by Azeezat Fadekemi Sulaiman
As Bonhams prepares for it’s 8th Africa Now auction at it’s New Bond Street auction house, it’s representatives have been swarming the continent’s nooks and cranies in the hunt for some of Africa’s most prized art or maybe just really all corners of Lagos.
“In some ways, Africa is the new China when it comes to art,”says Giles Peppiatt a Bonhams representative from London. Speaking to the Economic Times in Nigeria’s financial capital Lagos, Peppiatt says the auction house, one of Britain’s oldest and most prestigious are “investing time, money and people to maintain their presence in the market.” And it makes sense. Lately works by African artists have gained much recognition with some going for as much as three million pounds, like Irma Stern’s Arab Priest” (1945) bought by the Qatar Museums Authority in 2011.
Decades ago, African artists had little or no recognition in the international world with the exception of a few like Ben Enwonwu and El Anatsui, but now, art collectors from around the world are willing to pay hundreds of thousands of pounds to get their hands on works by African artists.
Since Bonhams began the Africa Now auction in 2007, it’s seen a steady increase in interest in contemporary African art and it would seem that strategically positioning itself as a pioneering force in the promotion of African artists has made it the firm favourite with art collectors, but is Africa Now really representative of contemporary art on the continent? Commentators from renowned blog Africasacountry think not.
In an article by Orlando Reade, Bonhams is criticised for presenting art from sub-Saharan Africa as ‘African art’. Reade challenges the use of the term as he notes that most of the art in the auction were dominated by Nigerian artists and none of the works were by any African artist north of the Sahara. He goes on to say that “looking at the artists listed, you realise there is a distinct emphasis on the modern, and shockingly little idea about what the contemporary might look like in Africa. Heavy-looking sculptures and figurative paintings of women predominate.”
As Bonhams opens it’s doors to the art world for it’s latest exhibition of African art with it’s latest offerings (some valued at up to £90, 000), it appears nothing much has changed on that front. A cursory look at the brochure showing the bidding lots up for grabs from the 18th of March shows a fair amount of works dominated by artists in sub Saharan Africa.
Perhaps this may be because apart from international collectors, a good number of art lovers snapping up Bonham’s offerings are wealthy Nigerian business men for obvious reasons. “Nigerian art collectors want a piece of their own culture and heritage and are prepared to invest in that,” says another Bonhams’ representative in Lagos, Neil Coventry, while speaking to the Economic Times.
“What’s fascinating is that these pieces are being found all over the world. In some cases they are coming back to Nigeria where they are valued and appreciated the most.”
Bonhams Africa Now auction takes place on the 20th of May at New Bond Street.