The Smart Money is on African Art

Forbes Africa
Published 8 years ago

The international buzz around contemporary African art has never been louder.

African art has always been celebrated on the African continent, but has singularly failed to be regarded as collectible by most Western mainstream collectors and museums. The most important art works created in Africa have long been considered to be antique and traditional.

Modern African art’s exclusion from the Western mainstream has been controversial, so the pace of change in 2013 has been exhilarating. Major museums in London and New York have showcased leading African artists and have been buying their work enthusiastically.

Dramatic installation art pieces—three-dimensional works that are often created in exhibition spaces—by Ghanaian artist El Anutsui are being displayed by major museums both sides of the Atlantic. And London’s Tate Modern, a leader in art trends internationally, has recently set up an African Art Acquisitions Committee to purchase works by contemporary African artists, an acknowledgment that the Tate’s permanent collection was too focused on Western European and North American art.

The Venice Biennale, possibly the world’s most influential contemporary art exhibition, had record attendances from African countries last year, with the leading prize, the Golden Lion, going to the Angolan pavilion, a major boost for African contemporary art.

It all adds up to a sneaking suspicion that this is the age when African art truly becomes collectible.

Ask Bonhams, the only international auction house to specialize in contemporary African art, and they will tell you the African market is booming. Buyers include international museums and private collectors from Europe, the United States and particularly from Nigeria. And Bonhams deny that it’s a bubble.

For the last five years, Bonhams have held their annual Africa Now auction.

“Five years ago it was difficult. We didn’t know who our prospective buyers were, we had no mailing list, and it was a daunting prospect,” says auctioneer Giles Peppiatt, the director of contemporary African art at Bonhams.

“Contrast that with our latest sale in May last year which was our most successful yet, we smashed 20 world records for prices made by an artist and we sold 91% of items up for sale. In total we achieved £1.3 million ($2.1 million),” says Peppiatt.

“We sold seven wooden sculptures, made by Ben Enwonwu for the Daily Mirror newspaper in 1960, for £360,000 ($580,000) against an estimate of £80,000 ($129,000) to £120,000 ($194,000).”

Bonhams most notable moment came in May 2012 when an El Anutsui wall hanging made from bottle tops welded together with copper wire sold for £542,000 ($890,000). It is the highest price yet paid for African art at auction.

It’s not surprising that prices for El Anatsui, a celebrated Ghanaian artist living and working in Nigeria, are rocketing. His massive sheets of shimmering bottle top installation art have been bought by major galleries, and last summer he won a major art prize, the Charles Wollaston Award, for his giant installation draped outside the Royal Academy exhibition in London.

Major events in Africa focusing purely on contemporary African Art have been building interest for years. The Joburg Art Fair is well established and has been dedicated to selling living African artists’ work since 2008. The Dak’Art Biennale goes back to 1992, providing a creative platform in Dakar, Senegal for more than 20 years.

International art buyers with deep pockets descend on London during Frieze Week in October, and the auction houses and exhibitions compete to take money from them. This year they are joined by 1:54, a new art fair that was launched in Europe, to take the unique energy from the current African art scene and to sell directly to global collectors in London.

1:54 is the brainchild of Touria El Glaoui, the daughter of respected Moroccan artist Hassan El Glaoui.

“By hosting this fair in Somerset House in central London our intention is to foster exchange between artists, curators, collectors and the public from all backgrounds and nationalities,” says El Glaoui.

The fair has been named after the 54 nations that make up Africa, and aims to represent all countries and styles, as well as artists from the African diaspora.

Edson Chagas, the Angolan photographer whose work became the basis for the winning Angolan Venice Biennale pavilion, is one of 70 artists represented at 1:54, as is Abdoulaye Diarrasouba, known as Aboudia, from Cote d’Ivoire.

Several of Aboudia’s large-scale acrylic on canvas paintings have been bought by the Saatchi Gallery and are soon to appear in a Saatchi exhibition. His style is inspired by graffiti and depicts street life and the traumas of war.

Aboudia was born and worked in Cote d’Ivoire’s capital Abidjan until the most recent civil war in 2010. Now he moves between Abidjan and New York.

“I’m exhibiting at the 1:54 fair because I feel it’s important to show my work to people abroad and to venture beyond the Ivory Coast,” he says.

Aboudia thinks others should follow the example of Charles Saatchi, the owner of the Saatchi Gallery.

“He has the courage to search for new things and nurture them. He doesn’t wait until [artists’] careers have already been developed. Life is about taking risks. Emerging artists benefit from being brought to the world’s attention,” he says.

The fact that quality African art is being widely bought by leading galleries is music to the ears of Oba Nsugbe, a leading Nigerian barrister working in Britain. He is a member of the Tate Modern African Art Acquisitions Committee, which is responsible for delivering a detailed strategy to purchase world class African art.

“This would have been impossible to conceive 10 or 15 years ago. We are placing African art alongside other world class art where it belongs—to be conserved in a world-class forum. What more do you want?”   FL

Related Topics: #African, #Art, #contemporary, #museums, #October 2014.