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Young, solid and thriving – understanding the modern and contemporary African art market

Recent origins

The abundance of media attention coupled with exhibitions in major institutions such as the MoMA in New York, Tate Modern in London and the Centre Pompidou in Paris is neither overly favourable nor exaggerated but genuine.

In the space of a decade, a timid African presence of figuration and minor inclusions in major art world events has evolved into an expected key player whose absence would be conspicuous.

The long maturation of the modern and contemporary art market – one century for modern, half a century for contemporary – underwent a decisive turning point in 2007/2008 which kickstarted its burgeoning rise. This has led to biennales, museums, fairs and auctions, which are considered efficient, credible indicators of success by the art world.

Rise of the art scene

The African art scene is characterised by the joy of creating and a fresh approach towards well-known themes in the history of art. 

More specifically, the new generation on the continent and in the diaspora brings freshness and freedom, both in attitude and tone. As acute observers of this era’s upheavals and revolutions, this younger generation reflects upon socio-political and cultural changes and translates them into artworks according to their sensibilities.

These artists live in perpetually changing contexts that provide countless subjects and themes for creativity, contrary to a certain weariness and lassitude that can be seen in western art scenes. 

Although the artistic bubble spreads all over the continent, some countries – namely South Africa, Nigeria and Morocco – are the most prominent. Even countries “on the fringes”, such as Ivory Coast, Ghana, Kenya and Ethiopia, are keen to play a sub-regional or continental role and have collectors who are supporting local artists through acquisitions and patronage.

Several museums of international stature have been inaugurated in the last few years in Africa, further stimulating its dynamic scene: the Zinsou Foundation in Benin (in Cotonou in 2005 and in Ouidah in 2013), the Musée Mohamed VI in Rabat, Morocco, in 2014, the Macaal in Marrakech in 2016, the Zeitz Mocaa in Cape Town in 2017, the Norval Foundation in Cape Town in 2018 and the Museum of Black Civilisations in Dakar, Senegal, in 2018. The Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art at Pan-Atlantic University in Lagos, Nigeria, is being inaugurated this autumn.

Where’s the market?

The modern and contemporary market has been thriving, especially over the last five years – something that has been unprecedented over the last century. The primary and secondary market combined represent US$150m-200m, making it one of the most profitable, non-western segments of the global art market. 

It is structured around three continents – the US, Europe and Africa, six market places – New York, London, Paris, Johannesburg/Cape Town, Lagos and Marrakech/Casablanca, and five specialised art fairs – 1-54 in London, New York and Marrakech, AKAA in Paris, FNB Art Joburg in Johannesburg, Art X Lagos in Lagos and Investec Cape Town in Cape Town.

Among the pioneering, engaged collections are those of Gunter Peus and Bernd Kleine-Gunk from Germany, Spain’s Antonio Lanzas Gironès, French-Italian Jean Pigozzi and Nigeria’s Prince Yemisi Shyllon. Also in this league are Jochen Zeitz and Artur Walther from Germany, Sindika Dokolo from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Gervanne and Matthias Leridon from France and Alami Lazraq from Morocco. Beyond these personalities, demand is worldwide and not limited to a handful of buyers like in the past. 

While London is highly important for the African art market, Paris held the sales of two strong collections in 2018: that of the Belgian collector Pierre Loos at Piasa and that of Bernd Kleine-Gunk at Cornette de Saint Cyr. Cornette de Saint Cyr had previously dispersed Antonio Lanzas Gironès’ collection in 2016.

However, interest extends beyond western countries and the African continent. Over the last three years, there have been large-scale exhibitions in Israel, Australia, the United Arab Emirates, Brazil and China. 

Until recently, the players were mainly patron-dealers, collector-dealers and non-profit galleries, followed by moderately influential galleries.

But changes have been underway. An ecosystem of professional galleries has emerged on the continent. But the vast majority are fragile and have fewer means than those in Europe. It is common to find artists sharing studio spaces and selling their artworks in art centres.

Outside the continent, the list of galleries representing artists from Africa or the diaspora continues to increase. Gagosian representing Romuald Hazoumé, David Zwirner representing Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Marian Goodman representing Julie Mehretu and White Cube representing Ibrahim Mahama are a few examples.

This new dynamic is primarily supported by western institutions and media outlets. However, actors on the African continent are gradually becoming more involved.

The situation in Africa

Individuals and companies – often the two entities are inter-linked – are highly active in Africa. These collectors are among the major buyers in specialised auctions in Europe and the US where  they acquire big lots. 

The largest contingent is in South Africa due to its rooted, longstanding relationship to art. As more African artists have arrived on the scene, local collectors have been diversifying their acquisitions.

Nigerian collectors are also active and local actors are engaged in organising fairs, biennales and galleries in order to support and satisfy local demand. 

Morocco distinguishes itself by its state pursuing soft power through art and culture. This is influencing the upper and upper-middle classes whose acquisitions are increasing and diversifying.

The collectors of modern and contemporary artworks in Africa have historically been expatriates and some locals. Today, expatriates continue to be patrons and uphold the tradition of making acquisitions. Local collectors that have studied abroad and travel frequently also belong to the collecting base.

A recent phenomenon is the proliferation of small local artists’ fairs, where artists sell artworks directly without an intermediary, in countries such as Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Algeria, Nigeria, Kenya and Morocco.

Millennials could in the future become a generation with far more African-based collectors as their lifestyles and communication habits make them sensitive to contemporary art.

The African art market retains strong potential. Despite being a young market, it has been able to adapt and demonstrate resistance to the recent crisis in the art market internationally. The debate over the restitution of African antiquities and classical pieces could indirectly fuel buyers’ appetite for modern and contemporary works. We believe it is a market that will continue to amaze and grow.


Post Author: JOURDAIN

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