The Daily Telegraph

African art heads for the main­stream

- Com­ment tele­ Colin Glead­ell Arts · London · Somerset House · Sotheby's Auction House · Nigeria · Vienna · Instagram · Wiley · Los Angeles · Christie's · Lagos · Benedict Chukwukadibia Enwonwu · Egon Schiele · Egon Schiele · Photo London

This is Frieze week in London – nor­mally a bustling time of year with a host of art fairs. Due to Covid-19, though, these fairs – Photo London; the Pavil­ion of Art & De­sign and, cru­cially, both Frieze and its Old Mas­terly off­shoot, Frieze Masters – have mi­grated on­line. It’s not sur­pris­ing; since March, ev­ery ma­jor in­ter­na­tional art fair has been can­celled.

How­ever, one London sea­sonal reg­u­lar is go­ing ahead phys­i­cally, al­beit in re­duced for­mat: 1-54, the fair for mod­ern and con­tem­po­rary African art at Som­er­set House. At­ten­dees will be re­quired to wear masks, ob­serve so­cial dis­tanc­ing and fol­low a one-way sys­tem, but di­rec­tor Touria El Glaoui says it was the de­ter­mi­na­tion of the galleries that kept it alive. Be­ing rel­a­tively small with a core of Lon­don­based galleries, the fair also ben­e­fited from a de­gree of flex­i­bil­ity of­fered by Som­er­set House in terms of cost and pay­ment terms.

Pre­dictably, the event has a po­lit­i­cal edge. A project called Save My Name tunes into the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment with works by a va­ri­ety of artists (priced from £10,000) de­scrib­ing po­lice abuse and vi­o­lence. An­other is a dis­play of pho­to­graphs of Syr­ian refugees and asy­lum seek­ers by Leila Alaoui, the French-moroc­can ac­tivist artist who was killed in a ter­ror­ist at­tack in 2016, aged just 33.

The pres­ence of African art in the cap­i­tal is boosted by two auc­tions. Sotheby’s 120-lot sale on Fri­day is its most valu­able yet with a tar­get of near £6 mil­lion. Bon­hams’ auc­tion on Thurs­day is half the size and with an es­ti­mate nearer £1 mil­lion. Lead­ing the Sotheby’s event is the es­tab­lished Ghana­ian El Anat­sui, with one of his glit­ter­ing bot­tle-top ta­pes­tries priced at £800,000. But mov­ing up the ranks fast is Ben En­wonwu, a stylised fig­u­ra­tive painter and sculp­tor, who died in 1994.

Femi Li­jadu, one of Nige­ria’s most re­spected art col­lec­tors, bought his first En­wonwu, a por­trait, in the Eight­ies for about £200. He now owns 40 works, he says, and that por­trait could be worth “tens of thou­sands”, or maybe more. There are 15 works by En­wonwu at auc­tion this week car­ry­ing es­ti­mates from £10,000 to £180,000, sums he would never have dreamed of. While he never got rich from art, it is the chil­dren of the friends who sup­ported him who ben­e­fit from the rise in prices. Five of the Sotheby’s ex­am­ples came di­rect from the artist and were passed down in a fam­ily who worked in Nige­ria in the Seven­ties.

The most elec­tric price rises though, have been in the African-amer­i­can and young con­tem­po­rary cat­e­gories. Bon­hams and Sotheby’s, for in­stance, both have works by 36-year-old Vi­enna-based Ghana­ian Amoako Boafo, who, three years ago, could hardly get £100 for a paint­ing. His Egon Schiele-in­flu­enced work was then spot­ted on In­sta­gram by suc­cess­ful Amer­i­can artist Ke­hinde Wi­ley, who rec­om­mended him to all his galleries, and quickly the word went round that Boafo was hot.

One paint­ing re­cently fetched £675,000, trig­ger­ing his Los An­ge­les dealer Ben­nett Roberts to point a fin­ger at spec­u­la­tors, “wealthy white col­lec­tors who are mak­ing huge money off of African artists dur­ing Black Lives Mat­ter”. Al­though it is not hold­ing an auc­tion, Christie’s is stag­ing an ex­hi­bi­tion, which fea­tures one work each from the deal­ers at 1-54 – a good op­tion for those who can’t get a ticket.

Nu­mer­ous London galleries are also show­ing artists of African de­scent in­clud­ing Gagosian, which gives African-amer­i­can painter Nathaniel Mary Quinn his first London show. Quinn’s Ba­conesque col­lages have risen from £10,000 three years ago to a record £212,500 at auc­tion last year.

The African jour­ney con­tin­ues at Frieze on­line where the view­ing rooms and talks are dense with African­di­as­pora artists and thinkers. Per­haps the most re­mark­able is the se­lec­tion of works by En­wonwu with the Kó gallery from La­gos (£30,000 to £300,000) – the first time he or the gallery have fea­tured in an in­ter­na­tional fair of this stand­ing.

Kó is run by Kavita Chel­laram, who started the Art­house auc­tions in La­gos in 2007 which were at the helm of the En­wonwu price rev­o­lu­tion. Chel­laram no doubt be­lieves he might achieve greater recog­ni­tion through Frieze Masters, with its global brand and track record of at­tract­ing in­ter­na­tional col­lec­tors and mu­seum cu­ra­tors. Grad­u­ally, African art is fil­ter­ing its way into the main­stream.

‘Nathaniel Mary Quinn’s Ba­con­like col­lages have risen from £10,000 three years ago to a record £212,500 last year’

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 ??  ?? In de­mand: Black Cul­ture, 1986, by the late Nige­rian artist Ben En­wonwu
In de­mand: Black Cul­ture, 1986, by the late Nige­rian artist Ben En­wonwu

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