What’s Driving the Explosive Market Rise for Aboudia’s Vibrant Works
Aboudia, Untitled, 2013. Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd.
This past May, at a Sotheby’s online sale, bidders around the world all wanted the same painting: Untitled (2015), a technicolor canvas by Ivorian artist Aboudia Abdoulaye Diarrassouba, better known simply as Aboudia. This fierce competition drove the work’s final sale price to £163,800 ($231,355), over eight times its estimate and breaking Aboudia’s previous auction record which was set just two months before, at Christie’s London. There, another painting, Untitled (2013), sold for £162,500 ($222,938).
That auction immediately followed Christie’s first single-artist online sale dedicated to Aboudia, titled “Noutchy in New York City,” which featured 22 works all created in the past year during lockdown from his studio in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. All 22 lots sold, with two works—La renaissance du Christ and Noutchy dans la rue (both 2020)—selling for $187,500 each, more than 10 times their high estimates.
“Admittedly, the estimates were deliberately kept low—their market value being substantially higher—yet with the six bigger paintings all selling above $100,000, all previous price records for the artist were pulverised,” reported Bruno Claessens, former European director of Christie’s African and Oceanic art department, on his website. “In the art industry that sort of thing should make you famous overnight, yet I have not found many articles about these astonishing results.”
Aboudia, who is 37, has some experience with lukewarm reception. In 2005, fresh from graduating from the Institut Des Arts in his home city, Abidjan, no gallery would show his work. He couldn’t break through to collectors, and many of his contemporaries didn’t understand the meaning and substance behind his paintings. “According to them, my work wasn’t good,” explained Aboudia via email.
Drawing inspiration directly from the streets of Abidjian, Aboudia recreates the city’s graffiti onto his canvases and paints childlike figures representing the community’s underserved young people. “There aren’t many things more important than kids,” explained Aboudia in a recent short film produced by Christie’s. “Before talking about anything else we have to speak about these children that are the pillars of an entire country, an entire nation, and the entire world.”
Using found material—cardboard, charcoal, fragments of magazine ads, or newspapers—Aboudia transposes Nouchi, the colloquial language of the Ivory Coast that is a mixture of several Ivorian languages and French, onto his canvases. This alchemy is tied together by an explosive use of color and the use of symbols and imagery: voodoo iconography, Dan masks from Liberia, or Igbo masks from Nigeria. The result is work that often feels combustible.
Aboudia’s paintings reflecting on the armed conflict during the 2010 Ivory Coast presidential election are what first brought him under the international spotlight. Western media would often illustrate coverage of the conflict using Aboudia’s works which showed his childlike figures amid skulls, AK-47s, and rocket launchers and surrounded by tanks and shelled buildings all washed in dark, ominous palettes of browns, greys, and the odd green. The combustible energy of Aboudia’s paintings was at fever pitch here.
“Aboudia is a very instinctive artist,” said Cécile Fakhoury, Aboudia’s gallerist in Dakar, Abidjan, and Paris. “He is painting what he is seeing and feeling. His work is very immersive. You can see a kind of repetition, but every move is very sincere. A lot of people are touched by his work because it can be dark, it can be hopeful.”
Fakhoury was one of the first gallerists to recognize the genius of Aboudia’s work along with Jack Bell, who hosted the artist’s first solo show at his London-based gallery in 2011. Titled “The Battle for Abidjan,” the exhibition showcased the harrowing works that helped launch Aboudia’s career the year before, introducing them to a global cadre of collectors and tastemakers. Among those esteemed collectors were Charles Saatchi and Jean Pigozzi, who acquired a number of Aboudia’s paintings—as it happens, Saatchi would end up showing several of these works in his exhibition series “Pangaea” in 2014.
“His work is uniquely Ivorian in that he draws his inspiration from local Nouchi street culture and traditional forms of voodoo, and addresses problems of social inequality in his capital city Abidjan,” said Bell. “While his themes are drawn from West Africa, his loose style and dynamic visual language translates to audiences internationally. Over the last 10 years, Aboudia has evolved into an iconic contemporary artist of his generation.”
Aboudia’s inaugural solo show with Bell was followed by a wave of exhibitions around the world and at home, including his first with Cécile Fakhoury in 2012. Titled “Aujourd’hui je travaille avec mon petit-fils, Aboudia” (“Today I work with my grandson, Aboudia”), the two-person show placed Aboudia’s work alongside the legendary Ivorian artist Frédéric Bruly Bouabré. Despite being born nearly six decades apart, for the exhibition, the artists collaborated on each other’s paintings, marrying their different styles across 12 canvases.
By 2014, New York’s Ethan Cohen Gallery would hop aboard the Aboudia train as well, presenting the artist’s first U.S. solo show. Matching the steady growth of Aboudia’s primary market was his secondary, which began in 2013 with the sale of two 2011 canvases, Children and Nigga, which went forfor £5,250 ($7,906) each at Bonhams, well over the low estimate for both works. Just three years later, the latter work would emerge once again at a Bonhams auction, this time selling for £9,375 ($12,927).
In 2017, Sotheby’s and Christie’s also began testing the waters for Aboudia’s market. That October, an untitled 2013 painting by the artist sold for a record £16,250 ($21,233) at Christie’s London, setting a new benchmark for his secondary market. Since then, works by Aboudia have become a reliable presence at auctions.
“Even though his work is catapulting right now, he has had a decade of exhibitions under his belt,” said Hannah O’Leary, head of modern and contemporary African art at Sotheby’s. “Just after his first exhibition abroad, he was included in a Charles Saatchi exhibition, so you can tell that he was off to a strong start. He hasn’t just come out of nowhere.”
Another factor that is likely contributing to the insatiable market for Aboudia is his perceived proximity and frequent comparison to Jean-Michel Basquiat. Aboudia’s spontaneous, chaotic process and street-inspired works make it tempting to draw similarities. According to Fakhoury, however, Aboudia developed his style long before he even knew who Basquiat was.
O’Leary finds the comparison between the two artists to be somewhat lazy. “The relationship between the two artists’ work comes from Aboudia’s link to the urban environment,” she explained. “It is less of copycat work and more of a similar root to both of their works. Aboudia’s genesis as an artist has come out of the civil war and depicting life in the street kids; there is something far more socially and politically motivated [about his practice].”
These days, Aboudia is very aware of these comparisons and will often mischievously play upon them. Sometimes he will deliberately draw a crown—an iconic Basquiat motif—in his paintings.
Aboudia’s strong representation across the U.S., U.K., and the African continent has positioned his work for the global success he is seeing today. Once the darling of younger collectors, Aboudia is now increasingly coveted by more mature collectors throughout the continent. He also has benefited from the current wave of collectors from around the world who are eager to add artists from “underrepresented areas” to their collections, according to O’Leary; one might speculate this as a euphemism for today’s commercial enthusiasm for Black artists.
When I asked Aboudia how the local sentiment towards his work has changed in the last decade, he said, “People are interested in what is already refined and confirmed.”
As the market for works by Aboudia continues to skyrocket exponentially, Aboudia himself has been making good on his success, giving back to the community that inspired his canvases. His foundation in Bingerville, Ivory Coast, provides children access to healthcare and art. While his rapid rise is impressive, Aboudia insists that this is only the beginning of his career. “I think the decisive moments are yet to come,” he said. His market and institutional signals are poised to agree.