Sotheby’s held its first auction of modern and contemporary African art on Tuesday, where 83 pieces by artists from Cameroon to South Africa sold for a total of nearly $4 million. The star of the sale was the Ghanaian artist El Anatsui’s sculpture made from discarded aluminum bottle caps and copper wire that went for about $950,000.
This was no ordinary event. African art accounts for a very tiny portion of the international art market, and African artists have long been seen as outsiders. But the demand for their work has greatly increased over the past decade.
The sale at Sotheby’s, the granddaddy of auctioneers, most likely signals the beginning of a more serious interest from Western museums, which may finally start to consider such work worthy of inclusion in their permanent collections.
In this inexorable march to the mainstream, I am tempted to think of contemporary African art as akin to an urban neighborhood undergoing gentrification. Now that it is seen as high culture, the art and artists are gaining value, investors are jostling to get a piece of the action, and private collections are growing in Africa and around the world.
This is very good news for the African modernists who will benefit from the increased visibility. They were, some say, the postcolonial avant-garde, who set out to create new art for independent Africa during the mid-20th century. African contemporary artists have also moved beyond nationalism and are more likely to sound off about globalization and complex identities.
But the continent’s masses will be the biggest losers. They will be denied access to artworks that define the age of independence and symbolize the slow process of postcolonial recovery.
Credit Steve White/Museum Purchase, Wellesley College Friends of Art
That’s because whole countries in Africa cannot boast of a single art museum of any renown. On other continents, you might expect to see at least one public art museum in any city big enough to have a sports team. But good luck trying to find a museum in Lagos, one of the world’s largest cities, that displays the work of a big-name Nigerian artist. A child there is even less likely to learn of the art in the classroom.
This is no small problem, given that art is an important resource with which societies imagine their world. It is also doubly significant for Africans who have long encountered the best examples of their art in public spaces, as well as during ritual or festive events.
Among the Igbo of eastern Nigeria, for instance, one of the highest artistic expressions in a community was the mbari house, an open building decorated with abstract murals and filled with sculptures of gods and mortals. It was produced in secret by designated builders who presented the structure to the community during a celebration of the earth goddess.
While the contexts are slightly different now, the wholesale privatization and “exile” of modern and contemporary art bodes ill for African cultural development. We have, unfortunately, seen this before.
During the colonial era, bands of looters — missionaries, scholars, security forces and fortune hunters — fanned out across the continent and, by force or guile, carted away vast quantities of Africa’s artistic heritage. Many of these masterpieces of ancient and traditional African sculpture now reside in major private and public collections in the West, with little chance of ever returning to Africa.
Similarly, Kongo minkisi, nail-studded sculptures used to seal covenants, hunt evildoers and heal the sick, were originally involved in the ritual lives of the powerful and of ordinary people. But now they are housed in places like the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Such work is counted among the world’s great art. But most Africans have virtually no chance to appreciate or reconnect with these important expressions of their cultural histories.
Recently, my 72-year-old mother was looking at a glossy catalog of Igbo sculptures from major European collections, most of which were acquired during the Nigerian-Biafran War of the late 1960s. She told me that the disappearance of similar sculptures from our hometown shrines in southeastern Nigeria, and the end of the associated festivals, was one of her most painful memories of that war.
We cannot let this history repeat itself. But what is to be done?
African collectors and those based in Africa must participate in this market, for it is more likely that their collections will stay on the continent. Fortunately, this has already started. As Africa overcomes years of dictatorships and civil wars, its fledgling democracies have seen the rise of a wealthy, cosmopolitan class interested in supporting art and culture. A few collectors and art patrons have emerged as major players in these new auctions and fairs.
The spread of private collections is, however, not the long-term goal. Rather, it is a step toward a future in which well-run public collections are supported by governmental and nongovernmental institutions. We may now have billionaires with penthouses full of art, but it makes no difference to ordinary Africans if the continent’s best art is locked up in bank vaults overseas or in private homes in Africa.
Instead, these collections must eventually become public and thus serve the greater cultural good. This too is already beginning to happen.
The Congolese businessman Sindika Dokolo turned over his private collection to the foundation bearing his name that he established in Luanda, Angola. This has had an extraordinary impact on the city’s cultural life. The Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in Cape Town, whose holdings include pieces from the personal collection of Jochen Zeitz of Germany, is poised to do the same when it opens this fall. We need more of these.
Even so, Africa cannot solely rely on the good will of individual collectors. State agencies and municipal governments must foster a richer cultural experience for their citizenry. And they can do this by building and maintaining museums in major cities. The usual practice of treating art and culture as a superfluous aspect of the human experience undeserving of public support is not tenable.
If museums exist and are run well, the art will come. In my years of research, I have met many elderly artists who bitterly complain about the absence of public museums. They have nowhere to donate artwork that they hoped would stay in their home countries.
The Sotheby’s sale and others like it might see new auction records for African artists. My hope is that their work eventually finds its way to the public museums that must arise in Africa’s fast-developing cities.