Joseph Obanubi@AKAA-DR

Culture: African contemporary art makes its breakthrough into international market

The popularity of contemporary African art, which is on the rise on the international scene, is being fueled by a growing number of fairs and dedicated auctions, while financial players are beginning to get interested. That momentum must now be perpetuated. 

By Patrick Nelle, in Douala

Long anecdotal, the emergence of African contemporary art on the international scene has really become effective since 2015, says Armelle Dakouo, the artistic director of the African contemporary art fair AKAA (Also Known as Africa), whose 6th edition was held from November 12 to 14 in Paris (France). Along with the unmissable London fair 1:54, AKAA is the other major European fair for contemporary African art. 

Today, these major cultural and commercial events contribute “to structuring a market around the contemporary scene in Africa,” indicates the artistic director, who sees them as “privileged platforms to bring together galleries, collectors, institutions and museum foundations …”. 

More and more auctions dedicated to continental creation

Attentive to this new momentum, auction houses are more and more betting on the contemporary art scene in Africa, organizing a growing number of sales dedicated to the continent’s creation. According to a count by South African Cogal, 45 international auctions dedicated to African contemporary art took place between January 2020 and June 2021, two sales led by Sotheby’s, in March and October 2020, bringing in more than 4 million dollars, while Bonhams auctioned works by African artists for 2.1 million euros in 2020. 

For Christophe Person, director of the Contemporary African Art department at the French auction house Artcurial, this new appetite for African contemporary art is justified insofar as the “works produced are particularly relevant in our globalized world.” This is the result, according to him, of the history and the very particular ability of Africans to “understand the world in a different way, as they have always travelled the world, sometimes because they were forced to and sometimes because they decided to. For artists, this means that they are able to have a relevant look at today’s social issues. 

More and more transactions made via internet platforms 

All these elements “make their works particularly relevant in the current context and attractive to the art world, especially for collectors,” says the specialist, who also notes that “more and more sales are done remotely, through Internet platforms. As a proof, the last auction of Artcurial dedicated to African art, last June, was organized online and brought a turnover of 1.24 million euros. This is the same for the above-mentioned sales of Sotheby’s, also organized online, with sales of several million dollars, reflecting the rising popularity of African artists on the international market.

Anjel, Didier Claes Gallery@Akaa-DR

It remains to avoid an excessive external dependence: “With the exception of South Africa, there is no real domestic market in African countries, artists are not very supported, and there is a lack of promotional channels,” regrets painter Sisqo Ndombe for whom “the market for contemporary African art is in the United Kingdom, France, the United States, since African artists are much more valued there. In contrast to this perception, Sotheby’s has revealed that 70% of sales made at its March auction dedicated to contemporary African art were from buyers from the continent, mostly under 40 years.

Local initiatives to structure domestic market

A new trend on which Sisqo Ndombe is trying to ride.  Aged 36, the visual artist, hailing from the Democratic Republic of Congo, is also a cultural entrepreneur, founder of the virtual gallery Bandombe Galerie allowing African contemporary artists to exhibit and sell their works online. His platform, founded in 2018, now claims 800 young registered artists from about 30 African countries and would have “sold a little over 200 works,” says its founder. 

Collector Freda Isingoma from the African diaspora based in London suggests the creation of investment funds specialized in the purchase of works of art as a way to promote contemporary African art. After a career in investment banking, this art enthusiast founded KIISA Art, an investment company that invests in works of art and seeks to value the works as full-fledged financial assets.

A financialization of art

To this end, she has created Art4AfricaFund, a fund that bets on the growing market interest in contemporary African art and capitalizes on the historical relationship between financiers and the art world: ” Art and investment have been intertwined for many years. The first art investment fund on record was established by André Level in Paris in 1904, and since then the more well-known British Rail Pension Fund (1970s) and the Fine Art Fund (2004-09) have paved the way for the wider recognition of art as an investable asset,” Freda Isingoma recalls in a blogpost entitled “Art funds can play a critical role in the development of the African and diaspora art ecosystem,” published in September 2021.

In fact, this financialization of art can already boast many successes, as this type of fund has played a driving role in the emergence of China in the art market over the past fifteen years. “Emerging in 2008, Chinese art funds played a critical role in the growth path of the Chinese art market. The focused investment in Chinese artists was pivotal to the global recognition of Chinese contemporary art and the subsequent rising valuations. Art funds birthed a younger, dynamic collector culture and expanding art infrastructure, which gradually positioned China as one of the largest global art markets,” concludes Freda Isingoma. This is just one way of saying that what has worked in some horizons could also be relevant in others….

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