Contemporary African art, in France and elsewhere



African art has enjoyed major exhibitions since the late 80s, a higher level of exposure since the early 2000s, the constitution of a number of important collections, the development of local institutions in Africa… and the organisation of specialised auction sales in London, Paris and New York since 2009/2010. In short, Contemporary African art is increasingly present on the global art market.

Today, the major auction operators are following Africa’s Contemporary artists with keen interest and are actively participating in their “emergence” and international reach. The results of these sales have not always lived up to expectations, especially in the early days. Among the forerunners in this field, the French auction house Gaia (since 2007) and Bonhams with its annual Africa Now sale in London (launched in 2009). The commitment of these two companies to African art has been exemplary and is ongoing. Others tried to accelerate the trend, notably in 2010, with the first sales dedicated to Contemporary African scene at Pierre Bergé (Jonathan Zebina Collection: a self-taught view, from New Realism to the African vanguard), Artcurial (Africa scenes) and Phillips de Pury & Company in New York (Africa).
Although the results of these sales were mixed, sometimes with high unsold rates, they have allowed the emergence of a number of reference names in the field and their corresponding price profiles. These names include William KENTRIDGE, Chéri SAMBA, El ANATSUI, Yinka SHONIBARE, Romuald HAZOUMÉ, Skunder BOGHOSSIAN, Bruce ONOBRAKEPEYA, Soly CISSÉ, Cheri CHERIN, Yusuf GRILLO and Benedict Chukwukadibia ENWONWU. .

This October, the primary location for sales of African art was Paris African Stories, Art Contemporain Africain at Piasa (7 October 2014) curated by none other than André Magnin, who built and then directed the famous Pigozzi collection and has organized numerous exhibitions including Out of Africa in London, African Art Now in Houston and 100 % Africa at the Guggenheim in Bilbao.
The star signatures of this sale included Frédéric BRULY BOUABRE, an Ivorian poet/artist born in 1921 or 1923 who died in January 2014. Bouabré created the “alphabet Bété”, a totally original system of writing, and he gained international recognition after his participation in the famous The Magicians of the Earth exhibition at London’s Tate Modern in 2010 and more recently at the 2013 Venice Biennial. However, despite his notoriety, none of Bouabré’s works had fetched more than €/$8,000. On October 7, Piasa offered a majestic work composed of 150 drawings in colored crayons and ball-point pens (each drawing signed and dated on the back, 14.3 × 10.7 cm). The large-scale work, titled Les liens sacrés du mariage, was estimated €100,000 – €120,000, an attractive price considering it implied a price of less than €700 euros for each drawing whereas Bouabré’s individual drawings usually fetch more than €1000.
The sale could not have failed to include works by Chéri SAMBA and, in effect, Piasa managed to offer three works by the artist, including a painting from the famous J’aime la couleur (2004) series that was earmarked at a new record between €/$70,000 and 90,000 and sold for €77,420 including fees). J’aime la couleur remains the artist’s most sought-after series since 2008 (Jean Pigozzi has one in his collection). Like Bouabré, Samba’s artistic career acquired an international dimension after the Magicians of the Earth exhibition, and his work has also been shown at the Venice Biennial (in 2007). Like Bouabré, many of his works, outside his flagship series, can be acquired for less than €/$5,000 at auctions.

Other top-selling artists were: Billie Zangewa (born 1973) with €16,000 for Sweet dreams (2010) and Romuald Hazoumè (born 1962) with €10,000 for his Aspirant chef.

With bids under €10,000, buyers acquired works by artists MOKE, Pathy TSHINDELE (born 1976), Gérard QUENUM (born 1971), and the youngsters Steve BANDOMA (born 1981) and Chiurai KUDZANAI (born 1981).

The market for Contemporary African art is still offering works – including important works – at very reasonable prices – especially compared to the old traditional African art. Because, while Contemporary African art has clearly achieved international respect, it has yet to develop its true value potential on the international art market.