African art market confronts economic turbulence on the continent

 

A recent report from the London-based art market research firm ArtTactic has revealed that global auction sales for Modern and contemporary African art contracted by 8.4% in 2023.

That’s just under half the average fall of 16% year on year in sales of Modern and contemporary African art at the top three auction houses—Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips—according to the investment and wealth management firm Investec.

Sotheby’s saw a drop in sales of 60.3% in this category from $3m in 2023, down from $7.5m in 2022. This decline slashed the auction house’s market share by more than half, from 22.1% in 2022 to 9.1% in 2023.

There to eat up some of its losses were London-based Bonhams and Cape Town’s Strauss & Co. Strauss’s market share rose to 54.3% from 50.2%, while the Bonhams share spiked to 33.5% from 25.2%. Despite this, Bonhams was the only auction house in the report that saw an increase in sales, from a total of $8.9m in 2022 to $10.3m in 2023. Of the auction houses analysed, Lagos-based Arthouse arguably fared the worst, with $0 worth of sales reported in 2023.

African economies

When The Art Newspaper spoke to the founder of Arthouse, Kavita Chellaram, at Frieze London last year, her gallery, Kó, was making its fourth appearance at the fair with a solo show of the Nigerian Modern master Ben Enwonwu. When asked why she prefers to sell art in London, Chellaram cited the worsening naira exchange rate, which has fallen even further since then. Indeed, this likely contributed to the shuttering of Arthouse which ceased operations last year.

In June of last year, barely a month after the newly elected President Bola Tinubu had assumed office, the decision was taken to end the naira’s peg to the US dollar. With the reported 40% drop in value that followed, the naira experienced its biggest single decline in history. Market volatility followed. Naira uncertainty soon reached a point where businesses in Lagos began issuing invoices with three- to five-day windows, says Ugoma Ebilah, founder of the gallery Bloom Art.

Indeed, many galleries in Lagos, including her own, began charging in dollars. “It was a difficult decision because I know the dangers,” she says. “The more we dollarise our economy, the worse [the naira] gets.” At first the dollar trend was “a bit of a snooty thing among Lagos gallerists but it soon became a necessity”. Not least for gallerists seeking financial stability. But for artists too who began petitioning for gallery payment in the US currency. “Everything the artists need: paints, canvases… are imported,” Ebilah explains.

Director and auctioneer, Susie Goodman; South Africa’s Strauss & Co. had a particularly strong 2023 © Strauss & Co.

Art Lagos X feels the crunch

While sales with existing collectors were strong, she says, the gallery made a financial decision to forgo the city’s premiere art fair last year. Indeed, Art X Lagos saw a dramatic fall in exhibitors in 2023: more than 66%; from 31 galleries in 2022 to just 10 last year. Many long-term supporters were also absent from the event: Bloom, for example, had been showing at the fair since its inaugural edition in 2016.

Ebilah says she is keen to go back next year, however. “Charity begins at home,” she says, stressing the importance of a collaborative spirit within the country’s art market. Indeed, her optimism about the domestic Nigerian art market is buoyed by recent central bank policy decisions and the naira’s subsequent recovery. “The Nigerian naira has reversed recent losses to become the world’s best-performing currency in recent weeks, lifted by two huge interest rate rises,” according to the Financial Times.

Strauss & Co may have benefitted from the relative weakness of the rand, however, says its executive chair, Frank Kilbourn. The auction house is becoming more international, with buyers from 48 new countries last year perhaps taking advantage of a favourable exchange rate. The auction house recently opened a permanent base in London, with Kate Fellens, head of international business development, relocating to the UK capital from Brussels last year. The UK base may also offer an opportunity for the firm to hedge against macroeconomic instability in the country which Kilbourn admits the firm is “not immune to”.

On 6 February, the US-South Africa Bilateral Relations Review Act was introduced to Congress. The bill calls for President Joseph Biden to review the country’s relationship with South Africa following the latter’s decision to bring Israel to the International Court of Justice on accusations that it is committing genocide against Palestinians in Gaza. The bill alleges that the African National Congress has had ties with Hamas since 1994. South Africa’s Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Naledi Pandor, recently wrote an opinion piece in the Financial Times stating that it would be “devastating to our mutual economic interests if the bill were to collapse bilateral relations”. The passing of the bill, and the threat of South Africa’s removal from the African Growth and Opportunity Act (which grants tariff-free access to the US market for certain goods), would put further pressure on the South African economy, which has also suffered significant damage from ongoing power cuts.

On a microeconomic level, having a base in London allows Strauss to connect with its “established client base in the UK” as well as bypass the trade regulations that make the import of works from abroad into South Africa cumbersome.

Both Ebilah and Kilbourn stress that the next phase of improving and stabilising the African art market is education and infrastructure. “We don’t have [public] museums… this is our reality, we don’t have that government,” Ebilah says. These days, she spends a lot of her time educating art market players in Lagos. She recently gave a talk to young dealers, saying: “Look, not everyone can be a gallerist. We need writers, curators, cataloguers.” She is also in the process of starting a foundation that can support artists and organisations in the city. Speaking of a recent art intervention she made at Lagos Polo Club—where she commandeered a blank wall for a piece of art—she says that establishing a mass visual culture in Nigeria has become and will likely continue to be the responsibility of private citizens.

According to Kilbourn, while there are many people working in contemporary art in South Africa, “what we do not have… is gallerists focused on the Modern side”. He says many 20th-century artists are left to the auction houses, so the firm needs to invest time and money in education. A number of exhibitions run by the auction house are non-selling, including recent exhibitions of works by Alfred Thoba and Sydney Kumalo and Ezrom Legae.

Both Ebilah and Kilbourn have spoken about the increased shunning of speculative practices once common in African art buying (Ebilah on the eschewing of speculative buyers, and Kilbourn on rules around selling primary works at auction). Their assessments point towards a maturation of the African art market that will likely be tested in 2024 as the continent’s biggest economies look to recover.