The resilience of the African contemporary art market

The Piasa auction house is making its mark on the contemporary African art market. On June 24, she presented for sale more than 170 works by 106 African artists and the diaspora. The works were exhibited on its premises, a former private mansion from the end of the 18th centurye century, from the very chic rue du Faubourg-Saint-Honoré. It’s her 12e sale on this theme. The amount of the sale at 1.6 million euros is in line with the initial estimate. It is also in this same order of magnitude that the last vacations of the Piasa house on African contemporary art were played out. Good news: buyers and collectors are still there. “The good results of the sale confirm that this young specialty is developing on solid and lasting foundations. We are solicited by an ever increasing number of collectors who trust the selection and our gaze to build Pan-African collections, ”says Christophe Person. Almost two thirds of the works were sold.

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The sense of partnership between Piasa and Aspire

By entering into a partnership with its South African counterpart, Aspire Auction, Piasa broadens its horizons and brings into its catalog major South African artists, such as the essential William Kentridge, but also Irma Stern, or the emblematic Gerard Sekoto. “This allows us to move upmarket,” recognizes Christophe Person, director of the African art department at Piasa. The South African art scene remains one of the most dynamic on the continent, with a well-structured market.

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After a first successful collaboration between Piasa and Aspire, on a sale organized in Cape Town on February 14, on the sidelines of the Investec Cap Town Art Fair, the two entities decided to continue the experiment. “The first time that an African auction house presents a collection of works for sale in Europe marks an important moment in the history and development of the world art market. It is with pleasure that we collaborate with Piasa as we work together to develop and internationalize the modern and contemporary art market in Africa, ”says Ruac Peffers, general manager of Aspire Auction.

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South Africa in the spotlight

When William Kentridge was the subject of a major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in Villeneuve-d’Ascq, a retrospective that continues until the end of the year, it was interesting to find some of his works for sale and in particular the drawing “Drawing from Johannesburg, 2nd greatest City after Paris (Soho Eating)”. Made in charcoal and pastel in 1989, the character of Soho, inspired by the theater play Ubu roi by Alfred Jarry, symbolizes greed. In a few charcoal strokes, William Kentridge immerses us in an atmosphere of unhealthy abundance and draws up a critique of the bourgeoisie. This drawing, estimated between 190,000 and 250,000 euros, went to 234,000 euros. The portrait of Dora Swoden by Irma Stern was sold for 182,000 euros. Among other South African artists, a selection of works by Sam Nhlengethwa, Nicholas Hlobo, Bambo José Sibiya, Simphiwe Ndzube and Peter Clarke, among others, were offered.

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“We chose works that we were not used to presenting for sale. More political pieces like the painting by Peter Clarke on deportation and slavery, pieces that tackle political aspects, a different historical meaning and that brings a new dimension, “explains Christophe Person. The triptych of Peter Clarke, The Crossing: Africa; Crossing the Atlantic; America was sold for 37,700 euros. Mary Sibande’s photograph, Her Majesty, Queen Sophie, she went over her rib at 13,000 euros. For several years, the artist’s work has revolved exclusively around the representation of Sophie, the archetype of the good black woman during apartheid. Around this character, she evokes identity construction and denounces the stereotypes of the black woman deeply anchored in the imagination. A sign of notoriety, the South African artist will have his first retrospective in France next December, at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Lyon.

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“We proposed a much more diverse sale, which found an interest on the Western market. Even the animal sculpture in bronze, in a different style compared to what we usually present, was sold above its coast, ”comments Christophe Person. “This fine result confirms to us that despite the difficult period we are going through, interest persists in the contemporary African art market, especially in its political dimension. Regular buyers are always present. The new works presented also attracted new buyers, American and English. We are able to expand our client base, ”he says.

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Congolese too

Among the proposed works, there were also the painters revealed by the exhibition Beauté Congo, at the Cartier Foundation in 2015. With Chéri Samba, emblematic representative of the movement of the popular painters of Congo, through a very figurative and narrative mode, mixing illustration and political or even humorous messages. The paintings speak, like a comic strip, tackling major issues (ecology, demography, environment …). The paintings by Moké, Chéri Chérin and JP Mika delve into everyday life, and point to a problem like that of the machine in human life, the painting by Chéri Cherin.

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Eddy Kamuanga, another Congolese painter, questions the erasure of traditional culture. His characters are drawn from printed circuits of mobile phones which work thanks to coltan, an ore exploited mainly in the DRC. His painting was sold for 50,700 euros. More dreamlike, the Tropical garden 4, by Ugandan painter Joseph Ntensibé, doubled the upper margin of his rib to 67,600 euros. This journey through the lush vegetation dominated by color contrasts enchants us, while reminding us of the fragility of nature. The works of artists from West Africa, such as the Ivorians Félix Eboué Kouamé, Aboudia or Armand Boua, or the Ghanaian Ablade Glover and the Senegalese Oumar Ba have also found takers.

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Sculpture and masks

If painting remains the majority, sculpture also makes its way. The Beninese Calixte Dapkopan masks, made from recycled materials, weave a link between tradition and modernity. Those of Gonçalon Mabunda from Mozambique, built from decommissioned weapons and ammunition, bear witness to the turbulent history of this country. Their emotional charges challenge them, as does his throne of the Emperor of Gaza.

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“The three-dimensional mask stands out as an original medium, which finds a natural extension with recovery and recycling”, underlines Christophe Person. Between masks, sculptures, installations but also wall works from recycled materials and objects, there is a line of African artists who sublimate this path of recycling, giving a real African identity. This work on recycling can be found both in the large tapestry of Ugandan Sanaa Gateja, made of paper beads and ficus bark, as in that in bobbin strips of the Kenyan Dikens Otieno or even the paintings of Mounou Désiré Koffi who also uses printed circuits.

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Pictures of Africa

Finally, photography was also well represented in this sale, especially with the flagship works of the South Africans David Goldblatt, Guy Tillim, Zanele Muholi or Mahau Modisakeng. This medium is one of the most developed and appreciated in South Africa. A photograph of David Goldblatt, of a miner awaiting his departure for the well, was sold for 32,500 euros. A portrait by the Ethiopian Aida Muluneh found a buyer at 8,450 euros and the prints by Malick Sidibé and Okhai Ojeiker were all sold.

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Guide artists

“African artists confirm their propensity to alert us to the state of the world. They feed us, they push us to take a break and encourage us to question ourselves. More than ever, the social issues portrayed by the artists illustrate the relevance of their words, to denounce the environmental emergency, the consequences of urbanization, the excesses engendered by globalization and the risks underlying international inequalities ” , writes Christophe Person, on the front page of the catalog.

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