Bruce Onobrakpeya’s ‘Environmental Regeneration’

Uncharted Territory: the African contemporary art market

African contemporary art has exploded on the Western scene in recent years but it’s still not too late to get in at the ground level

If you are looking to buy something new and hot, you should definitely check out African contemporary art. But you’d better hurry: some artists are already competing at the highest level and prices are starting to soar.

That’s the view of Giles Peppiatt, Director of African Art at Bonhams. The work is so good, and the market so hungry, that the auction house held a groundbreaking sale in New York this spring, following the success of its first UK sale.

Phillips de Pury followed suit with its New York African art sale and exhibition in May, while the recent Johannesburg Art Fair attracted more than 10,000 visitors, proving that it’s not just a flash in the pan.

“We had quite a lot of American buyers bidding in our sale in April, which was one of the reasons we came out to New York,” says Peppiatt. “There’s a lot of interest in African contemporary art here. There’s a very large African-American buying constituency.”

But it’s not just private collectors who are buying African contemporary work. Many of the larger museums are also starting or improving their collections.

“It’s an unexplored area by museums so we have a lot of interest from people like the Smithsonian, the New York Museum of Modern Art, and the British Museum – Chris Spring [director of African art] has been in the vanguard and has been encouraging us to acquire more pieces.”

There are also markets in Africa itself – though at different levels in different countries.

“You’ve got the domestic markets, which in Nigeria is very strong and vibrant – and a lot of the artists we are selling are Nigerian. Ghana also has quite a strong market. In other countries it’s less developed. Cameroon has a very nascent one; Kenya and Mozambique both have smaller markets.

“Certainly, the buyers from Africa are important, and there are quite a lot of buyers and collectors in Italy, Germany and the UK, as well as the US.”

But how can one define what must be disparate styles from all the countries of that huge continent? Peppiatt explains that Bonhams has chosen its artists simply by the quality of work and the prices they have fetched before.

“It’s very difficult to group Africa as one country. We have done it purely for convenience, not because aesthetically or culturally it would be logical.”

But it’s not a market that has an enormous amount of material, he adds, so it would not be practical to have a sale of just, say, Ghanaian contemporary art.

“At the moment the majority of the collectors are people who have an interest or contact with Africa.”

“African” art is generally considered to be sub-Saharan, as well. North of the Sahara is mainly classified as Islamic art, which has different styles and different collectors.

Reinventing Traditions

Contemporary artists from Africa have a range of different styles, says Peppiatt. Many are not still resident in Africa but are working from studios in London and New York. The best – that is, the most collectable – are developing their own style, often based on traditional motifs, which is an important thing to look for if you want to buy.

“Certainly, one of the most important things is that contemporary artists are producing work that is a product of their own.

“A lot of artists out there are very much influenced by the whole Western aesthetic. They look in the catalogues and galleries in London and New York and think ‘That’s what I’ve got to do; what will sell well.’ And that’s always a great mistake. So you have to choose work that is very much a product of Africa, not a product of imitation.

“In Nigeria, for example, the Oshogbo School had some of the best artists working in the Sixties and early Seventies, and their influence can be seen in later artists. They are taking on their own styles and artistic heritage, and changing them and interpreting them the same way.

“That’s what they should be doing; that’s what we would expect, because there’s a lot of rubbish out there – my inbox is groaning with some appalling pictures.”

The major African contemporary artists are on a par with the biggest in the Western art world, Peppiatt says.

“El Anatsui, Romuald Hazoume and Yinka Shonibare are very important artists. Anatsui’s works are fetching £5-600,000 – big, big money. Shonibare’s are getting £100,000 and Hazoume will fetch £ 3-4000.

“They are important and worthy of buying because they were the first and that’s always going to be regarded of great importance. The people at the top of the pyramid, the groundbreakers, are the ones who are recognised and get the plaudits and the fame.”

At Bonham’s New York sale, the top prices were for works by Nigerian Ben Enwonwu (1917-1994), whose ‘Dancing Boys’ went for $92,500, against a pre-sale estimate of $80,000-120,000. mixed-media piece by Nigerian Bruce Onobrakpeya, ‘Environmental Regeneration’, sold for $42,700 against a pre-sale estimate of $35,000-45,000, setting a new world auction record.

But if you can’t afford such big-name artists – and their prices – you can get in at the ground level for anywhere from a couple of thousand dollars. And if you’re quick, you might be on to a good thing.


Bonhams next South African sale will be held in London, 26-27 October.

Above image: Bruce Onobrakpeya’s ‘Environmental Regeneration’ which sold in Bonhams for $42,700 in the New York sale last February (2010)

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