African art, from the diaspora to the walls of the White House

In the last decade, what we could call “contemporary African art” has burst onto the artistic market with force, with four different geographical and aesthetic spaces: Africa, France, Great Britain and the United States. In France, perhaps due to its past as a colonial power, in the 20th century there was already a presence of Franco-African artists on the Gallic market. The British, for their part, are beginning to value African artists who reside in London after the diaspora or who are already the first generation born in Great Britain, in the first decades of the 21st century.

In the United States, miscegenation reaches its maximum expression, with African-American art even having an outstanding presence in the official residence of the presidents of the most powerful nation on earth, but not exclusively during the presidencies of Democratic leaders. During the two Obama legislatures, of the 47 paintings loaned by North American museums, there were seven made by three African-American creators. The first woman of color with a work in the White House was the abstract painter Alma Thomas, and the official portrait of Obama was commissioned from artist Kehinde Wiley when he left the presidency.

Barack Obama shakes hands with his portraitist Kehinde Wiley, after discovering the final result of this work, which is displayed at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, in Washington

Saul Loeb / AFP

In 1995, the White House acquired Sand dunes, Atlantic City (1885), by Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937), the first work by an African-American artist to become part of the collection. Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary commissioned Sinamie Knox (1935) to paint their official portraits. Two paintings of African Americans were acquired during the Bush administration. The first, The farm landing (1892), was original by Edward Bannister, and was bought in 2006; and a year later it went to the premises of the White House The Buildens, an abstract composition by Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000), painted in 1947.

Angola became in 2013 the first African country to obtain the Golden Lion of the Venice Biennale for the best national pavilion. In 2015, the artistic direction of the Venetian contest, in recognition of the rise of African art, fell to the Nigerian Okwvi Enwezor, giving the Ghanaian artist El Anatsui the Golden Lion as a lifetime achievement award. Two years later the same artist obtained the Premium Imperiale awarded by Japan, the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for art.

Considered as

Considered “the African Mona Lisa”, this work, ‘Tutu’, is the masterpiece of the Nigerian Ben Enwonwu, and was sold for 1.4 million euros

Nic Hutchings

One of the most appreciated African creators linked to the French world is Omar Victor Diop, a brilliant portraitist of only 40 years old who appeared in 2011 at the Rencontres fair in Bamako. His series Diaspora (2014) portrays historical personalities that have fallen into oblivion. After the Rencontres de la Photographie in Arles in 2015, he succeeded in getting the Louis Vuitton Foundation to acquire a complete set of these snapshots. This emblematic series includes 18 images that are sold between 4,800 and 12,000 euros depending on whether they belong to the small format (60 x 40 cm) or the large (120 x 80 cm).

“The emergence of African art in the market has been one of the great news of the last decade. Ten years ago, when our room pioneered the sales of modern and contemporary African art in London, African art attracted some interest but low key. Although we always had faith in its quality, it wasn’t until 2013 that there was a real leap among collectors. That year, the Tate Modern in London organized a major exhibition of contemporary African art. It was the first large-scale international show of its kind, introducing leading artists to a wider audience. This led to a change in the museum’s procurement policy to accommodate African art, which meant acknowledging that the continent was producing some of the most exciting works in the world, ”said Giles Peppiat, director of the Department of Modern and Contemporary African Art. from the British auction house Bonhams.

The emergence of African art on the market has been one of the great news of the last decade

Giles PeppiatDirector of Modern African Art at Bonhams

“I would also mention – continues Peppiat – at 1:54, the Contemporary African Art Fair that was held for the first time at London’s Somerset House in 2013, and which already has branches in New York and Marrakech. In 2017, the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris hosted a major exhibition dedicated to contemporary African art; and that same year the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art (Mocca) was inaugurated in Cape Town, providing a first-rate showcase in Africa for the largest collection of contemporary African art in the world. “I would say that the contemporary African art market has two engines: African collectors, both on the continent itself and elsewhere; and international collectors and museums. The burgeoning middle classes of countries like Nigeria actively support their artists by buying directly from their studios but also increasingly at auction. The prestige of contemporary African art is firmly consolidated ”.

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Auction expert Bonhams offers a list of the most valued names on the African continent: “The 77-year-old Ghanaian sculptor El Anatsui has exhibited in illustrious galleries and museums around the world. Best known for his installations made with bottle caps, he received the Golden Lion for a lifetime at the 2015 Venice Biennale; and he is the only Ghanaian to have been awarded the Japanese Premium Imperiale Award, an honor he shares with other sculptors such as Anish Kapoor, Antony Gormley and Louise Bourgeois. In 2012 our room set a then world record for one of his work, New World Map, which we sold for 605,000 euros ”. Four years later, his Peju’s Robe installation was sold for more than 900,000 euros.

Afro-British artists

One of the institutions that have been most involved in promoting Afro-British art is the Tate Gallery in London, which has scheduled several exhibitions dedicated to these artists. Lubaina Himid challenges institutional invisibility and is committed to the creativity of artists of color and the African diaspora. At age 63, she was the oldest author to be awarded the Turner Prize and the first black woman to be awarded the Turner Prize. Eddie Chambers saw how the aforementioned gallery acquired his work Destruction of the National Front, a political composition captured shortly after Margaret Thatcher delivered a television speech in January 1978 in which she claimed “that she understood the British people’s fears of being overwhelmed by immigrants of color.” These xenophobic words served to increase the popularity of the conservative leader in the polls by 11%.

The Bonhams expert also highlights the work of Ben Enwonwu (1917-1994), which regularly appears in the top ten of his auctions. “He was the first major Nigerian artist to reflect the sculptural traditions of his country in his work and his masterpiece Anyanwu It was sold in our room in 2017 for a record price of € 391,000. He is probably the best known and most influential African artist of the 20th century. Although in the strict sense he is not experiencing a revaluation (his work was already highly appreciated), it is worth mentioning it because the international recognition he enjoys has opened opportunities for other African artists “, he assures. On the other hand, it affects that” the painter and Nigerian academic Yusuf Grillo, born in 1934, is not a prolific artist – he may spend several years finishing his works – but the results are highly appreciated and their value increases at auctions. Mother of Twins, for example, it was sold for 165,000 euros in 2016 while for The Blind Beggar 119,000 euros were paid in 2017 ”.

Esta obra de Zanele Muholi, 'Sasa, Bleecker, New York, 2016',

This work by Zanele Muholi, ‘Sasa, Bleecker’, sold for 7,600 euros

Courtesy Bonham’s

Asked if any trend can be highlighted among contemporary African creators, Peppiatt says that “the South African market has had a special weight in auctions. When we started our tenders, most of the artists from South Africa were white and the prices were higher, for example the Arab Priestby Irma Stern, which we sold for 3.5 million euros in 2011, was reserved for post-war white artists. This has changed dramatically. There is a renewed interest in artists of color. An image of the photographer Zanele Muholi, Sasa, Bleecker, it was sold for 7,600 euros in March of this year, an unheard of price for a photograph of a contemporary South African artist ”.

As for the emerging names that the Bonhams expert has on his radar, he explains: “At the Africa Now sale that we held in 2018, the work Composition Three Reptiles, of the Malian Abdoulaye Konate was awarded for 35,000 euros; Throne, from Gonçalo Mabunda, from Mozambique, was delivered for 15,400 euros, and Gray Gray III, by the painter Aboudia Diarrassouba, from the Ivory Coast and resident of Brooklyn, marked its best auction price when it was auctioned for 36,400 euros ”. In recalling the memorable sales of African art in which he has personally intervened, Peppiatt recalls that “the most important was that of the painting Tutu, considered the masterpiece of Nigerian artist Ben Enwonwu, which we sold for 1.4 million euros in 2018, setting a new world record for the artist. Booker Prize winner novelist Ben Okri described this oil painting as ‘the African Mona Lisa’. That sale sums up the incredible journey that modern African art has traveled in the last decade. “

'Composition Three Reptiles' is by the Malian Abdoulaye Konate and was awarded for 35,000 euros

‘Composition Three Reptiles’ is by the Malian Abdoulaye Konate and was awarded for 35,000 euros

Courtesy Bonham’s

The strength of Afro-British artists is another of the realities of this phenomenon and is embodied in names such as Steve McQueen, Yinka Shonibare, Hurvin Anderson and Chris Ofili. McQueen was the first black British artist to have a solo exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. Shonibare had the support of the Saatchi Gallery from the beginning for his membership in the Young British Artist group in the 90s of last century, just like Ofili who was the first black artist to win in 1998, at just 30 years old, the Turner Prize, in addition to obtaining great success with his controversial The Blessed Virgin Mary, painted with elephant droppings and surrounded by a collage of pornographic images, the display of which caused enormous controversy although when Christie’s auctioned it in 2015, it reached double the price estimated by auctioneers: 3.7 million euros.


Combined sales between London and Paris have grown from $ 7.6 million between 2014 and 2016, to $ 27.9 million from 2017 to 2019

However, the highest price obtained for a work by a living African-American artist was obtained in 2018 at Sotheby’s Kerry James Marshall, when his monumental canvas was auctioned for about 18 million euros Past Times, which went to the collection of rapper Sean Diddy Combs. The specialized tenders, organized by Sotheby’s and Bonhams in London and Piasa and Artcurial in Paris, are attracting increasing interest among collectors. One of the main ones is the fashion designer Jean Pigozzi who in the summer of 2019 donated 45 works by contemporary sub-Saharan artists to the MoMA in New York, making this art gallery a benchmark for these creators. Since Sotheby’s held its first African art auction on May 16, 2017, it has set more than 60 records in this category. The result of the combined sales between London and Paris has increased from the 7.6 million dollars invoiced between 2014 and 2016, to the 27.9 million generated between 2017 and 2019, according to the consultancy Artprice.

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