Works by African artists attracted bids of over $500,000 during the first dedicated auction of African art by London’s word-famous Sotheby’s last month. The implications are enormous, as Tom Collins found out when he attended the event.
Currently the African art market makes up just 0.01% of the global market but steady increases over the past 10 years indicate change is in the air.
Testament to this change was the inaugural sale of modern and contemporary African art that took place at the Mayfair auction house, Sotheby’s. Although African artists frequently gross large sums of money via numerous other auction houses and institutions, the fact that the sale was dedicated to African art only and bids reached in excess of £500,000 speaks volumes about the health of African art.
Institutions around the world are waking up – not just to the aesthetic worth of African art for art’s sake, but also to a commercial interest which arguably works in tandem with the form itself.
Hannah O’Leary, Head of Modern & Contemporary African Art at Sotheby’s, said: “It’s caused quite a stir in the art world that Sotheby’s have created a new African auction department and that really has been a response to a growth in the market – and a growth in interest in contemporary African art.”
The auction itself featured 60 different artists from 14 countries and showcased many of the big names like the Ghanaian El Anatsui, the Nigerian Ben Enwonwu and Chéri Samba from the DRC, as well as many up and coming artists.
Further evidence of a market in bloom is the sprouting of Western art initiatives such as the 1:54 African art fair currently in New York and the development of domestic structures such as Gallery 1957 in Ghana and the Art X fair in Lagos.
Bonham’s – another London auction house – recorded that sales of African art are almost doubling year on year.
It’s clear that African art is on the up; one dealer at the auction said: “People keep talking about the boom – what boom? This is just the beginning; it’s going to keep getting bigger.”
The art world has seen peaks and troughs in other ‘non-Western’ markets, like the Chinese and Russian, but for a number of reasons, the African art market seems set to permanently challenge and cohabit with a previous Western monopoly and pedagogy.
What seems to be fuelling the staying power of African art is a mix of domestic and international factors which are all combining to create art structures and institutions for African artists – along with a colourful and varied mix of tertiary players pushing and pulling at the scene.
Not a poor man’s game
One factor which has given rise to a number of new players is the growing wealth of the continent. Art, in its commercialisation, is no poor man’s game. According to the consultancy firm New World Health, there are now 165,000 millionaires in Africa and this has unsurprisingly had a knock-on effect on art.
As O’Leary puts it: “Growth over the past five to 10 years [in the African art market] has been a response to economic growth on the continent and the growth of individual wealth in Africa.
“Once you start making your millions you might start collecting luxury goods and finally art and we are certainly seeing a lot more private collectors.”
The godfather of the private African art collector is undoubtedly the Congolese enthusiast Sindika Dokolo, who set up the Sindika Dokolo Foundation in Luanda and has for years been driving the market and supporting its artists.
With over 3,000 pieces in his collection, he sees himself not just as a buyer but as a facilitator, with the aim of pushing the African market into the mainstream through his foundation and investments.
Speaking to New African at Sotheby’s, he said: “Ever since I started collecting a bit and then more and more, I realised there was something to do as far as cultural policies in Angola go, which was integrating Africa into the circuits of the art world and also, exposing the African public to its contemporaneous creations.”
Finding a way for African artists to get their work shown in places such as New York, Paris and London is key to empowering the scene, and intermediaries like Dokolo help young African artists understand and demystify the structures at large.
A case in point is the up-and-coming Angolan artist named Francisco Vidal, whose work was bought by Dokolo at the auction. Dokolo said: “I like emerging artists that I think really have the quality to be here. He [Vidal] is good and I want to make sure he does well…I am really happy for him that he was here, and I was happy because I had to fight to buy his work.” Vidal’s Bye Bye NYC, Hello LD; Bye Bye LD, Hello NYC went for £12,500.
This interaction between African artists and African buyers seems generally positive as it avoids African art being appropriated and profited from by Western players and suggests that some of the money will trickle down.
It also suggests that money made in the European and North American cities will go back into creating domestic structures – like Dokolo’s foundation – that are key to sustaining the market.
Unfortunately there are always some potholes. Vidal told New African that he wasn’t consulted about having his work sold at Sotheby’s and he doesn’t expect much of the money to come his way, but he hopes for change in the future, for example with a potential resale at some stage, now the work is owned by Dokolo. Talking about the way he interprets the auction, Vidal said: “It’s money, it’s a lot of money. Art auctions are strange, there are a lot of numbers there, and even when you are doing your painting you are not thinking about that or what is going to happen when the work is finished.”
What this speaks to at large is the greater issue of the dialogue between the Western and African art worlds, and the dialogue between art buyers and African artists themselves.
Doldrums of cultural categorisation
The debate over what ‘African’ art means and how it intersects with classical European art has raged on and on. Many artists fervently avoid the ‘African’ label and instead take a more humanistic approach, battling the idea of a European canon from the position that they are all simply artists. The famous Nigerian painter and sculptor Ben Enwonwu said: “I will not accept an inferior position in the art world, nor have my art called African.
“European artists like Picasso, Braque and Vlaminck were influenced by African art. Everybody sees that and is not opposed to it. But when they see African artists who are influenced by their European training and technique, they expect those Africans to stick to their traditional forms even if they bend down to copying them.”
Resisting in this way, African artists hope to escape the doldrums of cultural categorisation. From this perspective, the dialogue between African artists and the European buyers now needs to be about levelling the playing field from a monetary and structural point of view too, so that Vidal, with the help of the likes of Dokolo, can get his monetary dues the same way a European artist would.
Concerns are also being voiced about how African artists will react to the success of their own market and its increasing commercialisation.
Talking to New African, the Beninese artist Dimitri Fagobouhn said: “We are living in a global market, in a global world. I hope it will have a positive influence but I hope they [African artists] are not making art just for the purposes of selling.”
Mentioning mistakes made in the Russian and Chinese markets, he continued: “The mistake in my opinion would be just to make things that you think the market needs and to repeat the same pieces of artwork with no originality.”
Damien Hirst recently came under fierce criticism for his recreation of a Benin bronze, which showed a lack of originality and laid him open to accusations of appropriation and exoticism.
While the criticism was accurate, what it also shows is that African art is fast becoming a household name and with the proper maintenance and nurture from its benefactors and institutions, it will continue to be a major force in the game and have a thriving market.
There are issues, but the key is art being made for art’s sake regardless of the market and making sure that African middle men and women are able to operate between domestic artists and global structures in order to broker a fair deal. After all, Africa represents 15% of the world’s population but its art comprises just a tiny fraction of the global market.
As Fagobouhn said: “Obviously we can say that it is booming [the African art market] and this is a good thing. If you look at the figures, they seems huge compared to where we were coming from but it is nothing compared to Damien Hirst.
“So there is still a gap but I think it will shrink more and more as we have a younger generation of collectors coming through.” NA
The Sotheby’s auction highlights: El Anatsui’s Earth Developing More Roots went for £728,750, Irma Stern’s Sunflowers for £416,750, and total sales were £2,794,750.