With his deftly rendered paintings fusing digital textures with portraits of disappearing ethnic groups in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the Congolese artist
emphasizes globalization’s modernizing effects on his home. His eponymous solo show
, his first in the United Kingdom, which opened at London’s October Gallery
in late June, highlights capitalism’s role in accelerating the disappearance of traditional cultures, including that of the DRC’s threatened northeastern Mangbetu people. But Kamuanga Ilunga’s debut here tells another story.
His work’s arrival, on sale for $16,000–18,000 per piece, is further evidence of London’s bullish art market for contemporary African art. A swathe of new galleries, expanding institutional collections, exhibitions, and a vibrant auction market have recently led to Sotheby’s launching its first dedicated auction for African modern and contemporary work in May 2017. And while the notion of combining an entire continent’s culture under a single rubric does not nearly do justice to its diversity, prices within this sector are rising steadily, and represent an opportunity for collectors looking for a relatively affordable alternative to more established contemporary art submarkets.
“If you look at the art market as a whole, London definitely sits at the forefront of the more international collecting categories,” said Hannah O’Leary, Sotheby’s head of modern and contemporary African art, who joined the house in May. “And the reason is that many of these collectors from these countries pass through London. There’s a real presence, and that does give us a benefit.” She added that historical links between the U.K. and former African colonies—“whether good or bad”—created cultural connections absent from competing metropolitan art centers like New York.
With lots varying wildly in estimated and sale price, overall, London auction prices for top-name contemporary African artists have been rising steadily in recent years. In May, at Bonhams’s “Africa Now” auction, the most recent of its kind in London, Ghanaian sculptor
—one of the world’s most high-profile African artists—saw his 1999 sculpture Used Towel
selling for £176,500 (including premium), a record for a wooden sculpture by the artist. While his overall auction record was set in May 2014 at Sotheby’s New York, with his 2006 work Paths to the Okro Farm
selling for $1.4 million (again, including premium), auction database records reveal that when his works go on sale in London they frequently smash their upper pre-sale estimates. Bonhams’s May auction, a first for London when it was launched in 2009, took more than £2 million in total, double the same sale a year previously.
Giles Peppiatt, director of modern and contemporary African art at Bonhams, said he expected Bonhams’s turnover in the sector to double in 2016. “I don’t think Africa’s unique,” he added. “It’s following quite a well-trodden path of wealth creation, wealthy individuals aspiring to buy art and buying art with which they are familiar, work that comes from their country. That would be the same as Russia, India, or China.”