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Nigerian artists dominate global art auction, as new record is set

By on May 24, 2015

When the hammer fell to signal the end of the Africa Now sale in Bonhams, London, last Wednesday, Ben Enweonwu’s sculpture Anyanwu had fetched a staggering £74,500. His Africa Dances painting sold for £68,500.

It was not unusual for Enweonwu’s pieces to receive such attractive bids; nor those of Yusuf Grillo who equally dominated the auction.

Giles Peppiatt, director of African Art at Bonhams, said after the sale, “Once more records fell in our Africa Now sale. The strength of demand from buyers for this newly appreciated art is growing steadily.”

In a pre-event cocktail Tuesday evening, around 250 art connoisseurs milled around the privately-owned auction house on Bond Street weighing their stakes and their pounds. An increasing number of Nigerians were also here, some having travelled all the way from Africa to participate in this year’s sale.

In Nigeria, several buyers had congregated only a week before, May 11, for the ArtHouse Contemporary Auction at the Wheatbaker Hotel. The highest sale at $77,000 went to El Anatsui’s 2015 composition – Zata, made up of impressive wood panels.

It was a good run for Ghana’s Anatsui whose wooden sculptures would rake in £62,500 and $100,000 each at the Bonhams auction a week later.

Bruce Onobrakpeya’s Images was sold for $13,750 at the ArtHouse auction. Proceeds from the auction will go towards supporting Standard Chartered Bank’s Seeing Is Believing Campaign.

Contemporary African art has come a long way in Nigeria. The importance of Enweonwu’s work as one of the most important of today’s modernist painters and sculptors cannot be underestimated. He opened the way for many artistes to achieve the levels they are in today.

The field of collectors is equally growing.Just as with private jets and luxury cars, art collectors lie in a league of their own – but the playing field is slowly expanding.

Spanish architect, Jess Castellote, director of the Virtual Museum of Modern Art in Nigeria, agrees that the demand for African art both home and abroad has been on the increase in the last couple of years.

A keen observer of the industry and one who has published authoritatively on the subject, Castellote notes, “Since early post-independence years, a steady transformation of the Nigerian art scene has taken place.”

The opening of new schools, new art galleries and a few expatriate collectors moved Nigeria into the era (art) where it is now. He cites an equally growing relationship between buyers of the art forms and the artistes themselves as key to change within the market sphere.

In an interview in his Victoria Island office, in a space marked by abstract art and the finished work of fine brush strokes, Castellote opens my mind to peer into the artistes’ world.

It is no doubt, one in which there are few pretences. Art, though visible on an every day level has few admirers – at least those that attempt to make meaning of it. Not everyone will understand the value of an abstract piece of art form, let alone be willing to spend colossal sums of money on it.

A framed orange painting hanging above his head gave a great illustration of this. In my trying to make meaning of it, I realised it really would not give me answers. Castellote threw me off my misery by declaring, “What is this? It is what it is. It is an object that has qualities whose creator was seeking to bring out.” Simply complex.

Yet art has many functions as everyone is won’t to find out. Indeed as with physical beauty, it lies in the eyes of the beholder. Art transforms and over the years, organisations and individuals have used it to change the way they represent themselves.

Take the Pan Atlantic University’s Lagos Business School (LBS), an institution that lends itself more to figures and management styles than art.

Castellote’s interest in art and proximity to the school – he sits on the Board of LBS – transformed what would be drab walls into creative ideas where artistes could display talent. The managers who walk into the institution will no doubt appreciate the beauty that emanates from within, momentarily distracting them from the day-to-day rigours of life.

In Victoria Island, the recently opened Maison Fahrenheit, a quaint boutique hotel used rare aesthetics to make a visual statement. It is in its choice of colours, the abstract forms along its corridors or the lovely art pieces framed – and ready for sale that make it stand out from other establishments.

Unsurprisingly, the hotel’s owner is well known for his art collections. He has clearly turned his love for art, and a career in Interior Design into a building worth its name.

Collectors like these and other major players like Hakeem Adedeji, Femi Akinsanya, Brian Voakes, Sammy Olagbaju, Rasheed Gbadamosi – to mention a few keep Nigeria’s artistes dreaming big.

These names, like the art forms they collect are not available everywhere but Castellote has written about them in his book ‘Contemporary Nigerian Art in Lagos Private Collections: New Trees in Old Forest”.

Although he does not admit to being a collector – if you include the monetary factor – his knowledge of the players on both ends has been an eye opener in understanding the industry.

He however, bemoans the lack of a national public space where art forms can be well appreciated by all, particularly the pieces that should serve as national artifacts.

One only needs to visit the National Museum in Onikan to realise that our public curative habits leave nothing to the imagination. Nigeria’s premier historical space opens to tourists and school children is devoid of the true ancient elements that make up this nation’s artistic fabric.

That work has been left to private collections in the names of Art House Contemporary, Terra Kulture, Sachs Gallery or the Didi Museum among others.

As the private art space grows, their needs to be a conversation about the preservation of national elements from famed artistes and collectors in a space that allows for research and memory.

In the meantime, all we will be left with will be a textbook reality and virtual images from which to appreciate our art.


[Business Day]