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African contemporary art gets increased interest

October 18, 2013

LONDON (AP) — African tribal art has long been treasured by wealthy Western collectors, but increasingly the continent’s contemporary art scene is the one making its presence felt at museums, auction houses and art fairs.

The trend is spurred by wealthy Africans supporting home-grown talent and European collectors searching for the next big thing. Several London galleries focused on African art have opened in the past few years, the flagship Tate Modern has set up an African acquisitions committee, and this year’s sale of African art at the auction house Bonhams has passed the 1 million pound ($1.6 million) mark.

London’s Somerset House is hosting the 1:54, the British capital’s inaugural contemporary African art fair, this week. And the mood there is buoyant.

“People are caring more in the press, collectors are opening their doors, and museums are showing more African artists,” said Mariane Lenhardt, whose Seattle-based M.I.A Gallery is selling fierce-looking, nail-studded busts by London-based sculptor Zak Ove.

Bonhams auctioneer Giles Peppiatt, whose annual Africa Now auction took in a record 1.3 million pounds ($2.1 million) this year, said he has never seen so much interest.

London now has four galleries focused on African contemporary art, three of them opening in the past three years: The more established October Gallery, an early champion of acclaimed Ghanaian sculptor El Anatsui; the Jack Bell Gallery, opened in 2010; the Tiwami Contemporary, a Nigeria-focused gallery that opened the next year; and GAFRA, only a few months old.

The Tate, home to the capital’s best-known collection of contemporary art, launched an African acquisitions committee last year. Frieze, London’s high-end contemporary art fair, is this week featuring two African galleries. It’s a tiny figure, but double last year’s total.

Market watchers say some of the excitement stems from the fast-growing economies of sub-Saharan Africa, some of whose newfound wealth is being reinvested in local artists.

Also important is the slow death of the notion that African art consists of wooden masks, carved statues, and tribal talismans, said Neil Dundas, whose South Africa-based Goodman Gallery is displaying at Frieze.

What makes this contemporary art “African” is as a question as complicated as the continent itself. Some artists, like the Ivory Coast’s Aboudia, live in Africa and tackle explicitly African issues. Others, like Ove, were born outside the continent but draw on its culture to shape their work.

There are signs of new interest. Among the Africa initiates at 1:54 was Belgian industrialist Guy Ullens, known for his huge trove of Chinese contemporary art. The art baron was impressed.

“The quality is very good,” he said.

The price is also relatively cheap, at least compared to art from other developing markets. Anatsui’s mesmerizing metallic tapestries can sell for more than 500,000 pounds ($800,000), but many of the works on display at 1:54 — like Ove’s “Black Astronaut,” which features aviator goggles and an alligator head — carry a price tag of several thousand pounds.

Overall, the African art market’s figures remain small compared to the millions brought in by its counterparts in other developing markets.

But Peppiatt, the Bonhams auctioneer, said the growth over the past five years had been striking.

“I just think of where we’ve come from, which is: ‘Nowhere,’” he said.

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