Sankaranka Gallery: A moving showcase of contemporary African art

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Saihou Saidy, owner of Sankaranka Gallery in the DUMBO section of Brooklyn, N.Y., declares it his mission to showcase the talent, brilliance and beauty of 21st-century African art. The resident representative in Africa of the United Nations Commission for Refugees for more than two decades, Saidy collected art as he traveled throughout the continent working with refugees. Following his retirement from the UN, he opened Sankaranka last May.

“I felt the need to present contemporary African art to the United States,” he tells The Network Journal.

Although much of it is inspired by the sadness and depression of refugees, the art exhibited in Sankaranka uplifts the soul. There is no sadness in the faces of the villagers as they trek the distances to fetch water and firewood and transport it on their heads back to their homes. These are traditions, Saidy explains, tasks they are accustomed to performing. The simple beauty of this acceptance is reflected in the sculptures and paintings.

Viewing the exhibits on your own is a moving experience. If you are lucky, however, Saidy himself will walk you through the gallery, relating the inspiring stories behind the motivation of each artist and explaining what each painting or sculpture depicts. “Much of the artwork that Africa is famous for is the traditional mask and I felt that the best and the finest of those masks are no longer available. And yet, the artists who are there today and are producing fine works on canvas are ignored,” says Saidy, who is a native of Gambia. “I want people to see the artwork and not just think, ‘this is an African artist.’ I want people to see that the quality of the work that is coming out deserves our attention and respect,” he says.

Bent on displaying “the best out of Africa,” the exhibits come from the continent’s best artists—Africans who are Black, white and mixed race, Saidy says.

The gallery comprises two large rooms. The artists are from Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cameroon, Ethiopia, The Gambia, South Africa and Zimbabwe. There are paintings, mixed media, pottery, utensils on canvas and sculpture. “The Congolese artists’ works are crying out for peace because since the ’60s there’s been war. In addition to looking at the emotional aspects of the works, one would need to look at the quality of the workmanship, the use of color, the mix of color, the subject matter and say ‘this is a great painting’,” Saidy remarks.

Prices range from $850 to $10,500 for paintings, $150-$750 for pots and as high as $30,000 for sculpted pieces. Each artist’s work usually remains on display for one month. An exhibition from February 1 to March 16, titled “Shadow Matter: the Rhythm of Structure,” will feature the stone work of the late South African artist Nicholas Mukomberanwa and his sons, Taguma and Lawrence, as well as the work of  Scott Johnson, the first African-American artist to be exhibited at the gallery. The latter three were students of Nicholas.

Johnson, who hails from Inkster, Mich., works in marble, creating sculptures that merge human and animal forms. He has been a sculptor since 1991. “As an African-American, I would like to reacquaint our culture and connect the dots. During slavery, like the drum, sculpting was taken from it. Now we’re revisiting and reworking that,” he says.