Sotheby’s held its first auction of modern and contemporary African art on Tuesday, where 83 pieces by artists from Cameroon to South Africa sold for a total of nearly $4 million. The star of the sale was the Ghanaian artist El Anatsui’s sculpture made from discarded aluminum bottle caps and copper wire that went for about $950,000.
This was no ordinary event. African art accounts for a very tiny portion of the international art market, and African artists have long been seen as outsiders. But the demand for their work has greatly increased over the past decade.
The sale at Sotheby’s, the granddaddy of auctioneers, most likely signals the beginning of a more serious interest from Western museums, which may finally start to consider such work worthy of inclusion in their permanent collections.
In this inexorable march to the mainstream, I am tempted to think of contemporary African art as akin to an urban neighborhood undergoing gentrification. Now that it is seen as high culture, the art and artists are gaining value, investors are jostling to get a piece of the action, and private collections are growing in Africa and around the world.
This is very good news for the African modernists who will benefit from the increased visibility. They were, some say, the postcolonial avant-garde, who set out to create new art for independent Africa during the mid-20th century. African contemporary artists have also moved beyond nationalism and are more likely to sound off about globalization and complex identities.
But the continent’s masses will be the biggest losers. They will be denied access to artworks that define the age of independence and symbolize the slow process of postcolonial recovery.
That’s because whole countries in Africa cannot boast of a single art museum of any renown. On other continents, you might expect to see at least one public art museum in any city big enough to have a sports team. But good luck trying to find a museum in Lagos, one of the world’s largest cities, that displays the work of a big-name Nigerian artist. A child there is even less likely to learn of the art in the classroom.
This is no small problem, given that art is an important resource with which societies imagine their world. It is also doubly significant for Africans who have long encountered the best examples of their art in public spaces, as well as during ritual or festive events.
Among the Igbo of eastern Nigeria, for instance, one of the highest artistic expressions in a community was the mbari house, an open building decorated with abstract murals and filled with sculptures of gods and mortals. It was produced in secret by designated builders who presented the structure to the community during a celebration of the earth goddess.
While the contexts are slightly different now, the wholesale privatization and “exile” of modern and contemporary art bodes ill for African cultural development. We have, unfortunately, seen this before.
During the colonial era, bands of looters — missionaries, scholars, security forces and fortune hunters — fanned out across the continent and, by force or guile, carted away vast quantities of Africa’s artistic heritage. Many of these masterpieces of ancient and traditional African sculpture now reside in major private and public collections in the West, with little chance of ever returning to Africa.
Similarly, Kongo minkisi, nail-studded sculptures used to seal covenants, hunt evildoers and heal the sick, were originally involved in the ritual lives of the powerful and of ordinary people. But now they are housed in places like the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Such work is counted among the world’s great art. But most Africans have virtually no chance to appreciate or reconnect with these important expressions of their cultural histories.