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Zeitz Mocaa's influence felt at inaugural contemporary art auction

In gallery-sales pitches and those seemingly ubiquitous online listicle articles naming the African artists to watch and collect “important” has become a popular prefix to the word “artist”. Fortunately, or unfortunately, critics, writers or listicle churnalists as they dub them, don’t determine which African artists are indeed ‘important’. Since the rush to name the hottest contemporary African artist took hold (in this country) from around the late nineties to now, the people or entities defining art has not been fixed as museums have been crippled by poor budgets, biennales ceased and the commercial art scene and fairs have grown and gained strength. Another shift is in the offing, when on Saturday February 17 the first ever auction dedicated to contemporary African art will take place in Cape Town. Not surprisingly, this landmark moment has been heralded by the country’s largest auction house: Strauss & Co.

The value of contemporary African art has so far not been determined at auctions. Commercial galleries have become the leading authority on this. It has become less easy to discover the actual cost of artworks as many of the larger local galleries no longer have price lists available. You have to request a price and are often left feeling that it fluctuates according the size of the art buyer’s pocket. An auction should provide not only a level of transparency around the cost of contemporary art, but set figures will provide firm markers, taking some of the guessing out of this new game.

“There is no question that they set benchmarks and give a frame of reference. Everybody wants to know what an artists auction record is,” says Christopher Till. As a director of a Joburg Biennale in the late nineties, the Joburg Art Gallery, and having served as a curator of South African Pavillion at the Venice Biennale, has dictated or affirmed the importance of certain artists.

“People would closely watch the Triennial prize exhibitions and the Standard Bank Art Young Artist award to see who they should collect. You couldn’t buy contemporary art at auction,” he recalls.

Contemporary African art has been creeping into Strauss and Co auctions for some time and those artists who have achieved good records, such as William Kentridge, Penny Siopis and Robert Hodgins are included in the upcoming auction. A number of London-based auction houses have been dedicating auctions to the contemporary African art, however, edgy contemporary works are rarely included. Clichéd African scenes rendered in a modernist language tend to be the general fare, catering to very limited views of what contemporary African art denotes. Perhaps that is why the auction houses have held little sway in the contemporary art market.