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The South African art market is warming up as Joburg Art Fair takes off

Numbers swell at Africa’s biggest art event as its contemporary market matures

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Johannesburg

The FNB Joburg Art Fair is gaining momentum with 38 galleries from eight countries—including France, Germany, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Nigeria—due to participate in the ­seventh edition (last year, 33 dealers from the same eight countries took part). “Crucially, there is no contemporary art museum nor biennial in South Africa so the art fair is the single biggest art event on the continent,” says Ross Douglas, the fair’s director.

The fair, which focuses on contemporary African art, is split into four sections: “established galleries”; “young galleries” for dealerships that have ­operated for less than three years; “art platforms”, which is dedicated to non-profit organisations; and “special ­projects”, a programme of non-commercial events.

A key development is the formation of a selection committee consisting of five dealers from Africa, including Oliver Enwonwu of Lagos’s Omenka Gallery and Monna Mokoena of Gallery Momo in Johannesburg (both galleries are participants in this year’s fair). “We had a selection committee previously, but it was informal. This was mainly down to the fact that international galleries showed little interest in participating. But that’s no longer the case,” Douglas says.

There are eight European galleries attending, including five from France and La New Gallery from Madrid. Art First gallery, London, is showing works by Joni Brenner (priced between £900 and £6,000), Louis Maqhubela (£600-£15,000) and Karel Nel (£15,000-£25,000). “It is interesting for us, as a London gallery, to be presenting three key South African artists to a South African audience, when those artists have no formal representation within South Africa itself,” says Clare Cooper, the gallery’s director.

The established galleries section also includes 19 South African dealers, including heavyweights such as Stevenson of Cape Town and Goodman Gallery of Johannesburg, which will show a film by William Kentridge entitled

Second-Hand Reading, 2013 ($220,000), new works by the emerging artists Gerald Machona and Haroon Gunn-Salie (ranging from $1,000 to $3,000) and paintings by the South African artists Kendell Geers ($30,000-$40,000) and Carla Busuttil ($5,000-$10,000).

“The South African market is still very young and collectors are currently more likely to buy Modern or pre-21st-century work, rather than contemporary pieces. The Joburg Art Fair is influencing a new local perception of value,” says Liza Essers, the director of Goodman Gallery, adding that the fair is “very Africa-focused”.

Collectors’ tastes tend, however, to be conservative. “There is a strong collector base in South Africa, but there is still quite a traditional approach towards collecting,” Essers says. The collector profile is nonetheless changing; when the fair launched in 2008, the buyers were predominantly white (around 95% of the visitors), Ross Douglas adds. “This has since changed and the ratio of white buyers to black is around 60:40. There are many more Nigerian and foreign buyers. The demographic of the artists represented is also developing with more works available by black artists,” he says.

Douglas argues that the contemporary and Modern art market in South Africa and across the continent is maturing. “When we founded the fair six years ago, there were only three or four decent galleries, and around eight influential buyers [in South Africa],” he says. “Then there was a perfect storm: top local galleries became known internationally, and people are now working all over the world and buying international art.”

• FNB Joburg Art Fair, Sandton Convention Centre, Johannesburg, 22-24 August

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The South African art market is warming up'

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