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At an international auction in 1999, a selection of African art pieces from a famous private collection were sold for $18,000 USD. Twenty years later, in 2019, a similar number of works sold for $3 million. In part, this can be chalked down to the fact that everything is significantly pricier than it was two decades ago. But more pertinently, it is indicative of the birth of a goldmine – one which sits at the confluence of modern and contemporary art from the continent.
Much of the rise of Africa’s burgeoning art market and value was borne alongside globalisation and cultural diplomacy on the continent coinciding with the decolonisation of African countries from the 1950s to the 1970s. Ahead of this milestone, there was modern art; and afterwards, the contemporary art era was born. And therein lies the critical distinction: where modern art toed the line of African self-discovery against the backdrop of European influence, the contemporary art era (from the late 20th to early 21st century) has given rise to the establishing of the African cultural identity. More critically, during the modern art era, African art served as influences for the evolution of Modernism in America, the German Expressionist era, and even the works of decorated artists like Matisse and Picasso. Thus, its prevalence was, for a time, limited more to the backdrop of the Western art world. But that has since changed, and the combination of a more saturated market, a global village, and the enduring legacies of African artists like Nigeria’s Ben Enwonwu, Ghana’s El Anatsui, and South Africa’s Irma Stern, among others, has birthed the African art ‘industry’ – a source of business, economic contribution and investment.
“African contemporary art is expected to see an almost 50% increase in sales over the next five years.”
The 21st century saw the rise in interest in African art from patrons at home and abroad, particularly as the art became more readily available through galleries, at exhibitions, or on the open market. According to The Art Market 2020, a report published by Art Basel and UBS, contemporary art makes up the largest portion of global art auction sales at 53% (including post-war art), while modern art makes up 29%, with Africa expected to see an almost 50% increase in sales over the next half-decade. Sotheby’s combined modern and contemporary African art auction serves to illustrate this predicted growth. In their pilot edition, they saw a total sale value of nearly $3 million. Two years later, in 2019, their annual sale value reached $6.6 million. By March 2020, in their first online auction for this collection, they saw a nearly 50% jump in the number of bids. Across these sales at Sotheby’s and at other auction houses, pieces from the modern art era draw in the largest sums; these artists have gained increasing prominence, posthumously, as the African art industry has come into being.
Take, for example, the works of South Africa’s Irma Stern. She established her reputation as an artist in the 1940s during the modern art era, and today her works gain some of the highest sale prices on the continent: her Bahora Girl sold for $3.6 million in 2010, and her Arab Priest for $4.8 million in 2011.
This is also apparent with Ben Enwonwu who sits on the cusp of modern and contemporary art, and is often regarded both as the continent’s pioneer modernist artist and the father of contemporary African art. More recently, he has received some of the greatest financial acclaim on the continent: his portrait, Christine, sold for $1.4 million at Sotheby’s in London; and another, Tutu, (regarded as Africa’s Mona Lisa) was auctioned at over $1.5 million at Bonhams, four times its initial estimate.
Another example is Gerard Sekoto, a South African artist who pioneered urban social realism. In 2006 his most famous work, a self-portrait, sold for over $146,000, which was ten times the estimated price at Sotheby’s. Until 2020, his most expensive piece had sold for $290,000, but at a Sotheby’s auction earlier this year, his painting Cyclists in Sophiatown fetched a figure of $362,500, breaking through the upper range of its estimate.
The contemporary art landscape, on the other hand, is concentrated with artists whose coming
out collides with this groundswell of international acclaim for modern artists. Even so,
contemporary art sales exceed those of the modern art market: $6.1 billion compared with $2.9 billion in 2019. And yet, similar six-figure prices are a much rarer occurrence. More often, you have the likes of Abdoulaye Konaté, a Malian painter and installation artist whose career spans from 1997, with work ranging from $1000 to $60,000, the latter price bracket having been achieved at France’s Artcurial. Tanzanian-born Lubaina Himid, who was the first black woman to win the Turner Prize, has seen her sale price range progress over the years from about $7500 to over $130,000 at Art Basel a few years ago.
“This evolution of value across both modern and contemporary art heralds a bright future for the industry.”
This is not to say that Stern-style records have not been seen on the contemporary art scene:
Nigerian artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby went from selling her artwork at $3000 about five years ago to $3 million (for a botanical collage called Bush Babies) in 2018. Ghana’s El Anatsui, one of the continent’s most influential sculptors, has experienced record-breaking sale prices over the past decade; his piece titled New World Map sold at over $850,000 in 2012, and more recently his Zebra Crossing sold for $1.5 million at a Sotheby’s auction.
This evolution of value across both modern and contemporary art is remarkable and heralds a bright future for the industry. However, one common thread across these values is the reliance on, and need for, an international stage to escalate the worth of African art. The industry is yet to come into fullness in Africa, and the environment is yet to propel its artists in the same way that the international environment has. But, with platforms such as Nigeria’s ART X Lagos, Senegal’s Dak’Art Biennale, and South Africa’s Stellenbosch Triennale, the stage is being set. As contemporary art value levels with modern art in the coming decades, and as art itself transitions into a new era – one which rides the digital revolution – we may experience both a new audience and an entirely new cost level: one that is potentially more affordable for younger audiences, encourages more local art collecting and, in so doing, expands the stage at home.
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