Bringing Art From Africa to Audiences Around the World

Abe Odedina, Eclipse, 2017, Acrylic on Plywood, 37 x 24 ins/94 x 61 cm, Courtesy Ed Cross Fine Art

Abe Odedina, Eclipse, 2017, Acrylic on Plywood, 37 x 24 ins/94 x 61 cm, Courtesy Ed Cross Fine Art

While living in Kenya, Ed Cross discovered a vibrant art scene throughout Africa that was largely unheard of in much of the rest of the world. After getting to know artists working on the continent, Cross was inspired to find a way to create a platform for showing work and sharing the trove of artists he had encountered with the world at large. In 2009, after returning to London following a 20 year stint living and working in Kenya, Cross opened a gallery, Ed Cross Fine Art. The London-based gallery specializes in art from Africa and its Diasporas. Cross will be exhibiting at If So, What? this year and was generous enough to share stories with us about the history of his gallery and the artists whose work visitors will encounter at If So, What?

If So, What?: Your gallery specializes in visual arts from Africa, as well as art from African artists working in the diaspora. Can you tell us how you became interested in African art, and a bit about the gallery’s history?

Ed Cross: I lived in Kenya for twenty years working initially in educational publishing and then as an artist and finally as an art dealer/gallerist. From 2000 onwards I began to see a massive and at that point, largely untapped cultural and commercial potential within the field of ‘Contemporary African Art.’ I also saw how art was going to be an essential component in the cultural, economic, and intellectual development of the African continent.

I returned to London in 2009 and established my gallery, which specializes in visual artists from African countries and, increasingly, the African Diaspora. It has been thrilling to see this area of the art market explode in terms of the art produced and the platforms associated with it, from museums sprouting up in Africa and institutions like MoMA and Tate Modern and legions of others now building collections of art from Africa and its diaspora.

ISW: It sounds like your booth for If So, What? will be not only compelling, but also may offer visitors the chance to see artists that they are not yet familiar with. What will you be exhibiting?

EC: I will bring works from two very different and equally powerful artists – Mario Macilau and Abe Odedina. Both artists are, in their own ways, highly relevant for the Silicon Valley audience. Macilau is in his early thirties and is one of Africa’s most distinguished photographers, with works in the French National Collection at The Pompidou Museum in Paris.

Mario Macilau, Profit in Maps, The Profit Corner, 2016, Archival Pigment Print on Cotton Rag Paper, 13.1 x 19.7 ins /33.3 x 50 cm, Courtesy Ed Cross Fine Art

Mario Macilau, Profit in Maps, The Profit Corner, 2016, Archival Pigment Print on Cotton Rag Paper, 13.1 x 19.7 ins /33.3 x 50 cm, Courtesy Ed Cross Fine Art

He grew up in real poverty on the streets of Maputo and was instinctively drawn to photography. He was inspired by post-independence Mozambique’s fascination with portrait photography, but he also had a desire to photograph a deeper truth. Macilau’s powerful work honors his economically marginalized, yet resilient subjects and, simultaneously, his own roots. His works allow the viewer to see and to feel intense individual realities, conveying universal truths about the human spirit and global politics and economics, and speaking to the artist’s personal transformation through the medium of art.

One of the key works to be shown will be Untitled (7), a large format work (133cm x 200cm) from Macilau’s Faith series. This iconic, un-staged image shot with natural light, shows a Mozambican man receiving a traditional healing invoking the spirits of the ancestors as well as Christ. The image may be spontaneous but the symbolism of the white cross superimposed on the back of the black subject is palpable. The image is on one level a testament to human determination to overcome obstacles in the face of little or no government health infrastructure and on the other it poses huge questions about colonialism, slavery and religion.  Also on show will works exploring recycling in Africa, including works that reference the issue of computer waste and Macilau’s acclaimed series about a group of street children in Maputo, Growing in Darkness.   

ISW: His work sounds really fascinating, we’re very excited to see if his photographs in person. Can you tell us about Abe Odedina as well?

EC: Abe Odedina is in his late fifties and is a trained architect who became a full-time painter about twelve years ago after a trip to Brazil that changed the trajectory of his life. He was born in Nigeria but has lived in the UK since his late teens. He paints on plywood and, while an admirer of Western art traditions and influenced by several Western artists, he is above all an heir to the great anonymous African makers whose highly conceptual work transformed western art.

Describing himself as a folk artist Odedina’s work disrupts and is not beholden to normal art world structures. He paints for “everyman” all races, all socioeconomic groups, and his paintings are often inspired by new dialogues with ancient Gods and Goddesses – be they from his own rich African Yoruba cosmology, Christianity or the classical Gods of Greece and Rome. In Odedina’s own words “the Gods need us,“ whether you believe in them or not, the wisdom that surrounds them is there to be accessed by 21st century humanity especially in this time of accelerated change and huge global challenges.  His paintings are about the nuts and bolts of life – and how we process it. The themes are common to all of us – love, friendship, ambition, power, birth, death, and so on.

We will be showing several works from Odedina including his important recent work Glory depicting a man with his arms outstretched, Christ-like on a monocycle on a tightrope (echoing Macilau’s Faith image). Odedina uses the timeless imagery of the circus to explore crucial human themes, in this case the phenomenon of Glory; Fleeting, seductive, extreme, and all consuming, often dangerous for the protagonist and those who live with the consequences.  

ISW: How did you approach curating your booth for ISW differently than you might for another event or fair?

EC: I have not changed my style of presentation for this fair, which is always to create a mini curated show not simply a range of artwork.  We have steered our selection of works towards works that are somehow related to the environment, global inequalities, and the responsibility that comes with power. I met Sho, the founder of the fair at an art fair in New York in 2016 and she was very moved by the work of Mario Macilau. We have remained in communication since then, so it is therefore doubly appropriate to show Mario’s work at this, the inaugural edition of her fair. I am fortunate to once again, be working with the very talented New York born and Royal College of Art, Cambridge, and Cornell educated Katherine Finerty who will be curating the booth.

ISW: What aspects of your booth or artists that you are showing are you most excited about? Why do you think they will appeal to the ISW audience?

EC: I am excited about presenting works that focus intensely on elemental and timeless truths – from artists whose disruptive practices and concepts are cutting edge even though their subject matter and/or media are the opposite of “high tech.”

ISW: What are you most excited for about ISW?

EC: I think it’s an exciting opportunity to engage with a very powerful and important group of people about art that does not rely on the elitist structures of the conventional art world

ISW: Are there any events on the gallery’s horizon that you would like to share with ISW visitors?

EC: One of the most exciting events on our horizon will not be in London but at the acclaimed Underground Museum in Los Angeles where Abe Odedina will have a solo show in April of next year