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A new vision for African art collectors at home and abroad

Art from Africa is rapidly increasing in popularity. Before the market becomes saturated, new investors should strategise and get serious about collecting, says experienced South African art dealer

Author Will McBain Sat 10th Oct 2020
Boris Nzebo artwork at 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair New York, 2019. Photo: Brittany Buongiorno

João Ferreira, a Cape Town-based art advisor and art dealer, brings his clients more than 25 years of experience working in the art industry. The African art market has gone global since Ferreira started his collection, and he says new collectors need a plan before they invest.

“The collectors I find in Africa share their information very freely and openly. And that’s a very good starting point to start collecting. Cape Town Art Fair is also an exceptional art fair, and a very good place to start, because it gives you the insight and introduction to curators, the introduction to dealers, introduction to artists, and the galleries bring their best game, their ‘top’ stuff. I would say do your homework, lots of looking, get professional advice, research, and have a strategy. Strategise because Africa is 54 countries on the continent, so there’s a lot of art out there!”.

The last two years have brought record sales for contemporary African art at premier auction houses in London and Paris, and art fairs in South Africa and Nigeria have experienced record footfall with year-on-year growth since 2013. Various art hubs are developing throughout Africa, with regions on the continent choosing to invest in their cultural and artistic heritage.

“The international art world is going to start looking at African art very seriously.”

Dakar’s immense Museum of Black Civilisations opened in Senegal in late 2018, while Nigeria’s Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art will continue its two inaugural exhibitions, once quarantine restrictions are lifted. The contemporary African art scene is being further bolstered by 1-54, an art fair exhibiting in London, New York and Marrakech, as art from the continent seeps into global consciousness, and its artists start to get more of the recognition they deserve.

“I think, for me, the pivotal moment was really in 2011, when Chris Dercon, the director of the Tate Modern at the time, announced at the Joburg Art Fair that the Tate Modern was going to form a committee to start collecting work from the African continent. Both modern and contemporary. I think that was the first time that I thought, ‘Wow, right now the international art world is going to start turning and looking at African contemporary and modern art very seriously’,” says Ferreira.

The opening decades of the 21st century saw growing international demand for art from China, South America and Cuba, as collecting practices around the world underwent radical transformation. Yet when those emerging markets stabilised and began to cool, more attention started to shine on art from Africa, according to Ferreira, with collectors realising that the continent – and the artists it inspired from the diaspora – were producing uniquely innovative work, owing to the broad diversity within societies and the tremendous artistic talent within Africa’s population.

El Anatsui - Earth's Skin
El Anatsui in front of his piece “Earth’s Skin.” (2007)
Photo: Eric Sander. 

“That’s when they just suddenly turned, and they had to have this Africa component. Because Africa was producing incredible art,” says Ferreira, who assists his clients in everything from acquisitions, to support with shipping, framing and installation. “The use of materials [used by African artists] was making a very contemporary African statement, which became very interesting for collectors, both on the museum level and in private collections, and this meant that certain artists suddenly became a ‘must-have’.”

Works by the late Nigerian modernist Ben Enwonwu have helped shatter records at Sotheby’s and Bonhams, for their African-designated auctions in recent years, while El Anatsui – the famous Ghanaian sculptor brought to international prominence by October Gallery – continues to achieve critical success, as he is exhibited from New York to Tokyo.

Yet it’s the many emerging artists on the continent, and in Ferreira’s home nation, that the art dealer is especially excited about.

The Cameroonian painter, visual and performing artist Barthélémy Toguo is building an impressive oeuvre – by exploring notions of belonging, informed by the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and the current refugee crisis in the Middle East and Africa – and is an interesting artist to look at, according to the Cape Town art advisor.

Ferreira also highlights the emergence of Cameron Platter, a young South African artist, “who’s making brilliant, interesting work, that’s something very different. Not typically African, but certainly shows where he’s coming from,” he says.

Mr Ferreira says the work by the late South African photographer Santu Mofokeng – whose career faced great opposition because of apartheid – is increasing in value with a growing recognition of what he achieved; while Billie Zangewa and Igshaan Adams, Ferreira’s compatriots, are two very different, and brilliant, artists also to keep an eye on.

“Investing in newer artists is where the great opportunity lies.”

“Then there’s Athi-Patra Ruga, who’s one of my favourites, just brilliant work … he does some performance work, he does tapestry, does sculpture; he’s a very interesting artist to watch, and he’s definitely going places as well.”

Guests engage with ‘Planets in My Head (Trumpet Boy)’ 2018 keynote artist, Yinka Shonibare at ART-X Lagos 2018. 
With various pools of artistic talent springing up throughout Africa, investors’ horizons are beginning to change. Before, most collectors in Africa would focus primarily on their particular local market, but habits need adapting. Ferreira says leading galleries in Africa are reporting that 70% of their sales are going to international clients, as global investors turn their focus to these growth markets, significantly increasing the competition for artworks at home.

This means some African investors who’re looking to start a collection, will need to turn their attention to what’s happening in various growth markets on the continent and invest in the newer artists who are rising up. Yet “that’s where the great opportunity lies,” says Ferreira.

In addition to aiding the work being done to educate potential collectors through the opening up of museums, African art exhibitions like 1-54, and the growth of new media – which are drawing renewed focus to contemporary African art – initiatives will need to be put in place to stimulate the growing desire to collect.

“Think a credit system, where young collectors come, and they buy a piece of art and pay it off with credit. That way the gallery system benefits and the collector benefits. Those kinds of initiatives should be considered to assist the collecting cycle,” says Ferreira.

Schemes available like ‘Own Art’ in the United Kingdom are proving to be an effective way to draw new collectors into the market, offering 0% interest on works from £100 to £25,000, with loans repayable over 10 and 20 months. Such schemes could become commonplace in Cape Town, Lagos, Accra and elsewhere as these markets develop, and Ferreira would no doubt be in favour of these, as he emphasises, “We need to encourage more collectors at home.”

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