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Contemporary African Art: Prices Rise As Market Expands

New markets for contemporary artworks from a particular country or region can develop rapidly; witness fast-rising prices for Indian, Singaporean and Korean art in recent years.

LONDON—New markets for contemporary artworks from a particular country or region can develop rapidly; witness fast-rising prices for Indian, Singaporean and Korean art in recent years. Now art market observers are wondering if contemporary African art, which has been the focus of growing institutional interest—albeit on a smaller scale—could be the next emerging market to take off.

Angaza Afrika (Swahili for “shed light on Africa”) is the title of both an exhibition and a new publication about contemporary African art. The book, which includes illustrations of 350 works by 70 artists, was compiled by Chris Spring, curator of the African galleries at the British Museum, who began to introduce contemporary art to the museum’s collection in 1995.

A commission from the Nigerian-born, U.K.-¬educated sculptor Sokari Douglas Camp was among the earliest additions to the collection, followed by the commission and subsequent acquisition of drawings and ceramics by the Kenyan-born Magdalene Odundo, who also lives in the U.K.

The African galleries in the British Museum opened in 2001. Spring has also exhibited work by the Egyptian Chant Avedissian, the Ghanaian El Anatsui, and the Beninese Romuald Hazoumé. The museum now owns about 100 works by contemporary African artists.

The idea, says Spring, is to display them within the ethnographical collection to challenge the notion that African art is simply tribal masks and carvings. Hazoumé’s La Bouche du Roi, a boat-shaped installation assembled from empty plastic oil canisters, was exhibited at the British Museum as well as several other museums in the U.K. last year.

The market for these artists has grown considerably. Odundo’s pots were selling at Bonhams New York last June for as much as $51,000 each. Spring says they can now command between £50,000 and £60,000 ($98,000 and $117,150).

A work by Avedissian, who paints on recycled cardboard, sold for a record $72,000 at Christie’s in Dubai last year. El Anatsui’s wall hangings, made with metallic bottle tops that fold and crease like cloth, were acquired for the British Museum by the Art Fund when they cost approximately £10,000 ($18,000) each, just three years ago. Major new works by El Anatsui or Hazoumé can now sell for up to £250,000 ($488,000) each.

Most of these artists are represented in Angaza Afrika, which runs May 15-June 28 at the October Gallery in London. Hazoumé is showing several newly editioned photographs, for which the price has not yet been set. ARTicle 14, a typical Beninese trader’s cart festooned with detritus gathered by schoolchildren in the U.K.—on view in a gallery storeroom because it is too big to include in the show—is priced at £80,000 ($156,200), according to gallery director Elisabeth Lalouschek.

Also in the show are embroidered textiles by Algerian artist Rachid Koraïchi, whose work reached a new auction record of $61,000 at Christie’s in Dubai last week, and German-based Ghanaian artist Owusu-Ankomah, whose symbolic paintings have risen from £3,500 to £20,000 each within only a few years. “The market has expanded generally by 10 times in the past two or three years,” says Lalouschek.

The expansion has been taking place since the groundbreaking show “Magiciens de la terre,” held at the Pompidou Center in Paris in 1989. At the Venice Biennale last year, coinciding with the opening of its first African pavilion, there was a display of works from the 500-piece collection of African art owned by the Congolese businessman Sindika Dokolo.

Like Spring’s book, which includes works by Western superstars Chris Ofili, Julie Mehretu and Yinka Shonibare, the exhibition raises the question: “What is African art?” In his introduction, Dokolo regretfully says that much of it is just “superficial, decorative craftsmanship” made to “feed what the public expects.” However, he notes that the global art market is opening up to African artists who explore their Africanness in an original and creative way.

The problem in marketing African art, he says, is that the serious artists do not want to be labeled. “I’m just an artist who happens to come from Africa,” says Owusu-Ankomah.