Africa’s biggest problem? Art auctions!

Chika Okeke-Agulu

Let’s start with an article by Chika Okeke-Agulu, a professor of African and African Diaspora Art at Princeton University, that appeared in May in the New York Times. In his piece, Okeke-Agulu reported that Sothebys, “the granddaddy of auctioneers,” had recently raked in almost $4 million at its first-ever auction of modern and contemporary African art. “The star of the sale,” Okeke-Agulu wrote, “was the Ghanaian artist El Anatsui’s sculpture made from discarded aluminum bottle caps and copper wire that went for about $950,000.”

“Drifting Continents,” artwork by El Anatsui

Of course one might expect that an Ivy League expert on African art would consider this news a cause for celebration. How wonderful that Americans are willing to pay such big bucks for African artworks! Surely if the auction had turned out to be a big bust, Okeke-Agulu, or somebody else in a similar position, would have written a piece for the Times, or some equally important mainstream publication, complaining about the West’s lack of appreciation for African art. Perhaps the word “racism” would even have popped up.

But since all this stuff sold so well, what to say? Well, to begin with, Okeke-Agulu did acknowledge an upside. The $4 million take, he surmised, “most likely signals the beginning of a more serious interest” in African art “from Western museums, which may finally start to consider such work worthy of inclusion in their permanent collections.” Which, he admitted, is a good thing.

El Anatsui

And yet…

Well, it goes without saying that Okele-Aguru had a “yet.” And this was it: “In this inexorable march to the mainstream, I am tempted to think of contemporary African art as akin to an urban neighborhood undergoing gentrification. Now that it is seen as high culture, the art and artists are gaining value, investors are jostling to get a piece of the action, and private collections are growing in Africa and around the world.” While this development may yield tidy profits for some of the “African modernists…who set out to create new art for independent Africa during the mid-20th century,” it will amount to a terrible loss for others.

Sotheby’s New York

Who? Why, “the continent’s masses,” naturally. “They will be denied access to artworks that define the age of independence and symbolize the slow process of postcolonial recovery.” Alas, lamented Okeke-Agulu, “whole countries in Africa cannot boast of a single art museum of any renown.” For example, consider Lagos, which despite being “one of the world’s largest cities” has no museums containing “the work of a big-name Nigerian artist.” Okeke-Aguru’s verdict: “This is no small problem.”

Compared to what? We’ll pick this up tomorrow.

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