The African art market has been on an exponential upward growth trajectory prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, but most recently is teetering on the brink of a precipice, thrusting many artists in a conundrum; the status quo, only to be likened to painting a hollow canvas. According to the Clare McAndrew’s report, ‘The Art Market 2020’,90% of art dealers had projected an increase in sales, heading into 2020, but the global pandemic has been diminishing this optimism and momentum. The latest Art Basel and UBS Global Art Market Report, indicates that global art sales achieved a total of $64.1 billion in 2019, 5% decrease from the 67.4 billion of 2018.
The African art scene has long remained unseen, but the last five years have been profoundly fundamental in the growth of this budding industry. It has brought about a renaissance; crossing over a new frontier and gaining global recognition in the international art market. According to ArtTactic, a total of $25.3m, was generated in the first half of 2019, recording a 11.3% decrease, from a similar period in 2018, from international sales of African art, by Sotheby’s, Bonhams, Piasa, Christie’s, Strauss, ArtHouse Nigeria and Phillips; all globally renowned art auction houses.
African works have become subject to international demand, being displayed in the major art capitals of the world, such as New York, London, Paris and Venice. Sotheby’s turnover on its Modern & Contemporary African Art sale in April 2019, generated a total of $3 million; whilst in tandem around the same period in New York, African art sales raked in $1.4 million, at the 1:54 fair, with six works selling above $ 100,000 by top African artists. Using the continent’s diverse beauty, cultural heritage, socio-economic realities and political atmosphere, as their muse, African artists fueled by an electric passion, have been telling dynamic authentic stories through their creative works. The rise of the appeal of contemporary African art, has exposed the wealth of creativity hidden in the vastness of the continent, injecting new life into the blossoming scene, while rousing strong buyer enthusiasm.
The Covid -19 Pandemic has cast a dark shadow over this emerging vibrant industry. With the closure of commercial outlets for their work, from galleries, theatres, auction houses to art fairs, many modern and contemporary African artists have been hit hard by the pandemic. Many gallery workers have also been forced to go on furloughs and some permanently laid off. The pandemic has led to the cancellation of major art fairs, which are the lifeblood of the industry, across the globe such as the Freize London and Freize Masters. The infamous Contemporary African Art Fair 1:54, which had previously been cancelled, is set to take place in a scaled down intimate version this October virtually, where art lovers will have a chance to see and buy works, by some of the best artists from Africa. Similarly, the 2020 Africa Arts Forum, by the World Youth Alliance Africa, also took place via online live broadcast in late August, where the theme was ‘Art as a vehicle for social change,’. The forum was meant to promote African art and inspire African artists, especially in light of the pandemic.
A New Dawn for the African Art Market.
Africa’s art movement has ushered in a new dawn, heralded by its recognition in the global art market, which has been hitherto, dominated by established economies. This unprecedented interest in African pieces is very much welcome, with paintings from the continent fetching for considerably high prices of six to seven figures, putting the industry on the map and sparking international commentaries. The global business and trade of African art is very well enumerated in Christopher Steiner’s influential book, ‘African Art in Transit’, which highlights the commodification of African Art in Western markets. The South African market has been the epicenter of the art industry on the continent, boasting of a well-established gallery system and holding the largest art fairs, such as the Investec Cape Town and FNB Art Joburg, which pulls enormous crowds from around the world. Sotheby’s introduced two auctions per year, after a successful premier sale of modern and contemporary African art in May 2017, that raked in £2.26 million. 2019 sales came in at £5.1million, according to auction analysis by the ArtTactic. The status quo of the continent, has inspired activism-fueled works, that address and highlight pressing and critical pertinent issues affecting the continent. With artists feeling indebted and charged with the responsibility of voicing these socio-political cultural issues, with brutal honesty on canvas, has been appealing to the global audience.
A growing number of African countries have showcased at the prestigious Venice Biennale. This has helped African artists gain visibility, in the international scene. The Parisian auctioneer Piasa, registered a new record total for a sale of African Contemporary Art, at $1.46 million in May 2019. The combined result, auction turnover from sales of modern and contemporary African art, of London and Paris rose to $27.9 million between 2017 and 2019. Bonhams and Sotheby’s auction houses have established their own African contemporary and modern art departments, giving the greenlight that the market is ripe.
According to the Nigerian Art market report, in 2017, African art by Nigerian artists dominated the Bonham’s auctions with 90% value and 64% volume of sales. Art X Lagos, has greatly aided the industry by serving as a marketplace, exhibition space and education hub, awarding both emerging and established artists. In Senegal, the opening of the huge Museum of Black Civilizations in Dakar, in late 2018, is driving renewed interest in art. Another major event is Senegal’s Dakar Biennale, commonly known as Dak’Art, which brings together the best of African art community, to showcase works, celebrate African art and engage in important dialogues. The Art market in Ghana is rapidly growing, boosted by the privilege of having one of the best Art schools in the town of Kumasi. In addition, the Ghanian government’s support has been overwhelming, investing heavily in art promotion; their programme dubbed ‘Year of Return, Ghana 2019, greatly boosted the industry.
The African Artists for Development (AAD), initiated a Pan-African traveling exhibition; Lumières d’Afriques, which features works from 54 artists from each country on the continent, with a vision to illuminate the challenges faced by the African continent. It was first displayed in Paris in 2015. It then traveled to Abidjan (Ivory Coast), Dakar (Senegal), Geneva (Switzerland), Addis Ababa (Ethiopia), Rabat (Morocco) then Johannesburg (South Africa) this year which ran till April. With sales records growing exponentially, Sotheby’s and Bonhams in London, together with Piasa and Artcurial in Paris, have narrowed their focus on contemporary African Art. Cities like Marrakech, which was named as the 2020 African Capital of Culture, marked the first African city to hold the title; together with Lagos and Cape Town, which have established themselves as international art destinations.
African investors are growing in numbers by the day, in acknowledgement of the investment value of African art pieces. High net worth individuals project a great demand in the coming decades. Consequently, they are investing and acquiring pieces while prices remain fairer at present. Governments across the continent, are putting efforts to bolster the industry, by establishing more museums where emerging artists will get an opportunity to showcase their works.
A Collage of African Artists on the Global Art Scene
African modern and contemporary artists have put the continent on the map, with masterpieces gracing the walls of museums and galleries across the world and fetching high prices at that. Ben Enwonwu, considered as the father of Nigerian modernism, is the painter behind what is dubbed as ‘Africa’s Monalisa’, one of the most successful African painters of all time, whose portrait named ‘Christine’ was sold in October 2019, for $1.4 million at an auction in London. Another of his portrait named ‘Tutu’ sold for $1.6 million in 2018. Cheri Samba from the Democratic Republic of Congo made a mark in the industry, with the sale of numerous paintings, generating bids ranging from $122,554, $116,519, $90,302, $59,353, $57,707 at Sotheby’s, Bonhams (London) and Piasa auction houses in 2019. ‘Cyclists in Sophiatown’ by South African artist Gerard Sekoto, was sold at Sotheby’s for £362,500 the second highest sale of an African piece in 2019. El Anatsui, is the second African artist to have won a Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale in 2015, after Malick Sidibé received it in 2002. Other artists who have been featured on the international stage includes, Kenyan artist Wangeci Mutu, Demas Nwoko, Papa Ibra Tall, Alexander Skunder Boghossian, Irma Stern, Ibrahim Mahama, Felicia Abbas, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, John Akomfrah, Selasi Awusi Sosu, Victor Ehikhamenor and Njideka Akunyili Crosby.
African artists from all corners of the continent, have shone at the French auction market, that has greatly aided young African artists to sell creative works. Ugandans Ian Mwesiga sold for $53,000 and Joseph Ntensibe sold for $43,700; Congolese Aboudia Abdoulaye Diarrassouba sold for $ 78,600, Angolan Christiano Mangovo for $37,000 and Central African Dieudonne Sanna Wambeti for $22,000. In 2019, African works by Frédéric Bruly Bouabré, Seydou Keita, Romuald Hazoumé, Moké and Chéri Samba, were integrated into the redevelopment of the American museum’s permanent collection; donated by Jean Pigozzi, a renowned collector of Contemporary African art.
Of Online Versus Live Art Fairs
Art fairs are a driving force in the industry and are always greatly anticipated by artists, collectors and general art lovers. The market boom on contemporary African art, has led to the rapid proliferation and burgeoning of art fairs, specializing in African art. However, in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, most global art fairs have either been postponed or entirely cancelled, as aforementioned. The new normal has birthed online art fairs, with most galleries and auction houses, leveraging on this virtual platform to make sales. This relatively new online art economy is yet to peak, compared to live art fairs.
According to the Art Basel and UBS Art Market 2020 Report, only 5% of total gallery sales were made online in 2019. FNB Art Joburg and South Africa’s Latitudes Art Fair have already launched online exhibitions. Art Basel also conducted an online fair in June, that raked in more sales in installation art, than would have been at a live event. One advantage of online fairs is that they can go on for months, as opposed to live ones that only run for a few days to a week. Cape Town’s Zeitz MOCAA and the Museum of African Contemporary Art Al Maaden (MACAAL) in Marrakech, hold art fairs and have provided space for African artists to develop and showcase their craft.
Despite this remarkable growth, a plethora of challenges face the continent, which trickle down and are filtered into the art market. Corruption has led to slow economic growth and political uncertainty, which has had a domino effect and stagnated most industries. Lack of adequate government support, high levels of poverty with few art schools to hone and nurture artists, are among the numerous roadblocks, that have marred the potential of the industry to fully blossom. Africa, combined with South America, make up less than 4% of global sales, whilst the US, China and UK account for a combined 83% of the value of the global art market, according to the Art Basel and UBS Art Market 2020 Report. Therefore, the industry is still a very young emerging market that needs to be nurtured.
By June Njoroge.