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African Contemporary Art: A market on the rise

By Melanie Damani, Hottinger Art

Bright Girls #8, 2019, Nkechi Ebubedike (b. 1984), (Courtesy of the artist and TAFETA Gallery, London)

The Market

The past 5 to 7 years have seen a rise of interest in African contemporary art. Whilst this market, combined with the South American market, still represents less than 4% of a global market totalling $63.7bn, it has shown significant growth from $21m in 2016 to around $40m in 2018 (according to the Deloitte Art & Finance Report 2017 and Art Basel and UBS’ Global Art Market Report 2019).

Bonhams was a pioneer in this regard – its “Africa Now” sale takes place twice a year and held 65% of market share until 2015. Sotheby’s London hosted its first dedicated sale in 2017, which reached $3.6m in short order. The same year, Njideka Akunyili Crosby sold her work “Drown” for $1.1m at Sotheby’s and “The beautiful ones” for $3.1m at Christie’s, whereas just a year earlier the same artist’s works were being sold for less than $100,000.

Awareness of – and preference for – African contemporary art has also been enhanced by the 1-54 art fair. Its founder, Touria El Gahoui, launched the first fair in 2013 during the Frieze art fair, benefiting from the myriad of international collectors gathering in London. Only two years later, the fair expanded to New York, before reaching Marrakesh in 2018. The fair welcomes emerging as well as established galleries both from the African continent and abroad.

Other global initiatives have contributed to setting the trend, including the African Art in Venice Forum, which took place for the first time in 2017. The 2016 Armory Show in New York highlighted the African continent with a dedicated section called “African Perspectives”. Further growth is evident this year at the Venice Biennale, even though the 58th edition is down by one African pavilion. Egypt, Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire, Madagascar, Mozambique, Seychelles, South Africa and Zimbabwe are all represented and many African artists can also be found in the common spaces, the Giardini and Arsenale.

Ghana made its debut this year, with a rather impressive pavilion designed by Ghanaian-British architect Sir David Adjaye and built using soil imported from Ghana. Curator Nana Oforiatta Ayim has brought together six artists who are either living and working in Ghana or have Ghanaian ancestry, including British-Ghanaian film-maker John Akomfrah. The pavilion displays a giant work (pictured below) by the artist El Anatsui, which has been very well received by the public and press.

Installation by artist El Anatsui in the Ghana Pavilion at the 2019 Venice Biennale (Source: Artnet news, 2019, © David Levene 2019)

The majority of African contemporary art collectors are African individuals, and – to an extent – corporations, many of which are based on the African continent and concentrated in Nigeria and South Africa, where the two largest art scenes have been established for years now.

A large proportion of collectors outside Africa are based in the United States of America. In fact, as African-American art has increased in its prevalence and popularity in the US, collectors there are naturally more aware of – and more likely to extend their attention and interest to – African art.

So, where do European collectors stand on African art? According to expert Zoe S. Strother, Riggio Professor of African Art at Columbia University in New York, “Eurocentrism” still defines African art. In an article published in January 2019 in the Art Newspaper (no 308), Strother commented that French President Macron’s five-year restitution of African cultural heritage was seen by many :”(…) to deflect anger over French immigration policy and the presence of French troops in West Africa. Some critics also perceived the gesture as a cheap means to shed France’s colonial legacy”.

Ben Luke, Features Editor at the Art Newspaper, has also commented on the lack of African and African-American art in European public collections. In fact, he highlights the discrepancy between the acclaimed the show at Tate Modern in 2017 “The Soul of a Nation” and the “almost complete” absence of African-American artists from European collections. For example, the Tate only acquired its first Kerry James Marshall painting last year and its other works by African-American artists are on loan rather than owned. Luke believes the Centre Pompidou is faring even worse by having no major African-American artists featured in its collections. He reminds readers that: “Exhibitions help, of course, but it is through collections that artists are thoroughly absorbed into the canon. It will take much creativity and resourcefulness, because many top artists’ prices are propelling them out of increasingly cash-strapped museums’ reach”.

Official portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama by African-American artists Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald (source: New York times, 2018).

The future of African contemporary art looks bright, but some adjustments to the market are needed sooner rather than later.

The welcome shift from exclusively Africa-based collectors to a more international audience has driven prices up very quickly. However, as for any artist, validation is needed through acquisition by established public institutions in addition to private collections, no matter how prestigious the latter.

Validation is also needed where the artists are from and as such, for African contemporary art, there was an initial disadvantage in that the continent did not necessarily have a large number of public institutions with the means and inclination to establish important art collections. However, this is changing. The continent has recently seen the establishment of institutions aiming to build a robust permanent collections of contemporary African art, such as the Norval Foundation and the Zeith Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, both of which are located in South Africa. These institutions aim to provide education as well as raising awareness to strengthen the value chain of African contemporary art.

A secondary challenge is that many such initiatives in Africa are originated and founded privately. They also rely on private funds for acquisitions, which can introduce uncertainty into the process. On a positive note, this provides the opportunity for the growing number of African collectors to build their own collections by making donations to African institutions in the future and therefore contributing to the establishment of a strong value chain with its roots on the continent.

Zeith Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in Cape Town (Source: The Inside Guide, 2019).

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