- According to Statista, Africa contributed a sum of US$13 B in 2018 to the global art market which is predicted to rise to US$15B by 2023
- African art has become the subject of bidding wars, with high sales of artworks pertinently at globally renowned auction houses such as Bonhams, Piasa, Christie’s, Sotheby’s, Strauss and Philips
- International African sales in the first half of 2019 by Christie’s, Bonhams, Sotheby’s, Phillips, Piasa, Strauss and ArtHouse Nigeria; generated a total of US$25.3 M
- The major roadblocks to accessing arts education in Africa are the lack of sufficient learning institutions and enough trainers
Demand for African art has been firmly taking root, perpetuating the newly found global prominence and recording a meteoric rise that is projected to continue growing exponentially in 2022.
Consequently, this market boom has been rapidly driving colossal investments from both indigenous and international investors, rushing to tap into the fairly nascent lucrative frontier. According to Statista, Africa contributed a sum of US$13 B in 2018 to the global art market which is predicted to rise to US$15B by 2023.
African art has become the subject of bidding wars, with high sales of artworks pertinently at globally renowned auction houses such as Bonhams, Piasa, Christie’s, Sotheby’s, Strauss and Philips; depicting the enormous growth registered by the budding industry, previously dominated by established economies.
The rise of Modern and Contemporary African artists on the market in Europe and the US; together with the increase in museum shows dedicated to them, has become a phenomenon. This gigantic market shift has been marked by a spike in appetite for works by African artists, not only translating into profit; but also casting a spotlight on the wealth of creativity hidden in the vastness of the continent, injecting new life into the blossoming scene, whilst rousing strong buyer optimism and enthusiasm.
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Review of the African art market
According to ArtTactic, international African sales in the first half of 2019 by Christie’s, Bonhams, Sotheby’s, Phillips, Piasa, Strauss and ArtHouse Nigeria; generated a total of US$25.3 M, 11.3 per cent less than the first half of 2018. In Sotheby’s alone, the turnover on African art sales has grown tremendously, with its Modern Contemporary African Art sale in April 2019, generating a total of US$3M. This was instigated by the sale of Jean Pigozzi’s African works by Sotheby’s in 1999, which marked a somewhat light bulb moment for the leading auction house.
In 2017, the acclaimed auction house held another successful inaugural auction, which garnered a sold rate of 79 per cent and a turnover of 3.6M. Since then, Sotheby’s holds two auctions of exclusively African art annually. By the same token, the Parisian auctioneer Piasa, registered a new record total for a sale of African Contemporary Art, at US$1.46 million in May 2019. The combined result, auction turnover from sales of modern and contemporary African art, in London and Paris rose to US$27.9 million between 2017 and 2019. The Venice Biennale has additionally been serving as a visibility catalyst, for African artists to international buyers, and many artists credit their success to this platform.
The pivotal role played by auctions cannot be undermined, having propelled African artists to the global scene, and consequently bolstering their livelihoods. In light of this, since 2019, emerging African artists have amassed nearly US$65M at auctions. The emergence of art fairs has been a godsend for the industry allowing artists and galleries to grow, expanding their network. For instance, Investec Cape Town Art Fair launched in 2012, Art Joburg in South Africa launched in 2008, 1-54 fair in 2013, Art X Lagos in 2016. The sale of paintings by the late former South African president Nelson Mandela, is currently ongoing at Bonhams, which are being sold as non-fungible tokens (NFTs); titled ‘My Robben Island’ which comprises five watercolours.
Inarguably, the Covid-19 pandemic shocks reverberated across the art world and led to the establishment of online sale auctions.
For instance, Sotheby’s held its first online auction during lockdown which yielded positive sales, garnering US$2.9 M setting new records for five artists, Zimbabwean painter Richard Mudariki, Tanzanian painter Elias Jengo, Nigerian painter Shina Yussuff, Mozambican painter Bertina Lopes and Cameroonian photographer Samuel Fosso.
In addition, still in March Sotheby’s exceeded presale estimates by 40 per cent, selling US$3.7M worth of art from 34 countries. The Emerging African Art Galleries Association (EAAGA), which consists of galleries in South Africa, Nigeria, Senegal, Zimbabwe, Angola, Mozambique and Uganda; was also keen to cushion African artists by leveraging on the online platform, to maintain momentum in sales, content and contact with audiences and collectors alike.
The rise in prices has led to growth and expansion of Africa’s industry; for instance, Galerie Cecile Fakhoury in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, has opened a second space in Dakar and is set to launch a third in Paris, France.
Similarly, Gallery 1957 boasts three spaces in Accra and one in South Kensington, London. The spike in prices has been especially attributed to a handful of artists such as Amoako Boafo, from Ghana whose prices are estimated to have increased sharply from 2018 to 2020, after being championed by the influential Rubell family of collectors. This swayed other collectors who began picking out his works from his gallery and auctions, selling them for millions. For instance, his ’Hands Up’ piece was bought by an Asian buyer, at Christie’s Hong Kong auction for US$3.3M.
Another prominent artist in Africa is Nigeria’s Ben Enwonwu, famous for several pieces including one dubbed as Africa’s Monalisa named ‘Christine’, which sold for US$1.4 M at an auction in London in 2019. In the same breath, his other piece ‘Tutu’ sold for U$1.6 M in 2018. Cheri Samba has made a mark in the industry, with the sale of numerous paintings, generating bids ranging from US$ 122,554, US$116,519, US$90,302, US$59,353, US$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 clinched it in 2002.
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Colonial Legacy: The return of African art heirlooms
Estimates suggest that 80 to 90 per cent of Sub-Saharan African art is located outside the continent, resulting from plunder, looting and theft during the colonial era. Africa has had sour relations with France and the Africa-France Summit held in the last quarter of 2021, provided an opportune platform to iron out issues and attempt to right past wrongs that happened during the colonial period.
French President Emmanuel Macron acknowledged the colonial pillage and to facilitate restitution and repatriation of the artworks back to Africa, France’s parliament passed a law, allowing the state to hand over the works.
Macron made a vow that his country would finally fulfil its long-standing promise to return 26 African artworks, revered statues, royal thrones and ceremonial altars to Benin. He further noted that other works had already been returned to Senegal and Benin, and the restitution of the works would give African young people access to their culture.
For years on end, the artworks dubbed the ‘Abomey Treasures’ have been held in the Quai Branly Museum in Paris, which is home to works from former French colonies. They have been the subject of ongoing discussions, to be returned home, having been taken from the 19th century Dahomey Kingdom.
Why Investments in Africa’s Art Education are crucial for its growth
Despite being a key economic driver, on a continent whose development hinges heavily on its creative industries; art education and its consequent disciplines, have been largely neglected in Africa, with preference given to STEM programmes. This has led to the stunted development of the vibrant industry, whereby most artists practice their diverse crafts in art informally or travel abroad to acquire an art education from renowned prestigious institutions.
Art education remains among the underfunded curricula, often sidelined in most stages of education, especially at primary and secondary levels; yet it’s during these formative levels that interest in art is ignited, moulded and nurtured. Undoubtedly, education is the key to the growth of any industry, and the lack of it in the art sector has massively caused enormous dents.
The major roadblocks to accessing arts education in Africa are the lack of sufficient learning institutions and enough trainers thereof, old art curricula, ignorant misconceptions about art as a discipline and lack of sufficient investments into the sector.
Perceptions revolving around picking art disciplines and careers thereof, need to be demystified and the correlation that pursuing formal education in the arts, is due to lack of sufficient intellect or failure to meet academic entry requirements; into presumably more ‘marketable’ faculties such as science, mathematics, economics or law, need to be dismantled.
The uptake of art subjects should not be viewed as an alternative, or fallback plan and only good as a hobby, but as a potentially fruitful career. Africa lacks sufficient art trainers and teachers, which is a major impediment to access to arts education for many children that emanates from the poor intake in the arts faculties in teacher-training tertiary institutions, therefore, robbing them of the full value of an arts education.
UNESCO hosted the first World Conference on Arts Education in Lisbon in 2006, and laid a roadmap to promote qualitative development and growth of arts education, and of materials to support teachers in their work, as integral components of arts education.
Lineo Segoete, a renowned scholar argues that “The successful implementation of the art education on the continent, must therefore be informed by dismantling and unlearning Eurocentric ideologies in the African-aesthetic realm.”
In reiteration, an effective arts education programme encompasses innovating the old teaching approaches in terms of the curriculum; as well as deploying new technologies and inventing new ways of thinking, to stay current and relevant.
Other existential wounds ailing Africa’s art industry, on the whole, stem from the endemic corruption that has permeated into the industry, eating into government support coupled with poor infrastructure and high poverty levels.
To propel the industry, the deficits in African art education need to be sealed, which includes establishing more art schools, revising the art curricula and increasing trainers. Respective governments across the continent need to amplify their support of the industry, attracting investments both regionally and internationally.
Furthermore, art disciplines need to be thoroughly promoted to dispel false perceptions.