Do Africans understand the value of art?

Once the momentum has gone... it will be a sad story - Paul Onditi 

My father sent me an interesting article that was in the FT by Catrina Stewart on the growth of art in Nairobi.

In it, she spoke with Paul Onditi, one of contemporary African art's more successful artists who has exhibited in New York, London and across Africa. Onditi spoke honestly about his struggle as an artist living in Europe, and his relatively new growing popularity in the art world, explaining that it wasn't until he returned home to Kenya that things in his life started to change for the better. It may have been great timing, because 10 years ago when Onditi first left Kenya there was no place for art except 'tourist art' pieces. However, like other parts of Africa, there is a growth in interest in contemporary art work and the shift from traditional sculptures and paintings is significant as artists push boundaries and try to compete in the worldwide art market. 

But it is arguably not fast enough. Yes, there is quite obviously a love and appreciation that did not exist for African artists before, however, it is not yet common place for galleries to have an African artist on their books. One still has to be a 'niche' gallery or buyer specifically for African art in order to sell or have exhibitions. Yes, some of the biggest names in art have exhibited a Shonibare or Anatsui piece here or there - but they are few and far between. Onditi believes that this is because Africans do not support African art and do not yet understand the concept of investing in art work, and there may be some truth to his argument.  

Currently, art publications and critics have quoted statistics that say that the biggest buyers of contemporary African art are South Africans and Nigerians due to them being the wealthiest African citizens. Makes sense, however, I am now beginning to question where these 'stats' came from. Within South Africa and Nigeria, locals do indeed buy art, but it is not a lot, nor is it often. Buying art is still for a minute percentage even within the elite classes because most rich people in those countries would rather spend their money on a house, or car, or boat or fuel! Plus, one cannot forget the current economic turmoil occurring in Nigeria especially. The 'suffering yet smiling'  mantra taken on by many Nigerians is a reality. Why would people invest in art when there are bigger problems to tackle? Lack of food, water, living conditions etc all of which are fair points. So who is buying contemporary African art I wonder?  

Collectors, and I mean REAL collectors of contemporary African art are rare. Most end up being gallery or museum owners themselves (Zietz springs to mind) others amass wonderful collections in their homes to be forever looked at, never truly knowing their worth (my father for example). As one of the few contemporary African art cheerleaders, I have noticed that although Africans are enjoying the growth of interest, it isn't necessarily them that are buying into it. These events, exhibitions and parties that are attended are sometimes for socialising sake. I have asked owners honestly if art work is ever bought, and their answers are always the same: "a few, but not enough" or 'yes, by my loyal collectors'.

So why is this the case? 

A friend of mine, a successful,  young, West African man in the investment banking world, recently purchased a new home in London. Kudos! Still decorating and getting it ready, he called me the other day for art advice. He was in one of the few African art galleries in London and had seen a painting he loved (the artist in question was Babajide Olatunji who is a growing art superstar right now) but my friend was fretting about committing to buying the piece, and I couldn't understand why!

 Babajide Olatunji | Tribal Marks series II, courtesy of TAFETA Gallery

Babajide Olatunji | Tribal Marks series II, courtesy of TAFETA Gallery

He seemed to believe that  it wouldn't  be ' a great investment' to buy it and although he loved it, he would rather get something more 'established' from another non-African gallery. This, of course, greatly upset me! However, I could see he called for information so I asked him why he thought that investing in African art was a bad idea. After a few "ummms" (may I just say, this is the man who at work is so ON IT but now couldn't even give it to me straight) he answered:

'I don't know.. does anyone really care about African art though?'

Mon Dieu, what a sad thing for an African man to say to me.  

I spoke to him about the growing support of African art and threw out numbers for certain artworks sold at amazing prices from El Anatsui to Peju Alatise,  Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Aboudia and whoever else I could remember on the spot. I explained that although slow, contemporary African art is most certainly a good investment and quoted Bonhams African Art Director, Giles Peppiatt as a credible source who has seen artists and work worth literally pennies now being sold in the 10s and 100 thousands in just a few years. 

I did not manage to sway my friend that day unfortunately - the uncultured so and so! -  although the painting in question was sold a few hours later I was told so, it is his loss. Although, I have to admit it is indeed a shame that we do not support our own more. I have been to countless art exhibitions in London, New York and even LA where new, emerging and 'unknown' artists are the thing du jour. There is something exciting about investing in someone no one 'knows' about yet especially those that are on the cusp of being a big deal. It is like watching your money triple before your very eyes!

We do this for other artists in other markets and other countries - why not back home? 

What will happen, as it does in many other sectors, is others will see the potential (at this rate the Brits), invest, run with it, and then it'll be the African locals who will be complaining that talent has been 'stolen' and demanding retribution. Perhaps instead of waiting for contemporary African art to be what the world wants, we take a chance and join in the movement now in its exciting baby stages rather than regret it later? This is the time to buy and invest while it is cheap! While we can get it from the source itself.

It is going to hurt a lot more when that young artist from your village who had a small pop up exhibition last year that you didn't care for, is now auctioning their work at Sotheby's for an amount worth more than your car.... the nice one. Just saying. 

Support the arts.