Africans need to buy own art before it ends up in European galleries

Thursday July 30 2009

Art work by Bertiers Mbatia, July 25, 2009. Africa is making steady progress breaking out of what Ghanaian artist El Anatsui describes as the “invisibility syndrome.” Photo/MARGARETTA wa GACHERU

Despite its negligible presence in the multi-billion dollar global art market, all is not lost for Africa. On the contrary, the continent is making steady progress breaking out of what Ghanaian artist El Anatsui describes as the “invisibility syndrome.”

Predictably, the inroads began not in contemporary art but in the classical or antiques; what was earlier referred in the trade as “primitive art” and lately given the lesser offensive tag of “primary art,” namely, the artifacts in wood, bronze or terra cotta that for centuries had been seen as the sole vestiges of Africa’s artistic expression.

The 1990s date the actual breakthrough into the world art market. In 1990 a 32-inch wooden sculpture depicting the earth cult priestess Queen Bangwa of Cameroon was offered for auction by the Harry A Franklin family of California. It fetched $3.5 million (Sh273 million) at Sotheby’s, New York. Modest by world market sales for unique antiques, it was nonetheless the highest ever paid for an African plastic art, breaking the record of $2.08 million (Sh162million) set the previous year for a Benin bronze.

After the Queen Bangwa and Benin bronze it took more than a decade for another sensational sale to come by. In 2005 a 19th-Century writing slate from northern Angola fetched €1.1 million (Sh117 million) in Paris. The following year was an African gold rush. Drouot of Paris auctioned several stunning pieces from the Vérité Family, including a Fang-Gabon mask that sold for €5.8 million (Sh620 million), and a Chokwe-Angola wooden statue of a hunter for €3.8 million (Sh406 million). Sotheby’s Paris also sold a Luba-Congo headrest for (Sh139million) €1.3 million.

Not a cent from these fabulous sales enriched any African. The pieces were from the hundreds of thousands of treasures looted by the colonial authorities or bought for a song by adventurers and missionaries and crated out of the continent. The North American and European families who sold these specimens are enjoying the fruits of their parents’ and grandparents’ “investments” – or is it the rape of a continent?

If the great auction houses — Sotheby’s, Christie’s, Drouot, Phillips de Pury, Artcurial, Bonhams — are drivers of the surge in art as investment, the contemporary fairs are congresses where captains of the industry gather to do business, by invitation-only. The European Fine Art Fair or “Tefaf” held in the southern Netherlands city of Maastricht every March is the world’s richest, and understandably, it’s the most exclusive among the dozen-plus “majors,” in a highly competitive annual calendar. Tefaf is where you go if you want to find a Rembrandt, a Canaletto or a Tang Dynasty porcelain to acquire or invest in.


The Dutch showcase is followed by America’s biggest, the Armory Show, New York, also held in March. Then there is Beijing’s CIGE, in April, followed by Art Basel, the world’s biggest, in early June, and by the Venice Biennale , also in June every second year. Summit India is in August, Shanghai Contemporary is in September, followed by a trio of fairs under the Berlin Forum during September-October. Frieze London, FIAC Paris and Art Singapore are in October, Pan Amsterdam is in November, and lastly, Art Basel-Miami, in December.

Next year the Johannesburg Art Fair marks its third anniversary, a pivotal time, for it will show whether all the hard work by founder Ross Douglas has finally paid off and that the event not only has legs but can also join the majors. The newest kid on the block, Gulf Art Fair-Dubai, like everything the Al-Makhtoum royal family set out to do, is fated to be a hit. It’s a costly business, creating a world class art fair. Fortunately, a number of banks and financial houses vie to provide sponsorship – in exchange of all sorts of benefits that accrue to them. In China the government and state corporations provided substantial start-up support to the four main fairs.

When will the banks and media houses in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda cotton on to the exciting new world of the global art market, and the fact that corporate art collection or sponsorship for fairs and galleries can be good business? They are late getting on board. If they don’t know how to proceed, there is ample expertise around they can hire.

Leading Africa’s entrance in the world market where a piece of art is not only the creator’s pride and joy but also a potential store of traded value — a financial investment — is a group of talented artists and their savvy agents.

African Renaissance

This Renaissance pack includes Ghanaian El Anatsui, Nigerian-British Yinka Shonibare, South Africans Marlene Dumas, William Kentridge, Gerard Sekoto, Gregoire Boonzaier, Maggie Laubser and Irma Stern, Mozambican Ngwenya Malangatana, Tanzanians Eduardo Saidi Tingatinga and Lilanga Nyama, Ugandan Jak Katarikawe, Congolese Cheri Samba, Bodo Pambu, Monsenguro Moke, Kenyans Wangechi Mutu, Magdalene Odundo, Kivuthi Mbuno … among others.

 Nyarko “El Anatsui” is the most successful of Africa’s living artists. He is also the most culturally resonant, visually sumptuous and eco-friendly among his contemporaries, having connected brilliantly with the zeitgeist of carbon footprints, environmental protection, etc. Years of quiet toil as a professor of art in a Nigerian university paid off when a few years back The Smithsonian, Washington, acquired a stunning spread of one of his intricately wrought tapestries which are based on the Asante Kente cloth, and recycled from bottle tops, scraps of aluminum from discarded cans, all held together by copper wire. El Anatsui now works by commission only as every national museum and every reputed gallery on the planet outside Africa pounds on the door of his Dutch agent, wanting to place an order. The price per large size tapestry is between couple hundred thousand to a million dollars – in the re-sale prices, that is. I know of no African national museum or gallery that has acquired or placed an order for an El Anatsui. Shame.

The world’s highest selling living female artist is Marlene Dumas, a South African resident in Amsterdam. A graduate of Cape Town University, Dumas jolted the art world in 2004 when her portrait Jule, de Vrou, of a bright-eyed Afrikaner girl, fetched $1.2 million (Sh93.6 million) at Christie’s. The following year The Teacher romped in at $1.8 million (Sh140 million), again at Christie’s. How many South Africans bought a Dumas in the 1980s when she was a struggling artist selling for $200 (Sh15.6 million) or so per canvas?

Dumas is closely followed in the top league by compatriot William Kentridge, described as a “virtuoso artist.” His publicists describe his work as offering “a depth of engagement, a wealth of interpretability and unmistakable aesthetic integrity … a fusion of experience, fiction and imagination.” Hmnnn.

Ensconced in his large property not far from Nelson Mandela’s residence in Houghton, Johannesburg, the prolific Kentridge churns out work in mixed media, sculpture, printmaking, ink drawings, animation and short movies that are largely cerebral but mirthful and accessible. Kentridge enjoys distinction among art dealers and serious connoisseurs. He has exhibited widely, mainly in Europe and North America and is featured in several publications.

London-based Nigerian Yinka Shonibari has been widely successful too lately, if not as much in the bank account stakes as El Anatsui, Marlene Dumas or William Kentridge, then in sheer exposure. His installations of headless mannequins dressed in “Dutch wax” cloths of colourful African motifs and harking on colonial themes, the Rococo era, European royal courts, etc, have brought another gust of fresh air into contemporary art. Shonibare is in the more cerebral wing and is feted and bought as much for his lavish productions, including photography and film, as for the intellectualisms he expounds. His Prospero’s Monsters at the James Cohan Gallery, London, in May last year was a feast of the senses.

Let’s pay homage to Mozambican Malangatana Ngwenya, a doyen among the continent’s talents who smashed the glass ceiling in price paid for a contemporary African artist on the international market. Anyone who bought one of Malangatana’s Makonde inspired Garden of Eden or Catacombs of Hell renditions in the seventies must have a big smile pasted on their face. This writer was introduced to Malangatana in the late 1970s but didn’t buy him, simply because I was an impoverished student then. And today I can’t afford him either – not with the sort of money that would cover four years of college education.

For nearly four decades Kenyans have had a gem hidden among them but only the most savvy have actually invested in his work: Ugandan-born Jak Katarikawe, dubbed “Africa’s Chagall.”

The self-taught, illiterate “Professor Jak” was the first African to have his work hang in the Kremlin and has exhibited in museums and galleries worldwide. Katarikawe has fallen off the strobe lights of world publicity in recent years; since the death of his mentor, Ruth Shaffner of the Gallery Watatu, Nairobi. But he is still there, a near recluse though, still painting, still steadily being acquired by those in the know – that, this man is slated to join the Picassos and Matisses in posterity.

Let me conclude with a story which has a singular pathos and is linked to the perennial frustration of Africans who too often allow outsiders to seize and enjoy fruits from the trees we plant - and later shed tears for our loss.

In the alchemy of discerning who among the thousands of African contemporary artists will join the ranks of the world’s greats, and of the advice that a family that created a trust fund for their children with a canvas or sculpture or two by any of the artists could be on to something, the name of Eduardo Saidi Tingatinga stands out.

The Tanzanian-born Tingatinga (1936-1972) is the only African to have found, even if accidentally, an international art movement that now bears his name. Tingatinga produced, perhaps, not more than 200 pieces of work before his life was tragically cut short by a police bullet in Dar es Salaam in a mistaken identity cock up.

Now, two collectors in Frankfurt and Nairobi hold about 80 per cent of the Tingatingaoriginals between them.

The Nairobi owner has tried to keep his collection intact, and on the African soul. Years ago he enlisted the support of an agent to sound out the Tanzanian government to see if the state would be interested in acquiring the collection for posterity. The answer was no; the pressing need was in finding water, food and shelter for the population, not art.

Now and then, in need of cash the dealer in Nairobi is forced to put a piece from the collection on the international market. A decade or two from now when all the Tingatinga originals will have found a home in Washington, Frankfurt, Stockholm or Tokyo, Tanzanians, all Africans for that matter, will be up in arms – clamouring for the repatriation of their lost treasure.
By the way, there is a Belgian expat in Kenya who now owns what experts consider the Number One masterpiece of ES Tingatinga. That piece will one day be in Brussels. Go figure.

Africa Insight is an initiative of the Nation Media Group’s Africa Media Network Project