Contemporary African Art on the Rise

Ihosvanny, Improv with Triangles IV, 2015, Mixed media on canvas, 202 x 180 cm / 80 x 71in, Courtesy MOV’art Gallery 

Sotheby’s London recently held its first ever sale of contemporary African art. After a decade of steadily rising interest in this small sector of international art market, it’s finally come into the spotlight. The relatively successful sale brings about discussion of the (im)maturity of African art, its status in the international contemporary scene, and gentrification. Ultimately, for many, the sale raises the questions of what is Africa art and whats signs indicate its ascention within contemporary art?

African artists have long been considered outsiders, other than a few internationally popular names, and this presents a major opportunity for many of them to enter the global scene. While this sounds like a great opportunity to some, it may seem like art gentrification to others. As soon as it gets marked as high culture, both the art and the artists gain significant value. This will coincidentally draw investors, private collectors and auction houses to step in, all wanting to grab a piece of the action. What was once indigenous, genuine and authentic may fall into the centrifuge of trendiness, and eventually get corrupted by the currents of the mainstream art market. After all, when an auction giant such as Sotheby’s displays an interest in something, it is more than likely just the beginning of a stream of interest that is to come from other Western museums, galleries and auction houses.

On the other hand, without the support of the Wester art world, Contemporary African art has gone widely under the radar of most. This might prove to be a chance for the well-deserving artists to gain some visibility and proper attention. However, in order for the African continent not to lose all of its artistic treasures, it is necessary that African collectors and those based in Africa also participate in the market. After years of socio-political turmoil, dictatorships and civil wars, there is a notable rise of the wealthier and art-inclined cosmopolitan class which shows keen interest in art and culture of the continent. It is also up to the governmental and nongovernmental institutions to support and maintain well-run public collections so that all the people can enjoy African art, rather than lose these treasure to artist gentrification.

As the name of the Sotheby’s show suggests, Art/Africa: le nouvel atelier (the new studio) is a new discovery, but this isn’t really true. Venice Biennales and Documentas have featured African artists on numerous occasions over the past decade, and the specialist art fair 1:54 has been instrumental in  introducing African artists to London and New York collectors. As for the Sotheby’s auction, 83 pieces were sold for a total of almost $4 million, and a single sculpture by El Anatsui’s, composed of reclaimed aluminum bottle caps and copper wire, sold for approximately $950,000. The fact is that Westerners still know very little about this, yet untapped, piece of the art market. Many are still reluctant to risk higher sums when it comes to African art due to the lack of major institutional support.  In the end, sales by important players such as this one can surely help towards developing and exposing Contemporary African art and other lesser supported art scenes to the global view.

In New York, missed the spring edition of 1:54 and interested in learning more about contemporary African Art? Visit Brooklyn’s MoCADA, currently showing My Collection: A Benefit Auction & Exhibition through June 4th . MoCada had been championing contemporary African Arts since its inception in 1999, long before the current wave of interest.


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