Contemporary African art



The first decade of the new millennium saw the emergence on the global art market of contemporary art from Latin-America, China, Korea, Japan, Russia, Turkey and the Middle-East. By comparison, African art has been very slow to emerge… but for how long?

Although African art is clearly an enormous and extremely diversified field, the global art market has not yet given it much attention. However, over the last 20 years or so, a number of African artists whose works have been exhibited in international art fairs, Biennials and major exhibitions and have found an audience and gained a degree of recognition beyond their frontiers. The large-scale spotlights on African art during this period have included Les magiciens de la terre at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 1989, Africa Explores: 20th Century African Art at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York in 1991 and the itinerant Africa Remix exhibition from 2004 to 2007. These events have revealed artists like Yinka SHONIBARE, Chéri SAMBA, Marlene DUMAS, Kendell GEERS, William KENTRIDGE, Ousmane SOW, Moustapha DIMÉ, Georges ADÉAGBO and Pascale Marthine TAYOU.

On the secondary market, Sotheby’s was the first major auction house to handle contemporary African art with the sale of the Jean Pigozzi collection on 24 June 1999 in London. The market for African art being still almost non-existent at the time, the sale attracted only a small coterie of collectors. However, the event generated a modest new record of £10,000 (less than $16,000) for a mixed-technique work by the South African artist Willie BESTER (at first-ever international auction appearance).
In fact, apart from its association with the South African auctioneer, Stephan Welz & Co, Sotheby’s has not subsequently dedicated any of its London or New York sales to African art. Bonhams on the other hand has been more active in the domain and its most recent sale Africa Now: African Contemporary Art (64% of lots sold) on 8 April 2009 confirmed demand for three African artists: The “moderns” Benedict Chukwukadibia ENWONWU and El ANATSUI and the “contemporary” William Kentridge, the only artists who generated results above £10,000 at that sale.
The French auctioneer Gaïa, specialised in non-Western art, has become an unavoidable focal point for collectors with two sales dedicated to contemporary African art every year. On 8 December 2008, Gaïa generated a series of new records including €39,500 for Abdoulaye KONATÉ’s auction debut (Symphonie Bleue 8 R.), €18,000 for OWUSU-ANKOMAH’s Sonneprinz, and €8,000 for Soly CISSÉ’s Période de chaleur, a “gestural” fresco measuring 3 metres. On 1 June 2009, Gaïa posted another major record when Ousmane SOW’s sculpture Toussaint Louverture et la vieille esclave fetched €197,000.

The stars of the market:
Contemporary African art has also benefited from the price inflation of the recent speculative bubble on the art market and the simultaneous modish interest in “emerging” art. Its price index showed a very strong progression over five years (+ 370% from January 2002 to January 2007) followed by a contraction of 25% between January 2007 and January 2010.Apart from William Kentridge, the South-African Marlène Dumas and the Ethiopian Julie MEHRETU are among the most sought-after African artists on the global art market.On 10 November 2004, at Christie’s in New York, Marlène Dumas moved into a new price dimension when her painting Jule, die Vrou fetched five times its estimate at $1.1m. Since then, seven of her works have sold above the $1m line and on 9 February 2009 her “The Teacher (sub a)” fetched close to $3m ($1.6m) at Christie’s in London.
2009 was also an excellent year for Julie Mehretu who signed her two best auction results during the June London sales (£200,000, [$330,000] for Dervish at Sotheby’s and £190,000 [$314,000] for Transients at Christie’s) and for William Kentridge whose Drawing From Felix in Exile generated his record auction result, equivalent to à $176,000, on 17 November at Stephan Welz & Co. in Johannesburg.

These results are no doubt encouraging for the major auction houses and we would expect to see further auction room successes by this trio of artists during 2010 … perhaps at the upcoming Africa Now sale programmed for 10 March 2010 in New York.