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How David Bowie's Contemporary African Art Collection Challenged Conventions

Bowie was a true champion for contemporary African art.

by Alice McCool
Oct 28 2016, 1:20pm

What Happened in the Western Cape? by Willie Bester. All photos courtesy Sotheby’s

Speculation, rumors, and revelations have always surrounded David Bowie, before and after his death. Most are aware he was married to a Somali model, Iman, and have heard his song "African Night Flight," a tribute to the music and culture of the veld following a trip to Kenya with his son in the late 1970s. But what is perhaps less known is Bowie's passion for contemporary African art. In 1995, he wrote the article “The Cleanest Work of All” for Modern Painters, in which he described African artists as having “only one common thread: an unquenching thirst for national- and self-understanding.” This November, with over 350 works, Bowie's contemporary African art collection will be exhibited and auctioned at Sotheby’s under the title Bowie/Collector.

Alexandria by Romuald Hazoumè 

Since his Kenya trip, Bowie had been “mesmerised by the spontaneous and ever changing panorama of this continent’s [Africa’s] artistic experiments.” But it was not until 1995 when he traveled to South Africa for the Johannesburg Biennale titled Africus that his appreciation of contemporary African art gained notoriety. Less than a year after the end of apartheid and international boycotts, the Biennale aimed to reconnect South Africa with Africa and the rest of the world—through art. Bowie wrote about the Biennale in the Modern Painters article, stating, “This is as mind-jarringly moving as any major art-thing I’ve seen, East, West or Middle, in any year.”

Fanagalo Store by Norman Catherine

It was at this time that Bowie met some of the artists featured in his collection on show in London. This included leading Angolan contemporary artist António Ole, whose work Bowie described as capturing “the tension between the different logics of war and peace...there is a sub-text that envelopes the soul.” He also met Romuald Hazoumè, whose now-famous tongue-and-cheek masks play on expectations and stereotypes of African art. Bowie described Hazoumè as a “big and jolly chap who reminds me much of early footage of Muhammed Ali at his most poetic” and describes the Beninese artist as “in his element sorting through the contents of garbage cans throughout Africa (yes, I mean it), transforming his finds into pure icons of humor and spirituality.”

South African Postcard II by Penelope Siopis

On his return to London, Bowie went on to push for an exhibition of contemporary South African art in the UK to coincide with africa95, a festival of African arts in the UK. His hope was that this would "challenge our preconceptions of ‘otherness’ and establish African art as being some of the most tantalising and provocative work to be seen,” adding that, “if we continue to categorize art that is outside our cultural experience as somehow ‘low art,’ curio or merely artefact, we will be dealing these artists a serious injustice and we ourselves will be far poorer for it.”

Back Chat II by Norman Catherine

In 1995, Bowie also hosted his first solo exhibition, New Afro-Pagan And Work 1975-1995—in collaboration with South African artist Beezy Bailey, with whom he worked on more than 50 paintings and drawings. Bowie truly appreciated and championed contemporary African art. He did this at a time when African art was only thought of as traditional, and the continent overall was tarnished with negative stereotypes of war and corruption.

Today, as his collection is unveiled in one of London’s most prestigious art institutions, Bowie continues to challenge “preconceptions of ‘otherness’” about Africa from beyond the grave.

Made in South Africa (Pink) by David Koloane

Click here to learn more about the exhibit Bowie/Collector and auction. 

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Africa; African art; David Bowie; Sothebys; Auction; collection; painting; South Africa; Johannesburg