Why is art by African producers suddenly selling so well?

. “Selling to a museum is fantastic. It means that you have reached the caliber when you thought that only dead artists belong,” says the Nigerian sculptor Sokari Douglas Camp via video link from London. That her sculptures, sometimes up to five meters high, can be found in well-known museums all over the world is sometimes still beyond the 63-year-old visual artist’s cap, she says.

Her story typifies what is happening in the art market at the moment: last year the African art market had its highest number of auctions ever, driven by a strong interest in a young generation of African artists. It appears from that Modern and Contemporary African Artists Market Report 2016-2021 by the analysis agency ArtTactic. Sales of works by African producers increased by 44 percent in 2021. That trend will continue this year, although the numbers are not yet available. The question is whether it is just a temporary phenomenon – that Chinese art suddenly did very well more than ten years ago – or whether there is more to it.

Socary Douglas: “Each spike of attention accumulates until it becomes a constant.”
Photo studio Sokari Douglas

“Colour artists are currently hot and happening”, says Ron Mandos of the contemporary art gallery of the same name in Amsterdam. An exhibition was recently completed in that gallery of works by three African artists: Ghanaian artists Kwadwo Amfo (1990) and Ismael Armach (1986) and South African artist Mohau Modisakeng (1986).

Galleries from the African continent were present for the first time at the recent Art Basel, and last month top prices were paid at Christies’ latest auction for works by artists of colour, in ‘A place without a name’. Works by, for example, the Ethiopian artist Elias Sime (1968), the Ghanaian artist El Anatsui (1944) and the American-Ivorian Aboudia (1983) sold for thousands, and almost everything was sold well above the asking price.

Chinese art

Arno Verkade, managing director Christie’s in Germany and the Netherlands, confirms that the development is currently going very fast. “It starts with an interest in African-American artists, which moves on to artists from African countries. It’s going so fast at the moment that you can’t really judge who’s holding on.” According to him, the art market had long had a “white and male gaze”. “As always in art,” he continues.

Sculpture by Sokari Douglas at an exhibition in Roskow, Germany.
Photo Patrick Pleul/EPA

“Art dangles a bit behind social development. The art market follows social developments, and the focus is now on artists of color,” says Verkade. Ten years ago it was the case with Chinese artists, now with those from the African continent. “Collectors always follow a trend, you saw that with the Cobra, and also in the seventeenth century.”

Socary Douglas: “Each spike of attention accumulates until it becomes a constant.”
Photo studio Sokari Douglas

Jean-Paul Engelen, sales manager from the US for the Phillips auction house, also says that the trend is similar to the China trend, but also sees differences. “The big difference is that we now look back. Museums ask themselves: what have we missed, which artists have we overlooked. By now also having an eye for artists from around fifty or sixty years ago, canon is changing. It’s really a difference from the China trend a few years ago, where, as is often the case with trends, we only looked at what matters at the moment.”

Both also see that social media play an important role in awareness. According to Verkade, a collector no longer looks at which academy an artist attended or which gallery he is represented by: “Younger and especially Chinese collectors no longer follow the standard path of first seeing all exhibitions and reading catalogues, but they buy in immediately. on.”

According to Engelen, more than half of the art has now been sold online since the pandemic. In addition to awareness and zeitgeist, he believes that this is part of the explanation for African American art and African artists doing well, such as the work of Ghanaian artist Amoako Boafo, which is auctioned off for more than 50,000 euros. “Figurative art does better online.”

According to Ron Mandos, the prices are increasing so enormously because there has been more knowledge about African coasters through the Black Lives Matter movement. “Several museums see that for years they have neglected to enrich their collection with artists from Africa and are only now releasing part of their budget for this.”

Artificially high prices

A further problem is that prices are artificially high due to the auctions. Young artists of color go over three times as a result of the trend compared to what they would sell in a gallery, says Mandos. “Some collectors find the prices now being asked so high that they don’t buy, or they drop the work en masse at auction.”

Art dangles a little behind social development

According to Engelen, the interaction was always there, just as often it works well for a gallery, and there are plenty of artists who don’t care about the market. “Regardless of which way it goes, the market is immoral. It does not look at what is socially important. The offer is matched to the demand. It is up to the museums to create awareness, to have an eye for what was missing or not missing. In that respect, I am convinced that art history is being rewritten.”

Artist Douglas Camp hopes that the rewrite will actually take place, but also has doubts when it comes to the market. It is true that higher amounts are asked for African artists at art fairs, but they still go to the established names, she states. And despite more attention in galleries and museums, art by black artists is still worth less than white artists, according to Douglas Camp. “For a long time I asked for little money for my art because I didn’t think my work was worth more. But now I see that some artists charge more for prints than I do for my sculptures.”

‘Les Noces’ by the artist Romeo Mivekannin from the Ivory Coast, at an outdoor exhibition of the art fair Art Basel in Paris, October this year.
Photo Teresa Suarez/EPA

Her art in museums is also still seen differently: “When I am in an important museum, they still say that my work is a intervention it.” Every decade she sees another moment of attention for non-Western art. Nevertheless, the Nigerian artist is hopeful. “Each increase in attention accumulates until it becomes a constant. We are gradually penetrating the psyche of the market.”

Also read: Art history can do just fine without men

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