"And this shall also pass II," by Nigerian artist Ngozi-Omeje Ezema, 2022, work from Kó gallery in Lagos, Nigeria.

After decades of being overlooked, African art gets its moment

African art served as an inspiration in the 19th century for some of the greatest European artists, like Picasso, Gaugin and Matisse. But artists from Africa have played a small part in the international art world — until now. Earlier this month, a gallery in New York City held one of the largest showings of African contemporary art in the world. 

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Picasso, Gaugin, Matisse — they’re all household names in the global art world. Less well-known is that their art took inspiration from traditional African sculpture.

Indeed, for the past 100 years, artwork from African artists has largely been overlooked and undervalued on the international modern and contemporary art scene.

“We never talked about Africa in the history of global art,” said Hannah O’Leary, a senior director at the Sotheby’s auction house in London who also heads their Modern and Contemporary African Art department.

“It was quite apparent when I started working in the auction world or in the art market, that it was very hard to access contemporary art from Africa — to buy it, to view it,” she said.

That’s changing though.

A photograph by Laetitia Ky, from Ivory Coast.
A photograph by Laetitia Ky, from Ivory Coast.Courtesy of Laetitia Ky

At the 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair in Manhattan recently, well-dressed art lovers took in works of African artists from all over the world. 

“We believe that the focus is on Africa right now. Africa is the future and we are happy to find a platform for African artists’ voices to be heard and to be seen,” said Favour Ritaro of the Kó Gallery in Lagos, Nigeria.

The numbers back that up. While the global art market declined by nearly 18% last year, the African modern and contemporary art market has been resilient.

“Last year, we got $79.8 million in auction sales across the houses. That was the second-highest sales total that the African contemporary and modern art market has seen,” said Lindsay Dewar, of ArtTactic, an art market analysis firm.

A lot of this has been driven by young African artists and African women artists, who in 2023 made up more than half of sales.

Dewar said art institutions and collectors are trying to diversify their collections, in part driven by recent social movements like Black Lives Matter.

“They don’t just want the, you know, pale, male and stale artists that we saw dominate over the last however many hundred years,” Dewar said. 

“They’re looking outwards and they’re finding that there is this whole amazing visual language from different artists.”

COVID-19 also had a large impact on this market, said O’Leary of Sothebys.

“During that time, during 2020 to 2022, we saw phenomenal growth in the interest, and sales for contemporary African art. And I believe that online presence was a huge part of that,” she explained, noting how as art institutions closed down, collectors turned to social media platforms like Instagram to explore and connect with galleries across Africa.

Still, despite the growing interest, O’Leary estimates African modern and contemporary art only makes up about 2% to 3% of the global market despite Africa being on its way to representing about a quarter of the world population by 2050.

O’Leary said that ultimately there needs to be more investment in local art infrastructure in Africa.

“It all starts with the ecosystem in Africa,” she said.

“How does a young person with an artistic talent and need for expression come to the attention of NPR or MoMA [The Museum of Contemporary Art] curators?”

The answer? More galleries, museums and art residences. 

 “Art representation is such a huge deal but there are not enough spaces to do that,” said Ugandan artist and gallerist Collin Sekajugo, who opened Amasaka Gallery in Masaka, Uganda in 2020.

While coming to international art fairs like 1-54 often has enormous financial barriers, he said it’s  worth it to connect local artists with the wider art world.

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