Last week, New York was home to a litany of art-world galas in pursuit of funding for institutions—except for one: the Amref Health Africa ArtBall.
Now in its second year, the event featured most of the familiar benefit trappings—from finely dressed attendees to pleasing environs in Chelsea’s Milk Studios to an honoree artist (the one in the guise of Ghanian master weaver of metallic tapestries, El Anatsui). But as its name suggests, the Amref Health African ArtBall was not a typical museum or foundation gala. Instead, the proceeds from tickets and an accompanying auction of contemporary African artworks all went to Amref Health, the largest health development organization based in Africa.
At one point in the evening, I found myself standing next to Amref CEO Githinji Gitahi, who said, “It’s complicated to explain what Amref does.” By simple description, the non-profit runs programs in 35 African countries, helping to train health workers and provide basic care and education. But Gitahi expressed it a bit differently. “An artist can’t tell you what they’re going to do,” he said. “They tell you to wait, and then you see the result. So the best way to express what we do is to use African art.”
As for that art, 44 pieces up for auction lined the walls of Milk Studios. These included works by a number of emerging artists and several bigger names including Wangechi Mutu, Malick Sidibe, TAFA, Esther Mahlangu, and Frédéric Bruly Bouabré. The Nigerian-born New York-based curator Atim Oton said a number of the works were gifted by the artists themselves, while a further $45,000 worth of work was donated by gallerist Massimiliano del Ninno from the collection held at his Kyo Noir Gallery in Rome. “Our goal is to raise between $150,000 and $200,000,” Oton told me. The total take, it turned out, surpassed those expectations, with a total near $250,000.
“As most of you already know, I’m not El Anatsui,” said the self-effacing host of the evening, Jack Shainman, who accepted the honor on behalf of the artist he has represented at his eponymous gallery for the past decade. “I’ve learned so much from him,” Shainamn continued, noting that Anatsui was the person who first brought Amref to his attention. Commenting further, Shainman described him as an “incredible artist”—“he’s so ambitious and no problem is too hard for him to solve. It’s so gratifying because today he’s known as a contemporary master, something that he’s worked really long and hard to do.”
Later, with a well-lubricated crowd dancing to the beats of Nigeria’s DJ Cuppy, I found a moment to catch up with Shainman. “It’s really exciting to see people being so much more open,” he said, regaling in the attention that Anatsui and contemporary African art in general presently enjoy. “For the longest time the art world just didn’t care. It was so white-male-dominated and constricted about what was OK. I like that all of that is changing.”