Art And Culture

Rediscovering African Contemporary Art

Rediscovering African Contemporary ArtRediscovering African Contemporary Art

Giles Peppiatt, from Bonhams in London, had good reason to make the trip to Nigeria’s financial capital, Lagos, for the auction house’s next sale of African art -- a glut of potential buyers.

On a recent visit, he described Africa as “one of our hottest properties on the art block,” reports AFP.

Bonhams has blazed a trail in the sector, having organized its first “Africa Now” sale of modern and contemporary African art in 2007, which has since become an annual event.

Among its most expensive sales was “Arab Priest” (1945) by South African painter Irma Stern, which was bought by the Qatar Museums Authority for just over three million pounds ($4.7 million) in 2011.

“New World Map” (2009) -- one of Ghanaian artist El Anatsui’s tapestries embroidered from crushed aluminium bottle tops and copper wire - went for nearly 550,000 pounds the following year.

A series of seven wooden sculptures by Nigeria’s Ben Enwonwu fetched 361.250 pounds - triple the estimate price.

Leading African artists were virtually absent from art sales just a decade ago but now contemporary works feature strongly in sales at several international auction houses. Another El Anatsui tapestry sold for $1.4 million at Sotheby’s.

“When institutions such as the Tate (in London) and the Smithsonian (in Washington DC) start to acquire contemporary African art, one then knows something wonderful has occurred,” said Peppiatt.

In Africa, the Zinsou foundation’s Museum of Contemporary African art in Ouidah, Benin, and the forthcoming opening of the huge Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art in Cape Town, South Africa, are clear signs of the increasing interest of collectors.

Most of the buyers at Bonhams’ “Africa Now” sales are African and a lot of collectors are very wealthy Nigerian businessmen.

  Culture and Heritage

“Nigerian art collectors want a piece of their own culture and heritage and are prepared to invest,” added Bonhams’ representative in Lagos, Neil Coventry.

“What’s fascinating is that these pieces are being found all over the world. In some cases they are coming back to Nigeria where they are valued and appreciated the most.”

Coventry, cites the example of Ben Enwonwu, painter and sculptor, who died in 1994, and was once a famous name in Nigeria, and Britain, where he was notably the first black African artist commissioned to make a sculpture of Queen Elizabeth II in 1957.

But his name was forgotten and only rediscovered in recent years. “This rediscovery of Enwonwu’s works is amazing.”

Femi Lijadu is one of several art collectors who has already pinpointed Nigerian works “at affordable prices”.

A corporate lawyer, he has 500 pieces in his collection and remembers the time he began earning a living in the 1980s and buying pictures by the “Grand Masters” of Nigeria.

“At the time we dreamt of the day where the world would finally start to take notice of Nigerian and African art in general,” he recalls with a smile. Judging by the scale of the auction, that day has arrived.