Perhaps it was the contemporary art withdrawals from the Covid-19 era finally being fed with passionate vigour, or perhaps a flagrant denial of the current global economic hardship with inflation and a potential recession on the horizon, but the contemporary art world has been absolutely buzzing in the latter half of 2022. Multiple accounts have stated that sales at art fairs such as Frieze and Art Basel soared beyond expectations in recent months, and certain auction house sales broke all-time highs. Amongst this bustling global art market activity, the African art sector has not trailed behind. In this 2022 review of the African art world, we spotlight the most important events, sales, records, and market trends to date, and analyse what this foreshadows for the year 2023 ahead.
The art world has boomed in 2022
To much of the world’s surprise, and despite the acknowledged fact that 2022 has been a difficult year for the global economy, many art newspapers have been reporting an uptick in art market activity this year. Perhaps art serves as a balm for the soul during trying economic times (although the price tag for much ultra-contemporary art seems to be counter-productive in a practical sense), but art fairs and auction houses have been witnessing record sales and increased spending amongst collectors, especially in the latter half of 2022.
A public exhibition of works from The Macklowe Collection. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s
Take, for example, the Sotheby’s sale of the Macklowe collection, which brought in $922.2 million in May 2022, becoming the ‘most valuable collection ever sold at auction.’ The record was to be bested only 6 months later, with the Paul G. Allen collection sale at Christies this November, which achieved a jaw-dropping $1.5 billion. Five lots from this exceptional sale exceeded a sale price of $100 million. In addition to these astronomical auction house records, art fairs such as Frieze and Art Basel have also reported increased activity and spending, with several large sales making the headlines, such as a $6 million sale of a painting by Kerry James Marshall at Frieze London – which testifies also to the continued interest in work by contemporary black and African artists.
©Kerry James Marshall/Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner, London
African art market activity
For the African art market, headlines have not been as dramatic, however activity has not faltered, and growth is sustained. Indeed, as reported in our African art market article earlier this year, growth has been less exponential, but has opted for a more sustainable and incremental growth. For example, the premier contemporary African art fair, 1-54, saw 14 new galleries exhibiting and selling work for the first time in 2022, with ‘exhibitors keen to tap into the growing demand for African art from Western collectors’, and demonstrating increased interest in the popular event. Galleries such as Berntson Bhattacharjee Gallery, who offered the works of British-Nigerian artist Sola Olulode for sale with a price point of £800 - £8000, and Unit London, who presented the works of Option Dzikamai Nyahunzvi and Sthenjwa Luthuli, the latter of whom sold for £33,000, revealed that most of the artists’ works sold out on the VIP opening day or during the fair. This coincides with a recent ArtTactic Modern & Contemporary African Art Market Report that noted that African art sales increased by 44% in 2021, the ripple effects of which are clearly being shown at fairs such as 1-54. Most importantly, more African galleries also made an appearance in London for the fair, for both visibility and exposure to the art capital’s frivolous post-Covid spending.
Tarisiro Hope IV by Option Dzikamai Nyahunzvi, 2022 courtesy of Unit London Gallery
On the continent, Art X Lagos hosted its largest fair to date, with 31 galleries from 40 different countries exhibiting. Though the mood and atmosphere on site was energetic and lively, sales were a mixed bag and certain gallerists expressed some reservations, with increased inflation, a plummeting currency in Nigeria and worries over the upcoming national election casting a shadow across the fair’s activities. Despite this, Maria Varnava of Tiwani Contemporary opened a new site for her gallery in Lagos this year, and revealed that works by Virginia Chihota sold for a robust $45,000 and pieces by Michaela Yearwood-Dan going for between $55,000 - $65,000. In addition to local Nigerian collectors spending at the fair, interest from Ghanaian collectors have also surged. Afriart Gallery, based in Uganda, also disclosed sales in the $55,000 - $75,000 price range. On the other hand, however, Florian Azzopardi of Afikaris Gallery in Paris, amongst others, expressed that there were fewer collectors present than other years, with less meaningful connections made. He expressed that this experience was most likely shared by other gallerists.
Ulin-Nóifo, A Lineage that Never Ends Victor Ehikhamenor, mixed media installation. Courtesy of ArtXLagos
How do local African art markets compare to international ones in 2022?
The question must be asked about how art events and fairs on the continent fare compared to African art sales in the West. Morenike Adeagbo recently wrote a fascinating article on the topic, addressing the question head on: why do we see so many Black artists (and record sales) at Western galleries, auction houses and fairs? She expresses concern that although these sales and events provide excellent exposure for said African artists, they risk sacrificing the organic growth of the artists’ careers. Such foreign intermediaries tend to not be committed to the long-term growth for these artists, preferring to capitalise on the short-term financial value these young creators provide in the surge of interest for contemporary African art. The problem here is not so much the representation of Black and African artists by white-owned institutions, but by how small the much newer ecosystem of Black-owned galleries and art businesses is today. Adeagbo states, ‘Successful Black artists and Black-owned or -run galleries are still relatively new within our industry, and so more established galleries—which are predominantly white-run—are still leading important conversations and dominating the representation of Black artists. The situation becomes more charged when it is clear that the same white-run galleries do not even attempt to hire Black members of staff or create working environments that reflect the artists they wish to represent and support.’ As the African art market continues to see increased interest and demand, such critical questions about the inherent structures of the market – who is calling the shots and making the decisions about African art – must be posed and challenged in order to establish a long-term sustainable market.
View of the installation The Boat by Grada Kilomba. Photo Credit: Dandelion Chandelier.
Overall, amongst a surprisingly booming art market in 2022, African art has experienced strong continued demand, impressive sales at art fairs, and a developing interest from collectors on the continent and abroad. Though African art sales have experienced less of a dramatic growth in 2022, with record auction house sales at Sotheby’s and Christie’s this year dominating the art world discourse, there have been healthy sales and developments. As this sector continues to grow, key questions must be asked and acted upon, such as who is dictating the direction of the African market, which today is still dominated by Western-run galleries and institutions. Collectorship and dealership on the continent have incrementally been increasing year-on-year, which aids in the sustained development of a homegrown African art market, however with worrying economic concerns on the horizon – the effects of which tend to affect the art market later on – the market must be closely observed in 2023. African gallerists, dealers, and collectors must find ways to retain their stake in the development of the African art discourse during these times, so as not to be washed out by more established, white-run institutions who may have more capital to stay afloat during trying periods. The signs are all pointing in the right direction, however. With a steady growth of collectorship, fairs, galleries and artist communities gaining traction in Africa, statistics are still in the green, and bode well for a strong start to 2023, as long as these stakeholders can retain their grasp in the market for the inevitable trying times to come.
Back in London, Pavillon54 has been continuing to amplify the voices of African artists for just this reason. 2022 has been a year of consolidation for P54, with a growing roster of artists and content about African art movements and market trends in the Magazine. Plenty of innovations have already been planned for 2023, including fantastic partnerships with institutions, an expanded gallery network, events production, and a new, exciting revamping of our platform. Join our mailing list to stay updated on all the incoming developments in the new year!