Contemporary African Art: How affordable is it?

In case you missed it, the genie left the bottle, married a oil billionaire’s daughter in Lagos and bought an El Anatsui.

In short, anyone with even the slightest interest in Africa’s creative arts would need to be blind, deaf and illiterate to escape the rising prices in the African contemporary art market. If proof were needed, it doesn’t come more irrefutable than the flood of articles on this subject in the journalistic temples of wealth and finance: the UK’s Financial Times and the The Wall Street Journal in the USboth of which have devoted space to document this blossoming market.

Against this backdrop, the African art world and blogosphere continue to salivate over the recent eyewatering US$1.1 million sale price achieved by Sotheby’s for “Drown” a piece by Njideka Akunyili Crosby. Akunyili Crosby’s work was purportedly set at a healthy estimate of US$300,000 but a tsunami of interest in the artist drove the final price far beyond expectations. This achievement mirrors the trajectory of El Anatsui, arguably Africa’s most famous contemporary artist, who work sold for tens of thousands a few years ago yet now his iconic tapestries can expect to fetch figures north of a million dollars. Finally, William Kentridge, one of Africa’s leading draughtsmen, who is represented by the prestigious Goodman Gallery in South Africa has prices which allegedly range from US$150,000 to US$600,000.

What message does this ongoing deluge of attention on the top 1% send to new collectors eager to participate in the African contemporary art market on more modest budgets? The depressing answer most might conclude is that African art is a rich man’s sport practiced principally within the oligarchy of Nigerian and Angolan billionaires, their offspring in the diaspora and the wealthy white South African elite. In practice, this is not an accurate picture of the African art market.

The market is awash with affordable artwork which is far more representative of the median income of African artists than the dollar prices achieved offshore in the grandeur of Sotheby’s and Bonhams’ auction rooms.

Kavita Chellaram founded Arthouse Contemporary in Lagos in 2007, in an interview this year with Art Market Blog Mag, she stated “The growing interest in contemporary Nigerian art has created a new base of emerging collectors that are interested in learning more about the art world in Nigeria. At Arthouse, we recently inaugurated a new auction series, The Affordable Art Auction, which targeted new and emerging collectors who are looking to enter the market at a more affordable and accessible price point. It is important to grow the network of collectors to reach new audiences, and we were happy that the Affordable Art Auction brought in a new group of young professionals….” These types of initiatives are critical to bringing new collectors to the market to support the work of lesser known artists.

So what do we mean by affordable? Aboudia, the Abidjan born artist whose abstract paintings have a furtive fanbase and whose has featured in the collections of Jean Pigozzi and the Saatchi Gallery was recently included in the Bonham African Art Now art brochure with estimates as low as US$8000 to US$16,000. Michael W. Soi is a Kenyan artist (whose cartoonish oil painting may attract fans of Cheri Samba who have been priced out of the market for that seminal artist) has certain pieces which can be acquired for less than US$10,000. Meschac Gaba is an acknowledged star of contemporary African art, yet hismixed media and fibreglass bust entitled “Voortrekker Monmument” had an extremely modest estimate of between US$9200-US$13000.

For even lower budgets, pieces can be acquired for US$5000 or less for a plethora of artists at the auctions in Circle Art Agency auction rooms in Nairobi. The Kuona Trust for visual arts in Kenya sells pieces by local artists online, many of which can be obtained for less than US$1000 for an original work from undiscovered artists or those with limited exposure. Guns and Rain sell a cohesive and avant garde edit of affordable art, some of which recently exhibited at the AKAA – Also Known As Africa –art fair in France devoted to African contemporary art and design.

Some might question whether the escalating prices of certain African artists are fuelling a speculative bubble that will come crashing down to earth when prices eventually are corrected. The Guardian Newspaper posed a similar question to Charles Saatchi, the prolific art collector, the question and his response remain conclusive on this issue:

Your practice of buying emerging artists’ work has proved highly contagious and is arguably the single greatest influence on the current market because so many others, both veteran collectors and new investors, are following your lead, vying to snap up the work of young, relatively unknown artists. Do you accept that you are responsible for much of the speculative nature of the contemporary art market?

[Saatchi responded:] I hope so. Artists need a lot of collectors, all kinds of collectors, buying their art.”

We agree.