The year 2014 began and ends on a high note in terms of Africa’s contemporary art and London has been a great hub that has attracted and showcased some of the continent’s highly acclaimed visual artists through events such as the just concluded 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair, and the highly successful ‘Africa Now’ auction, which took place earlier in the year and saw record sales figures for African arts. Here Juliet Highet revisits the latter.
This year saw Africa’s contemporary art come into sharp focus. According to the exclusive auction house Bonham’s, African art, created by artists from a multitude of cultures, reflects the complex heritage of a dynamic continent and demonstrates tremendous potential for investment in the sector. “Africa Now”, the arts auction organised by Bonhams, brought together the very best of post-war and contemporary art from across the African continent in various media, including painting, sculpture, and drawing.
According to Giles Peppiatt, Director of African Art at Bonhams: “A lot of collectors are looking at the contemporary African art market thinking it might be the next China, where an interest in collecting its art has exploded.”
The “Africa Now” auction of African art is the only one of its kind in the world today, and this year brought in works by artists including Ben Enwonwu, El Anatsui, Malick Sidibé, Malangtana Valente Ngwenya, Yusuf Grillo, Camille Pierre Pambu Bodo, and Cheri Samba, among many others.
Hannah O’Leary, Bonhams’ Head of Contemporary African Art, commented on the auction: “This market has gone from strength to strength. While artists from at least fifteen African countries were represented, the top prices were reserved for the best pieces by the Nigerian Masters.”
Princes of Mali, an oil on board by Ben Enwonwu, was the most valuable picture in the sale, going for £92,500. Born in 1917, he was the first Nigerian to go abroad for art school training, and on his return home became Federal Art Advisor. His position as cultural ambassador to successive governments ensured him many prestigious commissions. From early on
he provided several styles of work according to client demand.
Art historian Sylvester Ogbechie contends that Enwonwu’s legacy is his contribution to the emergent national identity of Nigeria during the late 1940s and 1950s. His most famous and probably most accomplished sculpture is Anyanwu (“Eye of the Sun”), mounted on the façade of the National Museum, Lagos.
It invokes the Igbo practice of saluting the rising sun to honour ChiUkwu, the Great Spirit. Stylistically, this bronze masterpiece combines abstraction and representationalism, uniting Enwonwu’s two styles, a small-scale version making £64,900 at the sale. Ogbechie describes it as expressing “the aspirations of the Nigerian nation and Enwonwu’s personal intercession for its survival and growth”.
Yusuf Grillo’s 1972 painting “The Flight” sold for £62,500. He is one of the brilliant creative generation who graduated from the Art Department of Ahamdu Bello University (Nigeria) in the early 1960s. As his name suggests, he lived in Brazil, and he speaks Portuguese. Members of his family still live in the picturesque Brazilian quarter of Lagos.
He says: “If I were to say as a child I listened to folk stories, saw masquerades, and was put to sleep by drumming, I would be lying. I was born and brought up in the city of Lagos away from such things”. Yet the angular, expressionist style of his paintings in particular, references traditional African sculpture. And this essential Lagosian adds: “I surround myself with it, I collect it almost compulsively, and I study these sculptures, I analyse them. The clear-cut definition of planes influences my work”.