Scramble for contemporary Art from Africa

Anyawu by Ben Enweonwu at the National Museum Lagos

Art house contemporary art auction ended Monday with “Anyawu” a 1955 work by Ben Enweonwu closing the evening with 54,000,000 naira breaking auction record of the most expensive piece ever sold in Nigerian auction. The piece which its original gracefully adorns the entrance of the National Museum of art Lagos is one of Enweonwu’s earliest pieces and still remains a landmark work in the history of his entire career.

Chike Okeke Agulu, a popular U.S based historian describes the piece in 2016:

“Anyanwu’s formal significance lies in its dramatic combination of movement and stasis, realism and abstraction, anthropomorphic and vegetal forms, grace and power. Though anyanwu literally means ‘the sun’ in the Igbo language, this bronze is of a 6ft 10in woman dressed in the royal regalia of the Bini people: a ‘chicken-beak’ headdress, heavy coral necklaces and bracelets. But nothing in Bini or Igbo traditional sculpture explains Anyanwu’s distinctive body. A Nefertiti-type neck – seen here in Anyanwu – is a clear indication of feminine beauty in both cultures, yet her skinny, near-emaciated limbs are reminiscent not so much of traditional representations of powerful female deities as modern-day haute-couture models.”

In the 1960s, the United Nations’ Anyanwu’ was commissioned by the Nigerian government, giving the work more prominence. The value of Enweonwu’s works have risen tremendously over the last decade. It would be recalled that in July of 2004, at the 10th anniversary of the death of the artist, 55 of his works were valued and insured for a Hundred million naira “100,000,000” .

Speaking to an eye witness of the auction mr Chukwuma Cowries Okoye, he said:

“It went well, there is hope for Nigerian Art, and with its demand internationally (for) most of the collectors are foreigners. (Even though) the harsh economy played down on the sales expectations” he concluded.

Proving his point;

Sotheby’s held its first auction of modern and contemporary African art on Tuesday, where 83 pieces by artists from Cameroon to South Africa sold for a total of nearly $4 million. The star of the sale was the Ghanaian artist El Anatsui’s sculpture made from discarded aluminum bottle caps and copper wire that went for about $950,000. (source NYT, May 20, 2017)

The Arthouse auction also sold an el Anatsui wood panel for 13,000,000 naira taking second place after Enweonwu.

We could also remember Ndjideka Akunyili Crossby’s work “The beautiful ones” sold at a whooping amount of 2.5 Million Pounds at Cristies in March.

crossby beautiful ones
The beautiful ones by Njideka Akunyili

CHIKA OKEKE-AGULU on May identified the beauty of this new improvement, he said:

“This is very good news for the African modernists who will benefit from the increased visibility. They were, some say, the postcolonial avant-garde, who set out to create new art for independent Africa during the mid-20th century. African contemporary artists have also moved beyond nationalism and are more likely to sound off about globalization and complex identities.”

But he also pointed out the implications of this new trend:

“The continent’s masses will be the biggest losers. They will be denied access to artworks that define the age of independence and symbolize the slow process of postcolonial recovery. That’s because whole countries in Africa cannot boast of a single art museum of any renown. On other continents, you might expect to see at least one public art museum in any city big enough to have a sports team. But good luck trying to find a museum in Lagos, one of the world’s largest cities, that displays the work of a big-name Nigerian artist. A child there is even less likely to learn of the art in the classroom.” (Source NYT)


These raises some questions; are Africans collectors afraid to invest in their own? And do you think it would be right for posterity to demand the return of these works to Africa after now?


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