Growing interest in modern African art

El Anatsui (Ghanaian, b. 1944) Diaspora, 2012
Diaspora by El Anatsui, 2012

Things are suddenly moving fast in Africa’s contemporary art market, according to Barnebys art search engine. After a decade in which Bonhams had Africa to itself – the only international fine art auction house holding sales of African Art in London and New York – there are now suddenly three other international auction houses in the field besides Bonhams.

Pontus Silfverstolpe
Pontus Silfverstolpe

Pontus Silfverstolpe, co-founder of Barnebys, the leading art and auction search engine, says, “Now the world’s leading auction houses have taken notice of all this new interest in African art and have taken the plunge. Suddenly we have a new scramble for Africa, and this time it’s about art.”

Barneby’s echoes CNN’s findings on this market. CNN recently reported that values in African Art had grown between fivefold and tenfold in the last decade. CNN says, “You’d be hard pressed to find a man who has witnessed the rise in recognition and value of African art better than Prince Yemisi Shyllon, who is reported to be Nigeria’s largest private art collector.” The Prince told CNN, “When I started collecting art as an undergraduate at University in the mid 1970s, it had virtually no value. You could buy a piece of good art for 20,000 Naira [about $100 at current conversion rates]. Today it would sell for millions.”

Not surprisingly, Sotheby’s has now set up a Contemporary African Art Department and is due to hold a first sale next year.

Christie’s are holding an exhibition of a South African sculptor in London.  Stanislaw Trzebinski has been invited to participate in a collaborative exhibition between Christie’s and the South African Southern Guild Gallery. The exhibition will showcase some of South Africa’s top designers and artists at Christie’s in London this coming October.

And in January this year Phillips sent Arnold Lehman, former director of the Brooklyn Museum, to do a recce in South Africa for them. His visit generated a great deal of media attention.

Lovers, Irma Stern
Lovers, Irma Stern

South Africa’s strongest home based auction house, Strauss & Co, was headed by the legendary Stefan Welz, who died this year. So the home team is having to scramble to meet the new threat from abroad: four hungry international auction houses.

All of this new interest and energy is creating huge excitement in the two countries, South Africa and Nigeria, whose art dominates auction sales abroad featuring the work of African artists. But the ripple effect is being felt in all of Africa’s 54 sovereign states, says Barnebys’ Silfverstolpe.

How and why this sudden attention on Africa? The answer is in part that Bonhams who have led the way and established an international market for contemporary African art, have been breaking world records for a decade. The work of the late Irma Stern – South Africa’s leading artist – would have commanded prices in the hundreds of thousands of pounds ten years ago; now her work is making millions. Her painting Arab Priest made £3.1m at a Bonhams sale a few years ago, bought by the Government of Qatar. And this dramatic rise in prices has been seen too with work from Jacobus Hendrik Pierneef, Gerard Sekoto and William Kentridge.  The Ghanaian-born, Nigeria based Professor El Anatsui dominates prices in north Africa. His bottletop tapestries command £1m-plus figures in London and New York

Giles Peppiatt of Bonhams holds eight of the ten world records for South African art. He says of the African phenomenon, “The fact is that modern and contemporary African art is today one of the hottest properties on the art block. Africa is the new China when it comes to art. When the Tate, the Smithsonian and other similar institutions start putting on exhibitions of Contemporary African Art, then one knows that something strange and wonderful has occurred and that real change is in the air.”

“The Romans had a phrase for this: ‘There is always something new out of Africa,’” says Silfverstolpe. “Today that new thing is art, and the scramble is to acquire it, as the educated view in the capitals of the world is that South African and African Art is a bull market, with one’s investment liable to return a handsome profit in the years ahead.”

Picasso and many of his contemporary artists saw in Africa the wellsprings of their own creative drive. They acknowledged Africa’s creative genius and their work pays homage and tribute to it. Now the African artists are claiming for themselves some of that acclaim and some of the kinds of sums earned by those master artists who are household names.

Another significant factor in Africa’s art renaissance that is attracting attention is the new contemporary art museum being built on the Waterfront in Cape Town. The Zeist MOCAA museum will be the biggest art museum in Africa. The gravitational pull of this huge new development will bring art tourists to South Africa for the first time, many pundits are saying, and it certainly looks likely.

Still Life with Lilies by Irma Stern
Still Life with Lilies by Irma Stern

The Zeitz MOCAA Museum of Contemporary Art Africa is a major new cultural institution that will focus on collecting, preserving, researching, and exhibiting cutting-edge contemporary art from Africa and its diaspora. It is a unique not-for-profit partnership between the V&A Waterfront and Jochen Zeitz

Zeitz MOCAA will be housed in the historic Grain Silo at the V&A Waterfront, with the V&A committing over R500-million to the development required for the establishment of the Museum. This investment will further the development of art in Africa and acknowledges the important cultural and financial contribution the visual arts sector makes.

Considered by many to be the leading collection of contemporary art from Africa and its diaspora, Jochen Zeitz will commit his collection as the founding collection, underwrite the running costs of the Museum and provide a substantial acquisition budget to allow the Museum to acquire new important artworks over time to remain on the edge of contemporary cultural production. The Museum will open to the public in early 2017.

In London and New York, the Africa 1:54 Contemporary Art Fair has also added to the buzz with galleries from the continent exhibiting some of the best new work to come out of the continent.

Pontus Silfverstolpe concludes, “A new day is dawning in Africa which will secure for its artists the kind of recognition, respect and prices which their fellow artist elsewhere can command.”

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