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African art market soars as global institutions seize the moment

With global art institutions diversifying their collections, African art is stepping into the spotlight. Curator and gallery manager Rachel Oteng-Lartey says now is the time to invest.

Author Rachel Oteng-Lartey Sun 11th Oct 2020
Ablade Glover Installation view at Art X Lagos, 2019. Photo: Adeoluwa Oluwajoba.

It could be argued that 2019 was somewhat of a cultural and artistic renaissance for the continent of Africa and its diaspora. The Venice Biennale, undoubtedly the world’s most celebrated international art event, had previously been for the most part dominated by European countries. However, 2019 saw a shift in this narrative with the Ghana pavilion, designed by Sir David Adjaye, fetching high critical acclaim and comfortably taking a seat at the table with other lauded pavilions. Last October, the sell-out 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair staged at Somerset House in London, brought galleries from across the globe to showcase diverse artistic talent from Africa and the diaspora. The opening was attended by film stars, TV presenters, social commentators, and politicians. The following month, ART X, the first-ever international art fair to be based in West Africa, hosted its fourth edition in Lagos with over 30,000 visitors to the event to date.

“The thirst for African art on a global stage is stronger than ever.”

European and American arts institutions have been notably seeking to make their collections more diverse and have also reflected their aims to be more representative through their recent recruitment. Tate Modern announced four new curators in September 2019, whose goal is to ‘further Tate’s commitment to rethinking the history of modern and contemporary art from a less Western-centric vantage point’. Essentially, they are increasing the representation of African, Middle Eastern, and South Asian Art.

In 2019 major blockbusters by Frank Bowling, Kara Walker at Tate Britain/Modern, and Otobong Nkanga at Tate St Ives, were received with warmth and excitement by visitors and critics alike. It is clear the thirst for contemporary art in Africa and African art on a global stage is stronger than it has ever been.

So how is this new interest in African art affecting auction outcomes? Hannah O’Leary, head of modern and contemporary African art at Sotheby’s explained, “Collectors’ desire for new artists, as well as museums’ and cultural institutions’ efforts to diversify their collections, have led to major potential for growth in this vibrant field.” Of course, it is the relative youth of the market itself which is its biggest draw. With African artists currently accounting for less than 0.1% of the international art market, we are at the beginning, before the boom.

Guests viewing African art at ART X Lagos 2018
Guests at ART X Lagos 2018 edition. 

Sotheby’s established its department for modern and contemporary African art only four years ago. It has developed with the growing demand for modern African masters such as Gerard Sekoto and Ben Enwonwu, and is now widely respected as a department that not only caters to trends but sets them.

In October 2019, Christine (1971), a painting by the late Ben Enwonwu, fetched £1.1 million ($1.4 million), greatly surpassing its pre-sale estimate of £150,000 ($192,000). In 2018, Enwonwu’s Tutu (1974), a portrait of a princess which was lost for decades but recently resurfaced, was sold via Bonhams for £1.2 million, almost four times the original estimate. It is rumoured too that Tutu has now returned to Nigeria and hangs in a private collection. This is a testament to Africa’s investment and faith in its own work having a wider impact on global attitudes. It seems that these exceptional prices will eventually become the norm, as the wider recognition of African artists as pioneers of, and intrinsic to, the canon of art history grows globally. It is indeed an exciting time in the art world where up-and-coming artists and ‘ones to watch’ are still relatively affordable but where the big names are now fetching prices akin to regional markets in the rest of the world.

Since Sotheby’s first sale of modern and contemporary African art in 2017, they have introduced two auctions per year, with sales rising from £2.26 million to £5.1 million in 2019. Although the global coronavirus emergency forced their March 2020 sale online, it was proudly heralded by O’Leary as the most successful online sale of African art ever, claiming to have established five new world records on the sale date: proof that auction houses and collectors can adapt in unsettling times.

“New collectors are now able to secure works that connect with their hearts, as well as offering good returns.”

Africa is of course often spoken of collectively, and we would do well to recognise that each of the 54 countries within the continent all have their own cultural and artistic provenance. When Africans are collectively cited for their artistic endeavour, it is often the same cities that appear in conversation. Accra and Kumasi, the latter home to the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, with an exciting and well-respected art department, is famous for installation and performance-based work by artists such as El Anatsui and Ibrahim Mahama. Cape Town boasts the impressive Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art, and a burgeoning local commercial art scene. Dakar offers the Museum of Black Civilisations and is host to Dak’Art: a major contemporary art exhibition that has taken place every two years since 1996. Lagos is home to the aforementioned ART X (with Nigeria also now having the fastest-growing number of individuals with a net worth of $1 million to $30 million in the world as well as the most black billionaires on the continent) and finally Marrakech, which offers The Museum of African Contemporary Art Al Maaden and the African edition of art fair 1-54.

Fatiha Zemmouri, Floating Seaweed, (2019). 

With the majority of countries in the continent now more politically stable than ever, successful entrepreneurs and business people of African descent, either born or living outside of the continent, are looking to return to their countries to reconnect with their heritage. There is now a new wave of collectors able to secure works that excite and connect with their hearts as well as offer good financial returns.

Collectors are becoming more aware of the investment potential of artworks, and with greater access to international markets via the internet and social media, collectors can do their own due diligence, discussing their own interests and tastes among their peers. Once you start to delve into the lives of artists working in post-colonial Africa – circumstances they were living in, conditions and hardships they have faced – it becomes essential to see their experiences as a part of national and global history, as important international social and cultural commentary. Their work is something to be preserved, enjoyed, and invested in, as it is key to the narration of African countries’ individual and collective histories, and it ultimately shapes nations’ cultural and financial futures. The time is now.

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