THE RISE OF ITS MARKET IN 2020
Last year has been undeniably the year of black art, and black culture. Demand for art by African artists, or artists from its diaspora has been rising sharply among worldwide collectors, as part of a wider phenomenon which sees new attention toward contemporary culture emerging from the continent, and for its original stories and voices coming from its culture and traditions.
As a journalist commented recently on the Economist podcast: Africa is the youngest continent, and whenever you have a young continent on the rise you get an appetite elsewhere for its cultural products. Not by chance, this year ArtReview included a movement as the Black Life Matters in its power 100 list. African American artists are the ones commanding this incredible market rise, also as they can count on the American market, which is still the epicentre of the art world.
Not by chance in the Artsy list of top artists for surging demand in 2020 we find that the top 7 artists with the biggest increase in the number of people inquiring about their work on the platform were all Black, and from the African diaspora in particular: from the recent Yale MFA graduated Dominic Chambers, to the British-born, New York-based artist Tunji Adeniyi-Jones whose paintings directly evoke Henri Matisse’ Siluhettes, with their streamlined and intensely chromatic figures.
However, also super young talents are emerging directly from the African continent are on the international market directly, as Collins Obijiaku, Zandile Tshabalala, Otis Kwame Jye Quaicoe, Emma Odumade, Kwesi Botchway or Cassi A. Namoda. Interestingly, some of those artists were often able to make themselves noticed through social media, painting highly fashionable peers with bright coloured clothes in strong contrasts with their dark skins: their subjects, somehow, show to have already assimilated the Western lifestyle, but in the meantime also appropriated, and now proudly claiming their own specific Black identity and personality from it, and beyond it.
The best example, of course, is the hottest Ghanian star, Amoako Boafo, who was able to start his fortune from the Instagram grid, being noticed by a bunch of right collectors (and some less good, later becoming flippers) as well as by the African American artists Kehinde Winley, who started to champion its art and introduced him to his LA gallery Roberts projects.
What followed was a meteoric rise, especially after the game-changing residency at Midas-touch Rubell Foundation in 2019: at this time his works were still available at Art Basel Miami for 20k, then less than a year later he reached his world record price, with his 'Baba Diop' selling at HKD $8,890,000 / USD $1,152,104 (including buyer's premium) at Christie’s hybrid auction ’20th Century: Hong Kong to New York’.
But this is not the only one record price recently archived by Black artists at the top end of the market, in the main auctions.
Just if we look at last December sales we will find other black art commanding mind-blowing prices as Barkley Hendricks’ “Mr Johnson Sammy From Miami’ (1972)sold for $4 Million; Amy Sherald with The Bathers (2015) hammered at Phillips New York for $4.3 million starting from a $150,000–$200,000 estimate, or Mickalene Thomaswith I’ve Been Good To Me (2013)which tripled the starting estimate of $300,000 flying to $901,000.
Meanwhile a fair as 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair which is entirely dedicated to art from Africa and its diaspora successfully hosted its pop-up edition at Christie’s headquarters in Paris, attracting a lot of attention from collectors both online and in-person and proving the appetite for this specific category. Founded by Touria El-Glaoui in London in 2013, the fair now hosts every year editions also in New York and Marrakech.
That said, what is central in terms of the Black art rising today, is that it presents itself with already a mature style, and a highly specific and autonomous voice. This art, in fact, is somehow far from how it was presented in the infamous show “Magicien de la terre”, at Centre Pompidou in 1989, which is considered by many a key moment in defining and accepting a global contemporary art scene, but which was still mystifying and dramatizing these artistic expressions as something “exciting”, erroneously misunderstanding and freely mixing artisanal practices with ritual and artistic ones.
Eventually, we should notice how these market dynamics are deeply connected to some broader and paradigmatic shifts happening in society, as we are now finally concretely addressing racial injustices, as we saw with the Black life Matters. At the same time, institutions and museums must take into account these changes, urging them to rethink their collection and acquire more women artists and artists of colour. For instance just last month the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, N.Y has used part of the funds raised after selling a Pollock at Christie’s to acquire African-American artists as Sharif Bey and Ellen Blalock, among the others.
In fact, since the beginning of the rise of African American art, a specialist from American house Swann auction (which was the first creating a dedicated sale) as Nate Freeman has played a key role not only because these dedicated sales brought the first record prices for many of these artists, but especially as they placed their works into important institutional collections looking to rebalance their heritage, and so the story they can tell.
The role of institutions has been crucial, in fact, in establishing a new canon and acknowledging the value of these artists - as we can easily observe considering the effects that an exhibition as “The Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963-1983”, has had on the market for artists as Romare Bearden, Sam Gilliam, David Hammons, Norman Lewis, or entire movements as Africobra, among the others.
On the other side, also European institutions have recently dedicated major shows to African diaspora artists such as Lynette Yiadom-Boakye at Tate Britain or Toyin Ojih Odutola at Barbican Center. The fact that the next Venice Biennale (now postponed 2022) will see both the United States and the UK represented by some African diaspora descendants, more specifically Simone Leigh for the American pavilion and Sonia Boyce for the English one, only reinforce this idea. Something is definitely happening, in the market, and in society. Let’s hope these market dynamics will not be just speculation, but rather enhance and support a wider cultural and social shift toward long-needed true equality in the intercultural exchange.
Follow Elisa on her Instagram @elisartgal