Dubai-based Iranian businessman Farhad Bakhtiar is an art aficionado and collector. His impressive art collection includes not only works by well-known modern and contemporary Iranian artists, but also by emerging African artists. With the aim of supporting and promoting these young, largely unknown artists he is presenting their work in an exhibition titled Africa/Africa.
“I travel regularly to Africa on business and like to visit local galleries and meet young artists in their studios in Nairobi, Kampala and other cities. Over the years I have built up quite a large collection of contemporary art from Africa. Many of these artists are self-taught and have few opportunities to showcase their work, but they are very talented. I want to support and promote them by sharing their work with a wider audience and with other collectors through such exhibitions,” Bakhtiar says.
The show is curated by well-known Iranian artist, curator and collector Fereydoun Ave. It features works by six emerging African artists — Ehoodi Kichapi and Dickens Otieno from Kenya; Paul Ndema from Uganda; South Africans Carla da Cruz and Hendrik Stroebel; and British Ghanian artist Amartey Golding. The artworks — ranging from abstract and figurative paintings to sculptures made from ceramic and found materials — explore the common cultural influences and concerns that inform their work, while highlighting their unique individual practices and responses to their environment.
Stroebel is well-known for his mastery over the medium of ceramics and was a professor at the University of Durban. He has a deep interest in Arabian culture and has travelled widely in North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia. The show features a series of octagonal clay glazed ceramic works by him that are inspired by Arabian architecture, traditional Islamic geometric patterns and floral arabesques.
“I met Stroebel in Durban in 2012 and liked his work, so I invited him to exhibit it in Dubai. Over the years he has become a good friend and I have enjoyed seeing how his travels to Iran, Iraq, Turkey and other countries have influenced his work,” Bakhtiar says.
Stroebel’s pieces are exhibited alongside porcelain sculptures by his former student Da Cruz. She uses clay as her medium to explore texture, geometry, repetition and patterns found in nature and the world around us. Her tiny, mostly unglazed porcelain works seem to be inspired by corals, sea urchins and other creatures. Their size and fragility represent the vulnerability of nature in an increasingly urbanised, industrialised world. Their simple, circular forms filled with paper-thin porcelain sheets that have been folded to form whorls and other delicate organic formations allude to the contrast between inner fragility and a seemingly strong exterior and between structure and chaos.
Otieno is interested in finding meaning in things that seem useless. The Kenyan artist uses strips from shredded recycled beverage cans and coffee wire to weave beautiful fabric-like sculptures. While referencing the traditional African craft of weaving with palm leaves, Otieno’s colourful artworks urge his viewers to consciously avoid polluting the environment and to recycle and reuse waste.
“Otieno grew up in the slums of Nairobi and hence chose to work with cheap, recycled materials. His work has sparked off a recycling movement in his community making it difficult for him to create work because he can no longer get the used cans for free. To support him, I commissioned him to create some pieces for this show,” Bakhtiar says.
Paul Ndema addresses political, religious and cultural issues that are affecting Ugandan society through his art. His colourful oil paintings depict vivid scenes, evocative figures and self-portraits on a background of vibrant patterns and colours appropriated from traditional African textiles. Using African and Christian iconography he comments subtly and humorously on serious issues such as child soldiers being recruited to fight in political and religious conflicts, and the impact of age-old beliefs, superstitions and power struggles on the lives of ordinary people.
“I like to visit Ndema in his studio on top of a hill, where he paints while listening to classical music. I heard about him from a friend who is a collector and provided him the studio space, and I have been following his career since then. His work has matured and I am happy that he is being recognised now for his strong and expressive paintings,” Bakhtiar says.
Kichapi’s paintings are equally expressive. Filled with energetic line drawings, marks, scribblings, screaming faces, hands reaching out desperately and abstract colour fields, they are reminiscent of Basquiat’s work. “This artist is self-taught and was working in this style a decade ago. But he won an award to study in New York and has changed his style completely. I am glad to showcase these seminal works by the Nairobi-based artist,” Bakhtiar says.
Golding is the best known artist in this show and has been exhibiting his work in the UAE since 2009. He was born in London to a Scottish mother and Ghanian father and studied art, design and architecture at Central Saint Martin’s School of Art and Design in London. His work is influenced by the inherent complexities of his hybrid identity and his family’s movement from one city to another in the UK and then later to Jamaica and Ghana during his childhood. This is seen in a charcoal drawing titled Nomad where he has depicted himself carrying his home and belongings on his back.
Golding was the first artist to be invited for a residency by Dubai-based arts organisation Tashkeel in 2012. During this time he explored the line between reality and storytelling by conceiving an alternate world called Gabosia, complete with its own mythology. The show features some of his intricate, detailed drawings from that body of work as well as several montages reflecting the people and incidents in his life.
“I was impressed by his work as soon as I saw it and I have organised exhibitions for him in Dubai before. This show includes a portrait, which was the first work I acquired from him, and I look forward to seeing how he evolves as an artist,” Bakhtiar says.
Jyoti Kalsi is an arts-enthusiast based in Dubai.