It is crucial to acknowledge the unique and highly significant role that the African continent has played throughout history in shaping our society. Africa is home to the ancient origins of humanity, and its influence on the development of the fine arts is immense.
In the early 20th century, Africa inspired innovators such as Derain, Picasso, Matisse, and Modigliani to seek a new visual language. In contrast to the stagnation of European art traditions, the discovery of African art – characterized by simpler forms and more abstract figures – gave rise to influential movements like Fauvism, Cubism, Primitivism, Expressionism, and, of course, Abstraction.
In today's art world, thanks to globalization and modern technology, African art has not only been showcased to viewers but has also assumed its rightful place. African art is not just about vibrant, captivating colors, intricate figures, deep expressions of spirituality, and a connection with ancestors. It is also a cry for help, a struggle against discrimination, and a fight for the rights of African women.
Let me introduce you to a unique woman, an African art collector, philanthropist, mentor, ex-advisor to French President E. Macron on African affairs, and a true daughter of the African soil, Nomaza Nongqunga Coupez. In this exclusive interview, Nomaza will shed light on the reasons why investing in the art of young African artists today is worthwhile and share insights on how we can aid in unleashing their potential.
Yuliana Arles: As an experienced collector, art patron, and founder of Undiscovered Canvas, how do you perceive contemporary African art's position on the global stage? In your view, how do African artists contribute to the development of contemporary art?
Nomaza Nongqunga Coupez: As you rightfully mentioned, in the 20th century, African art paved a way for many European artists to create new movements like cubism, to find new palettes and forms to experiment with. Today, I see one of the biggest roles of African contemporary art as a form of activism. I use ‘activism’ carefully because it can be exhausting for marginalized peoples to liberate themselves and still have to educate their oppressors. But an African artist being themselves and sharing their lived experience is activism, their daily life is a revolution.
Story with art is a tool for challenging cultural and social identity, addressing environmental concerns and the damaging effects of global consumption on African soil, exploring gender, race, spirituality and identity themes. I personally think African art has made an immense contribution to the development of contemporary art without any true recognition. I feel today it had a pivotal role in shaping the socio-economic future of the African continent.
Yuliana Arles: Indeed, African art is currently experiencing a surge in global recognition, and its impact on contemporary art is significantly noticeable. After all these years and making such a significant contribution to African culture, can you recall the specific moment that made you realize the importance of this mission and inspired you to work towards promoting African artists globally? What was your experience like at the beginning?
Nomaza Nongqunga Coupez: The realization occurred even before starting the mission. It is the realization that drove me to start the mission! And that realization was that the Europeans (because this is where I moved to after South Africa) know nothing about the African continent because everything has been done in a way to limit their knowledge about us, to see us as less capable, less in every aspect of life!
The African proverb "If a Lion does not tell its story the hunger will”, hahaha, it's funny that we came up with this proverb when we actually suffer most from it! It is this realization that drove me to promote African arts globally. I am giving Africans the opportunity to tell their stories.
Yuliana Arles: Your dedication to promoting African artists has also made a profound impact on the global stage, and in 2017, it garnered the attention of French President Mr. Macron. As a result, he extended an invitation for you to become a member of the Presidential Council for Africa. Can you provide further insights into your responsibilities as an advisor to the President, and discuss some of the most significant milestones you have achieved in this role?
Nomaza Nongqunga Coupez: I take pride in being the mastermind behind President Macron's successful trip to Lagos in 2018. The President sought to celebrate the immense contribution Nigerians made to the creative industries, and I managed to convince the French Diplomats based in Lagos that such a celebration should take place at the "Shrine," the home of afrobeats creator, Fela Kuti. Even the Nigerians found my ideas to be 'unconventional,' but we made it happen, and it resulted in the most beautiful trip we could have organized. The President went to the people, saw them, and celebrated them!
Later, I proposed the Africa 2020 season to the President, which he loved and adopted as one of his projects. I also had the privilege of visiting various countries on the Continent, including Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa, to meet successful business people on behalf of the President and present the African Season to them.
I was chosen to join the CPA because the President wanted someone with a fresh perspective to show him and his team how the youth of the African continent were developing their region culturally and how France could level up to that, enabling France to start building common bridges based on mutual benefits and, more importantly, respect.
Yuliana Arles: You have a crucial mission. As you pointed out earlier, it's impossible to separate art from the political context in today's world. Art's role in our era is not only to mirror our reality, but also to advocate for change. We can expect a swift evolution of African contemporary art. Let's consider this through the lens of collectors.
Curious to know, what was the first African piece you added to your collection, and what attracted you to that specific artwork? Can you share your experiences as a collector and provide guidance on the best starting point for an African art collection? Additionally, what should one especially consider when choosing an artist, style, and type of art?
Nomaza Nongqunga Coupez: My 1st buy was by Zimbabwean / South African artist Mathias Chirombo. Even though I was raised by parents who are priests in a Christian church, when I pray it's always been my Ancestors I call upon, even as a young girl, that part of me has always been so natural. So, when I started working with Mathias who paints from dreams and whose works are influenced by this Shona culture, I could see in image what I had always felt inside.
The most powerful collections that I have ever seen were the ones where the collectors were saying who they are through the works and the artists they chose for their collection. So, I would say“ make it personal” if you do that the artist, style, and type or art comes naturally.
Yuliana Arles: Collecting art is a matter of taste and individual preference; however, it's beneficial to seek advice from an expert in a specific area of art. As a connoisseur of African art, whom do you regard as the most significant and influential African artist of our time? Furthermore, which artists do you deem worthy of a collector's attention presently, as they may be poised for recognition and prominence in the future?
Nomaza Nongqunga Coupez: So many significant and influential artists on the continent are unknown globally because the secondary market for African arts is like a decade old. However, when you start looking deeper you see how young artists on the continent are inspired by their elders / masters in artists like Noria Mabasa, Gerald Sekota, Ester Mahlangu, Jackson Hlungwani, Mmakgabo Heleni Sidibe, Malick Sidibe, Ladi Kwali and so many more!
Collectors must definitely look at the artist's Undiscovered Canvas presents, as my selection process is holistic, investing in them to make sure they receive the prominence they deserve.
Yuliana Arles: Looking at the world today, it is impossible not to notice the significant influence of technology on all aspects of our lives, and the arts are no exception.
Given your unique background, which in one way or another includes a connection to technology, I understand that you studied biomedical technology at the Central University of Technology in the Free State. Let me ask you, how do you envision the intersection of technology and art defining the trajectory of the African art industry? Also, what importance do you attach to the role of modern technology in increasing the visibility and recognition of African artists on a global scale?
Nomaza Nongqunga Coupez: We can observe a correlation between the creation of the internet and the rise of African arts in the global market. The internet has provided African creatives the opportunity to circumvent traditional gatekeepers and has compelled established institutions to pay attention to them.
Regarding the intersection between art and technology, I believe we have a significant journey ahead before we can witness its fullest expression. Currently, the focus is on NFTs and Digital Art, as these are the most accessible forms. Socially, technology has dismantled traditional gallery walls, enabling artists to reach a global audience.
Undiscovered Canvas primarily operates via an e-commerce platform, which not only opens doors to a diverse range of collectors, but also caters to audiences eager for education. Despite this, there is much more to be achieved.
Investment in this sector is crucial, as it will allow African artists to truly reap the benefits of this potent intersection, providing them with the means to experiment and express themselves through technology on a grand scale.
Yuliana Arles: It's worth mentioning that in 2021 you have created Makwande Art Residency, a non-profit organization focused on African women artists. What are the main goals of this organization? What changes have you noticed in the representation of African women artists in the global art sphere over the past few decades, and what challenges still remain?
Nomaza Nongqunga Coupez: Indeed, this is my latest project under Undiscovered Canvas, and it's the one that often keeps me awake at night. My work through Undiscovered Canvas has revealed the unique challenges faced by African female artists early in their careers. These challenges mainly include a lack of financial support, particularly during the first three years post-graduation, limited opportunities, and the social pressures and expectations placed on African women. These pressures often lead them to abandon their passion for alternative livelihoods. Consequently, we lose vital voices—those of African women capable of effecting change in their societies.
Through the Makwande Art Residency, our goal is to elevate African female artists and raise their work beyond their disadvantaged backgrounds. When our artists succeed, their impact resonates, inspiring other African female artists to strive for their full potential. We aim to demonstrate to African female artists that it is possible to lead a fulfilled life doing what they love.
There is still so much to be done. Support for initiatives like the Makwande Art Residency is needed. Even after successfully inviting and accelerating the careers of two African female artists in France, we still struggle to secure sponsorships. Young African female artists are often left to fend for themselves, without much support from patrons, corporations, or governments to make the transition from graduates to professional artists. They lack dedicated studios where they can work safely, assistance with materials, and introductions to opportunities. There's still so much more that needs to be done.
Yuliana Arles: In your opinion, what unique perspectives do African women artists bring to the world of art that deserve more recognition?
Nomaza Nongqunga Coupez: Their voices! Because today it is Silent.
Yuliana Arles: What advice do you have for young African artists who want to break into the international art scene?
There is no magical formula unfortunately, for African artists I would say start early creating a portfolio of your works, work hard on building your own artistic identity, network already when in University don’t wait until you leave school. Look at innovative ways to create a community around your work. Self educate yourself on topics like accounting and property rights and contracts. Be pro-active. - Nomaza Nongqunga Coupez
Yuliana Arles: I would also be interested in exploring your personal tastes when it comes to art. If given the opportunity, which artist, past or present, would you choose to collaborate with, and what draws you to their work?
Nomaza Nongqunga Coupez: Van Gogh, I would love to see intense beauty through torture like he did.
Yuliana Arles: To conclude our conversation, I want to ask how you see Undiscovered Canvas and the Makwande Art Residency evolving in the future amidst the constantly evolving global art landscape? Additionally, are there any innovative initiatives or programs you are considering to support and empower African artists?
Nomaza Nongqunga Coupez: Being a black woman running a business in African arts in France is something that has not been sustainable in the past, there are many before me, and close to none still standing. I would love for Undiscovered Canvas to break that barrier!
There is no other residency run by a black woman in the South of France today. I would love to one day own our physical space, with a program that would welcome African female creatives from all levels, including writers, sculptors, filmmakers, artists, and many more.
For all those who have fallen under the spell of Nomaza Nongqunga Coupez's enchanting collection, we cordially invite you to contact YV Art. It would be our great pleasure to assist you in establishing a direct connection with Nomaza herself.
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