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Newfound visibility

The art dealer André Magnin has played a pivotal role in the dissemination of African contemporary art outside Africa. In 1989, he co-curated the global art exhibition Magiciens de la terre in Paris, after which he became director of the well-known Pigozzi Collection for 20 years. In 2009 he founded Magnin-A, his eponymous agency which represents a diverse array of artists including Frédéric Bruly Bouabré, Romuald Hazoumè, Chéri Samba, Kura Shomali and Billie Zangewa. He explains to Olivier Coutau how the African art market has evolved from a situation of relative non-existence in the 1990s to a situation of newfound visibility

Olivier Coutau: You first gravitated towards Africa while investigating the continent for the exhibition, Magiciens de la terre, which opened at the Pompidou Centre in 1989. How did the art world respond to the exhibition at the time?

André Magnin: Magiciens de la terre was innovative in the sense that, for the first time, artists from all over the world were shown on an equal footing. While asking many questions to art history, institutions, galleries and collectors, the exhibition exposed several African artists. But, at the time and in the following years, the market for African contemporary art was non-existent.

In the early 1990s, access to mobile phones or the internet was scarce. You had to go up to Lagos, Kinshasa, Dar es Salaam, Maputo or Abidjan to discover the artists and their work. A situation that discouraged dealers and other art professionals.

Following Magiciens de la terre, the Jean Pigozzi Collection gave to a group of about forty African artists an international visibility. This was not a commercial endeavor, but a non-conventional adventure aiming at challenging the cannons and broadening the field of art history through a number of collective and solo shows. It is only at the end of the 1990s that a market for African art started to be thinkable. Artists from the Pigozzi Collection began to sell, consequently their success created a momentum that encouraged a younger generation of African artists. I believe the collection played a vital role in this respect.

OC: In 1999, Sotheby’s auctioned works from the Pigozzi Collection. This was the first major auction sale dedicated to contemporary art from Africa. How was the event organised and what was the outcome?
AM: Sotheby’s was the first auction house to ask us for pieces from the Collection. It was an opportunity to contribute to the creation of a market and to raise the attention of collectors to an area they did not know. Twenty-eight artists were selected, including Romuald Hazoumè, Frédéric Bruly Bouabré and Chéri Samba among others.

Estimates ranged from €800 to €9,000. Fifty-six lots out of fifty-seven were sold and, on the whole, the results were higher than the estimates. Some positive results, but prices remained reasonable and could not compare with Western art auctions. It was neither a success nor a failure. For Sotheby’s, the test was not conclusive. The African contemporary art market was still hesitant and the main Western private collectors were absent.

OC: Since 2008 and 2009, auction sales of contemporary art from Africa have been more frequent. Specialised African galleries have emerged, some of which participate in international art fairs. You yourself have started a commercial activity with your agency Magnin-A. How do you explain this current market trend?

AM: Yes, indeed, during the last few years, auctions dedicated to contemporary African art have proliferated. But, with some exceptions, outstanding works are rare and results for the lesser-known artists are weak.

In 2009, noticing with Jean Pigozzi the limited presence in international art fairs of artists living and working in Africa, I decided to devote all my time to the promotion of African artists in the international art market. Other galleries or agencies dedicated to African contemporary art were created in Europe; they have brought a new energy to the market in the UK, in Germany, in Belgium and in Paris.

In addition, many in Africa have started to become aware that investing in art matters. I am thinking of the many biennales, private foundations, auction houses, art centres and galleries that contribute to the emergence of a market and stimulate artistic creation. However, it appears that the only African galleries present in major art fairs are from South Africa, where institutions and collectors support creation.

OC: From your experience, who buys contemporary African art today?

AM: With the growing interest of biennales, fairs, and other Western institutions in contemporary art from Africa, the visibility of artists from the continent has never reached such a level. As a consequence of this proliferation, buyers are very diverse. Most of them are Westerners; they can be private persons who, without being collectors, couldn’t resist the drawings of artists like Bouabré. African artists have also been integrated into public and private collections internationally, such as the Tate Modern and the Smithsonian Museum, not to mention the Charles Saatchi collection, the Sindika Dokolo collection and other major collections.

Prominent African collectors are still too rare, but things are moving and some of them, like Alami Lazraq in Morocco or Gordon Schachat in South Africa, are thinking of creating private museums on the continent.

OC: Certain African artists have reached the one million euro mark at auction. On the other hand, most artists living and working on the continent are still very far away from it. How do you explain this disparity?

AM: Yes, some African artists have reached important prices, but they are still far from the market records of the Western, Chinese or Indian ‘stars’. There are also numerous well-established Western artists who never reach this level. African artists from the diaspora benefit from the important network of their own countries, where there are often serious markets. With the exception of Nigeria and South Africa, the art market in Africa Sub-Saharan is still in its infancy. But, some African artists, without reaching these records, still do very well in the international market. For example, works by the Congolese artist Chéri Samba, can sell for €50,000 to €100,000, or a big series by the Ivorian artist Frédéric Bruly Bouabré can also reach a very high price.

OC: You have been visiting Africa for over 20 years. How has it changed as a continent and what kind of impact will this have on the future?

AM: With an economic growth of 5% a year, Africa is now a driving force. A new African middle class is emerging and eager to live and consume. In 2050, with 30% more inhabitants than China, Africa will be the biggest market in the world! I believe that the well-off African middle class will make a difference in the development of an African art market. When this sector of society begins to buy national artists, it will undoubtedly help to support the continent’s vast artistic production, reflecting that of China and India. I foresee a real market emerging from Africa’s rise, impacting on African artists’ international ratings.

I think African institutions can help the public to better know and understand contemporary art. For example, the Foundation Zinsou in Cotonou has been a pioneer in carrying out a tremendous work to advocate cultural democratisation, while the Raw Material Company, in Dakar, aims also at reinforcing artistic creation and dissemination. Major international initiatives such as London’s 1:54 contemporary African art fair, will show all the richness, diversity and dynamism of artistic production from the continent. In my view, the trend is deeply rooted. We can be optimistic in spite of all the difficulties.

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