Art Market

Why the Contemporary African Art Market Is Uniquely Positioned to Weather COVID-19

Amah-Rose Abrams
May 20, 2020 7:31PM
Nkechi Ebubedike
Woman with Jug Head, 2020

The market for modern and contemporary African art has steadily grown for the last few years. The success of the 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair—whose latest, online-only edition opened earlier this month—and a steady increase of prices reached at auction has felt long overdue. Heading into 2020, 90 percent of dealers in Africa said they expected sales to increase this year, according to Clare McAndrew’s report “The Art Market 2020.” Now, the global pandemic may be threatening that optimism and momentum.

It is early days still in terms of coronavirus and its economic fallout, but operators in this sector have reported an expected dip rather than a complete drop-off of sales. This is a small but international market operating in a fragile context that has seen its inclusion in the mainstream pay off.

Kimathi Mafafo
Mosireledi (Protector) I, 2019

Sotheby’s modern and contemporary African art sale opened online on March 27th, three days after lockdown came into force in the United Kingdom. Hannah O’Leary, director and head of modern and contemporary African art at Sotheby’s, was pleasantly surprised by positive sales. In the end, the auction brought in £2.3 million ($2.9 million), setting new auction records for five artists: Cameroonian photographer Samuel Fosso, Mozambican painter Bertina Lopes, Zimbabwean painter Richard Mudariki, Tanzanian painter Elias Jengo, and Nigerian painter Shina Yussuff.

Having to shift the sale entirely online at short notice—a move that has been repeated by Frieze New York and 1-54—was an easier task for a company with means and resources such as Sotheby’s, but there were questions over whether or not people would be in the frame of mind for buying art of any kind.

“Our contemporary African sales are very international, we have bidders from every continent,” O’Leary explained. “It’s a slight change of focus and a few people always weren’t able to view the sales, but often many people don’t view the sales in person and will buy online or over the telephone—the market can still continue.”

Ann Gollifer, The Archaeology of Love, 2019. Courtesy of the artist and Guns and Rain.

Galleries on the continent are also hoping to maintain the sector’s momentum online and through other remote strategies. The Emerging African Art Galleries Association (EAAGA) comprises galleries in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Mozambique, Angola, Uganda, and Senegal. As the lockdown became inevitable, members began preparing their artists and their businesses for the tough times ahead.

“Our authorities acted very quickly. They did it to buy time,” said Julie Taylor of EAAGA member gallery Guns & Rain in Johannesburg. “We have vast inequalities and people living in very crowded areas, so social distancing is almost impossible for many South Africans,” she explained, adding that there had also been a rush to get supplies to artists on lockdown so they can continue to produce work. Guns & Rain’s most recent show sold out, but if artists can’t make work, Taylor won’t have anything to sell on their behalf.

Bev Butkow, Surface Tension I and Surface Tension II, 2020. Courtesy of the artist and Guns and Rain.

Tawanda Takura
Amen to Papa, 2020
Guns and Rain

“The art scene is developed in South Africa, but in places like Zimbabwe and Namibia, it can be difficult for artists to get access to materials,” she added. “We often source materials and send them across borders to those artists.”

Valerie Kabov, co-founder of EAAGA and director of First Floor Gallery Harare, in the capital of Zimbabwe, has been making sure her artists have flu shots, internet access, and medical care should it be needed, as well as planning for the future. Lockdown has been relaxed in Zimbabwe, meaning Kabov can go to work, even if she can’t open the gallery. The EAAGA’s members are swapping ideas, sharing advice, and helping one another with logistics in the face of a relaxing of lockdowns across the continent and big questions still being raised over the nature of coronavirus.

Gresham Tapiwa Nyaude, Covid Blues Pt 10, 2020. Courtesy of the artist and First Floor Gallery, Harare.

Richard Butler Bowdon, M So Patient in Prussian Blue, 2019. Courtesy of the artist and First Floor Gallery, Harare.

“In the African context, collaboration is entirely imperative because we are such a small art scene,” Kabov said. “We are operating in places that don’t have established infrastructures.”

Kabov and Taylor are focusing on online sales and content, and maintaining contact with their audiences and collectors through Zoom and social media. Both said sales have been better than expected.

“We spoke to one of our Nigerian collectors who said, ‘To me, there’s been no change at all, other than I can’t travel,’” said Kabov, although the crash of oil prices globally will have a knock-on effect in both Nigeria and Angola.

George Osodi
De money (Obuasi Chief), 2009

The particularly international nature of collectors for this market means there is no dependency on one specific economy for its survival; it also means that events on the other side of the world could send a curveball, causing unforeseen havoc.

In London, Ayo Adeyinka, director of TAFETA, a West End gallery specializing in contemporary African art, was carried through March on buoyant sales made at TEFAF Maastricht and The Armory Show. Then lockdown came into force in the U.K., and in April, the gallery saw an expected but severe 80 percent drop in sales compared to the previous year.

Adeyinka doesn’t feel this is the time to aggressively pursue sales—people’s concerns are elsewhere, and that includes collectors. In an initiative to mitigate the shortfall, he launched Six for Six, whereby he lends work to his collectors for six weeks, and if they fall in love with it, they can pay for it over six months (or in one discounted payment). The unorthodox offering is paying off, he said.

Henri Abraham Univers
Intemporel (Yellow Senufo Mask), 2019
Retro Africa

“Within a week of sending out this promotional video, I have sent out five pieces. If that does convert to sales, then that definitely does mitigate the loss,” Adeyinka said. “We can’t get to see each other, but you can still bring some joy into your life.”

Touria El-Glaoui, founding director of 1-54—whose virtual New York edition (hosted, in full disclosure, on Artsy) continues through May 31st—spoke of positive reactions from galleries and also some sales. But she was cautious of setting this market sector apart from the rest of the art world; contemporary African art has long fought for its inclusion.

South Africa’s Goodman Gallery, which added a branch in London to spaces in Johannesburg and Cape Town last autumn, has created a substantial online program featuring artists such as William Kentridge, Shirin Neshat, and Cassi Namoda. The gallery has also been offering one-on-one Zoom studio visits with artists and refreshing its virtual program weekly, which has meant that it has maintained some sales. The gallery also participated in Frieze New York’s online-only edition earlier this month, where owner and director Liza Essers said sales “totaled 15–20 percent of the gallery’s typical take-home at a Frieze fair.”

While sales are essential to business, Essers has other concerns. She said that South Africa has seen a 60 percent rise in unemployment, and the value of its currency has dropped by one-third. This means that feeding programs and support for the huge number of people with underlying conditions such as HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis are at the forefront of her mind.

“It is at the essence of the gallery to focus on social projects, and I think a lot of galleries in Europe are not focused on this in the way that we have to be and want to be,” Essers said.

Sales are still happening in the contemporary African art market. And although things will undoubtedly be hampered by the pandemic, the sector appears to have a strong foundation. Affordable prices, value, and commercial agility have undoubtedly helped. Accustomed to operating internationally online and with a collaborative, adaptive spirit, the market seems to be surviving well enough for now.

“There’s a lot of concern about this new market as we’ve had such good momentum in the last couple of years, but I honestly think we are not that much different from the rest of the art market,” said El-Glaoui, who is planning both a physical and an online version of 1-54 in October, concurrent with Frieze in London. “We are playing it by ear like the rest of the art market.”

Amah-Rose Abrams