With his deftly rendered paintings fusing digital textures with portraits of disappearing ethnic groups in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the Congolese artist Eddy Kamuanga Ilunga emphasizes globalization’s modernizing effects on his home. His eponymous solo show, his first in the United Kingdom, which opened at London’s October Gallery in late June, highlights capitalism’s role in accelerating the disappearance of traditional cultures, including that of the DRC’s threatened northeastern Mangbetu people. But Kamuanga Ilunga’s debut here tells another story.
His work’s arrival, on sale for $16,000–18,000 per piece, is further evidence of London’s bullish art market for contemporary African art. A swathe of new galleries, expanding institutional collections, exhibitions, and a vibrant auction market have recently led to Sotheby’s launching its first dedicated auction for African modern and contemporary work in May 2017. And while the notion of combining an entire continent’s culture under a single rubric does not nearly do justice to its diversity, prices within this sector are rising steadily, and represent an opportunity for collectors looking for a relatively affordable alternative to more established contemporary art submarkets.
“If you look at the art market as a whole, London definitely sits at the forefront of the more international collecting categories,” said Hannah O’Leary, Sotheby’s head of modern and contemporary African art, who joined the house in May. “And the reason is that many of these collectors from these countries pass through London. There’s a real presence, and that does give us a benefit.” She added that historical links between the U.K. and former African colonies—“whether good or bad”—created cultural connections absent from competing metropolitan art centers like New York.
With lots varying wildly in estimated and sale price, overall, London auction prices for top-name contemporary African artists have been rising steadily in recent years. In May, at Bonhams’s “Africa Now” auction, the most recent of its kind in London, Ghanaian sculptor El Anatsui—one of the world’s most high-profile African artists—saw his 1999 sculpture Used Towel selling for £176,500 (including premium), a record for a wooden sculpture by the artist. While his overall auction record was set in May 2014 at Sotheby’s New York, with his 2006 work Paths to the Okro Farm selling for $1.4 million (again, including premium), auction database records reveal that when his works go on sale in London they frequently smash their upper pre-sale estimates. Bonhams’s May auction, a first for London when it was launched in 2009, took more than £2 million in total, double the same sale a year previously.
Giles Peppiatt, director of modern and contemporary African art at Bonhams, said he expected Bonhams’s turnover in the sector to double in 2016. “I don’t think Africa’s unique,” he added. “It’s following quite a well-trodden path of wealth creation, wealthy individuals aspiring to buy art and buying art with which they are familiar, work that comes from their country. That would be the same as Russia, India, or China.”
While a familiar path—and mirroring global growth which saw The Armory Show’s Focus section in New York back in March cast its own spotlight on the continent—London has seen a steady stream of galleries opening to cater to or support the field. While October Gallery blazed a trail when it opened in 1979, Jack Bell Gallery, Tyburn Gallery, Tiwani Contemparary, Sulger-Buel Lovell, the Gallery of African Art (GAFRA), 50Golborne, Circa Gallery, and Vigo Gallery have all opened in London since 2009 and cater to the area. (There are outliers, like Tanya Baxter Contempoaray, which opened in London in 1998.) That same period also saw London’s Tate launch two new acquisition committees—the Middle East and North Africa Acquisitions Committee, in 2009, and the African Acquisitions Committee, in 2011. And the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair launched here in 2013.
Quite typically within such a broad field, primary market prices can vary wildly. Toby Clarke, director of Vigo Gallery, describes how at the upper end, artwork by Sudanese Modernist painter Ibrahim El-Salahi can sell for between £3,000 and £1.5 million. When he started working with El-Salahi prices were set in relation to what museums had recently paid to acquire work, and have since risen, according to Clarke, by roughly 10 to 20 percent per year. “At 85, El-Salahi is now widely seen by many curators and museums around the world as one of the most important living African artists, the godfather of African and Arab Modernism,” said Clarke. “Hence before one even considers the private collectors, there is huge interest and demand for his work. I would say about a third of his work, if not more, ends up in a museum.”
Sky-high prices are just part of a rich, diverse climate. According to 1:54’s founding director Touria El Glaoui, prices in the London fair in 2015 ranged from €538 to €60,000, and overall commercial growth has been steadier than the auction market. While preferring not to highlight individual sales, she said some artists have tripled in value since 2013, with others are enjoying more modest hikes. She estimated that 90 percent of the collectors visiting the fair were international and looking to expand their collections while in London for Frieze, which takes place concurrently; she added that serious buyers from Africa are also ascendant. El Glaoui highlighted Nigeria’s economic growth as going hand in hand with a boost in its local art scene, as well as relatively stable markets in North Africa, South Africa, and a burgeoning art market in Ghana. “We are obviously entering a phase of strong visibility,” she said. “We are at the beginning of this growth—we are not at its highest point.”
Whether or not Britain will continue to be a nexus for African contemporary art with headlines of exploding prices remains to be seen, especially given the volatile economic situation here. “If you have young artists that come to the forefront, whose work is under £5,000, then you will probably see an increase over the next year,” said October Gallery artistic director Elisabeth Lalouschek. “Prices have gone up dramatically in the last few years, but whether prices will go up this particular year even further is hard to say.”
In other words, African art in London when considered as a market opportunity—one with a complicated, multifarious history, not always served by considering it as one—has plenty more left to say. Sky-high auction records and globalization’s perennial power are just two facets of this incredibly complex picture.
– Rob Sharp (Artsy newsletter, July 26, 2016)