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African contemporary art under the hammer ... and the spotlight

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'Africa Dances' by Ben Enwonwu (Nigerian, 1917-1994) Bonhams

A leading international auction house, Bonhams, is holding its annual Africa Now sale of African art Wednesday. Modern African artists were virtually absent from the art market just a decade ago but their works now feature prominently in art markets in Britain, France, the US and Nigeria.


Bonhams has blazed the trail in African art. Its first Africa Now sale of modern and contemporary art was held in 2007. Its coming Africa Now auction sale on Wednesday is set to focus on works dating from 1945 to 1980 and is expected attract collectors from all over the world.

'Bata Drummers' by Yusuf Grillo
'Bata Drummers' by Yusuf Grillo (Nigerian born, 1934) Bonhams

Most of the bidders at Bonhams's Africa Now sales are African buyers with conservative tastes, according to Giles Peppiatt, Bonhams's African art director. "We’re aiming very much at that market," he explained in an interview.

Bonhams is also catering to non-African collectors and museums.

"The Tate [Modern museum] have been very public in saying that they are collecting in this area," Peppiatt explained. "The Smithsonian [Institution] in the US have also been very public about their involvement."

Many works are from Nigeria, Africa’s strongest economy, where most African collectors and artists live. The oil boom, despite the recent drop in oil prices, has generated a thriving art market.

"This is not about the world discovering African art, it’s about Africa discovering art," remarked Marie-Cécile Zinsou, president of the Zinsou Foundation, a cultural centre based in Cotonou, Benin’s main city.

African art lovers and buyers are discovering their own continent’s art production.

"This is one of the most important things, one of the most important changes in the last 10 or 20 years," Zinsou explained in a phone interview.

'A Poetess' by Uzo Egonu
'A Poetess' by Uzo Egonu (Nigerian, 1931-1996) Bonhams

One noteworthy piece that is set to go under the hammer on Wednesday is Africa Dancers, a large oil on canvas by Ben Enwonwu, a Nigerian painter and sculptor who died in 1994. It is estimated at between 60,000 and 90,000 pounds (83,000-125,000 euros).

In 1956, before Nigeria’s independence from Britain, Enwonwu was the first black African artist commissioned to make a bronze sculpture of Queen Elizabeth II and some art experts consider him the father of modern Nigerian art and one of Africa's premier modern artists.

More affordable works, paintings by Ghana’s Ablade Glover and Ethiopia’s Alexander Skunder Boghossian, are also set to go under the hammer on Wednesday.

Prices are on the upswing, a sign demand is growing. In recent Bonhams auctions expensive transactions included Arab Priest, a 1945 painting by South African artist Irma Stern that sold for some three million pounds (4.2 million euros), and New World Map, a tapestry that Ghanaian artist El Anatsui wove from aluminium bottle caps and copper wire in 2009, which went for nearly 550,000 pounds (766,000 euros).

In Europe discerning art collectors, including French King Louis XIV, who received a diplomatic mission from the Dahomey Kingdom in 1670, have long been appreciative of African art.

'Two Hands and Two Feet' by El Anatsui
'Two Hands and Two Feet' by El Anatsui (Ghanaian, born 1944) Bonhams

In the colonial era, however, European settlers and tourists perceived the African art scene as limited to "traditional" handicrafts, especially masks, that catered in fact to foreign tastes.

Nowadays non-Africans are rediscovering African art as they rediscover Africa, according to art expert Zinsou.

"Africa was a far-away continent, very poor, with Aids and war and famine and today people are opening their eyes and realising that it’s very different from what they thought," she said. "It’s a booming continent, a very fast emerging continent, the economy is booming and contemporary art logically is everywhere on the continent."

Nigerian art collector Femi Lijadu who is set to attend the London auction says he is proud of how his country’s artists are redefining Nigeria's image abroad. Lijadu, a corporate lawyer, owns some 500 pieces and remembers the time he began buying works by the "Grand Masters" of Nigeria in the 1980s.

"At the time we dreamt of the day where the world would finally start to take notice of Nigerian and African art in general," he told AFP.

That day, it seems, has arrived.

Follow Michel Arseneault on Twitter @miko75011