The auct ion room erupted with applause when the hammer came down at the Arthouse Contemporary auction in Lagost wo Novembers ago closing the sale of a miniature bronze edition of Anyonwu, an iconic work by celebrated Nigerian artist and probably the most influent ial African artist of the 20th century, Ben Enwonw u MBE at a staggering N30.8 million (US$ 192,500, buyer’s premium inclusive). In recent years, t here has been a st eep rise in the value of the artist ‘s work on the international art market.
Increasing global attention to African art has seen international art auction houses like Bonhams and Phillips de Pury devote entire sales to modern and contemporary art from the continent. These events have led to the emergence of a secondary art market in Nigeria. Many watchers of t hese trends would not be sur pris ed at the new record set for a modern N igerian work of art However, t his figure pales in comparison t o
pr evious records set by arguably less influential South A fr ican art ist s. On March 23, 20I I during Bonhams’ sale of Sout h African masterpiecesin London, Irma Stern ‘s Arab Priest fetched a record price of £3,044,000 (N728,7 I 4,000) a £600,000 (N 1 4 3,636,000) increase above her last record made at Bonhams’ October 20I0 sale, which recorded l2.4m (N574,545,000) for her painting Bohoro Girl.
The dust has hardly settled, but we must seek answers to several throbbing questions; ls contemporary African art and by extension Nigerian art worth collecting or investing in?
Why is contemporary African art only beginning to rise on the international market considering the fact that ancient or classical African art has since enjoyed considerable success internationally? What are the indices t hat determ ine the value of an artwork? South Africa and Nigeria are two of the most dynamic spaces of artistic practice on the African continent, but why does Black African art or art from Sub-Saharan Africa, which includes Nigeria continually fetch comparatively much lower prices on t he international market? Sur ely,this is not to suggest that contemporary Afr ican art with all its expressive fluidity,abstract ion and emotional depth from a glut of artistic talent is inferior to Western art or that contemporary South African art is considerably mo re accomplished than art from other parts of the continent.
Many reasons have been adduced for these seeming anomalies. Firstly, contemporary African art is assumed to exist in a vacuum, clearly neglecting t he pioneering efforts of modern artists like Enwonwu. Account s of modern art dismiss these efforts as pale copies, forgetting that modern art has its firm roots in Afr icahaving been influenced by classical African sculpture. Secondly, t he struc tures for the creation, promotion and consumption of art on the local scene are barely existent and do little to stimu late the internationalmarket. Katrin Schmitter, a market expert asserts t hat the developmen t of t he artist ic environment is unden iably crucial for the evolution of artists. She adds that museums, galleries, exhibitions, customers, audience, patrons and cr it ics form a vital net work for the art scene, but t his depends on specific socio -economic and demographic backgrounds not easily developed in most Black A fr ican countries.
She argues that the governments of these countries are grappling with providing food and basic amenities for their people and coupled with massive corruption, dwindling budgets are allocated to diminishing cultural projects. This unfavourable economic situation has ensured that over the years, the national museums which should feature the works of talented artists thereby creating monetary value and power, has its exhibit ion halls filled with displays of cultural antique objects. This prevailing stagnation has its direct consequences on the artist s too , as few are bold enough to embrace new media and are compelled to pander to the dictates of the fewer still, patrons. Coming home to Nigeria, galleries mostly based in Lagos are few and far between and seldom profession ally-run. Worse st ill, they seem to be a ‘jack of all trades’, selling just about anything without actively negotiating the careers of t heir artists to place them on the international scene.
Over the last century, Nigerian art has undergone some major stylistic developments. While it is true that colonisation bears a great influence on the development of art in Africa, traditional elements still exist in new art forms created from the effect s of political turmoil, an influence of wealthy patrons and an amalgamation of new media, techniques and ideas. Art historian,Sidney Kasfir attributes the emergence of new stylistic developments to urbanisation, advancements in technology and material culture, expansions of literacy through formal schooling and the development of an art market under European patronage.
Aina O. nabolu, acknowledged as the father of modern African art, received art t raining in England. He is we ll-known for his naturalistic forms and his role in the inclusion of art teaching in the colonial secondary school curriculum. Ben Enwonwu ‘s later appearance on the Lagos art scene brought more respect to the art profession, which was seen as largely one of ridicule. His legacy owes much to the fusion of Western techniques and indigenous traditions, and he remains the most famous Nigerian artist today. At the height of his fame, he was the first African to be commissioned to sculpt a bronze portrait of Her Majesty; Queen Elizabeth II. With his successes, many contemporary artists working in Nigeria have defined t heir spaces of practice.
Other major influences on modern Nigerian art include the Natural Synthesis philosophy exemplified by leading members of the Zaria School such as Uche Okeke, Bruce Onobrakpeya and Yusuf Grillo, who built upon the foundations Enwonwu laid, and the Osogbo workshops of t he 1950s and 60s facilitated by European expatriates Georgina and Ulli Beier and Suzanne Wenger.
In Nigeria, the first auction took place on December I I, 1999 at t he prestigious MUSON Centre and featured works by celebrated Nigerian artists including Ben Enwonwu, Erhabor Emokpae , Bruce Onobrakpeya and Solomon Wangboje. Amon Kotei was the single Ghanaian artist whose work featured at t he sales organised by the Nimbus Art Gallery.Since then, auction sales of art by Nike Art Gallery and Tribes Art Gallery have been held. However, by far the most consistent have be en staged by Lagos-based Arthouse Contemporary, the only full-fledged auction house in Nigeria and followed closely by the Logos Art Auction, a joint effort of Terra Kulture and Mydrim Gallery.
Indeed, many records have be en set for Nigerian art at these auctions and many mo re for African artists internationally. What can possibly be the reasons for these rising values after decades of struggling for recognition?
It’s safe to say that the artists’ identity,critical acclaim, life expectancy and death; or the characteristics of the art work and t he period in which they were created contribute to the auction results.
The international art market has had a pro found effect on modern and contemporary African art with artists, dealers, collectors and patrons more aware of the commercial potential of art. In recent years, contemporary African artists have been increasingly shaped by Western concepts, which influence their receptiveness and accept ability on the larger world stage.
There is also a direct correlation between international auction result s and those artists who attended prestigious art institutions abroad, and exhibit their works in recognised international spaces. In addition, exquisitely produced and well distributed catalogues are major catalysts.
Observations have shown that more artists from Africa are now integrated into large group exhibitions and are not only represent ed by international art galleries, but get special attention at art fair s and biennials.
In the past few years, the Lagos contemporary art scene has become ‘hotter ‘ judging by the exhibitions of new cutting-edge work, the growing number of foundations to foster art globally and the auctions aiming to establish a credible art market.
However, it is clear there’s still some way to go before Nigeria matches the enduring structures set-up t o promote art in South Africa and in the West. And so t he questions crop up again.
Are we beginning to realise the enormous potential of Nigerian art as an alternative asset class? How is Africa strategising? Are we guilty of overlooking the achievements of our contemporary artist s, leaving them undervalued and underappreciated? The signs are all too clear to see. Now is the time to act.