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Bonhams Modern and Contemporary African art sale 2020

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Head Study by Uche Okeke

This year’s edition of Bonhams Modern and Contemporary African Art Auction is setting up to be a harvest of masterful works, says Sabo Kpade, our London correspondent in this survey of the annual sale at the auctioneer’s London headquarters.

The forthcoming Bonhams Modern and Contemporary African Art sale today, in London, has a starry cast of works from old masters to young pretenders to collector’s status, from rarely seen masterpieces to contemporary marvels yet to be tested by the markets and time.

Three masters of Mozambican modernism whose works are up for auction are Ernesto Shikhani’s strangely anthropomorphic wood sculpture, Figure (£3 000 – 5 000); Malangatana Ngwenya’s still life of fruits, Frutos – Natureza Morta (£5 000 – £8 000) and Bertina Lopez’s Enterrei a Minha (£5 000 – 7 000), made four years before her death in 2012, in Italy, after a long and storied life in Portugese modernism and Mozambican nationalism.

The younger band of artists, in their 30s, includes Aboudia Diarrassouba (Ivory Coast), Ephrem Solomon (Ethiopia), Ajarb Ategwa (Ethiopia), Mikhael Subotzky (South Africa), Mischek Musamvu (Zimbabwe) and Muhau Modisakeng (South Africa) who is better known for striking colour blocks and imagery in his large scale photography. His auctioned works this year are a black and white photograph Untitled (Frame XIV) (2013) and a bronze bust Untitled (Leaf Bust) (2017), which shows remarkable craft and feeling not readily present in his photography.

Zanele Muholi’s Sasa, Blecker, New York (2016) is on the cover of this year’s Bonhams Modern and Contemporary African Art catalogue and her survey exhibition at Tate Modern opens in May. Yet her works start at £3 000 which may appear too modest for an artist with a substantial gallery profile or is simply a safe starting bet, as works by the artist are new to the auctioneer’s hammer at Bonhams.

Sixteen of the total lot of one hundred and one are from the collection of Sir Richard Branson, proceeds from which will go to Virgin Unite, his entrepreneurial foundation and to African Arts Trust, whose declared mission is for the growth of “locally managed and sustainable contemporary visual arts organisations in Africa.” Elias Simi (Ethiopia), Peterson Kamwathi (Kenya) and Richard Witkin (Zimbabwe) have works in this special section of the sale and will be sought after on account of the British billionaire’s profile as the collector.

The five works by Gerard Sekoto – considered the most important black South African artist – includes a rare watercolor titled, The Store (est £10 000 – 15 000) painted before the artist’s self-exile to France, in 1947, where he will remain till his death in 1993.

Another regular top performer at Bonhams sale is Congo’s Cheri Samba whose prolific output has not diminished continued interest in his strongly satirical paintings. “Very contemporary works by Samba post-2019 do struggle at auction” says Giles Peppiat, Head of Bonhams’s African Modern and Contemporary Art department “but good early pieces are always in demand.”

Real feral grace is to be found in the bronze works of cheetahs, a tiger and a lion by South Africa’s Dylan Lewis who Peppiatt is convinced is the “best animal sculptor in the world.”

Irma Stern’s Watussi Chief’s Wife (1946) is the top lot at this year’s Bonhams Modern and Contemporary Art sale at an estimate of £400 00 – 600 000. The work is one of two of the same sitter, Queen Rosalie Gicanda, the queen of Rwanda whose royalty as subject, combined with Stern’s technique with impasto, makes Watussi Chief’s Wife an exceptional painting by Stern who is one of Africa’s premier modernists.

Other works by Stern on sale this year are Portrait of an Indian Woman (1945), and The View From An Italian Terrace (1937), both estimated between £10 000 – 20 000. Still Life Of Roses And Earthenware (1936), a work of pulsing strokes of creams, yellows and pinks by the artist has a starting bid of £70 000 – 100 000.

An even higher estimate of £130 000 – 180 000 is set for a still life by Nigeria’s Demas Nwoko, the design-master and one-man-Bauhaus whose paucity of paintings contributes to their rarity. Painted in 1965, the work exemplifies ‘natural synthesis’: the combination of indigenous and foriegn artistic practices instituted by the ‘Zaria Rebels’.

Works by other members of the distinguished group are also up for auction, namely Head Study (est £20 000 – 30 000) by Uche Okeke; The MilkMaid (£30 000 – 50 000) by Osekola Osadebe and Mother and Children (1966) by Simon Okeke.

Along with Stern’s Watussi’s Chief Wife, star billing for Bonhams Modern and Contemporary Art sale is reserved for Agbogho Mmuo, a 1949 work from Ben Enwonwu’s celebrated African Dances series. Estimated at £200 000 – 300 000, it captures a masquerade in mid-stride, adorned in body paint and imageries that are evocative of Enwonwu’s Onitsha-Igbo traditions: a wellspring for most of the master modernist’s iconic works.

Majority of buyers, in recent years, have come from South Africa and Nigeria but last year’s edition included “Creative Currents of the Nile”, for a cross-section of East African artists but no such measure is emplaced this year. An exhibition of all the works on sale is on free-view to the public for three days at its London office. It remains a rare opportunity to see masterful works by African artists across several generations.


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