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The Nigerian art market – An international perspective / Text Hannah O’Leary

It is hard to imagine what an article on the Nigerian Art Market would look like just one decade ago. Back in 2007, when I started specialising in Modern African art, Nigerian art barely featured on the international art market. El Anatsui, the Ghanaian artist, who has been enormously influential on younger Nigerian artists through his position as professor of sculpture at the University of Nigeria in Nsukka, was perhaps the only artist from West Africa who enjoyed international attention. Yinka Shonibare MBE also featured in international exhibitions and sales of contemporary art, but he was born and trained in Britain. What of the Masters of Nigerian art? 

We love to track the art market in the same way we do other commodities, with charts and graphs plotting resale prices and mining data over several decades to measure the current state of the market. This is nigh impossible in a market that simply did not exist ten years ago (although Jess Castellote’s The Nigerian Art Market Report has been providing valuable market data in more recent years). The only artist we can reliably track during this time is Benedict Chukwukadibia Enwonwu, M.B.E (1921-1994), who enjoyed international success in his own lifetime and was named “Africa’s greatest artist” by Time magazine in 1949. Yet in early 2007, when I agreed to offer a work by Enwonwu for auction, his market was stagnant. The world record had been set way back in 2000, at $2,000 for one of his masterpieces “Storm over Biafra”. There followed a slew of works selling for just a few hundred dollars each, if at all. I accepted two works for sale at a modest $600 apiece and was told off by my colleague – “we will never sell those!” – and was more than satisfied when they sold for $1,400 and $3,000 respectively in 2007, setting a new world record for the artist. What happens thereafter is a blur. The next Enwonwu I consigned sold for $30,000 in 2008 – a record ten times over. The following year, in 2009, we created a sale specifically for Modern African Art – the first of its kind anywhere in the world – and his record soared again to $100,000. And here we are in 2018, a mere 10 years later, and Enwonwu has finally (and deservedly) broken the $1million threshold. 

Artists such as Ben Enwonwu represent what is great about Nigerian art, the rise of the market for contemporary art from across the African continent, and the international interest in modern and contemporary African art. While many point to South Africa as Africa’s economic, commercial and artistic centre, Nigeria is the market that excites me the most on the continent. South Africa has boasted a sophisticated art market for many decades – indeed, South Africa’s major commercial gallery, Goodman Gallery, was founded back in 1966, and Sotheby’s held art auctions there from 1968. When Bonhams started South African Sales in London in 2007, they were taking advantage of a market where there was already a strong local collecting base as well as a wealthy ex-patriate community abroad. While international sales of South African art certainly stimulated that market locally, and paved the way for auctions of modern art from the rest of the continent, it was the introduction of Modern and Contemporary African art auctions in 2009 that proved to be truly ground-breaking. This was an untapped market, uncharted territory, and a whole continent of artists and collectors that the art market had ignored until that moment. And from the beginning, it has been Nigeria that has led the way for the rest of Africa. 

Of course, credit must also be given to those individuals who have developed the art market locally in Nigeria. Without the depth of talent we see from Nigerian artists, and a strong local market and collecting base, it would certainly be more difficult to promote Nigerian art to an international audience. The art world is an eco-system, with many players who create and support a market: there are the artists and collectors, of course, but also the art schools and art historians, the curators and the critics, the museums and public art programs, as well as the commercial galleries and auction houses. Chike Nwagbogu, who runs the Nimbus Gallery, organised Nigeria’s first art auction way back in 1999. Kavita Chellaram founded Arthouse Contemporary, who hold regular auctions and support artists through the Arthouse Foundation, and celebrate their 10th anniversary this year. Numerous commercial galleries – Nike Art Gallery, Red Door Gallery, Omenka Gallery, Hourglass Gallery, Rele Gallery, Terra Kulture, SMO Contemporary to name but a few – support and promote Nigerian artists both locally and internationally. Nigerian curators, including Okwui Enwezor and Bisi Silva, have been instrumental in including Nigerian artists in museum exhibitions worldwide. Tokini Peterside founded Art X Lagos in 2016, West Africa’s first contemporary art fair, which showcases the best contemporary art from the region and attracts more international visitors with every edition. Nigeria made their national debut at the Venice Biennale, the world’s greatest international art exhibition, in 2017. One of the three artists representing Nigeria at Venice, Peju Alatise, opened the Alter Native Artists Initiative (A.N.A.I) non-profit foundation the same year. ANAI provides a cultural exchange programme where artists from Nigeria can meet, learn from and collaborate with international artists and vice versa. By the end of 2019, the first Nigerian modern art museum will open at the Pan-African University, with the generous support of major collector and philanthropist Prince Yemisi Adedoyin Shyllon. I am lucky to travel the world but I can honestly say that Lagos is one of the most interesting and exciting art destinations today. 

This should come as no surprise; Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa and Lagos the continent’s most populous city, as well as one of the fastest growing cities in the world. In the first half of the period to which I am referring, 2007-2013, Nigeria saw the introduction of more high net worth individuals than the rest of the world: HNWI increased by 44 percent, while the number of global HNWIs actually declined by 0.3 percent in the same period (source: New World Wealth). The United Nations predicts that a quarter of the world’s population will be African by 2050; yet this enormous population growth, and associated growth in GDP and personal wealth, is not yet reflected in the art market. Currently, the modern and contemporary African art market represents less than 0.1% of the international market. When Sotheby’s, one of the largest and most-respected names in the art world, approached me to set up a Modern African Art department in 2016, I jumped at the opportunity. This was a market so clearly underrepresented within the art world, and would remain limited to a “niche” area so long as the major players ignored it. Sotheby’s prides itself on offering the very best artwork in every category, from every region, and on catering to clients wherever they may be. Sotheby’s has always been the first to enter regional and emerging markets, including Asia and the Middle East, and buyers from these new markets now number among our most important collectors in every category, from Impressionist art to jewellery and classic cars. It was a young Japanese collector who recently paid $110million for a work by Jean-Michel Basquiat, and a Saudi Arabian collector who paid $450million for a work by Leonardo da Vinci – both works destined for privately-funded art museums in their home regions. I am sure Nigerian collectors will similarly number among the super-collectors of the 21st century. 

Sotheby’s entry to the Nigerian, and African, contemporary art market also marks a sea-change in this field, from a niche area to one of international interest. Sotheby’s – a blue chip name, listed on the New York Stock Exchange – gives credibility to this market on a global scale, which allows numerous applications for Nigerian art as a worthy commodity. Furthermore, international collectors and museums are finally acknowledging that their “international” art collections are no such thing; they almost exclusively consist of European and American art, and they are looking to Sotheby’s to guide them in diversifying their collections. Before this expert department existed, very few African artists were included in international contemporary art auctions; only five names were widely known: Julie Mehretu (Ethiopia); El Anatsui (Ghana); Wangechi Mutu (Kenya); Marlene Dumas (South Africa) and William Kentridge (South Africa) – and all but one live outside Africa. In just two years, Sotheby’s has set new world records for 35 important African artists, and has attracted over 200 bidders per auction from every corner of the world. We have also included more artists from Africa and the Diaspora in our major international auctions, including Njideka Akunyili Crosby, who made her auction debut in 2016, and whose work ‘Bush Babies’ Sotheby’s recently sold for $3.4 million, making her the top-selling Nigerian artist of all time. In fact, last year just seven artworks by Njideka Akunyili Crosby sold in international Contemporary Art auctions for a total combined price of $8,634,774. This amount represents more than one and a half times the total value of works sold by all other Nigerian artists at auction in the same year ($5,539,648) (Source: The NAMR 2017).

This final statistic points to the wide discrepancies that still exist in the market for modern and contemporary art from Africa. Modern and Contemporary Nigerian Art does not begin and end with Ben Enwonwu and Njideka Akunyili Crosby. It is clear to me that Nigeria boasts a rich and varied art history that cannot be ignored in the international art historical discourse. Let’s not forget that Nigerians invented abstraction, the very basis of international modern art, centuries before the Europeans. Enwonwu himself stated “I will not accept an inferior position in the art world. Nor have my art called African because I have not correctly and properly given expression to my reality. I have consistently fought against that kind of philosophy because it is bogus. European artists like Picasso, Braque and Vlaminck were influenced by African art. Everybody sees that and is not opposed to it. But when they see African artists who are influenced by their European training and technique, they expect that African to stick to their traditional forms even if he bends down to coping them. I do not copy traditional art. I like what I see in the works of people like Giacometti but I do not copy them. I knew Giacometti personally in England, you know. I knew he was influenced by African sculptures. But I would not be influenced by Giacometti, because he was influenced by my ancestors.” Modern African artists deserve to be as valued as their international counterparts, and there are many more Nigerian artists whom I still consider under-appreciated and under-valued on the market. Those early pioneers of Nigerian Modernism, whose works was so important in establishing a national identity and national art history, include Aina Onabolu, Uche Okeke, Clara Etso Ugbodaga-Ngu, Obiora Udechukwu, J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere, Yusuf Grillo, Uzo Egonu, and Ben Osawe.

Of course, an artist’s reputation is already made before they qualify for sale at a major auction house and auction house specialists rely on an artist’s auction record to consider whether a work should be offered for sale and at what estimate. However, in an emerging market such as Nigeria’s, there are plenty of important artists who currently have a minor or non-existent auction record – which might be taken as an excuse to exclude that artist from auction altogether. Today, specialist auctions of Modern & Contemporary African Art afford us the opportunity to build this market and to provide a platform for artists who were previously excluded from auction sales. I find this enormously exciting and do not take the responsibility lightly. We look to several factors to decide whether an artist should be included in our auctions: their existing secondary market of course, but also their primary market; who collects their work, are they limited to local collectors or does the artist have an international following, how much do they sell for at the gallery, who promotes them, how rare are their works, which museums are showing and collecting their works, etc. Njideka Akunyili Crosby is a wonderful example; in 2016 she had no auction record, but she was represented by a major international gallery (Victoria Miro in London) and produced a limited body of work which was placed almost exclusively in museum collections. Her work is exceedingly rare, and yet can be viewed at the biggest art museums in the world: SFMoMA; Tate; the Whitney; PAMM; the Metropolitan Museum of Art; LACMA; the Smithsonian, the list goes on. Public auction finally provided private collectors the opportunity to acquire her work, and of course multiple bidders drove the price way beyond that of her primary market. And yet, many of us remember her exhibition at Tiwani in 2013, when the opportunity to acquire her work for a small fraction of her current prices passed us by. I am constantly asked who is the next Njideka, which artists are worthy of investment. Unfortunately, I do not have a crystal ball, and my advice is always the same: buy what you love, and make sure you are well-informed. Patronage of a young artist is incredibly rewarding in its own right, but can also prove to be a wonderful, but high-risk, investment. The art market will continue to look to Nigeria for new talent, for the next Njideka Akunyili Crosby, and it is those who are already engaging in the Nigerian art scene that are best poised to discover those artists and ensure their success.

                                                                In something we Africans got issue 5                                                              Hannah O’Leary
                                                                  June 2018