Is Contemporary African Art Ready to Jump?

By Tom Johansmeyer

Africa has been underrepresented in galleries and at auctions, but it looks like collectors eager to try something new may be developing an appetite for African art.

The region's offering is both large and incredibly diversified, according to a report by Artprice, and over the past 20 years, several African artists have been able to garner some attention at international art fairs and major exhibitions. Pieces have been featured sporadically, with a show at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 1989 and anther two years later at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York. The Africa Remix exhibition toured from 2004 to 2007 ... and that's about it.

There's been a bit more action in the auction market, with Sotheby's becoming the first major house to sell contemporary African art in June 1999, when it sent the Jean Pigozzi collection under the gavel in London. It generated less than $16,000 but still set a record. Since then, Sotheby's hasn't dedicated any London or New York sales to African art (aside from its work with South African auctioneer, Stephan Welz & Co). Bonhams has taken more of an interest in the category, holding an African art sale back in April and moving 64 percent of the lots offered.

And, there's plenty of potential. The Artprice index for contemporary African art gained 370 percent from January 2002 to January 2007, and it's only fallen 25 percent since then, despite the global art market slump.

The market for contemporary African art is still small, but there's obviously plenty of potential. Even as the art market hints at a recovery, collectors will probably look for something new, especially with memories of European and Latin American price drops still fresh in their minds.