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Where is Africa's best contemporary art scene located?

Nicola Shepherd By Nicola Shepherd
30 Jun 2020
Cape Town Ellerman House Private art collection med.jpg

Art is such a subjective subject. And yet, few people consider art when contemplating a holiday to Africa! But in fact, there is no reason why one shouldn’t incorporate the two, should art be a passion of yours!

Specifically, the contemporary art scene in Africa is so incredibly diverse and dynamic, brimming with extraordinarily talented and passionate artists, whose work reflects the continent’s cultural diversity, natural beauty and long history.

There are a growing number of exceptional, independent art galleries which one can visit and support these various artists when one stays for a couple of days in a city. This also continues my long-standing advice that 50% of any safari is naturally the sensational wildlife experience, but undoubtedly, the remaining 50% ultimately comprises the culture of the regions, and of course, art defines itself perfectly in this arena.

For lovers of ancient African art, one can do no better than sourcing an item from French collector Marceau Riviere. Explorer and art historian, Marceau is probably the world authority on African art. 250 undiscovered masterpieces were globally showcased by Sotheby’s last year.


Where are the best art galleries and Art experiences in Africa?

If one really wants to achieve a truly immersive, artistically inspired vacation or holiday, then one should really be looking at Kenya or South Africa.

I have always enjoyed Nairobi immensely. It has such a wide array of diverse and interesting hotels and lodges to stay at, such as the large, funky Tribe Hotel in Gigiri, the diplomat side of Nairobi, which blends contemporary design with tribal art and artifacts.

From here, one can visit renowned local artist Anna Trzebinski’s studios which contain not only her world-class and fabulous suede clothing with beads and feathers, but also furniture that she has designed, which is stunning.


Phylippa Marrian is another supreme artist. Viewings of her work at her house are by appointment only. But I think I can safely say she is the finest oil painter in Kenya. Her large work, often depicting cultural scenes and heritage, as well as wildlife, can be found on many of the finest safari lodge walls in Kenya. She and her husband David have exhibited frequently in New York, London and Rome.

Banana Hill Art Gallery in Nairobi is a treasure trove dedicated to some of the finest contemporary artists in the country. It features over 70 contemporary artists and was founded by Shine Tani, a talented local artist, together with 12 other artists. The gallery was officially opened in 2006.

One of the artists is Alex Wainaina. Alex creates sculptures from repurposed scrap metal which predominantly feature animals and sacred figures. You can also visit the Kuona Trust where one can see the artists in their sponsored studios. Mia Collis is a fabulous, young, aspiring Kenyan photographer who can be found at LensCulture.


One Off Contemporary Art Gallery and Sculpture Garden aims to represent some of the most established artists in Kenya, many of whom they represent exclusively, along with associate artists from Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Sudan and Rwanda.

Another notable local artist is Sane Wadu. Sane conducts communal art workshops. His paintings are with many private collectors of contemporary art and are a fascinating mix of rural and urban influences. His Sane Art Studios helps youths and the public at large to appreciate and support the works of art and regard it as a viable poverty reduction strategy.


In terms of fabulous jewellery and beadwork, of course, there is the main market downtown, but for designer chic with leather and beading, head to Annabel Thom or Linda Camm and for jewellery, look to Sally Dudmesh and Kazuri Beads. Penny Winter is another designer who turns African material into something eminently wearable! In Karen, one can visit sculptors like MatBronze, whose specialty is wildlife art.

A luxury safari house with a focus on African art

In Laikipia, north of the equator, Jochen Zeitz has a truly gorgeous house called Segera which doubles as both his family home in Kenya as well as a lodge for those who prefer the finer things in life. It truly is utterly stunning, with organic food produced on the farm, to the most exquisite light, Mediterranean styled contemporary cuisine prepared and served to guests.


They have an extraordinary wine cellar and also display some of Jochen’s African art collection in the lodge. These are pieces that he has retained as opposed to sending off to his art gallery, Zeitz Mocaa, which is located in Cape Town (more on that later).

Jochen is recognised as having the largest private art gallery featuring African art in sub-Saharan Africa. He has cleverly displayed his art in what used to be stables, with each stable housing some incredible artwork.


Segera Retreat, Kenya - Crookes and Jackson

Segera Retreat, Kenya - Crookes and Jackson

But I cannot write about Jochen without mentioning in the same breath that staying at his truly fabulous lodge, Segera, will not only enhance the soul, but also enrich the souls of the local community surrounding him. He is extremely active and benevolent in the local community where one can visit them and witness first-hand the work his foundation is doing for them.


Art and culture in South Africa

Then we have South Africa, which has a more mature offering, in terms of some of the finest traditional master artists of the 19th century as well as exciting, dynamic contemporary artists (and a truly unique graffiti artist scene in both Johannesburg and in Cape Town).


"Bubble Gum Flag 7" by Samson Kambalu at Goodman Gallery, Cape Town

"Bubble Gum Flag 7" by Samson Kambalu at Goodman Gallery, Cape Town

Works of art one could view include those from Harry Bolus (1834-1911), who was a botanist and a botanical artist (and philanthropist) or Tinus de Jongh (1885-1942) or Jacobus Hendrik Pierneef (1886-1957) who is considered to be one of the finest South African Masters and a landscape artist with a distinctive style.

Then there is Irma Stern (1894-1966) who was a major South African artist whose work gained recognition both nationally and internationally. Lucas Sithole (1931-1994) was best known as a sculptor who expressed his work through the medium of indigenous woods as well as bronze and stone.


Cecil Skotnes is another prominent South African artist born in 1926. Finally, Vladimir Tretchikoff (1916-2006) was another example (despite some of his work being a little kitsch) who enjoyed enormous success painting figures, portraits and still life.

Considered one of the finest art galleries in South Africa is the Everard Read Gallery which is the oldest art gallery in South Africa which specialises in contemporary and modern art. Another excellent art gallery for contemporary art is the Goodman Gallery. Then of course, we have fabulous contemporary artists in South Africa whose work you can see either individually or at these renowned galleries.


One can stay at some of the best hotels in Cape Town, such as Ellerman House or their private villas, in order to see one of the finest privately-owned art collections in the country. Rodwell House also has a small, eclectic collection of good quality.

Coming back to Jochen Zeitz (ex-Puma CEO), he is the luminary who is responsible for creating and supplying the finest African art collection on the African continent, with his gallery called Zeitz-Mocaa, situated in Cape Town. This is a public, not-for-profit museum dedicated to contemporary art from Africa.


Here one can see cutting edge art from Africa and the Diaspora in over 100 galleries. It is used as a platform for Africans to tell their own story and participate in the telling of that story. There is also The Silo Hotel at the top of the gallery, where one can base oneself.

With such a dynamic and exciting art scene, for any art enthusiast, one should consider spending at least a week in South Africa to sate one’s curiosity and desire!


First Floor Gallery, Harare, Zimbabwe - Rodney install

First Floor Gallery, Harare, Zimbabwe - Rodney install

Where else in Africa can one see African art and meet artists?

I have focused above specifically on two countries which have a plethora of wonderful art galleries and artists, but I feel I should also mention Zimbabwe, which most people associate with Shona sculpture, often using stone as their main creative medium. But in addition, one should visit The First Floor Gallery in Harare which is the first independent contemporary gallery run by emerging artists.

Founded in 2009, the gallery is situated in Harare’s busy inner city centre. Showcasing the artwork of rising and promising contemporary Zimbabwean artists, the gallery supports their professional development by growing their exposure across local and international audiences, facilitating art workshops and classes, and serving as an interactive experimental space.


Julio Rizhi Chakfukidza - First Floor Gallery, Harare, Zimbabwe

Julio Rizhi Chakfukidza - First Floor Gallery, Harare, Zimbabwe

The First Floor Gallery hosts a number of interesting exhibitions throughout the year featuring local artists such as Moffat Takadiwa, Wycliffe Mundopa, and Mavis Tauzeni as well as others. Over the past few years, it has quickly become an important venue for fine arts, film, poetry and music events.

West and North Africa are both regions renowned for eclectic art work (and masks) - as is Morocco with its magnificent geometric tile mosaic work, formed from chiselled pieces and emanating from 14th century Fez. Morocco, Egypt and Tunisia also have excellent galleries showcasing art from around the country. 

Uganda has the Afriart gallery in Kampala. Representing both well-established and rising artists, the gallery’s interior is filled with beautiful paintings and sculptures and has featured well-known local artists such as Edison Mugalu and Paulo Akiiki.


Seat of honor #6 by Stacey Gillian Abe - AfriArt Gallery, Kampala, Uganda

Seat of honor #6 by Stacey Gillian Abe - AfriArt Gallery, Kampala, Uganda

Regularly exhibiting the artwork of different artists, this gallery has become a focal point amongst the artistic community in Kampala’s budding art scene. The gallery also provides art consulting services and runs a craft shop selling art books, ceramics, statues, traditional fabrics, locally designed clothes and recycled glassware.

In Ethiopia, we have the Zoma Contemporary Art scene, created by one of Ethiopia’s most active and original artists, Elias Sime. It promotes multidisciplinary contemporary art and facilitates international exchange between artists, harnessing a culture of environmentally conscious art projects in Ethiopia. The New York Times cited Zoma as one of the top places to visit.

African art, both traditional and contemporary, is diverse and exciting. I strongly encourage you to incorporate some time for art and culture in your safari to Africa and in doing so, help to support some incredibly talented African artists. Please do feel free to contact me directly or at The Explorations Company for more information.


Images kindly provided courtesy of: The Silo Hotel, Cape Town; Segera Retreat, Kenya; Ellerman House, Cape Town; Goodman Gallery, Cape Town; One Off Contemporary Art Gallery, Nairobi. Top and background image courtesy of Ellerman House, Cape Town.