There has never been a better time to be an African visual artist: the continent’s art scene is growing, the global market is increasingly looking to the continent for exciting work, and collectors are eager to spend big bucks on African art.
The result? Modern and contemporary African art had record auction sales in 2021, surging by 44.1% from $50.2 million to $72.4 million. Additionally, work by women accounted for 28% of total sales.
But what does this mean for African artists? The ANF Academy Presents: Creating Global Audiences For Your Visual Art with Sotheby's masterclass unpacked what it takes to make it big, locally and globally. It was presented by Hannah O'Leary, Senior Director and Head of Modern and Contemporary African Art at Sotheby’s, London.
O’Leary has extensive experience working with artists and art institutions in Africa and has led Sotheby’s to over 200 world record prices for artists from the continent, including Marlene Dumas ($6.3million), Julie Mehretu ($5.6million), Lisa Brice ($3,166,000), Njideka Akunyili Crosby ($3.4million), Michael Armitage ($1.5million), and William Kentridge ($1.5million).
“There has been an acceleration over the past 10 years. When Sotheby’s entered the African market, African artists accounted for less than 0.1% of the global art market. It now accounts for close to 2% of the market,” she said.
She added: “There is a huge audience and potential buying power from the African continent…because the continent has limitless talent.
O’Leary said this is how artists can start creating platforms for their work and reach wider audiences within the continent and globally.
1. Focus on quality and experimenting instead of following market trends: It’s tempting for emerging artists who want to make it big to follow what they consider market trends. However, this is not the path to getting recognition. O’Leary said artists need to focus on producing their best work by being experimental. To illustrate her point, she mentioned Beninois Romuald Hazoumè, who used to produce a large volume of masks and sculptures, until he met a curator who offered to buy all his work. The curator added that they would become a frequent buyer on condition that Hazoumè keeps reducing the number of pieces he created. Hazoumè, O’Leary said, realised that he needed to make fewer products, focus more on the quality of his art, and sell it for more money. “He was results. That was the biggest lesson of his career; realising that he needed to push himself and experiment more.” Focusing on the quality of the art will also get the attention of gallerists and other key players in the industry.
2. Don’t forget the power and influence of local art fairs and museums: African art is experiencing a boom, and buyers are interested in the market, at every price point. Additionally, leading international art institutions and galleries are also increasingly creating platforms for African artists. Most importantly, O’Leary said, the continent is also creating platforms and audiences for African art. “Historically, the opportunities available for African artists and art have been limited,” she explained. However, she added that the landscape across the continent is changing, thanks to the increasing number of art fairs held in Africa. For example, Joburg Art Fair, Cape Town Art Fair, and Art X Lagos. There is also the 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair which takes place in London, New York, Paris and Marrakesh. These, she said, are proving more opportunities for artists to have their work shown commercially on the continent and globally as they provide a platform for African galleries and those that represent artists from the continent to come together.
“There is a lot of hype around African art at the moment; it really has come of age. People understand that African art is here to stay and that African artists deserve audiences and platforms like international peers. Artists need to think about how they can turn the hype into something more sustainable, where they don’t fall out of fashion.”
She added: “There is no question that the talent on the continent is phenomenal, but success does not rely on just talent. The key is in becoming sustainable.”
3. It’s all business partnerships and creating opportunities for your art: “It’s important to understand how the market works when it comes to representation, which can be in the form of a business partner who focuses on finding buyers while you focus on creating work. You can also form a partnership with a gallery,” she said, adding that a great gallery will take care of everything related to the business of your art. They take care of contracts, find buyers and opportunities to exhibit your work. O’Leary said working with a local gallery may seem like a small and humble start, however, it’s important for artists to remember that success is usually found locally before making it globally. She reiterated the importance of using social media to showcase your work and added that university MFA programs and residencies are also a great way to be noticed. “They add to your canon of knowledge and practice. And that’s where gallerists and other art professionals find new talent.”
4. Network your way to visibility: The art world can come across as being filled with gatekeepers, making it seems like access is impossible unless one is well connected. This is why it’s important for artists to network. “Being an artist is so much more than being talented, even though talent is key. But networking is a big part of it. “There are so many ways to access the market. Most galleries will have private views, which are free and open to everyone to attend and that's where you meet everyone and create a network for yourself.”
She added that it helps to know other artists and critique each other’s work. “Another thing which has been transformative for the African market is social media. There have been physical barriers for artists, it’s one thing in a city like Johannesburg which has a lot of galleries and auction houses, and another thing in rural Zimbabwe but with social media. However, artists have been able to put their work out and be reached by a worldwide audience.
Take the case of Ghanaian painter, Amoako Boafo. He was running his Instagram account when an American artist sent him a DM and offered to introduce him to galleries. All but one agreed to showcase him, and the rest is history.”
She added: “It takes effort, but you do have to play the game. There are gatekeepers but that does not mean if you are worth it, you won't come to their attention.”