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.
Abstract art for example has come to dominate and is represented in the Strauss & Co auction with works in this mode by Zander Blom, Moshekwa Langa, Marcus Neustetter, Mongezi Ncapaythi, Jan Henri Booyens and Julie Mehretu.
In the late 90s and early noughties biennale directors determined who was hot. As curator of the 1997 Joburg Biennale and later Documenta and the Venice Biennale (two of the world’s top art platforms) Nigerian curator Okwui Enwezor handpicked contemporary African art stars. As a curator his central interest appeared to be in photography, documentary style and staged, often featuring artists in various guises and fictional scenes and sets. With regards to South African culture it reached its height in the Rise and Fall of Apartheid exhibition he curated alongside Rory Bester, which showed at various venues around the world before showing in the beleagured Joburg at Museum Africa in 2014. Despite its prominance photography has not been as highly valued as other art forms. This looks set to change.
This important strand of contemporary African art is very prominent on this first contemporary auction with photographic works by Guy Tillim, Mohau Modisakeng, Husan and Hussain Essop, Mikahel Subotzky and of course, David Goldblatt, whose image of a group of young white women competing in a ‘leg competition’ in Boksburg in the 1980s stands out as a record of the ways white supremacy defined concepts of beauty. The work is expected to fetch as much as R240 000, which surely will be a record for the sale of a photographic print.
A curated collection of some of the most prominent artists working in the photographic medium are gathered together in a Goodman Gallery editioned collection under the title Inside Edition. It includes a suite of works by Jodi Bieber, Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin, the Essops, Goldblatt, Subotzky, Nontsikelelo Veleko, and Sue Williamson. It is valued at up to R180 000.
This rising value of photography might have something to do with the dominance of the medium at Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art (Mocaa) inaugral exhibitions – and photography wing. When local Biennales came to an end – the Joburg one ended in 1997 and the Cape 07 in 2007 - and state museums budget's dwindlled, art fairs came to be the leading platform for contemporary art. Featured artists, sell-out shows in those settings set the tone. The February 17 auction, which will take place at the Cruise Terminal at the V& A Waterfront is not only a stone’s throw from the Zeitz Mocaa but many of the works on the auction are currently hanging on in the museum walls or are produced by artists represented in the collection.
This includes Chiurai’s Creation 1, a staged photographic work from the titular film valued at R150 000 and Leonce Raphael Agbodjélou’s 2015 ‘Engungun Masquerades VII’. Naturally, Kentridge, Kendall Geers – who has two works on the auction – and Siopis, and Cyrus Kabiru are also represented in the museum but also Jody Paulsen, whose wry fashion felt work Donatella ver-jay-zee, referring to fashion designer Donatella Versace, is on auction and valued at R150 000. The work showed a year ago at the SMAC Cape Town gallery in his solo Pushing Thirty. In other words the art on this auction is ‘fresh’, new.
The link between Zeitz Mocaa and the auction substantiates or resumes the role of museums in lending prestige and status to art. This is just the beginning; not only of auction houses setting figures for contemporary art but a host of new contemporary art museums are wrestling back the power - the Norval Foundation, which will open in April and the Javett Art Centre in Pretoria due to open in 2018. Of course, the equilibrium will only be restored if these rising ‘powers’ carefully consider their impact and weild their authority responsibly.