A Guide to African Art
The global art market is broadly categorised by geographical regions, countries and/or continents. According to the Art Market Report issued by Art Basel and UBS Bank, the exponential growth of the African art market over the past two decades represents a new frontier for an industry previously dominated by larger and more established economies.
Modern and Contemporary Art from Africa is enjoying increased global attention. Showcased worldwide in dedicated art fairs like 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair in London, New York and Marrakech; Also Known As Africa (AKAA) Art and Design Fair in Paris; The Armory Show’s Focus: African Perspectives in 2016 and the Art Paris Art Fair’s Africa Guest of Honour in 2017; major exhibitions like the infamous Magiciens de la Terre (1989) at the Pompidou Centre in Paris; Africa Explores: 20th Century African Art (1991) at the Museum for African Art in New York; Seven Stories about Modern Art in Africa (1995) at the Whitechapel Gallery in London to the the 2015 blockbuster Beauté Congo hosted by Cartier Foundation in Paris; the recent Making Africa – A Continent of Contemporary Design (2016–2017), which showed at the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao; to the current I Am… Contemporary Women Artists of Africa at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art in Washington DC, the contemporary African art scene is indisputably a nexus of major artistic talent fuelled by an incredible creative history.
Contemporary African art has also made a remarkable entry into New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Jean Pigozzi, one of the most prominent collectors of African contemporary art, donated 45 works by sub-Saharan artists to the prestigious museum in July 2019. Works by Frédéric Bruly Bouabré, Seydou Keita, Romuald Hazoumé, Moké and Chéri Samba now form part of the museum’s permanent collection.
In 2019, at the 58th Venice Biennale, African artists attracted much favourable attention and were again highly visible at this important event. A highlight was the first ever Ghanaian pavilion showcasing works by El Anatsui, Ibrahim Mahama, Felicia Abbas, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, John Akomfrah and Selasi Awusi Sosu. Additionally, Africa had never before enjoyed such good presence and representation in Venice, with offerings from eight of the continent’s 54 countries. The Venice Biennale acts as a catalyst for the art market and a strong presence at the event develops international interest and consequent collectors. For example, since being awarded the Golden Lion in 2015 (the coveted prize of the biennale), El Anatsui has achieved two new 7-digit record results at auction. Similarly, after Malick Sidibé won the same prize in 2002, there was a spike in demand for his work which resulted in an acceleration of sales in the primary and secondary markets.
The internationalisation of the contemporary African art scene, in particular, has attracted a loyal and growing audience of collectors. Driven by increasing demand, the total auction turnover generated globally by the Modern and Contemporary African Art segment has grown tenfold since the early 2000s (*Artprice.com), growing international art world recognition for artists from the continent.
Some of the most established and sought after artists at auction currently include, Ben Enwonwu, who is widely considered to be the father of Nigerian modernism, El Anatsui (Ghana), Hassan El Glaoui (Morocco), Sokari Douglas Camp (Nigeria), Skunder Boghossian (Ethiopia), Ibrahim El Salahi (Sudan), Ablade Glover (Ghana), Chéri Cherin (DRC) and Chéri Samba (DRC) who, with regard to the contemporary African art market, is internationally considered as the most in-demand artist at auction. Half of the top 10 results from works sold within this segment are by him.
This is further complemented by a dynamic list of outstanding artists who are known for their creative innovation and conceptual profundity. Using their artwork to interpret and portray Africa’s socio-economic realities, political challenges, rich traditions and diverse beauty, these leading and emerging contemporary artists continue to influence the evolution of contemporary art in Africa and include: Wangechi Mutu (Kenya), Abdoulaye Konaté (Mali), Aida Muluneh (Ethiopia), Meschac Gaba (Benin), Kudzanai Chiurai (Zimbabwe), Nástio Mosquito (Angola), Julie Mehretu (Ethiopia), Zanele Muholi (South Africa), Bili Bidjocka (Cameroon), Otobong Nkanga (Nigeria), George Osodi (Nigeria), Kader Attia (Algeria), Nicholas Hlobo (South Africa), Pascale Marthine Tayou (Cameroon), Barthélémy Toguo (Cameroon), Omar Ba (Senegal), Mary Sibande (South Africa), Abdoulaye Aboudia Diarrassouba (Côte d’Ivoire), Misheck Masamvu (Zimbabwe), Mustafa Maluka (South Africa), and Moshekwa Langa (South Africa), amongst others.
Noting the meteoric rise in modern and contemporary art from Africa, collectors are increasingly aware of the investment value of such works. New York, Paris and London are the three major city centres that contribute to the sharp value accretion of contemporary art from the African continent. Specialised sales now attract large audiences and generate strong results, with new records being achieved regularly and sale totals continuously growing.
South Africa (predominantly Johannesburg and Cape Town) has an established art industry, market and a burgeoning collector class, bolstered by entrepreneurs, bankers and industrialists from Africa’s biggest economy, Nigeria; as well as the rapidly growing economies of Kenya, Ghana and Senegal that push the market growth further.
Since 2016, Aspire has transformed the South African auction market – while pioneering new sectors within contemporary art at auction, the firm was first to committedly promote undervalued 20th century black artists, and the first to present a genuinely pan-African offering of modern and contemporary art in South Africa. In 2020, Aspire partnered with French auction house Piasa to introduce an Africa-focused auction with the aim of presenting some of the best examples of modern and contemporary art produced on the continent to a global audience. The collaboration was unprecedented and represented the first time that an African and European auction house partnered to present a sale of African art. Through this landmark auction, Aspire introduced new artists to auction in South Africa and reinforced some of the most popular African artists on the market, both locally and abroad, as demonstrated through the likes of Uche Okeke (Nigeria), Gareth Nyandoro (Zimbabwe), Mary Sibande (South Africa), Salah Elmur (Sudan), Michael Musyoka (Kenya), Marc Padeu (Cameroon), Peter Ngugi (Kenya), Cyrus Kabiru (Kenya) and Cristiano Mangovo Brás (Angola). Following the success of this pioneering auction in Cape Town, Aspire and Piasa collaborated for a second time to present a large-scale auction of Modern and Contemporary African Art in Paris. The debut of an African based auction house presenting a dedicated sale in Europe marked an industry first and confirmed Aspire as the emerging global champion for African art at auction.