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Contemporary African art helps draw new conclusions about the continent

7th July 2015

By: In On Africa IOA


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A new emerging market is taking the art world by storm – contemporary African art has become one of the fastest growing global art markets.(2) Galleries, museums and private collectors on and off the African continent are rushing to buy up contemporary African art. This is not simply a trend towards something new in the art world, however. Rather, it is a crucial indicator of change both on and off the continent. In Africa, growing economies and the rising wealthy class are driving new investment in contemporary art, helping to fuel the art market locally and internationally. This local and, particularly, international interest in contemporary African art is in turn contributing significantly to the continent’s increasingly positive image.

Contemporary art in Africa


The recent surge in interest in contemporary African art (in many ways initiated by British auction house Bonhams’ successful “Africa Now” auction that started in 2007) is not an entirely new phenomenon. African art has had other periods of popularity in the West, particularly in the 1990s and early 2000s; however, these periods did not last nor did they generate an art market comparable to that of today.(4) It was not until 1999 that a major Western auction house even sold modern African art, with a piece by South African artist Willie Bester achieving the highest price at UK£ 10,000 (now US$ 15,735).(5) That is over US$ 800,000 less than El Anatsui’s recent auction record. In addition to the growing prices contemporary African art is now attracting at auctions, the recently renewed interest in African art shows changes in the audience and investors it is reaching, the varying styles and backgrounds of the artists that are gaining popularity, and the changing reception of African art globally and within Africa itself.

Though contemporary African art has recently become popular in London, Paris, New York and elsewhere, its success as a new market is not based exclusively on Western interest. The market is in fact not solely directed towards Western buyers at all, but rather, Western auction houses see Africa as the direction of the market. Growing economies in Africa have helped to spur investment in art locally and internationally, helping to dictate the direction of the market, pointing it as much towards Africa as towards the West. This is one of the most notable differences between the current interest in contemporary African art and the interest of the 1990s. In fact, Nigeria’s oil economy, which has helped to produce a class of the ultra-wealthy, has directly contributed to the growth in the art market, with 80% of Nigerian art collectors involved in the oil and gas industries.(6) Western auction houses are now looking to capitalise on this interest from African buyers, turning their sights on countries like Nigeria. For example, Bonhams’ “Africa Now” auction, though based in London, attracts the majority of its bidders from Africa (7) and has now started to show a preview of the “Africa Now” auction in Lagos, Nigeria. With the increased interest in African art in Africa comes an increase in venues for the display and sale of art. Nigeria, in particular, has been at the forefront of establishing local auction houses, galleries and museums dedicated to art.(8)


The attention on African buyers is a positive change from the previously unidirectional exportation of African art to the West as an example of traditional art, but it primarily markets itself to moneyed elites from the most economically successful countries, like Nigeria and South Africa. The exclusivity of the art market’s target audience – a criticism that is often tied to art collectors globally – is now becoming visible in Africa. The rapid development in art venues is also not evenly spread across the continent; South Africa and the Maghreb are leading the investment in art and development of spaces for art, while countries like Ethiopia have only small art centres and galleries.(9) This uneven development of art interests in Africa reflects the uneven economic growth of countries within Africa. Despite this unevenness, however, international exhibitions and auctions attempt to show examples of work from as many African countries and by as many African artists as possible. By doing this, they help to demonstrate the diversity of contemporary African art and of Africa more broadly and help to address the uneven interest and investment in African art. For example, the 1:54 exhibition of African art, held in London and now also in New York City, prides itself on representing artists from across Africa and the African diaspora in order to show the multiplicity and range of the continent.(10)

Changing perceptions

While the shift in direction of the art market towards wealthy African collectors and African art venues is notable, the change in how African art and Africa itself are viewed globally is perhaps the most noteworthy change. Previously, African art was exported to the West largely as an example of traditional or material culture, often to be displayed in a museum. However, now one can see the change away from this narrow and colonial perception of Africa and African art towards the investment and interest in contemporary African art across a wide range of media and content.

Contemporary African art is becoming a critical part in building a positive image of Africa in the rest of the world by confronting and changing entrenched stereotypes and negative perceptions. As countries with colonial ties to Africa, like Britain and France, invest more heavily in diverse forms of African art, the image of Africa is being redrawn. In the West, the rise in the contemporary African art market has brought with it a rise in scholarship on African art and exhibitions dedicated to African art.(11) New research, greater publicity and diversity in African art being shown in the West – from Kenyan artist Wengechi Mutu’s futuristic work that explores gender and other themes through collage, sculpture, installations and film, to the sculptures by Mozambican artist Cristóvão Canhavato (Kester) that re-purposes discarded weapons (12) – have helped to challenge stereotypes and images of Africa as primitive, traditional, war-torn or poor. The 1:54 exhibition received more than 10,000 visitors in 2014 (including general members of the public, curators, and collectors, both specialist and non-specialist), four thousand more people than in 2013.(13) Exhibitions like 1:54 are critical for educating international audiences about Africa by showing the dynamism, creativity, growth, and development of Africa through art. They also demonstrate that the popularity of contemporary African art is not limited to one genre, but rather is inclusive of numerous genres, such as modern art or afro-futurism. Additionally, though artists from countries like Nigeria and South Africa are currently dominating the African art market, many more artists from across the continent are having their works displayed at exhibitions internationally. This changes the narrative of Africa as a single place, to a narrative of a continent with 54 diverse and different countries.

African art now

Though contemporary African art helps to visually counter negative perceptions of the continent, the economic drive in Africa behind this market is also a major player in reinforcing a positive and more nuanced image of Africa. Africa’s participation in this art market helps to demonstrate the success of its emerging economies and the growing wealth of its middle and upper class. The growth of the art market alongside the growth of several African economies is an excellent indicator to the West of Africa’s continued rise and increasing participation in and stimulation of varying global markets. Countries like Nigeria and South Africa help to push the African art market forward locally and globally, as exhibitions outside of the continent also stimulate the market while simultaneously educating visitors about Africa today from African perspectives.

Written by Emma Hornsby (1)


(1) By Emma Hornsby. Contact Emma through Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s South African office ( This paper was developed with the assistance of Mandy Noonan and Kyle Hiebert. Edited by Liezl Stretton. Web Publications Manager: Claire Furphy.
(2) Sowole, T., ‘African art…in season of auction’, The Guardian (Nigeria), 10 May 2015,
(3) Jaggi, M., ‘Africa’s economic revival boosts art prices’, The Financial Times, 27 March 2015,
(4) Dumouchelle, K.D., ‘Exciting and dynamic, African art is the future’, The Financial Times, 27 March 2015,
(5) ‘Modern African art: A basic reading list: General: Auctions’, Smithsonian Libraries,
(6) Jaggi, M., ‘Africa’s economic revival boosts art prices’, The Financial Times, 27 March 2015,
(7) Arseneault, M., ‘African contemporary art under the hammer…and the spotlight’, RFI, 19 May 2015,; Jaggi, M., ‘Africa’s economic revival boosts art prices’, The Financial Times, 27 March 2015,
(8) Jaggi, M., ‘Africa’s economic revival boosts art prices’, The Financial Times, 27 March 2015,
(9) Ibid.
(10) 1:54 website,
(11) Dumouchelle, K.D., ‘Exciting and dynamic, African art is the future’, The Financial Times, 27 March 2015,
(12) Examples of art by Wengechi Mutu, Examples of art by Cristóvão Canhavato (Kester),
(13) Jaggi, M., ‘Africa’s economic revival boosts art prices’, The Financial Times, 27 March 2015,



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