Africa is being picked over again, but this time it isn’t for diamonds, gold or ivory.

International art collectors have turned their attention to the continent and found a sophisticated market brimming with talent, finally putting an end to the idea that African art is about little more than wooden masks, woven mats and tribal figurines. Instead, today’s African artists are exploring potent issues such as rape, poverty and Chinese immigration. As the Asian art market slows, Africa’s appears willing and able to fill the gap.

China and Africa have a complex relationship. Beijing has invested heavily in the continent but, alongside immense improvements to local infrastructure, China’s presence has brought accusations of corruption, bribery and environmental destruction. Just as the West is embracing African art, so Chinese collectors have started looking to the continent for cultural as well as business reasons, adding a welcome new dimension to their fractious union.

Playing a central role in bringing African art to the fore is Touria el Glaoui, the daughter of Moroccan artist Hassan el Glaoui. In 2013, she launched the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair (named for the 54 countries in Africa) in London.

“Previously there was nowhere for African artists to come together and present their work,” she says. “Africa is a vast continent made up of 1.2 billion people and hundreds of languages, so it is very difficult to classify it all under one blanket term. What we are trying to do is create a platform for talented artists who have not previously had one. I have been astounded by the energy, interest and overall success of it and I am determined to keep expanding the art world’s knowledge of Africa.”

The rest of Europe quickly woke up to the hype. Last year, the Venice Biennale was curated by an African – Nigerian art critic Okwui Enwezor – for the first time, and he invited more African artists than had ever been seen in the Italian city. Paris’ famously Eurocentric Grand Palais is currently holding a retrospective of works by Malian photographer Seydou Keita and, last December, the art fair Also Known as Africa (AKAA) debuted in the French capital.

The trend has broken in America, too, thanks largely to New York’s Armory art fair in March and its Focus section, which was dedicated to Africa.

“Africa and its diaspora are often neglected in all forms of culture. I consider this to be a travesty as the continent is incredibly rich,” says Yvette Mutumba, one of Armory Focus’ two 2016 directors. “I’m delighted this is changing, but I also know this sudden interest in Africa is connected to the dynamics of the art world, and the hunger to find the next big thing. It was Asia, now it’s Africa – it all falls under the quest for something new.”

And then, of course, there is Africa itself. From the winding lanes of Addis Ababa, in Ethiopia, to the inner-city streets of Johannesburg, in South Africa, auction houses, biennials, art fairs and museums are opening in droves. Ghana will see a new fair, Art Accra, in a hotel on Labadi Beach in December and the Zeiz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Mocaa) will house the world’s most important collection of contemporary African art when it opens in Cape Town next year.

In many ways, therefore, it seems nonsensical that the majority of African art is still bought and sold on the grey streets of London. The British capital has traditionally been the global hub for African art and dedicated galleries have sprung up in response to current demand. Bonhams in London holds modern and contemporary African art sales in May and October each year – the only major auction house to do so – and although the figures are small in relation to other emerging markets (it made just under £2 million [HK$20.7 million] at its last contemporary sale), the numbers are growing exponentially.

“The most interesting African art in the world passes through London,” says Giles Peppiatt, director for African art at Bonhams. “I can’t think of another city that is comparable. There is a gallery market in Paris but no auction market, which makes it less attractive to international collectors.

“Of course, there is an argument that African art should be sold in Africa. But London attracts so many more international investors and, sadly, there are still corruption issues associated with countries such as Nigeria, which gives us a reputational advantage. And Britain, of course, has very strong links to Africa.”

But while Britain and France have colonial ties to the continent, their presence has been eclipsed by China’s. Often maligned as an imperialist power abusing Africa for its resources – it has opened thousands of construction companies and dug vast copper, coal and diamond mines everywhere from Zambia to the Congo – China has built roads, schools and hospitals in areas where there were none, giving some balance to the accusations of corruption, labour abuse, environmental destruction and criminal cover-ups. But as is so often true of fractious but financially rewarding partnerships, Africa and China have largely operated on a business level, with Chinese immigrants failing to integrate into local society and neither party showing much interest in the other’s languages or heritage.

However, this cultural stand-off is slowly winding down, and nowhere is that clearer than in the art world.

“Chinese collectors, by and large, are interested in three things here in London,” Peppiatt says. “Repatriation of Chinese objets d’art, European contemporary art and African contemporary art. The relationship between China and African art makes a lot of sense once you think about it. Firstly, I would say the biggest demographic buying contemporary African art is sophisticated, knowledgeable collectors who purchase for aesthetic pleasure. They are people who look at an El Anatsui [sculpture] and think, ‘That would fit with the rest of my collection’, no matter whether they own any other art from the region. And, as we all know, Chinese collectors are some of the bravest and most ambitious in the world.

“Secondly, the Chinese contemporary art market is slowing and local art lovers need to find a new region to focus on. Thirdly, China has been in Africa for some 20 years, searching, dominating, digging it up. People want art they have some kind of connection with and none of us can deny China and Africa have a relationship, no matter how difficult it is. And finally, of course, there is the price point. Which is very alluring to any collector.”

While this newfound focus on Africa is fast translating into sales, prices for African art are still considerably lower than those in other emerging markets and most contemporary African art can still be bought for under US$100,000. Established artists such as El Anatsui, William Kentridge, Yinka Shonibare and Ibrahim el-Salahi sell for more, but many art critics say their work is still undervalued.

“You can get an Aboudia [painting] for about £15,000,” Pepiatt says. “If you want to buy an equivalent artwork in China, you would need to add a few zeros. You can pick up an El Anatsui for £30,000 to £50,000, which is rather incredible when you think his pieces hang in the British Museum.”

Work by Kentridge, a major South African artist whose animated drawings are owned by the Tate Modern and who has been prolific since the 1980s, fetch US$150,000 to US$600,000 – a fraction of the millions paid for Chinese artists who found fame long after him.

William Kentridge's China-centric art show opens in Johannesburg

Kentridge in particular has proved popular with Chinese collectors. Although many artists have been influenced by the profound changes China’s presence in Africa has wrought, Kentridge has gone one step further, creating a series of drawings and installations that explore parallels between the Cultural Revolution and apartheid-era South Africa, both devastating regimes that blindly pursued an unobtainable utopia. These artworks were brought together under one exhibition, titled “Notes Towards a Model Opera”, that opened at the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art in Beijing last year and Seoul this year.

South African artist William Kentridge on his Beijing retrospective

“China certainly hovers over us like a huge zeppelin,” Kentridge writes in the exhibition programme. “The scale of it, the scale of its hunger for resources, the scale of everything. China in Africa today creates a sense of a series of questions rather than any answers. Are we here the tethered goat waiting for the tiger? Easy pickings?”

China’s ever-growing presence is one of the most widely discussed social phenomenons of the African art world. Zimbabwean artist Moffat Takadiwa pays the street children of Harare to find him discarded Chinese-made plastic goods, which he moulds into bulging, brightly coloured wall sculptures, such as Vendors Teeth Tight, a dense cluster of plastic computer keys and bottle caps remade into a traditional tribal pattern.

“China is offering us a raw deal,” Takadiwa says. “They are taking Africa’s natural resources and in return are flooding the continent with cheap plastic items that are replacing traditional African cultural items.”

Congolese artist Sammy Baloji fuses 19th-century photographs of indigenous African tribes and suited Belgian colonists with modern views of vast belching factories and craterous Chinese-owned mines in the once rainforest-covered Democratic Republic of Congo. Samuel Fosso, a Cameroonian photographer based in the Central African Republic, dressed up like Mao Zedong for a series of striking photographs called “The Emperor of Africa”. In his group of paintings titled “China Loves Africa”, Kenya’s Soi Michael explores the contentious relationship by depicting Africans as sex workers pleasuring their Chinese overlords.

China’s presence in Africa may be a rich source of inspiration for local artists, but it seems that is where the influence ends, as African and Chinese contemporary artists opt for very different aesthetic schools.

“Visually, they actually are quite antagonistic,” says Jean-Marc Decrop, a Hong Kong-based art collector who owns a number of important pieces from Africa and China. “African art is more linked with the senses, with nature and the earth, while Chinese art is more technological, artificial, elaborate and sophisticated.”

Serge Tiroche, an Israel-based collector whose extensive Chinese and African art collection includes works by Shonibare, David Goldblatt, Ablade Glover and Kentridge, agrees they are not natural bedfellows.

“I think conceptual art is much more advanced and cutting-edge in China than in Africa,” he says. “Africa is still very much a craft art market – which I should note that I absolutely admire and which is the essence of what we are trying to capture in our collection – and it is therefore easier to couple it with India, for example. That said, juxtaposing the newest art from Africa and China can be a very interesting contrast, demonstrating that – fortunately – globalisation has not completely taken over yet.”

But what of the African interest in Chinese art? Liza Essers, the director of South Africa’s Goodman Gallery, which exhibited at Art Basel Hong Kong this year and exclusively represents Kentridge, believes it is imperative that Africans start trying to understand China and Chinese culture.

On the phone from Johannesburg, she says, “When I was in Beijing with William [Kentridge], I realised that the cultural ties between China and Africa have to be explored even further. What William has begun, we all need to continue. It is a union fraught with difficulties, but then all the most interesting ones are.

“Under apartheid, for example, people of Chinese descent were classified as black while people of Japanese descent were made honorary whites. Why? And when you look at the role China is currently playing on our continent, it can make you uncomfortable. Which is why we in Africa have a duty to educate ourselves on Chinese culture. Ignorance is not bliss.”

To rectify this, Essers is planning to take Ai Weiwei to Johannesburg for a major exhibition next year – a first for any contemporary Chinese artist.

It is perhaps optimistic to hope that China and Africa are on the verge of a blossoming cultural exchange that will nullify the accusations of bribery and corruption that have haunted their business dealings. However, Africa is a continent of 1.2 billion people and China is a country of 1 billion, and any avenue that allows such a vast and financially connected swathe of the world’s population to exchange ideas can be no bad thing. As galleries, museums and art-lovers wake up to the fact that all collections benefit from diversity, African artists are finally being given the chance to define their own continent, and its beneficial but perilous relationship with China.