Emerging African Artists Have Amassed Nearly $65 Million at Auction Since 2019. Some of Them Don’t Even Have Galleries Yet
Artists such as Ismail Isshaq and Emmanuel Taku are igniting bidding wars at auction before they've even had a major New York gallery show.
The Art Detective is a weekly column by Katya Kazakina for Artnet News Pro that lifts the curtain on what’s really going on in the art market.
As the art market roared back in 2021, one segment has taken off with particular intensity: ultra-contemporary African art.
Figurative paintings by artists from Ghana, the Ivory Coast, Nigeria, and South Africa—some made just months earlier, with the paint practically still wet—sparked bidding wars at auction and soared into the hundreds of thousands dollars in New York, London, Hong Kong, and Beijing. Galleries routinely sold out shows and the lists of hopeful buyers stretched into the hundreds.
Auction sales of work by ultra-contemporary African artists (which we define as those born after 1974) have increased 434 percent over the past two years, to almost $40 million in 2021 from $7.5 million in 2019, according to the Artnet Price Database.
Several factors drove this explosion. The art world’s digital revolution during the pandemic brought the continent’s plentiful talent to the fingertips of collectors a world away. Buyers are also seeking to make their holdings less white and western (whether motivated by pressure, profit, genuine interest, or a mix of all three). And many collectors who entered the art market during lockdown are drawn to figuration, a style employed by a number of young African painters.
All this is a recipe for a speculative market. Some sought-after names don’t even have gallery representation, not to mention institutional and curatorial support.
“There are artists coming up for sale, who maybe had one or two gallery shows, if that at all,” said Hannah O’Leary, head of modern and contemporary art department at Sotheby’s. “It’s an interesting and sometimes confusing development.”
Bidding is deep and international, specialists said. The results are eye-popping: Cinga Samson’s Two piece 1 (2018), sold for $378,000, more than 10 times its high estimate of $35,000 at Phillips in June. Kwesi Botchway’s Green Sofa (2020) went for $214,200 in November, surpassing its $30,000-to-$50,000 estimate. At Christie’s in December, Ismail Isshaq’s Unknown Faces 8 (2018) soared to $275,000 against the estimate of $15,000 to $20,000.
Los Angeles dealer Bennett Roberts says that not a week goes by without someone trying to get him interested in a new figurative African artist. He estimates that there are around 20 to 25 whose work is actively traded on the market today.
“There’s almost no space between the making of the object and selling of the object,” Roberts said. “Everything has become compressed.”
Consider Sisters in Pink (2021) by the Ghanaian artist Emmanuel Taku, which fetched a quintuple-estimate $189,000 at Phillips in November. The same year it was painted, the artist sold it directly to a collector, who sold it to another collector, who put it up for auction, according to the published provenance.
Auction houses say they are responding to demand. “My collectors are giving me names and saying, ‘We want this. We can’t get a hold of that,’” O’Leary said.
The attention represents a major change for the category. Except for a handful of brand names, artists from Africa have historically not been supported by the international art market. Sotheby’s launched its dedicated auctions of modern and contemporary African art in 2017 with $3.6 million in sales.
The picture is different today. “Sometimes it feels like a gold rush,” said the agent and collector Amir Shariat, who played a key role launching several artists from Africa in recent years.
One of those artists is Amoako Boafo, the Ghana-born, Vienna-based painter whose meteoric rise has made him an elder statesman of the Accra art scene in record time. (He and several of his peers are now creating their own incubators and residency programs to nurture emerging talent outside the glare of the market.)
Before Boafo began working with Shariat, he came to Bennett Roberts’s attention through artist Kehinde Wiley, who discovered him on Instagram. In 2019, Boafo had his first solo show with Roberts Projects in L.A., but he was little known until appearing at the opening of the Rubell Museum during Art Basel Miami Beach in 2019. Then, all hell broke loose.
In 2020, 32 paintings by Boafo came to the market, generating $8.2 million, according to Artnet Price Database. Last year, 19 works at auction totaled $11.6 million. The artist’s first solo museum show in the U.S. is on view now at the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco (through February 27).
Because many African artists are working outside of the art world epicenters, their careers don’t always follow a typical trajectory, said Rebekah Bowling, senior specialist of 21st century art at Phillips. “Amoako blew up at auction and now has institutional support,” she noted.
Boafo is now co-curating an exhibition at Marianne Boesky in New York, “Winner Takes All,” with critic Larry Ossei-Mensah, to offer an introduction to new voices from Africa outside the auction house (through February 19). Works by artists including Aplerh-Doku Borlabi and Nigatu Tsehay explore the Black figure in a variety of styles, from mixed-media painting to collage.
“We all have a bit of fatigue with the amount of figurative work in the ether,” Ossei-Mensah said. “This constellation of artists feels like fresh voices, fresh perspectives.”
Alluding to the rampant speculation for emerging African artists, Marianne Boesky said the gallery is working to create a “safe environment” for them. “We are thinking about what’s in the interest of the artist short-term and long-term. We won’t buy everything from the show and flip it.”
Even before the show’s opening on Thursday, works by almost all artists have sold, Boesky said, with prices topping out at $30,000. While the dealer said her invoices have terms that seek to limit the resale of the work, the real test comes in selecting the right buyer.
Some of the flipped works this year can be traced to the usual suspects on the speculative trail.
Serge Attukwei Clottey’s Fashion icons (2020-2021) was part of the artist’s solo exhibition at Stefan Simchowitz’s Los Angeles gallery last year. Less than six months after the show closed in May, the portrait appeared at Phillips London, where it fetched $468,014, more than 10 times its estimate. (Simchowitz was also at the center of the Zombie Formalism craze and the consignor of Boafo’s first painting at auction.)
“Good on them,” Simchowitz said, when reached by phone Thursday. “I’m happy. It’s thrilling.” As for his involvement with various bubbles, the dealer said: “I am not at the centre of every emerging art market bubble, I am just early in getting involved with some of the best artists working on planet earth.”
The demand is likely to keep on growing short-term. At Phillips, Bowling is looking for a painting by the Cameroonian artist Ludovic Nkoth, who was born in 1994 and makes richly textured, figurative paintings. A year ago, he had a show at Francois Ghebaly gallery in L.A. that “people went crazy for,” she said.
“I would love to have one,” she added. “If you hear of anyone, send them my way.”
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