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An art dealers blueprint to collecting art from Africa

Buying art for the first time can be a confusing endeavour. In this interview however, Art dealer and art advisor João Ferreira explains how you can get involved in the market, while giving some pointers as to which artists he thinks represent great value

Author Will McBain Mon 12th Oct 2020
Ayanda Mabulu, “Yakhal'inkomo” (“The Black Man's Cry”), 2013.

WM: You’ve been involved in the African art world as an art dealer for more than 25 years, do you think there was a pivotal moment, or year, when collectors woke up to the possibilities in investing in contemporary African art?

JF: There were some collectors, and there were definitely certain galleries and dealers, who were dealing in African art in Europe, in London, New York and Paris 25 years ago. As far as the general collectors that I was meeting abroad, there was a general interest to know what’s happening, to know what’s coming from Africa.

But 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 for me 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.’

WM: So you think this moment spurred other art institutions to begin collecting works from Africa?

JF: Yes, and in 2012 the Tate Modern officially announced that the committee would be formed, and they would start collecting contemporary South African art. As a result of that, we started seeing other museums, and other big institutions, taking more interest and showing more art from the continent. There was much more interest from Basel art fair, with them having an African platform. Then came the creation of contemporary African art fairs, like 1-54 in 2013, then obviously awards being granted to African artists on the Venice Biennale, which piqued a lot of interest in African artists.

At the same time the auction houses were getting in on the act, including African contemporary and modern art in their auctions. The Africa Now auction at Bonhams was the first auction they did on contemporary African art, and that started to build a lot of momentum in the market.

But the prices were still very good and very achievable at that time. It was only once the market had turned to African contemporary and modern art that the prices started going up, and it’s been mentioned that 70% of the buyers at the earliest stages were actually from the African continent, which is starting to change.

WM: Why do you think art from Africa has become such a big attraction for global investors?

JF: I think what happened in my observation from the art world, was that it was very excited about the East, and Chinese contemporary art, and that was big and there was a lot of explosion, prices were going up and there were very exciting exhibitions and acquisitions. Then the attention of the art world moved to South America, and South America became this big area of interest, then Cuba got a lot of attention, and then with the influence of the museums, and their interest in African art, there was a sudden art-world movement, and collectors who were passionate about their collections being international knew they were missing the African component.

That’s when they just suddenly turned, and they had to have this Africa component. Because Africa was producing incredible art, with a much broader range and production than those markets; due to its great history and diversity, there was a lot of unique and innovative work coming to light. The use of materials that were 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’. El Anatsui, great artists like that who are making that kind of tapestry work were phenomenal! It was something that the international world has never seen. So Africa was producing these very diverse, innovative works, which weren’t something like European or Chinese or South American, they were very much independent African statements, and I think that’s what excited a lot of collectors. It was also a new market, so there was a lot of accessible work, prices weren’t too high, the price point was very much an encouraging factor for buyers.

WM: Have you noticed any particular trends in collection strategies among these investors at home?

JF: We’re seeing a lot more collectors on the continent becoming more prominent and exposing their collections, with the acquisitions in public engagements, through foundations in private museums, and also the encouragement of the Biennale and other art fairs, in showing their collections, which of course encourages further collecting. But galleries in Africa are still reporting that they’re making 70% of their sales internationally, or through art fairs, or to visiting collectors from abroad. So it’s still relatively slow, this collector development on the continent.

We’re looking at two factors that are influencing that. Firstly, the economy. How much cash is available for art? Sometimes it’s seen as elitist, especially in struggling economies, and in those African countries with bad socio-economic situations, for a collector to be elevated it can be difficult. So that’s one thing I’m definitely seeing. The other thing concerns education. Traditionally, a lot of people in African countries weren’t educated as collectors and encouraged to be people that acquire art. Art was for other traditional values, and for a lot of collectors that are coming into the market with new wealth, the nouveau riche, or however you want to call them, those with newly acquired wealth who witness the prices of the works of the artists who are exciting, and are collectable, are starting to collect. But because they’re also on an international platform, some of the prices are becoming too high for the local collectors to buy, for certain pieces, because they’re competing with their contemporaries in America, or Europe, and particularly London. That’s the prices that these artists’ works are set at, but if you’ve got an African collector who wants to buy in, it could be too expensive to buy the established works of the major African artists. So you’ve got to buy newer, younger artists, if you want to start collecting. But that’s also where the opportunity is now, for new collectors as the market develops.

The thing about African art is that it was so accessible, due to the value system, but as soon as these artists show in international fairs or on the Venice Biennale, in world-renowned museum collections, at the Basel art fairs, then the prices become too high. And even if you’re a wealthy, established, South African collector who’s been active for many years, you can’t reach that far. That’s why you have to invest in the newer artists who are coming through at the moment. But as I say, that’s where the great opportunity lies.

WM: With the emergence of international art fairs and an increasingly coherent gallery system in Africa, do you think this will help cultivate a stronger collector base?

JF: Yes, I do. I think the Zeitz MOCAA and their foundation in Cape Town have shown the interest of people in viewing art, in learning about art, and the visitorship to the art fairs like Joburg Art Fair, the Cape Town Art Fair, 1-54 Marrakech, certainly encourages South Africans, and Africans in general, to look at collecting art, and looking at living with art and the values that art brings. When I speak to a lot of galleries they’re looking at the fairs and the gallery system on the continent and hoping to attract more international collectors to Africa. That’s their sort of focus, and I constantly say, ‘We need to encourage more collectors at home.’

WM: Do you expect art ‘hubs’ to develop in particular cities and countries in Africa?

JF: It will take a generation or two I think, but yes, it’s education, definitely. Even the contemporary market in South Africa is still very, very young, and it still doesn’t support the gallery system well enough at the moment. The galleries rely on international art fairs for their income. This is the same in Nigeria and Ghana, although a lot of the artists from Ghana come to South Africa, for representation. Because they’re not earning sufficiently in their countries.

WM: It’s still a nascent market then. But the foundations are being built for a strong market in the future?

JF: Yes, definitely. It’s encouraging to see the number of galleries that are opening, and the nature of the work they’re selling, which I think, for me, is very encouraging. But initiatives need to be put in place if you’re going to stimulate an interest in buying art. 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.

WM: What’s your message to people wanting to start investing in art, but are not sure of where, and how to start?

JF: I would say visit the museums, galleries, art fairs, the Biennale especially, because there’s a lot to be learnt there, with a lot of very good work on exhibition. 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. Either the good artists or the good galleries. Another thing I think is important is to get advice from a specialist. Whether it’s an auction house, a credible art advisor, or a knowledgeable dealer or collector.

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. Because they’re also looking for international collectors to come, so they bring their big game. So I would say do your homework, lots of looking, get professional advice, research, and a strategy. Strategise because Africa is 54 countries on the continent, so there’s a lot of art out there!

WM: Which contemporary artists are you most excited about?

JF: I think an artist, and a photographer, who’s passed away recently whose work – because of apartheid, he didn’t get the recognition he deserved – is Santu Mofokeng, wow! Powerful, powerful images! Very few exhibitions, some international engagement, but I think he definitely got distance in his work. Billie Zangewa is a brilliant artist who makes beautiful collage works. She makes very strong statements, a little bit of international penetration but nothing major just yet. Igshaan Adams, also, he was one of our award-winning artists last year, he’s showing great initiative and incredible involvement as he develops his career, gaining small international penetration with his gallery exhibiting in New York, and he does Basel too.

Barthélémy Toguo is a brilliant artist represented by the Stevenson Gallery in Cape Town. I think over the last ten years I’ve noticed his work, and he keeps coming back stronger and stronger. Cameron Platter is 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. And at the same time applies himself to the international market. He’s a very interesting artist. Then there’s Athi-Patra Ruga, who’s one of my favourites, just brilliant work. He did some very good work in New York. 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.

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