen artists, all based in Africa. Moufouli Bello exhibited imposing portraits of black women generally adopting dominant attitudes modeled on male gestures, including a large portrait entitled Breonna (2020), depicting “Breonna Taylor”, a 26-year-old African-American paramedic who was shot and killed by Louisville police officers in March 2020. Having been reproduced numerous times in the press, the work became an emblem of the exhibition Say My Name. It then appeared at auction in November 2021 – at Sotheby’s no less – in London. Breonna found a buyer at the price of $18,600, a good result for an artist’s auction debut!

None of her works have been auctioned since. Nevertheless, other portraits by Moufouli Bello were presented last October as part of the 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair in London where we saw the price of her large portraits (with her distinctive bluish hues) had doubled since the sale of Breonna at Sotheby’s, the canvases being offered between $35,000 and $41,000. Prices are rising quickly for this new generation of painters, driven by a demand that has spread rapidly around the world. And Moufouli Bello’s work perfectly matches the expectations of the current market.