Art Needs To Play To The Gallery

Published 8 years ago
Art Needs To Play To The Gallery

In May and November, in the plush halls of the Wheatbaker Hotel in the serene and highbrow neighborhood of Ikoyi, Arthouse Contemporary, one of Nigeria’s premier art auction houses, holds its bi-annual auctions.

The event attracts collectors, enthusiasts, captains of industry, FORBES-listed billionaires and press. Gourmet hors d’oeuvres are served; champagne is held in ornately bejewelled hands; boardroom and country club gossip is swapped; and business cards are exchanged. The honey that brought the bees – the art – is sometimes just the backdrop for this rich assembly.

Imags of artworks from the Terra Kulture archive collection


Hours later, exquisite pieces by masters such as El Anatsui, Bruce Onobrakpeya, Kolade Oshinowo and Ben Enwonwu are on offer and hammer prices peak in the $75,000 to $100,000 region – bought by the bourgeoisie crowd.

Although grand, elite auctions like this are infrequent in Nigeria. The country has a sprawling art industry with thousands of artists crafting their creations. However, most do not have access to exclusive auctions and other platforms that will enable them to sell more of their work and at higher prices. Who are they creating for, who is buying and how much is being sold? These questions are suspended like hot air balloons over the art industry and their answers have metamorphosed over time.

Over a decade ago, artists, many regarded as masters today, could only sell their works by hawking them out of the trunks of their cars and the consumers were a small number of patrons and collectors.

“Artists didn’t have the necessary platforms to showcase their works and also art was seen as an exclusive commodity, it was elitist in approach,” says Bolanle Austen-Peters, Founder and CEO of Terra Kulture, a cultural center that houses a leading gallery


in Lagos.

The members-only mindset and lack of platforms limited access to artists’ work and the possibility of more artwork being sold. Ten years later, galleries, auction houses and art pop-up shops, such as Terra Kulture, Nike Art Gallery, Omenka Gallery, Art Twenty One, Rele, The Art Social, have sprung up to close the gap for artists and increase the trade in contemporary and modern art.

“Artists are now more confident as they have these platforms. Also, these art spaces and galleries became rallying points, conduits for social exchange. It created a new wave of art collectors and enthusiasts; it became a social movement,” according to Austen-Peters.


Are these spaces enough though? Has it translated to more people buying art in Nigeria?

“Yes, but I think with any industry, there’s always room for growth,” says Adenrele Sonariwo, curator of a newly-minted gallery, Rele, that represents, brands and promotes artists, rather than merely staging exhibitions.

“There’s already a dedicated following among high-net-worth individuals. They regularly collect and commission works. Where work needs to be done is with the middle class. They need to be exposed to art and learn to appreciate it. They need to be educated more about its relevance and this knowledge can then be translated into sales.”

It seems then that the spectre of elitism still hangs over the art industry. The old challenge remains: spreading the word. There are plenty of fish but the net needs to be cast wider.


“In Nigeria now, there is a growing middle class with disposable income to buy and invest in art but they cannot invest in what they don’t know,” says Tayo Quaye, an internationally renowned printmaker and painter.

Auction houses need to build confidence in potential clients, to recognize the value of art and invest accordingly. This is a challenge being tackled by Kavita Chellaram, CEO of Arthouse Contemporary.

“The main obstacle we saw at the creation of Arthouse Contemporary was the absence of a secondary market for art acquisitions. While art collectors were already engaging artists to buy from the primary market, there was a question mark on the return of its value. Our auctions seek to fill this gap in making the art business justify itself in Nigeria,” says Chellaram.

Even if Nigeria’s middle class started to appreciate art, it remains to be seen whether they could be persuaded to buy it. If contemporary Nigerian art pricing trends are anything to go by, they may need to win the lottery. Auction houses are often the launchpad from which prices spring up; well-heeled Nigerians being more than willing participants in the hobby. We are a people that thrive on exhibitionism so when artwork is being vied for, it’s not always a measure of its worth but a result of financial muscle flexing. This is great for the artist but ultimately unsustainable.


Alternatively, galleries, such as Rele have fixed, inclusive prices starting at $225. There are not enough of these modestly priced artworks though. Despite this, more Nigerians are buying art, largely dictated by the depth of their pockets and their artistic leaning.

The Nigerian art industry remains an emerging market. Though the bulk of the business is done by oil magnates and well-travelled socialites in upmarket hotels and galleries, ordinary people off the street are becoming more active. Both classes of connoisseurs may yet share a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc in spaces that cater for their contrasting taste and financial might – a picture-perfect frame of good business.