Say Hello to Africa: Why Are We Fascinated by Original African Artwork?

If you were asked to name a growing art market outside of the West, no one would be surprised to hear you say “Asia”. While their growth has been astronomical in recent decades, the world has become fascinated by original African artwork.

African art is on the rise: pieces are selling for many times their worth of a few years ago, in some cases tenfold. Away from hard sales numbers, the general perception and appreciation of African art is changing – buy why?

Africa Has Erupted Onto the World Stage

It may still deal in small change compared to the likes Europe or Asia, but the African art market has taken off in a big way these last few years. Want evidence? How about the fact that global superstars like Bonhams and Sotheby are producing teams – even departments – dedicated to the procurement, display and auction of contemporary African art. The whole art world is taking notice.

African art is mostly sold in the West, where collectors have been buying up pieces at established auction houses like Bonhams in the UK, or Sotheby’s across its 3 locations in London, New York and L.A. The fact is that African art is what’s hot right now – and it looks like it’s here to stay!

Away from these blockbuster galleries, there’s no denying that African art is simply popular. While art may be unlike any other commercial market, even it is not immune from the fluctuating desires and impulses of the masses. People – and not just established collectors – are beginning to enjoy the idea of owning these works of art in their collections or adorning their homes, and that drives a certain amount of business.

The World is Getting Smaller

We are getting used to seeing artwork from hugely varying cultures and countries, so African pieces are beginning garner appreciation for their quality, rather than being peripherally observed for their conspicuousness.

Giles Peppiatt, director of contemporary African Art auctions at Bonhams, says that “people are now much more used to seeing other cultures' art at auction" and contributes this as part of the reason why interest in the market is growing.

And it is seriously growing. The potential for (and current evidence of) investment in African art is through the roof. Top African artists have been making record-breaking sales year-on-year in recent times, with stunning examples like El Anatsui’s “New World Map” fetching over $500,000! While middle to lower-tier artists may not be experiencing the same growth, things are moving in the right direction.

African Buyers Are on the Rise

The majority of popular African artwork by prominent artists is showcased and sold in Europe or North America: there’s established infrastructure, a lucrative market and any prominent artist would love to promote their art in galleries such as Bonhams or Sotheby’s. It’s natural, but sustainability demands that African investors also start purchasing “locally” – the great news is that it is happening!

There is a popular auction house (Arthouse Contemporary Ltd, Lagos, Nigeria) which does sell in Africa, though at much lower prices than the Western markets. The number of African investors is also on the rise, and set to continue as the overall economic climate and wealth of African nations improves.

An Integrity Driven Cultural Approach

Art collector Prince Yemisi Shyllon owns one of Africa’s largest private art collections, at over 7,000 pieces. Even though his collection is probably worth 10 times what he initially paid, it is his firm belief that collections shouldn’t “just be about collecting and enjoying should go beyond just collecting -- it should go into the element of propagating the culture or the heritage of the people and way of life of the people.”

This may be easy to say when you possess a collection worth countless millions of dollars, but he has a point. His sentiment resonates with many African artists, and the burgeoning interest of Western buyers in contemporary African art could be just the platform we need to enable more African artists to produce quality work; work which is truly reflective of their unique culture, struggles and triumphs. Without buyers, there can’t be a sustainable market for full-time artists.

What's Next for African Art?

No one can truly say where things will go from here. Authentic art from the continent seems to have risen sharply in popularity, but it doesn’t feel like a brief event. Keep your eyes peeled as time moves forward, as this is bound to be a fascinating and exciting journey over the next few years.  


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