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Even the most seasoned of art fair goers were pausing to take in art works with genuine intrigue this week, as Investec’s Cape Town Art Fair opened (until 19 February) to a buzzy crowd, clearly animated by the future of the market for art from the continent and its diaspora.

The manageable scale of the fair certainly helped the ambience, yet sales were also underway amid the networking. Key collectors were spotted, including Paul and Nicola Harris of the Click Foundation and there was representation from international institutions among the VIP crowds—including rumours of key staff members from Art Basel, the Museum MMK für Moderne Kunst and Liverpool Biennale.

“[The fair] has always acted as a vehicle to provide, promote and facilitate sustainable interaction between local and international artists, curators, collectors and galleries by providing a platform to showcase unique works by artists and galleries located in South Africa, on the continent and in the world and exposing them to new local and international audiences and buyers,” says Laura Vincenti, the director of the event, which now attracts more than 23,000 visitors and hosts around 100 galleries (57 of which are from the continent).

Anyone keen for examples by established names from Africa will be satisfied—unsurprisingly, quality pieces by market-favourite William Kentridge took a central spot at the South African- and London-based Goodman Gallery.

But it is those looking for emerging talent that the fair serves best. Navel Seakamela’s The Space Between (2022) went to a South African collector for R85,000 (£3,900) in the opening hours of the fair, from the booth of the Southern Guild gallery. Meanwhile a prominent display of tactile, sculptural works by Cape Town artist, Simphiwe Buthelezi, at SMAC Gallery, was clearly impressing. Her Zungeza (2023) promptly sold to an international dealer, for an undisclosed sum.

An eye-catching but well thought-through booth by the multidisciplinary artist Tony Gum was also drawing attention at Christopher Moller Gallery from Cape Town, no doubt supported by the artist’s recent solo exhibition at New York’s Fotogrfiska. Two previously unseen works from her Milked in Africa series, from editions of 10, were priced at R65,000 (around £3,000), as Moller described her work as representing “a new confident, younger generation of artists coming who are embracing their African identity”. A deceptively alluring tapestry by Cape Town artist, Warren Maroon, was presented by Church Projects, available for R56,000 (around £2,600) and adding some subtle sparkle with embedded broken glass—a testament to traumatic relationships with alcohol.

“The energy and vibe at this event are unique and each year it keeps getting better,” says Lady Linda Wong Davies, the founder of the KT Wong Foundation, adding that the development of the Norval Foundation and Zeitz MOCAA (Museum of Contemporary Art Africa) in the city had helped to attract a greater depth of international collectors to the event.

Certainly, the international galleries attending the fair were using the opportunity to highlight some of their younger artists. Galerie EIGEN +Art, Leipzig, which is offering an arresting display by the South African artist, Natalie Penang, including Ke Thlogo (2022), a plaster and wood sculpture with strong surrealist echoes, on offer for R98,000 (around £4,500).

An unusual, but successful, intervention to the gallery roster this year sees Riaan Bolt Antiques bring a number of tapestries from Rorke’s Drift, an Evangelical Lutheran Church Arts and Crafts Centre in KwaZulu-Natal, back to Africa, having been dispersed through international sales over the years. The original project gained prominence in the 1960s having been launched by two graduates from Stockholm, with a desire to provide work for rural women. The seven examples on display were sourced from across the globe, including from the collection of late Barry Levinson, and were priced from R95,000 (around £4,400) upwards. “Several” had sold by the end of the VIP day.

While dealers have brought works that are clearly geared towards private collectors (think two-dimensional pieces and sculpture, rather than digital, performance or installations), a curated section “Tomorrows/Today”, presented a display, In and Out of Time, curated by Natasha Becker and Dr Mariella Franzoni, provides space for more experimental installations.

That the surrounding city is brimming with exhibition openings, including the opening of a solo show by the Nigerian-born, British-based artist Mary Evans (at Zeitz MOCAA), auctions and conferences (including the inaugural edition of The Art Business Conference, held at Strauss & Co auction house) is also testament of the impact the fair is having on the local ecosystem.

Competing for headlines and in-between the calendar dates of 1-54 Marrakech (9 to 12 February) and Frieze Los Angeles (16 to 19 February), this fair may not be first in the mind of many. But, for anyone interested in new talent, it increasingly looks to be worth the effort.

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