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Nigerian Contemporary Art Takes On The World With Hannah O’Leary

Art, in Nigeria, is experiencing a rebirth. Once restricted to underfunded departments on university campuses and overly dedicated starving artists, our artists and their work are gradually staking a claim for their fair portion of Nigerian contemporary culture. Institutions like Nike Arts Gallery – founded by the iconic Nike Davies-Okundaye and home to over 8,000 distinct works of Nigerian art – and Rele Gallery – founded by Adenrele Sonariwo – have established themselves as firm components of Nigeria’s cultural scene. Art X, West Africa’s first international art fair is also consolidating its status as the most prominent. Local artists, such as Victor Ehihkamenor and Peju Alatise, who have gained international acclaim are giving back to the culture, contributing artistic learning spaces like Angels and Muses and ANAI Foundation respectively. And away from the limelight, a growing number of younger Nigerians are beginning to view art as a viable career path.

Hannah O’Leary. Photo Sotheby’s


As our art slowly infiltrates mainstream culture, the world is beginning to pay attention. Last year, the first Nigerian pavilion was presented at the 57th Venice Biennale in Italy, earning critical acclaim. At Sotheby’s – the world’s oldest, largest and arguably most prestigious auction house – the inaugural sale of Modern and Contemporary African Art was held in May 2017. With over a 100 unique pieces by 63 artists from 14 countries on display and 29 participating bidders, the sales generated about £2.8 million, achieving a sell-through rate of 78% by value. Out of the 63 artists on display, record sales were set for 16 of them. Critical to this success is Hannah O’Leary, an evangelist of African culture and Director and Head of Modern and Contemporary African art at Sotheby’s, who set up and has run the auction house’s department dedicated to promoting art from Africa and the Diaspora since 2016. On her work, Hannah has commented, “We are seeing a monumental shift in the art market towards greater diversity and a surge in interest in contemporary art from Africa, and of course Nigeria is leading the way. Our African auctions see bidding from every corner of the globe, and we are proud to promote the very best Nigerian art to an international audience.”

Critics have argued that the apparent boom in African contemporary art, highlighted by the growing attention being paid by prestigious houses and record sales, is hardly representative of the general landscape, as only a very few African artists are at its forefront. Others have counterargued that these very few are a starting point, heralding a renaissance of some sort. Both sides of the divide are united in the opinion that there is irrefutable progress. In conversation with Hannah O’Leary, I discuss this progress and Sotheby’s positioning as arbiters of taste in contemporary African art.

Lot 24, Eddy Ilunga Kamuanga, Mangbetu, est. £8,000-12,000

Starting off on a personal note, you have over a decade’s experience developing the African contemporary art scene, making huge contributions to the field at Bonham’s before crossing over to Sotheby’s. How did your interest in African contemporary art originate and what personal accomplishments in this field have brought you most fulfilment over the years?

My interest in African art developed alongside my career. I worked for Sotheby’s in Australia with modern and contemporary Australian art in the early 2000s, and so I was interested in international art and regional markets since the beginning of my career. When I moved to London in 2006 my job at Bonhams included researching art from every corner of the world. It became apparent quickly that Africa had a rich modern art history that was not yet appreciated by the international art market. Up until that point, the market for traditional African art was strong, but African art from the 20th and 21st centuries was simply not represented. In 2006 we sold a self-portrait by Gerard Sekoto, one of the fathers of modern South African art, for £120,000. That kick-started the introduction of the South African sales in 2007, which were extremely successful from the beginning, followed by auctions of modern and contemporary art from across the African continent in 2009. I love my job and find it enormously rewarding to promote the art of a whole continent to the international art world. I have many personal highlights including the successful foundation of these auctions, both at Bonhams and now at Sotheby’s – as one of the largest and best-respected names in the art world, our entry into the market was a real game-changer – and setting many new world record prices for important artists from the continent over the past decade, including Ben Enwonwu, Yusuf Grillo, Yinka Shonibare, El Anatsui, and Njideka Akunyili Crosby.


As you have already alluded to, the contemporary art scene is constantly growing and this expansion – in demand and categories demanded – is creating opportunities for art sourced from regions that have been largely out of the mainstream, such as Africa. An example of the extent of this demand is Ben Enwonwu’s painting, ‘Africa Dances,’ which was recently sold by Sotheby’s for $264,568 USD, a figure almost ten times its pre-sale estimate. At Sotheby’s, what does the process – of sourcing art from places such as Nigeria to supply this unique demand – entail?

Sotheby’s has an extremely well-respected reputation in the art world, which we work hard at to maintain; we offer the best expertise, excellent customer service, a wide network of offices and representatives internationally, and a holistic view of the business of art, including everything from appraisals, to shipping services, to tax and heritage advice, and scientific authentication services. Combined, this gives us an edge over all our competition and ultimately results in the best prices for our clients. This means that people often come to us with potential consignments and Nigeria has been no different, and I have been delighted at the enthusiastic response to our entry into this market. We work closely with consultants and logistics companies to ensure consignment from Nigeria is straightforward for our clients. However, the painting you refer to by Ben Enwonwu did not come to us from Nigeria. One of the most exciting aspects of this market is that there are masterpieces by modern African artists in homes worldwide that have yet to be discovered. That painting came from a gentleman in Europe who had inherited the painting and did not know what it was, or indeed its value potential value, until he contacted us.

Lot 58, Ben Enwonwu, Africa Dances, £60,000-£90,000

In May, Sotheby’s also set the new world record for Nigerian artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby with ‘Bush Babies,’ 2017, which sold for $3,375,000 USD, making her the most valuable Nigerian artist of all time. You have also mentioned Sotheby’s success with other contemporary Nigerian artists like Yinka Shonibare, Toyin Ojih Odutola and Abiodun Olaku. Are there currently any other Nigerian artists you are excited about?

There are many! Of course, there are many factors we consider before including an artist in our auctions, and the artists sold at Sotheby’s are already well-known internationally and have an existing following among both collectors and museums. However, of course, I also keep an eye on younger emerging artists, especially when I visit art fairs such as 1-54 in London and New York and Art X Lagos. Some of my favourites yet to appear at a major auction house include Odili Donald Odita, Victor Ehihkamenor, Modupeola Fadugba, and Ruby Onyinyechi Amanze.

Sotheby’s landmark sales, despite being positive indicators of growth, highlights the concern that a larger amount of collecting is done by people from outside the continent. This is a concern because the sustainable development of art infrastructure is highly dependent on local collecting to sustain artists at the grassroots who do not have immediate access to institutions such as Sotheby’s. How, in your opinion, could local collecting be encouraged at the grassroot level?

I think the local market here in Nigeria is extremely important. I always describe the art world as an ecosystem. There are many players who build an artist’s reputation, including art schools, commercial galleries, museum curators, collectors, critics, writers and, finally, the auction houses. I could not do what I do in London, promoting Nigerian art to the world, without being able to point to a thriving market in Nigeria itself. Of course, the market here is already thriving and we can credit initiatives such as the many commercial contemporary art galleries, Arthouse Contemporary, and Art X Lagos in helping to advance the local market. Beyond this, I would like to see more museums and education initiatives, more public engagement with the arts and government support.

Speaking of education initiatives, Bruce Onobrakpeya, yet another Nigerian who has been featured by Sotheby’s, started out as a high school art teacher in prestigious schools such as St. Greg’s, Lagos and amongst his students have been ministers, governors and captains of industries. I understand there’s a high and competitive demand for his work amongst his former students till this day simply because of the role he has in their personal histories. Given that the value of art can occasionally be attributed to instances such as this where there is a keen understanding of the history of the artist and context of the art, do you think there is potential for Africa as a competitive buyer’s market for African art?

I think Bruce Onobrakpeya is a genius, a true master of the arts, and that is why his work is so highly collectable. But also I agree that it is Nigerians who should dictate who the most important Nigerian artists are, as part of a national art historical discourse. Nigerian collectors are hugely important to the market and to Sotheby’s. In fact, from our first auction in this field, over 30% of our collectors for African art have been from the African continent, and this is a percentage we would like to increase going forward. Sotheby’s has been at the forefront of regional markets over the years, from Latin America to Asia to the Middle East and now Africa. Buyers from Asia and the Middle East are now among our most important collectors across the board, from impressionist art to jewellery and watches contemporary art. I don’t see why Africa should be any different in the next 10 to 20 years.


Lot 63, Njideka Akunyili-Crosby (Nigerian), A la Warhol, oil on canvas, £50,000 – 70,000

While it is important to abstain from confining artists to their geography, the success of African artists working on and finding international success from the continent serves as a lighthouse of aspiration to local artists. An example of such inspirational artists is Enugu based Ghanaian, El Anatsui who’s work – Paths to the Okro Farm – sold for $1.45 million at Sotheby’s New York. In your opinion, how critical is local representation to the development of art in Africa?

When I joined Sotheby’s in 2016, less than 0.1% of the international art market was represented by African artists. The African artists who were included in international contemporary art auctions could be listed on my fingertips. They include El Anatsui, Marlene Dumas, William Kentridge, Wangechi Mutu and Julie Mehretu – most of whom live and work outside the African continent. By offering expertise and standalone sales dedicated to art from the African continent, Sotheby’s is addressing that imbalance. We are currently seeing more diversity in our international contemporary art auctions as seen by the record prices set for African American artists and artists of the African Diaspora in our most recent New York sales. However, artists living on the African continent are still under-represented in the international art market and that is why we hold dedicated African contemporary art auctions, in order to provide a platform and ultimately increase the number of artists from Africa who are represented in our international auctions.

I’m glad you mentioned your dedicated auctions, Sotheby’s next sale of Modern and Contemporary African art is in October 2018. What are your expectations for it? And what is your advice for getting involved, either at the buying or selling end?

Yes, this year we have doubled the number of African contemporary art auctions at Sotheby’s, which is indicative of the success we have seen in this field. We will continue to offer a curated auction of the best art the continent has to offer. We encourage all those interested in being involved to get in touch and can find full contact details for me and my colleagues on our website:

Those interested in selling artworks should email us images and details of those pieces for a free and confidential auction appraisal. For those interested in bidding, the sale catalogue will be available online approximately one month before the auction, and we hope to see as many people as possible for the public exhibition in London, which opens three days before the auction. Of course, people can bid in the auction in many ways, including online and on the telephone as well as in person. Registrations can be made online or people should contact me for more information.

Unfortunately, the art scene has earned infamy for being a medium for money laundering and corruption – the global phenomena with many Nigerian friends. What is being done to stem these ethical concerns especially in new markets?

This is an issue that Sotheby’s takes very seriously, and we have large compliance departments in our main offices in New York and London, and we screen all new clients and also the artworks which we sell for any issues well in advance of the auction. Buyers can rest assured that works sold at Sotheby’s are both authentic and have a full legal title.

Hannah O’Leary

Sotheby’s has been around for nearly three centuries and through history has often been the confluence at which African art and the western world interacts. Also central to the mutual history of African art and the western world is the appropriation of historic Nigerian artefacts by Britain during the colonial era. Do you think there is a case for the repatriation of such historical art to their places of origin for the preservation of culture?

This is an interesting issue, and we fully investigate the provenance of all works sold at Sotheby’s and comply with all legal requirements regarding import and export. Of course, we would love to see more of these heritage objects available for public consumption in world-class museums in Africa.

Fair enough. To finish – as we started – on a personal note, art as we know it is a subset of culture. Are there any other interesting elements of Nigerian culture you are looking forward to exploring during your trip?

I always enjoy my visits to Lagos, I am welcomed as if I am coming home! I am lucky to have many old and new friends in the city, so a trip here never feels like it is only business. Lagos is a city that changes constantly, there is always something and somewhere new to explore including art galleries, of course, but I also love to visit artists in their studios, check out the local music and theatre scenes, and the wonderful bars and restaurants of course! My only regret is that my visit is always too short, I always promised myself that next time I will stay for longer and see more of the country.

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