Saturday 27 May 2017

Fragile diaspora art market challenge for Africa-based artists.

A mixed media painting by Njideka Akunyili Crosby.

From the record sale of a painting by late expressionist, Jean-Michel Basquiat, to the magical rise in Njideka Akunyili Crosby's art market value, and total sales of over 78 lots at Sotheby's debut art auction of modern and Contemporary African art, the dynamics of art market has exposed a frightened fragility of most artists based in Africa.

For artists of African descents, these three separate sales provide a possible categorisation of who sells what (at where?), and not necessarily based on critical appreciation. It seemed that art value of most African artists based at home, is not insulated from the geographical barrier that has hounded great talents — across professions — who practise outside the powerful economies of Europe and the U.S.

Whoever believed that art was the only opportunity where creative professionals of Africa base could
excel at fair or similar level with their counterparts from anywhere in the world should better start reviewing such argument. It could be illusory, so suggests the three sales that happened in the past few months. To be competitive at global, an artist in Africa does not require sophistication of tools that attract African sportsmen, scientists and other professionals who run to the west to lift their skills. Art, like any other creative contents is intellectually driven.

Critical appreciation and evaluation of an artist's work over a reasonable period of time, strengthen the market value of such artist, so the norms have been forced down the psyche of art followers over the centuries. Great; agreed. That norms perhaps, explains from 1988 when Basquiat died at the age of 27 till date, was quite a while for his works to have generated the much needed critical assessment energy that distilled into $110.5m (£85m) in New York, few weeks ago. Yes, that was quite in line with the tradition of art market. But the phenomenal and magical rise of Akunyili is as much a joy to Africans as it also generates a source of worry to some observers.  In less than five years of a U.S.-based art competition that exposed her work, Akunyili, most likely, could be a case study in unprecedented rise of an artist's market value.

 It is no longer news that she has done it again. She has defied tradition. Akunyili, b. 1983, has a new auction record with her 2012 work titled The Beautiful Ones, sold for £2.1 million (hammer price) or buyer's premium of £2.5 million ($3.1 million). Recall that last year, her 2012 painting Drown sold for $1.1 million at a Sotheby's auction.

 The unprecedented rise — for any African diaspora artist — in sales of Akunyili's works, in real art market context would keep connoisseurs, aficionados and others in the business of art, scratching their head for quite a while. When the artist's recent sales strayed into a discussion of a close associate of Victoria Miro Gallery and I at the last Art Dubai, in UAE, it was disclosed that the gallery "was embarrassed" by the "magical" rise of her work at auctions.

In 2014, The Smithsonian American Art Museum announced Akunyili as the 2014 winner of its James Dicke Contemporary Artist Prize. The panel of jurors recognized her paintings as “bold yet intimate” but described the works  as “among the most visually, conceptually and technically exciting work being made today.” She was the 11th winner of the $25,000 award dedicated to an artist younger than 50.

As Akunyili recorded £2.1m at the said auction in London, 80 artists of combined modern and contemporary divides struggled to sell £2,794,750 (about $3,600,000) for 79 lots sold out of a total 116 displayed for sales, in the same city, at another auction sales.

I think the evolving African art market is showing signs of more unexplained yardstick than the mystery of art world in general.  It's a fragile prospect for African artists who practice from the continent.

Basquiat who died in 1988 was an artist for just seven years of his life. Having reached the $100m mark, Basquiat now holds the record of the most expensive art auction by any US artist, with “Untitled”, a 1982 painting in oil stick, acrylic and spray paint. The painting depicts a face shaped in skull form.
Untitled”, a 1982 work in oil stick, acrylic and spray paint by Jean-Michel Basquiat sold for $110.5m (£85m)

At this current period of what looks like a new dawn for African art market, the indices are clearly being set not to favour outlets and artists who have no links to European or American promotion or representation. Another Akunyili is not likely to emerge from any of the artists sold at the Sotheby's London auction or others whose works already have a known value in Africa. For example, it looks like an uphill task for any of the powerful art galleries in Europe to represent an Africa based artist whose work already has a market value below a perceived expectation. It is doubtful, for example, if Akunyili could have been pushed by Victoria Miro if she already had a market value in any part of Africa.

By implications and challenge, art galleries and auction houses that are based in Africa would need to expand their scope into the European and American market. Art should not end up like football; artists all over the world have competitive potentials, but sports professionals don't. It is understandable why footballers who play in Africa cannot produce similar skills of Cristiano Ronaldo or Nwankwo Kanu or Didier Drogba. But I do not think the Basquiat's painting and his work in general are out of reach for any artist in Africa to produce and get deserved critical and commercial appreciation. Perception as the real energy that drives the art market world is the difference. Art outlets in Africa would remain shut out of the perception game except there is a change in the patterns of doing business.
 -Tajudeen Sowole is a Lagos-based writer on The Arts.


  1. the problem is definitional..I see no reason why Basquiat should be considered "African"...the category merge has been convenient for some but as you say favours the diasporan artists who have better access and opportunity.

  2. 'Art should not end up as football', 😊