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African art collecting picks up

More African individuals and businesses are spending on or investing in art than a few years earlier, with the focus on contemporary art produced by artists on the African continent or in  locations elsewhere , anecdotal evidence and art market trends suggest. There’s also an emerging trend toward restitution of historical cultural materials now outside Africa.


Ben Enwonwu 1967, Princes of Mali, oil on board, 68.5cm x 121.5 cm. Click on image to enlarge

At Bonhams’ sale 21 May 2014, entitled Africa Now and billed by the auctioneer as a celebration of art from across the African continent, the works that drew most buyers were largely made by Nigerian or Ghanaian artists resident in those countries, lately deceased or settled in Europe or the Americas. Bonhams said the sale made a total in excess of GBP 1 million ($1.67 million) and set new world record prices for at least 10 different artists.

One of the world records set was for Yusuf Adebayo Cameron Grillo (Nigerian, born 1934), whose 1972 painting The Flight, lot 42, which illustrated the cover of the auction catalogue, sold for GBP 62,500. This record was broken a second time just minutes later when lot 52, Woman with Gele, sold for GBP 80,500 against a pre-sale estimate of GBP 30,000-50,000.

The Flight depicts a young family in native Yoruba dress, seated on a bicycle. The artist began the work during the Nigerian civil war (July 1967 -January 1970), and the sight of civilians abandoning their homes to escape the soldiers is said to have reminded Grillo of the flight of the Holy Family from Israel to Egypt: a saw can be seen along with their baggage; a reminder of Joseph’s profession as a carpenter.

Other artist auction records included a sculpture by Bunmi Babatunde (GBP 31,250), a 3D triptych by Peju Alatise (GBP 17,500), a market scene by Ablade Glover (GBP 15,000), a chair made of decommissioned weapons by Goncalo Mabunda (GBP 10,000), a coffin in the form of a Porsche by Paa Joe (GBP 6,500) and paintings by Amon Kotei (GBP 9,375), Aboudia (GBP 9,375) and Uzo Egonu (GBP 9,375).

Cameron Grillo, 1972: The Flight, oil on board, 122cm X 122cm. Click on image to enlarge

Cameron Grillo, 1972: The Flight, oil on board, 122cm x 122cm. Click on image to enlarge

The most valuable picture in the sale was lot 67, a 1976 oil painting Princes of Mali by Ben Enwonwu, which sold for GBP 92,500. Other notable results included his paintings Ogolo (GBP 67,300) and Workers in the Fields (GBP 35,250) and sculptures Anyanwu (GBP 64,900) and Africa Dances (GBP 35,000).

A wooden sculpture by Ghanaian artist El Anatsui (born 1944) titled The Clan sold for GBP 27,500. Now an internationally celebrated sculptor, El Anatsuit’s work is displayed in public institutions around the world, and a major touring exhibition of his work is currently on show at the Bass Museum of Art, Miami, Florida. See links below related to El Anatsui’s work.

On Monday 19 May 2014 Bonhams hosted a charity auction of contemporary Angolan art. Angola received international recognition 2013, when their pavilion at the Venice Biennale was awarded the prestigious Leone d’Oro. Such is the interest in this emerging art market, from international art collectors and speculators alike, that fiercely competitive bidding on the night resulted in a ‘white glove sale’, with 100 percent of the lots selling.

Hannah O’Leary, Bonhams Head of Contemporary African Art commented “Since our inaugural Africa Now auction just five years ago, this market has gone from strength to strength. While artists from at least fifteen African countries were represented, the top prices were reserved for the best pieces by the Nigerian Masters, which seems appropriate for a country celebrating their centenary and that recently became Africa’s largest economy.”

Historical materials, including what the auction industry defines as tribal art, are sold in separate auctions.

Related Links

Art Criticism and Africa | El Anatsui | El Anatsui in conversation

Saffron African Art and Society Series

Author: Editor

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