The market for contemporary African art globally has become a huge deal over the past 5 years and as usual I am way behind the curve. Now it’s time to get wised up and maybe even in on the action.
Arriving in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania in 1999 as a history of art graduate and hoping to do something connected to that field, was something of a culture shock. I visited the National Museum in Dar and was disappointed to find dusty exhibits with old fashioned type writer labels that were falling off. I was alone in the place and while there were some interesting elements within their exhibition (mainly the history of early Arab and Portuguese influence up and down the coast), it wasn’t very appealing. I am more drawn to cultural history so the stuffed birds and bones were not doing it for me.
First arty purchases in Tanzania
I attended Swahili lessons for beginners at a local cultural centre in Dar called Nyumba ya Sanaa. During breaks of sweet, spiced tea and mandazis (doughnuts), or killing time before my lessons, I was able to wander around looking at the contemporary art exhibition. Most of the paintings were stylised Tinga Tinga pieces interspersed with a few sketchy Masai with cows. I bought couple of paintings from Nyumba Ya Sanaa but in those days it was tough to get the cash together.
The Mwenge carvers market where craftsmen from the Makonde tribe would be busy carving on the roadside, deep in heat and dust was another favourite. A few of the dark, corrugated iron shops housed spooky Congolese masks which, to be honest, I recoiled from. I didn’t specialise in the subject but the university where I studied housed a massive collection of Non Western Art including a lot of tribal objects from Africa. I knew enough to be aware that these objects are created for specific purposes and not for display. Some are created to enhance fertility, ward off evil, gain an upper hand over your enemies – so I didn’t really fancy having anything like that hanging on my wall. Plus, quite rightly, there are rules about exporting these kind of objects from their place of origin.
Stone Town in Zanzibar was culturally stimulating as an Arab enclave, but shops were equally dark and treasures hard to find. I found some watercolours of palm trees and dhows, bought them and took them home, then framed them in wobbly picture frames with wonky glass, backed with tacks and scraps of cardboard. I’m ashamed to say that they all still hang like this on our walls today.
‘Expat art’ at high prices
We arrived in Kenya in 2003 and back then, from what I could see, the local art market was dominated by white/expat artists charging huge prices for romantic safari and beach scenes. Decorative, yes, but no bargains there! So I gave up on art buying only one painting for the space of a decade, instead channeling energy into a local art and antiques auction house who handle a dwindling supply of western objects that were brought over by settlers over the last 100 years. However, in recent years, the art market here has changed significantly.
Overseas interest in Contemporary African Art
In 2012 I heard about Bonhams in London staging Africa Now auctions, specialising in contemporary African art and getting serious prices for the art works. At that time there were one or two contemporary art galleries (that I had never visited) in Nairobi but suddenly a new, slick private art agency popped up in Nairobi, raising the profile of contemporary art with glamorous exhibitions and big ticket auctions held locally. In 2013 I interviewed and wrote a feature about their work in the magazine that I was working on.
Then a new expat school mum arrived from London who happened to be on the Tate Modern’s Africa acquisitions committee and suddenly she was dealing in contemporary African art too, taking works by local artists to be exhibited at Contemporary African Art shows in London, Dubai, South Africa and New York. In June this year, Sotheby’s announced the opening of their own Contemporary African Art department (poaching a Bonhams specialist to head it up). And finally, not one but two brand new contemporary African art galleries have popped up in my neighbourhood over the past few months. It’s an interesting time for Contemporary African Art, especially in East Africa and boy, do those artists have some interesting back stories (anyone heard the BBC Interview Banana Hill art gallery last week?).
What a brilliant industry to invest in. Finally I plan to wake up, get exploring, get researching, and hopefully (if I can ever afford it) get buying…
Contemporary Art Galleries and Art Agencies (Nairobi)
Kuona Trust (gallery, artists in residence, events).
International Contemporary Art Shows 2016:
1.54 Contemporary African Art Fair (Somerset House, London)
The Armory Show (New York)