As Nigeria surges ahead of South Africa to become the largest African economy, its newly rich are buying art. Last year the Nigerian art market grew by 21.8%, while prices have risen on average by 30% to 40% over the past five years, according to Giles Peppiatt, the director of contemporary African art at Bonhams.
Perhaps the best-known artist living in Nigeria is El Anatsui, who is due to lead a discussion on curators as part of the Art Basel Salon programme. He was born in Ghana but moved in 1975, where he began to teach art at the University of Nigeria. His shimmering tapestries made from flattened bottle tops propelled him to international fame in the early 2000s, and his work has since been collected by institutions including the British Museum in London, Centre Pompidou, Paris, and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. In April, Anatsui was elected an honorary Royal Academician. Nigerian collectors such as Prince Yemisi Shyllon and the retired stockbroker Sammy Olagbaju were early supporters of Anatsui, but today the artist says a younger group of Nigerians is “dominating the market”.
Until very recently, there was no commercial gallery network in Nigeria; curators rather than dealers were crucial to an artist’s development. At Art Basel, Anatsui will be talking about curators who have influenced his career, including the founder of the Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA) in Lagos, the Nigerian Bisi Silva (she is also taking part in the session), and the American Robert Storr who worked with Anatsui when he directed the international exhibition at the 2007 Venice Biennale.
“The role of the curator was traditionally very important because of the lack of a gallery system in Nigeria,” says Bomi Odufunade, who set up Dash and Rallo Art Advisory in Lagos three years ago and is also taking part in the discussion.
In the past five years, much has changed. Now, there are around ten successful galleries and non-profit spaces in Nigeria, including Omenka, Art Twenty One, the CCA and the African Artists’ Foundation. But Odufunade says it is not enough: “There are many more artists who now live and work in the country. The development of commercial galleries has not kept up with the rapid growth of the market.”
When Kavita Chellaram set up the Lagos auction house Arthouse Contemporary in 2007, artists would exhibit and sell works directly at auction. “At that time we were fulfilling the role of the gallery,” Chellaram says. “You can still buy directly from artists, but gallery representation is growing.” Chellaram is not about to relinquish her role as gallerist: she is opening a pop-up space in September with an exhibition of painterly installations by Kainebi Osahenye. A show by the octogenarian artist Yusuf Grillo will follow in December. Chellaram also plans to open a foundation in Lagos at the end of this year, where artists will be able to undertake three-month residencies.
If the Nigerian art market is still emerging on a global scale, artists, curators and collectors have been part of a lively art scene since the end of the Second World War. Chellaram says that five or six Nigerian universities have good art schools, compared with just one in Uganda, and none in Kenya. Modern works have a certain cachet and those created in the post-war decades tend to attract the highest prices. At Bonhams’ “Africa Now” auction in London in May, paintings from the 1970s by Benedict Enwonwu and Yusuf Grillo achieved the top prices, going for £92,500 and £80,500 respectively. Giles Peppiatt estimates that 70% of buyers were from Africa or have connections to Africa.
While Modern art is seen as a safe bet, Nigerians are shying away from the contemporary. Anatsui says collectors—even the younger generation—are still unwilling to buy sound, performance or conceptual art. “Collectors mostly buy comfortable art and do not go for controversial or out-of-the-ordinary works in terms of media, genre or content,” he says.
International collectors, perhaps more attuned to the contemporary market, have been slower to invest in Nigerian art. But art fairs such as 1:54, London’s first contemporary African art fair, which launched last October, are helping to raise the profile—and prices—of artists across the continent. Institutional support has also been forthcoming in the West. In 2012 the Tate set up its African art acquisitions committee, and last July the museum held its first major exhibition of African Modernism, highlighting the work of the Sudanese artist Ibrahim el-Salahi.
Nigeria still needs to develop its museum network. With little government support for the arts in Africa, Odufunade says private collectors will have to pick up the tab. “At this moment I know of people in Johannesburg, Uganda and Nigeria who are planning to build private museums,” she says. “It’s the next logical step.”
“The Artist and the Curator”, Art Basel Salon, Saturday 21 June, 2pm, Hall 1