New Perspectives for South African Artists


In auction terms, the bulk of the African art market is focused on the continent’s southern tip in Cape Town and Johannesburg via local sales companies such as Aspire Art Auction, Stephan Welz & Co., Strauss & Co. and Russell Kaplan Auctioneers. Although there is talk of a “boom” in activity, it is worth remembering South Africa accounts for just 0.3% of global fine Art auction turnover… Nevertheless, it is true this market is maturing rapidly with a good balance between supply and demand illustrated by an unsold rate of 36% (in line with the global average) and lots of recent developments like the opening, two years ago, of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (MOCAA). This ‘African Tate Modern’ has already greatly contributed to the cultural outreach of Cape Town and the internationalisation of the markets of artists who have been exhibited there, including Kudzanai Chiurai, Nandipha Mntambo and Zanele Muholi. These three artists are beginning to generate substantial prices in South Africa’s domestic market, and are enjoying strong support from Sotheby’s and Phillips in London.

The Continent’s high-end market (above $100,000) essentially relies on three Modern artists – Alexis Preller (1911-1975), Irma Stern (1894-1966) and Jacob Hendrik Pierneef (1886-1957) – plus one iconic Contemporary Artist… William Kentridge.

Kentridge… pillar of the African Market

William KENTRIDGE is the mainstay of South Africa’s Contemporary art market. He is, to date, the only Contemporary South African artist regularly able to generate results above $100,000 in his home country, and his recent results in Johannesburg suggest that local demand is growing quickly. On 28 October 2018, one of his large charcoal drawings – Drawing from Stereoscope (Double page, Soho in two rooms)fetched more than $450,000 in Johannesburg at Aspire Art Auction. New York has already hammered million-plus results for Kentridge, but this was a record for South Africa. His market appears to have acquired new momentum after a retrospective at the MoMA in 2010. A few months after that show, Kentridge was among the top-rated artists in the world in the field of video art after the sale of his installation Preparing the flute for $602,500 for triple its high estimate at Sotheby’s (11 May 2011, New York). Clearly the MoMA show boosted his prices. Two years later, his work Procession generated a spectacular new record in New York when it fetched over $1.5 million versus a high estimate of $400,000.

  • Kentridge’s price index has risen 576% since his MoMA retrospective in 2010.

Marlène Dumas, the growth continues…

Unlike her compatriot Kentridge who still lives and works in his home country, Marlene DUMAS has been living in Amsterdam for 40 years. Perhaps as a result they have very different market structures: almost half of Kentridge’s auction turnover comes from South Africa versus 22% from the United States (since 2017), whereas Dumas is under-represented on the African market, except for the minor works. Her best works are sold in New York, which accounts for 77% of her auction turnover, and London (21%). Represented by the very international David Zwirner gallery (the most influential personality in Contemporary art in 2018 according to Artreview’s “Power 100” ranking), Marlene Dumas enjoys strong auction demand. The growth in her prices has been phenomenal: up 929% since 2001, posting a steeper increase than Kentridge. Her record is also significantly higher since the sale, in 2008, of her painting The visitor for the tidy sum of $6.3 million (Sotheby’s London).

  • $100 invested in 2001 in a work by Marlene DUMAS is worth an average of $1,029 (+929%) in July 2019. However, her auction record has not been refreshed for 11 years…

In addition to these two stars of the African market, several South African artists stand out for excellent photographic work which has triggered a veritable rush, and one that seems to be spreading to other countries as well…

Top class photographers

South Africa has produced some truly remarkable photographers in what might be called a ‘humanist’ tradition, i.e. using cameras to make social and political commentary. Some of these have been recognised well beyond their continent’s borders. The works of David Goldblatt, Pieter Hugo and Guy Tillim are admired all over the world.

Considered the father of South African photography, David GOLDBLATT died in June 2018 at the age of 88, shortly after a retrospective devoted to his work at the Center Pompidou in Paris (more than two hundred photographs exhibited between February and May 2018). For Bernard Blistène, director of the prestigious Parisian museum, Goldblatt is “one of the greatest photographers of the second half of the 20th century.” For 70 years, he focused on the daily lives of apartheid society riddled with inequality and social injustice. He was also the first South African to be honored with an exhibition at the MoMA in New York (1998) and later received several major awards including the Hasselblad Award in 2006 and the Henri Cartier-Bresson Prize in 2009. However, his works are not over-priced. On the contrary: his auction record stands at no more than $25,000, hammered at Strauss & Co in February 2018 (The road to Nqondwana, Transkei, 2007, Cape Town). David Goldblatt is passionately supported by the Goodman Gallery which has shown his work in Johannesburg alongside that of Peter Magubane; Goodman subsequently devoted its entire stand to Goldblatt at the last Paris Photo fair. The artist’s influence is all the stronger since he founded (during the apartheid years) the Market Photo Workshop, a school of photography that has become a reference in Africa and which has trained many of South Africa’s young photographers.

Another must-see photographer has caught the market’s attention: the immense Pieter HUGO is represented by the Stevenson Gallery and enjoys a distribution network via galleries in Germany (Priska Pasquer), the United States (Yossi Mila Gallery) and London (We Folk). He has exhibited in museums all over the world and received numerous awards for his work on racial diversity, economic disparities in South Africa, the marginalized, the blind, albinos and AIDS patients. Several series have become iconic, including his powerful photos of Nigerian hyena-taming travelling performers (The Hyena and other men). The photos in this series are very popular. One of them, showing a tamer accompanied by a little girl sitting on the back of a formidable animal, generated the artists recent auction record. Estimated at less than $28,000, the photo reached $76,000 last May at Christie’s in London (Mummy Ahmadu and Mallam Mantari Lamal with Mainasara, Abuja, Nigeria).

Among the rising generation of artists in South Africa, don’t miss Athi-Patra RUGA (represented by the Whatiftheworld Gallery in Cape Town) and his superb work on Queer identity. Awarded the Seydou Keita prize for his series Queens in Exile in 2017 at the 11th edition of African Photography Encounters in Bamako, his best photographs and tapestries (recently shown at the Vuitton Foundation in Paris in the Art Afrique exhibition) fetch more than $20,000 in South Africa and he is beginning to sell in France and the UK.

Lastly, we note the emergence of the twins Hasan and Husain Essop (in their thirties) who last year contributed to the show After the Thrill is Gone: Fashion, Politics, and Culture in Contemporary South African Art at the San Francisco MoAD. Their favorite subjects include culture, politics and the role of the individual in society. The brothers take photos of carefully choreographed scenes (in which they often feature) which are still relatively inexpensive (less than $5,000 for large formats), but their growing reputation is inflating their prices in African auction houses. Their presence in London catalogs is only a matter of time.