Middle Eastern And African Cities Are The New Hubs For Major Art Auction Houses

BY Amah-Rose McKnight-Abrams / Sep 25 2018 / 20:49 PM

See what the movers and shakers in Marrakech, Beirut, Cairo and Accra have to say about the buzzing art scenes in their home cities

Middle Eastern And African Cities Are The New Hubs For Major Art Auction Houses
Serge Attukwei Clottey/Gallery 1957

Serge Attukwei Clottey, The Love for Each Other, 2016, Plastics, wire and oil paint, 70 x 96 inches, © the artist,  courtesy Gallery 1957, Accra

The art world is famously international yet we often focus our attention on a few key art centres. As the market diversifies, auction houses such as Sotheby’s and Bonhams set up offices and stage auctions in cities such as Dubai and New Delhi. Others, however, like Phillips, sell works in one unified sale void of a regional focus or art historical era. At the same time, both independent and conglomerate art fair models have expanded, opening all over the world in cities such as Marrakech, New Delhi and Colombo. It seems now, more than ever, that the art world is looking to regions outside the standard triage of London, New York and Hong Kong.

Other culturally relevant metropolises, burgeoning art hotspots in their own right, now have the spotlight. Hannah O’Leary is head of Modern and Contemporary African Art at Sotheby’s. She founded the auction’s African art department in 2016 and held their first Modern and Contemporary African Art sale in May 2017. “We now have thriving markets for contemporary African art in London, New York and Paris, as well as developing contemporary art markets in key areas such as Nigeria, Kenya and Morocco,” she explains.

Head of the child king

Head of the child king emerging from a lotus flower, found at the entrance to the tomb of Tutankhamun, discovered in the Valley of the Kings, Thebes, Egypt, North Africa, Africa. Courtesy of Getty Images

O’Leary sees 2017 as a turning point for the market in Africa, with South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya and Morocco as frontrunners. Sotheby’s last African Contemporary and Modern sale made more than ever before, coming in at $3,611,376.

“British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare, Ghanaian artist El Anatsui and South African artist Irma Stern consistently achieve strong prices at auction,” she continues. “Our last sale was led by two Nigerian artists, including the pioneer of African modernism Ben Enwonwu, whose work Africa Dances achieved six times its high estimate to sell for $265,744 (est. $25,000-35,000). Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s À La Warhol, a self-portrait inspired by the silk screen portraits of Andy Warhol, sold for over double its high estimate to reach $283,460 (est. $60,000-80,000).”

These changes haven’t happened overnight, there has long been a market for contemporary African art but lately prices have begun to soar. “Important players in this development include the October Gallery in London, who represented African artists such as El Anatsui in London long before anyone else; curators such as Okwui Enwezor and Bisi Silva, who include African artists in major international exhibitions; and Touria El Glaoui, who founded the first contemporary African art fair, 1-54,” said O’Leary.

Installation view nathaniel rackowe the shape of a city

Installation view, Nathaniel Rackowe The Shape of a City, Letitia Gallery, 27 June - 25 August  2018

When 1-54: Contemporary African Art Fair announced they would be staging a fair in Marrakech last year, there was a great reaction. The move made total sense: to stage a fair selling contemporary African art in Africa. While the first edition was the smallest of the fair’s instalments, it garnered much attention. It gave impetus for something new—another capital for African art.

According to fair director El Glaoui, the decision to stage the fair in Marrakech, was partially in order to tap into the grassroots scene in the North African city. “The inaugural 1-54 Marrakech iteration, which took place in February, was an introduction to a central part of the Moroccan contemporary and historical art scene for many of our exhibitors and patrons,” she explains.

Driven by connecting the city’s artistic heritage and its current scene, El Glaoui staged a public programme in partnership with galleries and institutions in Marrakech, a bold move for an inaugural iteration of an art fair. “We wanted to use the opportunity to deepen our engagement with the city’s cultural sector,” she said. ”Through these activations around the city, we were able to collectively experience the many layers that make up this exciting art scene.”

Installation view nathaniel rackowe the shape of a city

Installation view, Nathaniel Rackowe The Shape of a City, Letitia Gallery, 27 June - 25 August  2018 

Initially, one of the popular selling points of the contemporary African art market was the more affordable price point and this has translated to stronger internationally facing markets on the continent. “1-54 supports emerging markets by introducing new publics to alternative perspectives,” El Glaoui explains. “As the contemporary African art scene is, in many ways, still in development, encouraging collectors to invest in emerging and established artists is at the core of what we do.”

Beirut has long been a city that exists in a context continually in flux due to its volatile location as the capital of Lebanon. Even so, its artists and thriving scene have long gained admirers the world over. Host to the Beirut Art Fair, which has now been running for eight years, the city’s art scene is now very much established. Long famed for its gallery scene, which includes such names as Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Marfa Projects, Agial Art Gallery, Saleh Barakat Gallery, and the Beirut Art Centre, the focus is now shifting to museums and foundations.

Annie Vartivarian, founder of the Letitia Gallery in Beirut, which opened in December 2017, sheds light on what’s happening on the ground. “Beyond the growth of the gallery scene in Beirut, the reopening of the historic Sursock Museum in 2015 following a seven-year restoration has given the city’s art scene an incredible boost—as has the inauguration of Aïshti, a cutting-edge modern art foundation; and Ashkal Alwan, a grass-roots association which promotes and produces contemporary art practices in Lebanon.”

Beirut looks to be building strong foundations yet “art world buzz” can be a mixed blessing with all eyes turning to a region that may not be ready to operate as a fully-fledged market. “I think being designated an emerging market can be both beneficial and a hindrance,” Vartivarian says. “In general the buzz surrounding an ‘emerging market’ works in your favour; collectors and museum directors become more interested in and are more likely to support your artists—which is, of course, the aim of any gallerist. At the same time, the label conveys a certain expectation of what that ‘market’ should be.”

Night at the egyptian mueseum

A view of the opening of A Night at the Museum at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo,October 2017

Art world eyes have also been lured to the Ghanaian capital of Accra. Always a city with a strong art scene, over the last five years its galleries have become more internationally-facing. While there are several players, Gallery 1957, has been at the forefront of Accra’s international awakening since it opened in 2015. The gallery represents Serge Attukwei Clottey, an artist who has garnered much attention for his installation and performance work, in addition to Gideon Appah, Modupeola Fadugba, Godfried Donkor, Yaw Owusu, and Zohra Opoku, among others.

“With Gallery 1957, my ambition was to establish a robust and sustainable arts infrastructure in Accra and since then, with the scene here growing at an amazing pace, we’ve been excited to witness a wide variety of artists here pursue their creative endeavours more freely,” said Gallery 1957 founder Marwan Zakhem.

Zakhem believes that although international auction houses such as Sotheby’s and Bonhams have boosted the West African art market, the wise move is to establish a strong collector base in the region. “I think that there are valid arguments for either of the two to be the most important, however, I believe that developing the scene at a grassroots level holds the most value for growth and raising awareness of contemporary West African art,” he explains.

”Gallery 1957 continues to do this by hosting ambitious and collaborative exhibitions, providing resources for residencies for local and international artists. If you build from the grassroots, the buyers will surely follow.” Although it may seem to be a no-brainer, it appears that a strong and independent foundation in such ‘emerging’ art capitals is key to growing a market, in terms of collectors, dealers and galleries.

Among other cities that are attracting attention recently is Cairo, with Alexandria close behind. The Mosaic Rooms in London is currently showing a retrospective of exhibitions staged by Cairo’s Townhouse Gallery. Known as Egypt’s first contemporary art gallery, Townhouse, which opened in 1998, broke down many cultural barriers. At the time, the government tried to suppress what was happening at the space. Even so, Townhouse still went on to become a focal point for the city’s writers and artists.

Installation view nathaniel rackowe the shape of a city

Installation view, Nathaniel Rackowe The Shape of a City, Letitia Gallery, 27 June - 25 August  2018

Acting as an art hub itself, the space paved the way for the many commercial galleries now operating in the city. Another mover and shaker in Cairo is interior designer, art collector and consultant Nadine Abdel Ghaffar. She founded Art D’Egypte, an Egyptian multidisciplinary firm whose purpose is to promote Egyptian contemporary art internationally.

The platform sees the contemporary Egyptian scene show work in the city’s world-famous heritage sites and institutions. Last October 2017, it staged Eternal Light: Something Old, Something New at the Egyptian Museum, featuring works by contemporary Egyptian heavyweights such as Hany Rashed, Ghada Amer, Youssef Nabil and Mohamed Abla.

“Cairo is a rising market and therefore can be quite competitive but at the same time it really does bring on the passion of the people,” she explains. “We have very few institutions and foundations creating a big gap that needs to be filled and the galleries but it’s also the artists.” Abdel Ghaffar also feels that in emerging markets a usually collaborative art world can become divided but this atmosphere has also contributed to the buzz.

Work from paper nathaniel rackowe the shape of a city

Work from paper, Nathaniel Rackowe The Shape of a City, Letitia Gallery, 27 June - 25 August  2018 

In Cairo, she says, there is still a need to fill the gap that is not fed by government institutions. It is met, rather, by people stepping up to create different artistic platforms and commercial galleries as well as patrons who are striving to make a difference. “It’s amazing to see young artists who don’t have that much exposure on the international art scene coming up with projects that are very conceptual and contemporary, their challenge is production cost and having a platform to showcase their work,” she adds.

“It’s amazing to see young artists who don’t have that much exposure on the international art scene coming up with projects that are very conceptual and contemporary,” she adds.Contrary to how both collectors and dealers behaved in emerging markets a few years ago, it seems that rather than being subject to faddism these cities are taking control and building from the ground up. What comes next can only be interesting at the very least.