First auction of Modern and contemporary East African art in Kenya
Sale’s success is surprising because of lack of arts infrastructure, experts say
By Julia Halperin. Published online: 20 November 2013
The African art market has hit a milestone. The Nairobi-based art consultancy Circle Arts Agency held the first ever auction of Modern and contemporary East African art in Kenya on 5 November. The 47-lot sale totalled 18.5m Kenyan shillings against an estimate of 14.2m-17.4m shillings ($216,030, est $164,000-$201,000), with a sell-through rate of 89%. Kenyan collectors purchased more than half the works, with the rest going to international buyers, according to Think Africa Press.
The sale is one of a number of recent initiatives to jump-start the market for contemporary African art. A new African contemporary art fair, 1:54, debuted in London during Frieze Week to largely positive reviews. The Auction Room, an online auctioneer, held its first sale of African contemporary art on 18 October. In addition, the Kenya Museum Society’s annual art fair returned to Nairobi last month after a seven-year hiatus (25-27 October).
The top lot of the sale, Sane Wadu’s acrylic on paper triptych, World Trade Center: New York series, 1988, sold for $17,644, more than twice the high estimate. Works by the Kenyan artists Joseph Bertiers and Rosemary Karuga, the late Tanzanian artist George Lilanga and the Ethiopian artist Fitsum Berhe Woldelibanos also exceeded pre-sale estimates. Justus Kyalo’s Paths of Rhythm Before Chaos, 2003-04 ($6,000-$8,000), the only abstract painting on offer, was one of five works that failed to sell.
The auction’s success is surprising, experts say, because Kenya has very little arts infrastructure compared to countries such as South Africa, Nigeria and Senegal. There are only two commercial galleries in the country, according to Think Africa Press, both of which operate out of private homes. The Kenyan government does little to support local arts; its 2013 Venice Biennale pavilion, organised by an Italian curator, featured more Chinese artists than Kenyans.
“I think it’s absolutely essential to have local people buying art from their home country, especially when there aren’t that many local institutions doing it,” Danda Jarolmek, a director at Circle Art Agency, said before the sale.
Around 60% of the works on offer came from private collections, while 40% came directly from the artists. “We wanted to get things from existing collections because we are trying to create a secondary market, which we haven’t really had,” Fiona Fox, a director at Circle Art Agency, said. “Unlike a gallery, this format makes us more active rather than passive in terms of expecting people to come to us.”
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