Welcoming good news for a change. Cameroonian photographer Samuel Fosso, Mozambican painter Bertina Lopes, Zimbabwean painter Richard Mudariki, Tanzanian painter Elias Jengo and Nigerian painter Shina Yussuff have all seen their work sell at a better than the anticipated amount at Sotheby’s during the month of March this year.
Sotheby’s modern and contemporary African art sale opened online on March 27th just three days after lockdown came into force in the UK. Having to move the sale entirely online at short notice was an easier task for a company with means and resources such as Sotheby’s—a move that has been repeated by Frieze New York and 1-54.
There were questions over whether or not people would be in the frame of mind for buying art of any kind in light of the pandemic and the shift in financial attitudes. Often in a crisis, the arts are the first to suffer—and this is a crisis like no other.
Art Sales Online
Hannah O’Leary,director and head of modern and contemporary African art at Sotheby’s, explains how they managed to save the auction by putting it online at such short notice. “ Our contemporary African sales are very international; we have bidders from every continent. It’s a slight change of focus, and a few people weren’t always able to view the sales. Many people often don’t view the sales in person and will buy online or over the telephone, therefore the market can still continue.”
Elsewhere, the emerging African Art Galleries Association (EAAGA) which comprises galleries in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Mozambique, Angola, Uganda and Senegal began preparing their artists and their businesses for the tough times ahead as the lockdown became inevitable.
Speaking about the lockdown initiative, Julie Taylor of EAAGA member gallery Guns & Rain in Johannesburg said, “Our authorities acted very quickly. They did it to buy time. We have vast inequalities and people living in very crowded areas, so social distancing is almost impossible for many South Africans.” Guns & Rain’s most recent show sold out. But if artists can’t make work, Taylor won’t have anything to sell on their behalf.
Just like everywhere else in the world, there has been a rush to get supplies to artists on lockdown so they can continue to produce work. Valerie Kabov, the co-founder of EAAGA and director of First Floor Gallery Harare in the capital of Zimbabwe, has been looking after her artist; making sure they have flu shots, internet access, and medical care if required, as well as planning for life after the pandemic.
Since the middle of May, the lockdown has been relaxed in Zimbabwe, meaning Kabov can go back to work, even if she can’t open the gallery. EAAGA’s members are swapping ideas, sharing advice, and helping one another with logistics in the face of a relaxing of lockdowns across the continent and big questions still being raised over the nature of coronavirus. In a recent interview Kabov said: “In the African context, collaboration is entirely imperative because we are such a small art scene. We are operating in places that don’t have established infrastructures.”
Sales better than expected
Kabov and Taylor are focusing on online sales, content and maintaining contact with their audiences and collectors through various video platforms and social media. Both agree that sales have been better than expected. “We spoke to one of our Nigerian collectors who said, ‘To me, there’s been no change at all, other than I can’t travel,’” said Kabov
The particularly international nature of collectors for this market means there is no dependency on one specific economy for its survival; it also means that events on the other side of the world could send a curveball, causing unforeseen havoc. However, on the ground, the fall of oil prices globally will have a knock-on effect in both Nigeria and Angola, whose economies rely heavily on this resource.
Meanwhile, in London, Ayo Adeyinka, director of TAFETA—a West End gallery specializing in contemporary African art—was carried through March on buoyant sales made at TEFAF Maastricht and The Armory Show. Then lockdown came into force in the U.K. In April the gallery saw an expected but severe 80 per cent drop in sales compared to the previous year.
Adeyinka, quite rightly, doesn’t feel this is the time to aggressively pursue sales. Instead, he has focused his efforts in a creative initiative to try to mitigate the shortfall. Adeyinka launched Six for Six, whereby he lends work to his collectors for six weeks, stating that, “ if they fall in love with it, they can pay for it over six months or in one discounted payment”.
The novelty of this offering is paying off, he said, “Within a week of sending out this promotional video, I have sent out five pieces. If that does convert to sales, then that definitely does mitigate the loss.” Adeyinka said, “We can’t get to see each other, but you can still bring some joy into your life.”
Touria El-Glaoui, founding director of 1-54, is hosting a virtual New York edition which continues through to May 31st. El-Glaoui spoke of positive reactions from galleries and also some sales. But she was cautious of setting this market sector apart from the rest of the art world; contemporary African art has long fought for its inclusion. Other galleries are following suit.
William Kentridge, Shirin Neshat, and Cassi Namoda feature at South Africa’s Goodman Gallery in London, also in spaces in Johannesburg and Cape Town that opened last autumn. In order to keep up the momentum, the gallery has also been offering one-on-one video platform studio visits with artists and is refreshing its virtual program weekly. Meaning that some sales have been maintained.
The Goodman Gallery also participated in Frieze New York’s online-only edition earlier this month, where owner and director Liza Essers reported that sales “Totalled 15–20 % of the gallery’s typical take-home at a Frieze fair.” There is no doubt sales are essential to the business but Essers has other concerns. She said that South Africa has seen a 60 % rise in unemployment, and the value of its currency has dropped by one-third, causing far-reaching hardship to the wider community.
It is reported that feeding programs and support for the huge number of people with underlying conditions such as HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis are at the forefront of her mind along with other activists. Speaking about the pandemic Essers said, “It is at the essence of the gallery to focus on social projects, and I think a lot of galleries in Europe are not focused on this in the way that we have to be and want to be.” Esser is hoping this will change.
Some sales are still going ahead in the contemporary African art market. And although things will undoubtedly be hampered by the pandemic, the sector appears to have a strong foundation. Held up by affordable prices, value, commercial agility and a lot of forward-thinking has helped. Accustomed to operating internationally online the market seems to be surviving well enough for now – but only time will tell.
“There’s a lot of concern about this new market as we’ve had such good momentum in the last couple of years, but I honestly think we are not that much different from the rest of the art market,” said El-Glaoui, who is planning both a physical and an online version of 1-54 in October, concurrent with Frieze in London. “We are playing it by ear like the rest of the art market.”