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Fragile diaspora art market challenge for Africa-based artists

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</p> <p>“Untitled”, a 1982 work in oil stick, acrylic and spray paint by Jean-Michel Basquiat sild for $110.5m (£85m)

From the record sale of a painting by late expressionist painter, Jean-Michel Basquiat; to the magical rise in Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s art market value; and performance of over 78 lots sold at Sotheby’s debut art auction of modern and Contemporary African art, the dynamics of art market has exposed a frightened fragility of most artists based in Africa.

For artists of African descents, these three separate sales provide a possible categorisation of who sells what, not necessarily based on critical evaluation. Apart from Ghanaian, El Anatsui, it seemed that art value of most African artist based at home, is not insulated from the geographical barrier that has hounded great talents who practice outside the powerful economies of Europe and the U.S.

Whoever believed that art was the only opportunity where creative professionals of Africa base could excel at fair or similar level with their counterparts from anywhere in the world should better start reviewing such argument. It could be illusory, so suggests the three sales that happened in the past few months. Indeed, an artist in Africa does not require sophistication of tools that African sportsmen, scientists and other professionals who run to the west to lift their skills. Art, like any other creative products is intellectually driven.

Critical evaluation of an artist’s works over a reasonable period of time, strengthen the market value of such artist, so the norms have forced down the psyche of art followers over the centuries. Great; agreed. From 1988 when Basquiat died at the age of 27 till date is quite a while for his works to have generated the much needed critical valuation energy that distilled into $110.5m (£85m) in New York, recently. Yes, quite in line with the theory of art market. But the phenomenal and magical rise of Akunyili is as much a joy to Africans as it is also a source of worry to some of us. In less than five years post-competition that exposed her work, Akunyili most likely could be a case study in unprecedented art market value.

It is no longer news that she has done it again. She has defied tradition. Akunyili, b. 1983 has a new auction record with her 2012 work The Beautiful Ones, sold for £2.1 million (hammer price) or buyer’s premium of £2.5 million ($3.1 million).

The unprecedented rise – for any African diaspora artist – in sales of Akunyili’s works, in real art market context would keep cconnoisseurs, aficionados and others in the business of art, scratching their head for quite a while. When the artist’s performance strayed into the discussion of a close associate of Victoria Miro Gallery and I at the last Art Dubai, in UAE, it was disclosed that the gallery “was embarrassed” by the magical rise of her work at auction.

In 2014, The Smithsonian American Art Museum announced Akunyili as the 2014 winner of its James Dicke Contemporary Artist Prize. The panel of jurors recognized her paintings as “bold yet intimate” but described the works as “among the most visually, conceptually and technically exciting work being made today.” She was the 11th winner of the $25,000 award dedicated to an artist younger than 50.

Over two months after Akunyili recorded £2.1m at the said auction in London, 80 artists of combined modern and contemporary divides struggled to sell £2,794,750 (about $3,600,000) for 79 lots sold out of a total 116 displayed for sales, in the same city.

I think the evolving African art market is showing signs of more unexplained yardstick than the mystery of art world in general. It’s a fragile prospect for African artists who practice from the continent.

Basquiat who died in 1988 was an artist for just seven years of his life. Having reached the $100m mark, Basquiat now holds the record of the most expensive at auction by any US artist, with

“Untitled”, a 1982 work in oil stick, acrylic and spray paint. The painting depicts a face shaped in skull form.
At this current period of what looks like a new dawn for African art market, the indices are clearly being set not to favour outlets and artists who have no links to European or American promotion or representation. Another Akunyili is not likely to emerge from any of the artists sold at the London auction or others whose works already have a known value in Africa. For example, it is an uphill task for any of the powerful art galleries in Europe to represent an artist whose work already has a market value below a perceived expectation. It is doubtful, for example, if Akunyili could have been pushed by Miro if she already had a market value in any part of Africa.

By implications and challenge, art galleries and auction houses that are based in Africa would need to expand their scope into the European and American market. Art should not end up like football; artists all over the world have similar potentials, sports professionals don’t. It is understandable why footballers who play in Africa cannot produce similar skills of Cristiano Ronaldo or Nwankwo Kanu. But I do not think the Basquiat’s painting and his work in general are out of reach for any artist in Africa to produce and get whatever critical review necessary. Perception as the real energy that drives the art market world is the difference. Art outlets in Africa would remain shut out of the perception game except there is a change of doing business.



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