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Figurative painting gets a shot in the arm from African art’s contemporary and modern masters

Art insider Adora Mba tells the story of Africa's figurative painters and how they're moulding the future of the genre, as auction prices soar.

Author Adora Mba Mon 12th Oct 2020
Derek Fordjour in his studio. Photo: Brad Ogbonna

In the world of African Art, 2019 was indeed the year of The Figurative Painter.

From the Masters of modern work to emerging contemporary talent, the interest in this traditional art practice gained more commercial interest than previous years such as 2017 and 2018 when installation and sculptural works took centre stage.

Considered one of the most revered African artists of the 20th century, Ben Enwonwu (1917– 1994) continues to make record sales. Enwonwu’s “Christine” (1971) sold during Sotheby’s October 2019 Modern & Contemporary African art auction for $1.4 million – over seven times its estimated evaluation of $200,000 – proving that modern painting still continues to be a solid investment.

Interest in other African master painters has also been significant. Notable Ghanaian artist and self-professed “child of Ghana’s revolution,” Professor Ablade Glover, also broke a sale record of “Market Scene“ (2014) during Sotheby’s April 2019 auction with the final hammer coming down at $34,256 (incl. fees).


Ablade Glover at October Gallery. Photo: © Jonathan Greet, 2009.


2019 saw Professor Glover’s special retrospective exhibition titled Wogbe Jeke – We Have Come a Long Way at the October Gallery, London, which showcased his extensive career spanning five decades. There is nothing to suggest Professor Glover intends to slow down.

It has been interesting to note the sudden resurgence in acquisitions of his work from experienced collectors and new buyers. Although the Professor does still paints, it is his old works that are considered most precious to obtain. Most of which are either already in collections and homes across the globe, or the few within his own private stash of treasured gems.

In the contemporary realm, it could be argued that Ghana overtook both Nigeria and South Africa in terms of hype and excitement regarding new artists entering the scene; as well as sold out exhibitions. Ghana’s successful inaugural National Pavilion at the 2019 Venice Biennale had a sizeable impact on the international art market, forcing many critics and naysayers of the African art movement – many of which considered it “a phase” – to seriously investigate talent from the continent.

Leading the way of painters from Ghana are rising stars such as Ghanaian-British artist, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, and Ghanaian-American artist, Derek Fordjour. Each had a remarkable year: Lynette wowed at Ghana’s National Pavilion, was the recipient of The Carnegie Prize for the 57th Carnegie International award, and will be showing at TATE Britain in 2020; Derek had sold-out shows in both Los Angeles and London with rave reviews from the industry (plus a ridiculous waiting list of collectors begging for work by any means necessary!) In Less than one year, Fordjour bested his high mark at auction by $100,000 by the sale of “Agency and Regulation” (2016), at a Phillips New York auction in September 2019 – an artist record. It was estimated to sell for $40,000 – $60,000, and the painting more than doubled high expectations reaching $137,500 (incl. fees). His previous record was set in November 2018, when “No. 36” (2014) sold at Phillips New York for $37,500 (fees included) against an estimate of $5,000-$7,000, more than five times high expectations.

However, there was one artist who truly stood out as the star of the show drawing interest in his work not just locally and across the African continent; but also in the UK, Europe, USA, Asia, UAE, and elsewhere across the globe. That was without a doubt, the talented Amoako Boafo.


Amoako Boafo in his Vienna studio. Photography: Maximilian Pramatarov


Amoako Boafo is a painter and artist born in Accra, Ghana (1984). Having completed his diploma at the Ghanatta College of Art and Design Accra, he moved to Austria where he is currently based after studying his MFA at the Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna.

Amoako works with oils, acrylics, and pastels on canvas and paper; and is interested in investigating the relation of the personal and the structural through entering his work on Black subjectivity. As with other black contemporary portrait artists, including Barkley L. Hendricks, Kehinde Wiley, Toyin Ojih Otudola, and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye – Boafo attempts to create a new vernacular, reframing his own experience and that of his subjects to include a more variegated understanding of the Black Experience.

Why is the art world keeping a close eye on Boafo? After winning the reputable Walter Koschatzky Kunstpreis Jury Prize in 2017, Amoako has gone on to have sold out shows in Los Angeles, The Armory, Frieze New York, FIAC Paris, Chicago, Berlin, Miami Art Basel 2019, and in his hometown of Vienna where he was recently the first black recipient of the prestigious STRABAG Art Award International 2019.

Known as An ‘Artist to Watch’ on various publications from The Financial Times to The Wall Street Journal and Artnet’s 2019 Intelligence Report; Amoako’s works have been widely collected by a range of private and public collectors and institutions, most recently the Hessel Museum of Art, The Albertina Museum Vienna and the Rubell Museum, Miami (one of the biggest private contemporary art collections in North America) where he was an artist in residency.

If we talk numbers, Amoako went from a $5000 to a $50,000 artist in under a year, and his meteoritic rise is not slowing down. It is very rare to see an emerging artist of African descendent reach heights in the international sphere at such a short space of time and the valuation of his body of work is on an impressive trajectory within the market.

At last year’s Independent Curators International Benefit and Gala (ICI) for example, a work donated by Amoako with an estimate beginning at $5000 was sold for $46,000 after a fierce bidding war. Our sources have informed us that one of Boafo’s work will soon be going on sale at a major auction. It’ll be interesting to see how this will have an effect on his market value and indeed the market value of other figurative painters.

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