Hannah O’Leary holds a Master’s degree in History of Art with Cultural Anthropology from Glasgow University. She first joined Sotheby’s in 2005, initially working in the Dublin and Melbourne offices. In 2006 she joined Bonhams in London, where she helped pioneer the first international auctions of South African Art and Modern & Contemporary African Art, becoming Head of Department in 2010. With 10 years’ experience in this field, and having overseen record-breaking sales in both categories, she was delighted to return to Sotheby’s in 2016 to further develop this burgeoning market. In this interview, she talks about Sotheby’s inaugural auction of Modern and Contemporary African Art.
You are the director, as well as head of Modern & Contemporary African Art at Sotheby’s, what would you say prepared you for this role, especially with your recent focus on African art?
I have been working with Modern and Contemporary African art, and specifically its promotion within the international secondary market, for over a decade. During that time, I have not only developed an in-depth knowledge of African art and artists, but also of the collectors and institutions involved in this field and the particular nuances of this market. During my time at Bonhams, I oversaw the establishment of the first international auctions of Modern and Contemporary African art, and record-breaking sales in this category. I am excited to bring this experience to Sotheby’s, whose reputation and global reach will allow us to develop the market for African art further.
What factors do you think are responsible for the growing global attention to art from Africa and do you think they are sustainable?
Africa is a whole continent that has been largely overlooked by the art world until now. Africa consists of 54 different countries representing 15% of the world’s population, and a huge diaspora beyond, and yet African art represents less than 0.01% of the international art market. Of course, this is not for lack of artistic talent or production, and there are collectors who have been supporting this market for many years, but that number is a relatively small one. However, the 21st century has seen huge economic growth on the African continent that has allowed for the development of art markets locally. More recently, this has been bolstered by international interest as collectors and institutions look to diversify and internationalise their art collections. I see this not only as sustainable, but that we are only at the beginning of the correction of this anomaly and the development of this market.
What effect would Sotheby’s increasing involvement in the international art market for contemporary African art have, especially when other international and domestic auction houses are already considered market leaders?
There should be more fine art auction houses in Africa, and more African artists being sold at the major international auction houses across the world. Sotheby’s is by far the largest auction house to enter this market. In addition to our expertise in Modern and Contemporary African art, our international network of experts, and our relationships with collectors, institutions and the media allow us to bring Modern and Contemporary African art to a much bigger audience than ever before.
What are some of the highlights of this forthcoming auction of art from Africa, and what are we to expect?
Our auction consists of over 100 works from across the continent – sculpture, painting, drawing, printmaking and photography – dating from around 1940 to the present day. I hope there is something for everyone and every budget – estimates range from £1,000 for a Roger Ballen photograph Guardian (lot 21) to £650,000 for the magnificent bottle-cap sculpture by El Anatsui that appears on the front cover Earth Developing More Roots (lot 72). Some of my personal favourites include: Crash Willy, a masterpiece by Yinka Shonibare MBE (lot 106) that deserves to be in a museum; a tender portrait by Uche Okeke of his sister Kate (lot 12); an early work from the ‘Ogolo’ series by Ben Enwonwu (lot 48); two beautiful and rare pieces by Uzo Egonu (lots 49 and 50); and a great triptych by Bruce Onobrakpeya (lot 81).
What are the foreseeable developments for art from the continent including collecting habits, and how will Sotheby’s position itself to accommodate these changes?
This is the first sale of its kind at Sotheby’s and the first auction where the entire focus is on Africa. The vast majority of the artists, despite having international reputations, have not been sold by the major international auction houses until now. Our auction consists of art from Africa or by African artists, but our collectors are international. The artists included in this auction have exhibited internationally, from the US to China, Australia and throughout Europe, and so have gained a following in all of those places. Of course our auctions will attract collectors and new buyers from Africa, but I hope we will also bring African art to the attention of international collectors.