A taste for Modern and contemporary African art began to enter the mainstream nearly 10 years ago and — unlike many other emerging geographic collecting categories — has maintained market momentum.“The buyers have a deep appreciation of the market and fortunately we have not seen speculators enter, as happened in Chinese contemporary art,” says Giles Peppiatt, director of Modern and contemporary African art at Bonhams. Bonhams launched an African art department under Peppiatt in London in 2006 and began its dedicated “Africa Now” sales in 2008, helping the market to take off. Other auction houses are jumping on the scene. Last June, Sotheby’s poached Hannah O’Leary from Bonhams to head its new Modern and contemporary art department; its first sale in the area is scheduled for May. Phillips is assessing opportunities in South Africa, and made records for the country’s photographers, including Mikhael Subotzky, last November. Helping to build momentum has been the 1:54 art fair, dedicated to contemporary art and galleries from Africa’s 54 countries and founded in London by Touria El Glaoui in 2013. The fair has been a success, critically and commercially; it opened a New York edition in 2015 and plans are being finalised for a launch in Marrakesh in 2018.
A wealth boom in some African countries, notably South Africa and Nigeria, has supported the continent’s art scene, with many buyers originating from these countries. A thriving African diaspora, particularly in Paris and London, has protected the market from some of the more recent local economic challenges too.There have been some impressive sums for Africa’s contemporary artists, many of whom are now institutional darlings. El Anatsui’s aluminium and copper wire “Paths to the Okro Farm” (2006) sold for $1.4m at Sotheby’s New York in 2014, and three similar works have since sold publicly for over $1m.
On the whole, however, price increases for most Modern and contemporary African artists have been carefully managed and levels are still relatively low. A huge William Kentridge collage on paper “Series Heads” (around 1997) leads Piasa’s contemporary African art auction in Paris in April, with an estimate of €80,000-€120,000.African artists’ primary market galleries generally price conservatively as well. At the compelling Ivory Coast artist Armand Boua’s solo show which closed last week at Jack Bell Gallery in London, prices ranged from £8,000 to £30,000. Bell notes that many blue-chip galleries now have African artists on their roster — White Cube opens the first UK solo show for the Ghanaian artist Ibrahim Mahama this week — underlining their international appeal.
Meanwhile, the subject matter that preoccupies many of Africa’s contemporary and Modern artists has proved pertinent. “Many of our artists’ works emanate from their experience of living in Africa, yet the issues they talk about, from gender rights and sex, to migration and trade, are relevant and meaningful to global audiences,” says Emma Menell, who founded Tyburn gallery in London in 2015. Reclaimed materials, such as the bottle tops favoured by Anatsui or Ibrahim Mahama’s shoemaker boxes, also chime with today’s more socially conscious taste.The local scene is key to sustaining the market. Outside of South Africa — a more mature scene and in many ways a separate entity from the rest of the continent — last year the Art X fair in Lagos and collector Marwan Zakhem founded Gallery 1957 in Ghana. “By having the gallery in Accra rather than in a city that already has a fully established art infrastructure, we hope to contribute to the developing scene,” Zakhem says. “I am a strong believer that the best markets are where there is a local appreciation.”