After 20 years of more or less successful attempts, African creation is finally capturing the hearts and minds of international collectors. A new era is starting for Contemporary African art which has now established firm outlets in places like Venice and New York.
In the Africa and Diasporas chapter of our previous Contemporary Art Market Report (2017/2018), we took stock of the extraordinary growth of Afro-American and Afro-British art, led notably by Kerry James MARSHALL, Njideka Akunyili CROSBY, Adam PENDLETON, Toyin Ojih ODUTOLA, Yinka SHONIBARE, Hurvin ANDERSON and Henry TAYLOR. This year, our focus is on artists who actually live on the African continent, whose prices are less flamboyant, but whose work is increasingly subject to international demand.
Multiplied by 10 in 20 years
Twenty years ago, Sotheby’s sold a selection of African works from Jean Pigozzi’s famous collection (24 June 1999, London). The sale marked a turning point, as it was the first big sale organized by a major international company. The price of the works was low (not more than $18,000), but almost all the lots sold (88%).
20 years later, Sotheby’s turnover on African art sales has grown tenfold and its Modern & Contemporary African Art sale in April 2019 generated a total of $3 million from a similar number of lots, implying a very sharp rise in prices.
Demand is at last taking root…
It has taken roughly twenty years for collectors to get used to the idea of buying works by African artists. During this period specialised African Art sales tended to produce depressing ratios: 60% unsold at Bonhams in London in 2010… 74% unsold for Artcurial Paris the same year… 72% unsold at Bonhams’ Africa Now sale in 2016 … Nowadays, the unsold rates fluctuate between 25% and 45%.
The trend appears to have improved roughly two years ago, when Sotheby’s Modern and Contemporary African Art Department opened in London. Since the first session of 16 May 2017 (sold rate of 79%, turnover total of $3.6 million), the company has hammered more than 60 new auction records for African artists. This success has been driven by a handful of new stars of the market, including El Anatsui, the second African artist to have won a Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale (2015) after Malick Sidibé (2002).
A window in Venice
African artists are again highly visible in Venice this year with El Anatsui not the only one attracting attention. His work accompanies works by Ibrahim Mahama, Felicia Abbas, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, John Akomfrah and Selasi Awusi Sosuat the first Ghanaian pavilion of this unavoidable biennial art fair. Africa has never had such good exposure in Venice, with representations from seven of the continent’s 54 countries.
The strong Venetian presence helps to broaden the circle of international admirers and collectors. Since he was awarded a Golden Lion in 2015, El ANATSUI has enjoyed two new 7-digit results. Similarly, after Malick SIDIBÉ won the same prize in 2002 there was an acceleration of transactions and a significant growth of his annual auction turnover from $5,000 to $44,000 between 2006 and 2007. Since the beginning of this year, the Malian photographer (Sidibé died in 2016) has a new auction record at $87,500 for an installation of 38 photographs sold at Swann Galleries in New York on 21 February 2019.
The Venice Biennale acts as a catalyst. It influences the behavior of buyers by ensuring the international visibility of the artists. Likewise with the proliferation of major exhibitions and fairs dedicated to African art, such as the rapid development of the 1:54 art fair launched by Toura El Glaoui in London (2013), then in New York (2015) and in Marrakech (2018). The internationalization of the Contemporary African scene is making it possible to attract a loyal and growing audience.