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African art is breaking records at auction. Here’s your guide to twelve of the biggest recent sales

The African Art market is exploding in value. Turbare’s Henrika Amoafo gives you a rundown of top-selling works.

Author Henrika Amoafo Sat 10th Oct 2020
Bonhams Modern & Contemporary African Art Auction Preview, October 3rd, 2019.

Throughout 2019 and into 2020, African artists broke records and saw their values soar, from successful art fairs, and from sales at galleries dedicated to African art opening around the world. Renowned museums and art institutes in New York, Paris and London were keen to get in on the act, hosting solo exhibitions by artists from the region.

Chief among them was the annual Venice Biennale, one of the most important exhibitions in the contemporary art world, which acts as a catalyst in setting the stage for international art prices and greatly influences collecting habits.

The theme of the 58th edition in 2019 was May You Live In Interesting Times – a truly prophetic title given recent events – with many nations choosing to tackle issues of sustainability and the climate crisis at their pavilions.

The countries that represented Africa were Côte d’Ivoire, Egypt, Ghana, Madagascar, Mozambique, The Seychelles, South Africa and Zimbabwe.

Ghana and Madagascar’s pavilions made their debut in 2019, and the Ghanaian pavilion achieved critical recognition, attracting further interest into this burgeoning scene. It was curated by Nana Oforiatta Ayim, and designed by world-renowned architect Sir David Adjaye, and the space showed works by six invited artists.

Major art fairs, including 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair and ART X Lagos, are also providing more visibility for the artists, enabling them to grow a loyal international audience of eager collectors.

“International African sales in the first half of 2019 by well-known auction houses generated a total of $25.3 million.”

Launched in 2016 by entrepreneur Tokini Peterside, ART X Lagos celebrated its fifth successful year. It is the first international art fair from West Africa, and is known for championing emerging artists over those at more established stages of their careers. The ART X Prize enables funding and mentorship for the winner, as well as an international residency.

Half a world away at London auction houses Sotheby’s and Bonhams now have dedicated sales for contemporary African art, each holding three or four sales a year. In Sotheby’s April 2019 and October 2019 sales, the auction house made $2.97 million and $5.1 million respectively.

According to an ArtTactic report, international African sales in the first half of 2019 by Sotheby’s, Bonhams, and also Christie’s, Phillips, Piasa, Strauss & Co in South Africa, and ArtHouse Nigeria, generated a total of $25.3 million.

Although a comparatively modest sum when compared with the growing market in China and more established scenes in Europe and America, it nonetheless indicates the growing trajectory of prices achieved for work by African artists. A little over a decade ago, Africa’s nascent scene barely featured at auction, with its artists often overlooked.

The success of individual artists and their growing recognition is the tip of the arrow in this growing industry, and artists such as Njideka Akunyili Crosby are reaping the international success. In 2018 she sold her piece Bush Babies for $3 million (six times its estimate), when a few years previously her paintings were worth $3000.

Toyin Ojih Odutola in New York, December 2015. Photo: Vicente Muñoz. 

Toyin Ojih Odutola, whose self-portrait Compound Leaf sold for $617,577, has also played an important part in growing collector interest, while the record sales of Ben Enwonwu’s Tutu for $1.6 million in 2018, and Christine for $1.4 million in 2019, further heightened the frenzy of collectors eager to bolster their collections with art from Africa.

Several African artists also saw successful sales at Miami Art Week 2019, particularly at the Art Basel Miami Beach. Ghana’s rising star Amoako Boafo secured major interest from collectors after his recent appointment as the inaugural artist in residence at the Rubell Museum, a venue known for launching the successful careers of many artists, including Sterling Ruby.

Boafo sold all pieces offered under Mariane Ibrahim’s gallery, with prices ranging between $15,000 and $45,000. South African artist Cinga Samson also sold out, with his works fetching between $7500 and $55,000. Another to follow suit was mixed media Senegalese artist Omar Ba, selling out on the first day of the fair with prices ranging from $30,000 to $120,000.

Several other artists including Mary Sibande – who had just finished her solo exhibition at Somerset House in London – were also showing. So, too, were Joana Choumali, who recently became the first African artist to be awarded the prestigious Prix Pictet prize, and Ghanaian artist Godfried Donkor, who is well known for his pieces that centre around the god-like veneration of boxers in the West African nation.

“The art industry is sure to see many returns from art from the continent.”

Other Ghanaian artists like Serge Attukwei Clottey have been making strides for years, and are receiving the international recognition they deserve. Attukwei Clottey’s ‘Afrogallonism’ tapestries have been seen around the world: recently at Museum Arnhem in the Netherlands, where he featured as part of the Stormy Weather exhibition on climate change and social justice, but also in Berlin at GNYP Gallery, at San Francisco’s Ever Gold gallery, and in Milan at Lorenzelli Arte.

Attukwei Clottey is championed by collectors and purveyors of contemporary art like Stefan Simchowitz, and another Ghanaian artist, Gideon Appah, part of the wellspring of talent emerging in the growing African contemporary art movement, has also been garnering international attention in recent years.

Across the continent, there are several emerging art capitals including Accra, Addis Ababa, Cape Town, Dakar, Lagos and Marrakech, with art fairs such as the Dakar Biennale, commonly known as Dak’Art, 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair that takes place in Marrakech each February, ART X Lagos in Nigeria, and numerous art fairs taking place in South Africa.

Once the worst of the coronavirus pandemic has passed, the art industry is sure to see many returns from art from the continent.

Below are listed some of the most expensive pieces of contemporary African art sold at auction over the last twelve months. These pieces sold exclusively at premier auction houses in London, New York, and Hong Kong.

The majority are by living artists, including Michael Armitage who set a personal best with his first-ever piece to be offered at auction, named The Conservationists, which sold for $1.52 million at Sotheby’s.

The Artists

Black Ground (Deep Light) (2006)
Sotheby’s Hong Kong, Contemporary Art Day Auction, 1 April 2019
Sold for HK$44,209,000/$5,683,451

Black Ground (Deep Light) hails from Julie Mehretu’s most recognised and acclaimed body of work and ranks among the most visually arresting works from the series. The painting is a deviation from the artist’s usual creamy backgrounds, with its dark brooding grey acting as the canvas for the bright lines and colours.

Mehretu began using architectural drawings, terrain maps, construction blueprints, and conceptual tools in her work in the late 1990s. Black Ground has been shown at The Project, New York, and White Cube, London, and was acquired from a private collection in the UK by its present owner. Mehretu has had many pieces offered at auction including Retopistics: A Renegade Excavation which sold at Christie’s New York for $4,603,750 in 2013.

KENYAN, b.1984
The Conservationists (2015)
Sotheby’s New York, Contemporary Art Day Auction, 15 November 2019
Sold for $1,520,000/£1,160,000

Kenyan artist Michael Armitage has had international shows in Chicago, Hong Kong, Berkeley and London, and was part of the 58th Venice Biennale. His first piece to appear at auction, The Conservationists, sold at Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Day Auction on 15 November 2019 for an astonishing $1.5 million – more than 20 times its $70,000 ‘high’ estimate and a new auction record for the artist. Project 110: Michael Armitage is the show he was exhibiting at the MoMA, New York. Eight of his compositions were on display, exploring ‘parallel cultural histories’.

Michel Armitage in front of his painting Lacuna. Photo: George Darrell. 

GHANAIAN, b.1944
Zebra Crossing II (2007)
Sotheby’s London, Modern & Contemporary African Art, 2 April 2019
Sold for £1,095,000/$1,435,769

El Anatsui has long been the continent’s most well-known artist and one of the most influential contemporary artists in the world.

The last time this piece sold at auction was in 2013 at Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Auction, where it was acquired by its present owner. Before this, the piece had been in a private collection in France and at the Jack Shainman Gallery in New York. Zebra Crossing II is made in Anatsui’s signature style, using aluminum bottle caps and copper wire and was created in 2007, the same year Anatsui was invited to exhibit his works at the Venice Biennale in the Palazzo Fortuny and at the Arsenale.

NIGERIAN, 1917–1994
Portrait of Marianne (1972)
Bonhams New Bond Street, 3 October 2019
Sold for £555,062/$727,800

The Nigerian actress Marianne Inness is portrayed in this painting. While it’s likely Enwonwu painted the portrait in Nigeria, he met Marianne while living in the United Kingdom. The portrait exhibited at Arts Unlimited Gallery in London in 1972. In 1952, Senegalese poet and politician Léopold Sédar Senghor had asked Enwonwu to contribute to the Pan-African quarterly political and literary magazine, Présence Africaine, following his participation in France at ‘World Negro Culture’ in the 1960’s. The portrait was also exhibited in Lagos in 1974 and was illustrated on the cover of the catalogue.

NIGERIAN, b.1985
Compound Leaf (2017)
Sotheby’s London, Contemporary Art Evening Auction, 2 May 2019
Sold for £471,000/$617,577

Toyin Ojih Odutola became the third-highest-selling Nigerian artist with the record sale of her self-portrait Compound Leaf in 2019. It sold for £471,000, three times its ‘high’ estimate and a record at auction for the artist. The piece was acquired from the Jack Shainman Gallery by its present owner for $40,000. Odutola renders herself in charcoal, soft pastel hues and pencil on paper. Compound Leaf was created the same year the artist had her debut solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.

SOUTH AFRICAN, 1894–1966
Malay Girl (1946)
Bonhams New York, 2 May 2019
Sold for $312,575/£238,837

Irma Stern reached the epitome of her artistic career during the 1940s. Stern made two trips to Zanzibar in 1939 and 1945, and created many remarkable pieces there, although Malay Girl predates her travels. Stern was fascinated by the Malays and they formed a lot of her subject matter. This piece was acquired by Die Kunskamer in Cape Town, in 1974, and came to the current owner by descent. It resembles her masterpiece Bahora Girl that was painted 12 months previously and sold for £2,372,000 at Bonhams’ 2010 South African Art sale. Her piece Arab Priest sold for a record price of $4,945,671 in 2011 at Bonhams New Bond Street.

The Conservationists., Michel Armitage, 2015. 

SOUTH AFRICAN, 1913–2006
Fruits of Bali (1960)
Bonhams New Bond Street, 3 October 2019
Sold for £250,062/$327,882

Fruits of Bali is one of Tretchikoff’s most recognisable paintings. Tretchikoff’s family relocated from Russia to China shortly after the Russian Revolution in 1917, which started his affinity for the Far East. While he was in Shanghai in the early 1930s and later in Singapore, he gained his real inspiration for this piece as well as his other work Balinese Girl, which was inspired by his time as a prisoner of war in Java during the Second World War. He depicts a South African woman in southeast Asian attire. Since 2007, the record price at auction for Tretchikoff is $1,486,424 for Chinese Girl, which he sold at Bonhams New Bond Street in 2013. He’s been featured in articles for several art publications including Art Critical, Art Market Monitor, and Art South Africa.

NIGERIAN, b.1935
Children on Cycles (1960)
Bonhams New York, 2 May 2019
Sold for $225,075/£171,655

Demas Nwoko was an influential Nigerian painter, sculptor, architect, and designer. Nwoko was a versatile artist who made his mark as a painter, also finding success in wood sculpture in the early 1960s, and with terracotta (1965–1968). In the late 1960s, his career in sculpture and painting was overtaken by his turn to architecture, design, and publishing, meaning that his paintings are limited in number. Children on Cycles is one of his finest works and holds his record for pieces sold at auction. It was featured in the artist’s joint exhibition with his close friend and Art Society colleague, Uche Okeke, at Mbari in July 1961. The piece was acquired at this exhibition by J. Donald Kingsley (head of the Ford Foundation’s programme in Africa) and was later held in a private collection in the USA.

ETHIOPIAN, 1937–2003
Blue Composition (1960s)
Bonhams New York, 2 May 2019
Sold for US$175,075/£133,522

Alexander Skunder Boghossian was the first contemporary African artist to have work acquired by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. Boghossian was awarded the Jubilee Anniversary Celebration of Ethiopia’s Emperor Haile Selassie I in 1954 in Ethiopia, where his career started. He attended school in London, taught in Paris at l’Académie de la Grande Chaumière, and returned to Ethiopia for a short period when he created this piece. He later relocated to the United States and taught at Howard University in Washington DC between 1972 and 2001. Blue Composition was acquired directly from the artist in Ethiopia in the late 1960s and was part of a private collection in the USA. The piece holds the record for the artist at auction, selling for $175,075 at Bonhams New York in 2019.

Compound Leaf, Toyin Ojih Odutola, 2017.

NIGERIAN, b.1934
Moon Madonna (date unknown)
Bonhams New Bond Street, 3 October 2019
Sold for £137,562/$180,371

Yusuf Grillo, a member of the Zaria School – a hub of artistic talent in Africa’s most populous nation – is one of Nigeria’s most important artists. Although he’s not prolific – it takes him months, even years, to complete a piece well enough that he is willing to let it go – his stained glass and mosaic works have been commissioned for several public buildings, including universities, churches, government buildings and at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport.

Grillo’s works can be identified by their elongated figures which are slim, elegant and graceful. According to the artist, these figures represent the contemporary ideal of beauty in an urban setting. Moon Madonna is no different, representing Grillo’s take on the famous ‘Madonna and Child’ iconography that is seen throughout various historical art movements. Grillo has offered various pieces at auction, with the record for Mother of Twins selling at Bonhams New Bond Street in 2016 for US$215,203.

MOROCCAN, 1924–2018
La Sortie du Roi (2007)
Sotheby’s London, Modern & Contemporary African Art, 2 April 2019
Sold for £137,668/$180,511

This piece is by Moroccan master Hassan El Glaoui. When Hassan was 10, the artist’s father, who was the last Pasha of Marrakech, gifted him a pony, giving rise to a passion for horses that was a prominent feature in his figurative work throughout his career. La Sortie du Roi depicts Thouriba, the practice whereby synchronised horse riders charge forward in long lines, pointing their jezails (long-barrelled rifles) towards the sky. His practice was deeply rooted in Moroccan culture despite the fact he spent many years in Paris. This piece was acquired directly from the artist by the current owner in 2005. La Sortie du Roi is also the artist’s record at auction, selling for $180,511 at Sotheby’s Modern & Contemporary African Art sale in April 2019.

Cheri Samba. Photo: Cheri Samba.

J’aime la Couleur (2005)
Sotheby’s London, Modern & Contemporary African Art, 2 April 2019
Sold for £93,750/$122,925

According to Artprice, Chéri Samba is one of the most in-demand artists today. Several of the top results for ‘specialised’ sales belong to him. Historical data for Samba’s sales go back three decades and as such, it’s easy to track his successful resales. His auction record stands at US$139,992 for his piece Le seul et unique devoir sacre d’un enfant, sold at Cornette de Saint Cyr, Paris, in 2017. J’aime la Couleur (2005) is part of a colourful series by the artist.

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