Young and old African artists celebrated at October Gallery shows

Vibrant and expressive art unites generations of African artists at the October Gallery in London.

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Image : Eyasu Telayneh, Private Reputation of Colours II, 2020 / October Gallery

Stepping inside the main hall of London’s October Gallery in May and June, visitors were met with a riot of colour. The exhibition Emergent Energies, running until 29 June, presents an innovative and unique selection of works by young artists from across the African continent and within the African diaspora. Each exhibit, eye-catching and utterly unique, captured the vitality and invigoration that each young artist brings to their work as they begin to make their presence known on the international art scene. For that is what this exhibition encapsulated – youth, promise, and hope for the future.

Theresa Weber’s sculpture Stream of Consciousness (2024) is a thing of beauty in glorious technicolour, crafted from beads, mosaic and clay, among other materials. Weber, whose heritage is German-Jamaican-Greek, says that her works reflect her approach to “the ever-changing nexus of identity,” blending elements from all of her cultural identities. Part sculpture, part performance piece, her Woven Bodies (2022) is likewise crafted from durable materials that suggest tenacity and resilience, while weaving a web of rich, layered storytelling.

Telling stories

Telling stories is also the goal of the works of photographer and director, Dafe Oboro. Nigerian-born Oboro was conscious of how stereotypes can lead to false narratives and perceptions, and set out to reform Africa’s representation in mainstream media through the visual mediums of film and photography. His Pour me Water, Pure Water is a series of photographs depicting locals bathing in Lagos after a long day’s work, captured in intricate detail by the camera’s lens. Blending artistic expression with realism, the bright images simultaneously critique the lack of access to clean water and celebrate the resilience of Nigerians living in this urban environment.

Equally eye-catching are the paintings of Ethiopian artist Eyasu Telayneh. Gigantic canvases featuring geometric blocks of primary colours, Telayneh’s love of both art and maths are immediately evident in his work. As Telayneh told the Ethiopian Reporter, “I get asked what these colours signify and I tell people I work spontaneously.” The work he creates, with vibrant layers of paint in a rainbow of hues, is a response to his visualisation of the world around him and is “intended to engage viewers in a conversation” through which they can explore emotions and feelings. Private Reputation of Colours is painted in bold brushstrokes, and its stark shapes initially trick the eye into appearing three-dimensional. Deliberately ambiguous, they could be people or perhaps objects – that is up to the viewer’s perception.

Each unique piece in the exhibition displays a maturity of talent far beyond the artists’ years: they were all born in the 1990s. Each showcases an individual take on the African continent.

These artists are already making waves in the global art scene and their influence is continuing to grow – Oboro’s work has already won him the Access ART X Prize in 2022. Following that he completed a three-month residency at the Gasworks gallery in London’s Vauxhall neighbourhood. Meanwhile, Theresa Weber enjoyed her first UK public commission in the UK with Cycles of Unmasking last year at London’s Somerset House.

Return to the source

Emergent Energies is the latest of many contemporary and avant-garde exhibitions by African and diaspora artists displayed at the October Gallery. The very first sub-Saharan African artist to display his work there was Ghanaian artist Ablade Glover in 1982. He returns to the gallery once more this summer to display his newest oil-on-canvas paintings.

Inner Worlds, Outer Journeys (4 July to 3 August 2024) is a solo exhibition of paintings by Glover in celebration of his 90th birthday this year. Inner Worlds, Outer Journeys explores his personal and artistic development and portrays a journey of “inner and outer discoveries” which form a “tapestry of an accomplished life in art”. His latest paintings convey vivid and rich warmth as he depicts the vibrant scenes of his native Ghana.

Born in Accra in 1934 in what was called the Gold Coast until it gained its independence as Ghana in 1957, Glover has become a seminal figure on the West African art scene. He founded several galleries, culminating in the Accra-based Artists Alliance Gallery. Some of his works now hang in prestigious locations including the Imperial Palace of Japan and the UNESCO headquarters in Paris. Throughout his lifetime his reputation has grown beyond that of simply an artist, and he has become a mentor and role model for emerging African artists on the global stage, paving the way for the success of African artists such as those whose works are currently displayed in the Emergent Energies exhibition.

The African art scene in the UK in 2024 is very different to when Ablade’s first exhibition hung in the October Gallery over forty years ago. Since the 1980s, there has been a significant increase in the representation of African artists in UK galleries. The October Gallery, along with institutions such as the Tate Modern and the Africa Centre, has played a crucial role in promoting artists from across the continent. These galleries have hosted numerous contemporary art installations that reflect the dynamism of the continent’s art scene.

Above: Ablade Glover, Orange Profile I, 2019. Courtesy October Gallery.

A variety of media

While early UK-based African art exhibitions often focused on painting – such as Ablade’s use of oils, for which he is famous – and sculpture, the Emergent Energies exhibition shows that contemporary African artists now work across a variety of media, including photography, digital art and performance art. Yet while the mediums of expression available to artists have grown and evolved over the years, art continues to be a means for freedom of expression, to push boundaries and to challenge perceptions.

There may be sixty years between Glover and the artists in the Emergent Energies exhibition, but the ability of the installations to challenge perceptions of the African continent and to draw in the viewer with the power of colour and creative expression remains the same. Just like the works of Eyasu Telayneh and Theresa Weber, Glover’s canvases showcase his vibrant passion for life, activity and colour, and use warm pastel pigments that convey Ghana’s diversity and energy, and are a delight to the eye.

Emergent Energies and Inner Worlds, Outer Journeys represent the very best of African art at different ends of the age spectrum, and across multiple generations and life experiences. As art continues to evolve, so too will the opportunities available to African artists to showcase their talent and diversity of skills. Perhaps the future will see artists shown in Emergent Energies return to display their work alongside African artists who haven’t yet been born, whose creations we can’t yet imagine. The power of African art will continue to inspire future generations of artists from across the continent for years to come.

Ablade Glover: Inner Worlds, Outer Journeys will be at the October Gallery, 24 Old Gloucester Street, Bloomsbury, London WC1N 3AL from 4 July to 3 August 2024.

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Emily Allen

Emily Allen is Arts and Culture correspondent at IC Publications.