Kenyan artists tap top auctions

Nedia Were's Black Beauty 2 painting at Gravitart Gallery. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG

Contemporary Kenyan art continues to attract global attention and earn artists millions of shillings from international auctions.

Local artworks were part of a record-breaking auction at Sotheby’s Modern & Contemporary African Sale in London in October 2022.

Sotheby’s is the world’s oldest and largest fine arts house.

In the October auction, 142 lots were on sale, originating from private individuals and collections, with initial bids starting between £3,000-£70,000.

Total sales were over Sh460 million (£3.1 million), and turnover was up “an unprecedented 50 per cent from 2021, "showing healthy growth in this area,” said Hannah O’Leary, head of Modern and Contemporary African Art at Sotheby’s.

Magdalene Odundo at African Heritage House with one of her pots from her first exhibition in Africa in the background. PHOTO | NMG

Leading artists of interest to Sotheby’s include Sam Ntiro of Tanzania, Uche Okeke and Yusuf Grillo of Nigeria, Gerard Sekoto from Uganda, Cheri Samba of Congo, and Kenya’s Magdalene Odundo.

“We are looking for work by artists who have a good track record at the auction and strong primary market demand outside their domestic markets,” said O’Leary.

A Kenyan-born British designer, Magdalene Odundo, 72, is considered one of the foremost ceramists in the world. Born and raised in Kenya, Odundo’s grandmother was a pottery maker.

Hand-built pottery traditions from various global cultures inspire her contemporary creations.

Odundo’s vessels, shaped in a voluptuous anthropomorphic style, are reminiscent of the female form, movement, and earthen components. They have come up for auction at Sotheby’s several times in the last ten years, some selling at over Sh44.5 million (£300,000). In 2020 she was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) for her services to arts and arts education.

Among the emerging Kenyan artists was Nedia Were. The self-taught visual artist aged 33 started as a sign-writing artist before carving a niche in fine art with vividly coloured figurative works painted in text and images from news publications.

In the October auction, three lots of his female portraiture were auctioned at over Sh1.4 million (£10,000) each. They were part of a ‘blackness’ collection of paintings featuring striking, charcoal-skinned women.

He has adopted this style to promote internal dialogue that can be “shocking, sensational, and even transformative to the person’s mindset.”

Were’s first sale at Sotheby’s was in March 2022, a portrait called Barua si Yangu, showing a stunning pitch-black woman, which sold for Sh3.4 million (£22,500).

At the October auction, a new record for Senegal was achieved when the painting Juan de Pareja aggressive par les chiens, by Senegal’s Iba N’Diaye, sold for more than Sh25.9 million (£175,000). The picture is a censorious take on the famous portrait of Juan de Pareja, the slave assistant of Spanish artist Diego Velázque.

In recent years top international galleries and art houses are paying more attention to Africa’s huge art potential and diverse selection of works spanning over a century.

Sotheby’s held its first dedicated sale of African art in 2017, prompted by several factors.

The premier auction house has seen growing attention from collectors and a recognition that a whole continent has been largely left out of the contemporary art market, said O’Leary.

“There are so many talented artists working in Africa in the 20th and 21st centuries who are as important as their European or American contemporaries but are virtually unknown outside their home countries, and we are aiming to correct that.”

In past years, artists often needed to move abroad to the major art markets to get international exposure. The current interest in African art by international galleries and fairs is indicative of growth in African art markets, driven by “a new generation of collectors, new galleries and art fairs,” said O’Leary.

Added to this is the founding of “world-class institutions” such as MACAAL Museum in Marrakech, Zeitz Museum in Cape Town, and the Norval Foundation of South Africa.

O’Leary also noted the efforts of curators such as Nigeria’s Okwui Enwezor and Bisi Silva, Salah Hassan of Sudan, and N’Gone Fall in Senegal.

“They have dedicated their careers to including African artists in biennials and museums worldwide.”

Technology now allows artists to connect to global markets through various channels, such as social media, especially Instagram.

Through gallery representation, African artists can access wider markets overseas.

Nedia Were's Untitled collage at Kobo Art Salon. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG

“I think it’s important to have a manager, somebody who looks for the shows and organises exhibitions and I can just concentrate on creative works,” said Were.

He said that participation in shows in South Africa in 2021 gave him great exposure and brought him more attention from other international galleries.

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