Contemporary Art Market: African artists make sophisticated impact

TUCKED behind the seedy, modern shops of Bethnal Green Road, the Savannah Gallery of Modern African Art is making a big statement.

Its current show, ''Sixteen', demonstrates through the work of 16 artists - from a 64-year-old Sudanese living in exile in the Gulf States, to a 38-year-old Ghanaian working in Dusseldorf - that African art has achieved a sophistication that brings it into the mainstream of world-wide experimentation.

Leroi Coubagy, founder of the gallery two years ago and curator of the current show, has hung a 'neo-primitive' pencil drawing by Frederic Bruly Bouabre as a counterpoint to his 16 artists. Bouabre is admired by Western curators as expressing the primitive magic of Africa. Coubagy is determined to demonstrate that African artists are no longer primitive. 'Like most modern and contemporary artists all over the world they are involved in post-modernist critical debates,' he says.

El Loko, 44, born in Togo but now living in Germany, studied at the Dusseldorf Academy with Joseph Beuys, the most powerful influence on Western art of the last two decades. Beuys was a shaman who believed in the mystic powers of art, and El Loko follows him by delving into a shared subconscious. He has borrowed geometric symbols from traditional African culture - patterns that are cut into human faces or dance masks, printed on textiles etc - and used them to create abstract paintings and wood sculptures whose power creeps up on you. Besides featuring in the 'Sixteen' show with a painting over 5ft square (pounds 4,000), he has a solo exhibition in the second of Savannah's three gallery spaces, converted from an old fur-coat factory.

In Savannah's second solo show, Togoland is crossed with France as opposed to Germany. William Wilson, 42, had a French mother and Togolese father and was brought up in Orleans. He makes pastel drawings in dazzling colour, mad surrealist figure studies where matchstick men dance on a hat, or cacti grow in a tummy; his overflowing invention is full of humour - Victor Brauner is the key influence on his work. The pastels range in price from pounds 650 to pounds 1,200.

The senior figure in the group show is Ibrahim el Salahi, 64, who was born in Omdurman and studied at the Slade in the 1950s. A devoted Muslim, exiled from his country, his pen-and-ink drawings delineate a mystic universe which has affinities with the British master, William Blake. The triptych on show is priced at pounds 1,800.

Other notable works include the pounds 750 lithograph of a black-and-white patterned figure by Kwesi Owusu-Ankomah, a 39-year-old Ghanaian who lives in Dusseldorf. Like El Loko, the strength of his work, both in graphics and oils, lies in symbolic patterns but he uses them to create realist images; human figures emerge as moving outlines in a patterned field.

Then there is Emanuel Jegede, 51, a Nigerian living in England, whose paintings are inspired by the political turmoil of his country; he paints colourful but chaotic jumbles of figures and environments. The two oils in the show are priced at pounds 2,400 each.

(Photograph omitted)

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