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African artists invigorate the global market as investors pile in

Initially driven by a market of local investors, art from African artists is now becoming hot property among international collectors. In this piece industry insiders share their predictions of how the market will grow, and how prospective buyers can engage the scene.

Author Will McBain Sun 11th Oct 2020
Ben Enwonwu's 'Tutu' (African Mona Lisa) at Bonhams London, 2018.

Art from African artists is no longer the continent’s best-kept secret. What indigenous investors have known about contemporary African art, the rest of the world is just catching up on. Part of this African renaissance has resulted in paintings that were hung on the walls of London flats, or left to collect dust in American attics, selling for over a million pounds at the world’s premier auction houses.

Prices are skyrocketing, and a burgeoning collector class looks set to snap up works that help shape the narrative of a continent and lay the foundations of an exciting growth market.

It’s a market that continues to add value to the global art sales industry, estimated at $67.4 billion, according to figures from a recent report by Art Basel and UBS. This growth is being driven by increasing demand from local investors, and from Africans among the diaspora, who are buying at auctions in London, New York and Paris, as the size of Africa’s economy was expected to grow to nearly $4 trillion by 2025, before Covid-19 struck.

Although African economies are now experiencing sluggish growth, or recessions, the continents demographic dividend and long-term economic projections remain positive.

Nearly half of buyers at last year’s designated auctions at Bonhams and Sotheby’s in London were African, and they accounted for two-thirds of total turnover. The painting Tutu (1974) by the late master of Nigerian modernism, Ben Enwonwu – dubbed the ‘African Mona Lisa’ – a famous piece that spent years decorating a north London kitchen, was sold for £1.2 million to a Nigerian in 2018 and is now back home in the West African nation.

“There’s so much potential and Africa is still so under-represented.”

The expanding economies of Ghana and Senegal have bolstered collector numbers, while a growing middle class across Africa suggests the boom in art sales will continue to rise at a breakneck pace.

Whereas serendipitous ‘discoveries’ of special African artwork stimulate and inspire a global industry – one that’s ever on the lookout for new frontiers following the cool-down in the Chinese art market – an entire ecosystem is being built that will push this vogue moment into deeper waters, and invite both established and first-time investors into the creative scene.

“I think there’s so much potential, and Africa is still so under-represented,” says Hannah O’Leary, head of modern and contemporary African art at Sotheby’s. “You’re looking at about 1% of the global art world represented by African artists, although Africa has 20% of the world’s population, so I think there’s a huge discrepancy from what you’re seeing now to what we’ll see in the future,” she told African Business Magazine.

While small ripples proceeded outwards from Sotheby’s and Bonhams’ earliest forays into the market a decade ago, they’ve expanded to become widening streams in a globalised art world today, and work continues to be done to increase the visibility of artists.

The Ghana pavilion energised the art world at the 2019 Venice Biennale, and people thronged to London’s 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair last summer. Cape Town’s Investec Art Fair and FNB Art Joburg received a record number of visitors at their latest events, and Lagos’s ART X increasingly provides a platform for artists to exhibit towards the end of each calendar year.

Demonstrating that the explosion in art sales from African artists isn’t an ephemeral moment, institutions like MoMA in New York have built wings for African art; world-famous auction houses have designated Africa teams and African art auctions, while gallery systems are rising up in key regional hubs.

Ben Enwonwu, ‘Portrait of Tutu, 1974. 

“I’m impressed with what’s going on in places like Uganda, Ethiopia and Nairobi,” says Jess Castellote, a long-time Lagos resident and art industry analyst, who heads up the recently opened Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art, just outside Africa’s largest megacity.

Named after one of Africa’s biggest art collectors, the brand new museum displays the works of Ben Enwonwu, Nike Davies-Okundaye, and the artist and photographer Victor Ehikhamenor, among many other artists.

“Once exclusively for expatriates, these emerging hubs are developing systems of locally-based and enlightened collectors. While there are also interesting things coming up in Ghana and Angola, South Africa continues to be a very special, if more established, market. I think they have very interesting art scenes that are growing, dynamic and fresh,” says Castellote.

Venturing to keep pace with the infrastructural growth of physical institutions and galleries, a nascent market is emerging online. Operating in an Insta-savvy and globally connected generation, digital platforms seek to provide additional opportunities for artists to connect with new investors.

“Educating potential investors needs ramping up; now is the time to collect art from Africa.”

Turbare will be one such place that will help future collectors acquire art as an alternative investment vehicle, as the value of the global online art market soared to $7 billion in 2019. Turbare believes the art world could not have been better designed for data, seeing as it’s a market based on knowledge and access to information. Turbare’s platform will centralise and standardise data while giving investors access to quantitative measures like auction prices and annual sales, and new tools are being created to help leverage this data, helping buyers find, research, and analyse an artist’s past performance before buying.

Although Africa’s artists continue to enjoy strong growth at auction sales, João Ferreira, a Cape Town-based art dealer and art advisor, sounded a note of caution when he spoke to Turbare. Galleries in South Africa and Nigeria are reporting they’re making 70% of their sales internationally at art fairs and to visiting collectors from abroad. This means that educating potential investors on how to become involved in the market needs ramping up.

“I would say visit the museums, the galleries, the art fairs,” says Ferreira. “The art fairs are very good because they have a very stringent selection panel, so the quality of work you get onto the fair is very, very high. So, automatically you’re seeing top quality work and that’s a very good educational point, while also introducing you to the players in the market who’re representing the good artists to collect,” he said.

The Cape Town art advisor is excited by the powerful works of Santu Mofokeng, the brilliant collage artist Billie Zangewa, and the award-winning South African Igshaan Adams, who’s “showing great initiative and incredible involvement as he develops his career”, as the artist exhibits at events in New York and Basel.

Ben Enwonwu in his studio in Ikoyi, a suburb of Lagos, Nigeria, 1959. Photo: Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives. 

As the continent’s art is increasingly disseminated and discussed, more cosmopolitan collectors who are young, wealthy, and moving to become more ambitious in their collecting practices are rising up, according to Jess Castellote.

Citing Lagos’s ART X, and the introduction of a greater number of non-Nigerian galleries on show, Castellote sees an encouraging trend of cross-collaboration within Africa.

“Collectors were able to see and buy from galleries from Ethiopia, from Nairobi, from Accra, and we had galleries from South Africa too,” said the creator of the industry-leading Nigeria Art Market Report,. “This would have been almost unthinkable just a few years back, even more so five years ago. So this is one art fair, once a year, with new galleries, and things are moving.”

With a belated but growing international appreciation of the world-class artists residing in Africa and among the diaspora – and with the continent’s growing middle class and surging population increasing demand – it appears that now is the time to collect art from Africa. Artwork in this emerging market is proving an increasingly resilient long-term investment, outperforming many other stakes as the market becomes independent, liquid, and efficient, through times of economic and political uncertainty.

This is likely to manufacture ripe conditions for many of the continent’s untapped artistic talents, who’ll gain increasing recognition as the decade progresses – which means there’s great potential to acquire quality pieces, at relatively affordable prices.

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