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African art: A billion-dollar moment

Artwork being exhibited at Doual'Art showroom in Douala, Cameroon

Artwork being exhibited at Doual’Art showroom in Douala, Cameroon

By Seth Onyango, bird story agency

African art is witnessing a billion-dollar moment.

Africa’s fine art market is gaining more visibility, fueled by a surge of demand from international and, increasingly, local collectors.

According to the Africa Wealth Report 2023, published by Henley & Partners with New World Wealth, the continent’s fine art market is valued at just over US$1.8 billion as of December 2022.

The figure indicates the annual combined value of artworks traded at auction, highlighting art as a symbol of social status and luxury and a promising investment opportunity.

Works by African artists such as Irma Stern, El Anatsui and Ben Enwonwu are especially popular among art collectors worldwide.

“Irma Stern, a South African painter, usually sets the top prices at art auctions in Africa,” reads the report in part. Her paintings can fetch up to US$3 million each, with an average price of around US$300,000 per painting.”

In March 2021, Nigeria’s Ben Enwonwu’s sculpture, “Atlas” sold for over half a million dollars at a Sotheby’s auction in London, setting a new world record for an African sculpture.

These impressive sales reflect the growing interest and appreciation for African art among collectors, curators and critics worldwide.

According to Sotheby’s head of modern and contemporary African art, Hannah O’Leary, “2020 was our most successful year yet”.

Although the event was held virtually due to the pandemic, the October 2020 edition sold over $4.4 million (£3.2 million) worth of art from 34 nations.

O’Leary mentions that since the African art auction began in 2017, the organisation has shattered 90 global records.

Works by the following ten African artists are especially popular among wealthy art collectors the world over:

  • El Anatsui – Ghana
  • Alexander Boghossian – Ethiopia
  • Ben Enwonwu – Nigeria
  • Hassan El Glaoui –Morocco
  • Omar El Nagdi – Egypt
  • Sydney Kumalo – South Africa
  • Julie Mehretu – Ethiopia
  • JH Pierneef – South Africa
  • Gerard Sekoto – South Africa
  • Irma Stern – South Africa

African art is also becoming more accessible thanks to the rise of digital art galleries. The Museum of Modern African Art (MOMAA), is a digital museum and one of a number of online platforms that showcase contemporary African art through immersive exhibitions and interactive features.

MOMAA also provides education and awareness programs to foster a sustainable art market and support local artists.

With emerging technologies such as AI and NFTs offering new opportunities for artists, the African art market looks promising for collectors and institutions. The role of digital galleries in educating a wider public to create a sustainable art market is increasingly being appreciated, while the art itself is progressively recognised for its promotion of a diverse artistic and cultural heritage.

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