Writing Art History Since 2002

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COLLECTOR. magazine

Edward Saidi Tingatinga, Untitled (Khanga), circa 1968-1972. Enamel paint on board, 60.5 x 61 cm. Image courtesy of Circle art Agency.

Circle Art Agency recently presented their 4th edition of its annual Modern and Contemporary East Africa Art Auction. Brendon Bell-Roberts spoke with Danda Jaroljmek about their organisation, their recent auction and explores the collecting scene in East Africa with her.

COLLECTOR: Please tell us a little about Circle Art Agency and what your organisation is involved in.

Danda Jarolmek: Circle was established in 2012 after working for years in the non-profit art scene. Focusing specifically on supporting artists in the region, we felt there was a lack of dedicated spaces supporting potential collectors and trying to build a bigger local market for art.

We started as an art advisory service with a focus on making new platforms for potential collectors to experience the rich variety of art in East Africa.

This was a success from the beginning, with local interest developing fast for our pop-up exhibitions, and the first commercial art auction in the region.  Sales were phenomenal, with both the pop-ups and the auctions achieving over 80% in sales.

In 2015 we opened a gallery – by then there was an increasing demand and we wanted to show art in a pristine white-cube commercial gallery which hadn’t really existed before.  We have between six and seven exhibitions a year, and participate in quite a few international art fairs, and host the annual auction. We also continue to work with corporate clients to commission public art which is still quite new in Nairobi.

You recently hosted the 4th edition of your annual Modern and Contemporary East African Art Auction. How has the perception around East African art changed since your first auction and have you noticed a big change in collecting habits in the region?

The Circle Modern and Contemporary East African art auction is the first and only commercial auction in East Africa.  Our auctions are usually annual, although we postponed the late 2016 one to early 2017, allowing us to participate in some art fairs in Europe.  They are quite small, we only ever have around 50 booths and the evening is a very VIP up-market, intentionally glamorous evening – it’s sponsored by big banks, luxury car brands and champagne.

This was a very new approach within the art scene here, and has attracted an audience who had not previously attended exhibitions.  This has led to a dramatic increase in local buyers from the business community – people interested in the investment potential of art.  The auctions created a sense of value and importance for visual art, if that makes sense.

Giles Peppiatt of Bonhams, London, advised us in the early days – he was right when he said that people like to buy art at auctions, that they like to see that there are under-bidders, and that the sale price is open and listed online the night of the auction.  This has won the Kenyan buyers over, and we have more interest from international buyers as word about the auctions spreads. Because of this, we have more telephone and absentee bidders – every year, half our bidders are new buyers for us.

Collectors are more strategic now – they spend time with me, ask questions, and do their homework on artists. In building collections of contemporary or emerging artists from Africa, collectors are making sure that they have key artists represented, etc. This is a change.

George Lilanga,  Watu Wnajiandaa Kwa Mahitaji Ya Mwaka Mpya Mda Mchache Uajo. Oil on board, 122 x 82 cm. Image courtesy of Circle Art Agency.

You have stated that “the auction brings together international and local art collectors with a passion for African art and who see the investment potential of this emerging art market”.

In your opinion what is driving the interest in contemporary art from Africa, who are these collectors and where are they from?

Many of our collectors are Kenyan or long term residents of Kenya. Initially, art used to be bought mainly by tourists and expats, but this has changed dramatically over the past few years. 

Kenyans are buying East African art as they become more exposed and aware of the art scene, through the auction and, of course, the gallery.  At the auctions we usually have over 300 guests – this also applies to our gallery openings.

The younger generation is beginning to collect more affordable works, so we always have works on paper available in the gallery.  International collectors are still mainly people who have some connection with the region, business, family, or history.

It is mainly at the art fairs that we sell to people who are interested, in general, in contemporary African art. They are often much more familiar with Western and Southern African art, so are curious about what is happening in East Africa.

You present both contemporary and modern work at the auction. Which of these two periods are collectors most interested in and why?

This is an interesting question – there seems to be equal interest, as it is less about the period and more about an emotional interest in the work.  I work very hard each year, taking time in selecting the very best work from the artists I want to include –quite often the work is rare, or unusual, or impossible to find outside the auction.

Collectors frequently bid on both modern and contemporary work. I have considered focusing more on modern art as there is no platform for it otherwise. I have been told, however, that this would disappoint many of our bidders who want work from both periods.

It is more about rarity than age, and discovering new artists from either era. Authenticity is also an important factor – collectors wanting Edward Saidi Tingatinga or George Lilanga, and other artists where known imitations exist, trust that our sources are safe.

For this most recent auction you have mentioned that there are some rare investment opportunities. Could you tell us more about these works and what other works were on offer?

‘Lot 1’ is a Peterson Kamwathi print from his ‘Maximum Reform’ series in 2008 – just after the post-election violence in Kenya.  There is also a very old Eli Kyeyune oil painting of a hairdressing scene. Kyeyune’s work hasn’t been on the market for quite a few years, so this is quite a rare investment opportunity. The late Geoffrey Mukasa’s work is becoming harder to find, and we have two collages this year that are wonderful.

We have an exquisite tiny water colour by Ali Darwish, an artist I knew nothing about. Raised in Tanzania, Darwish is of Iranian parentage, both of whom taught after independence at the famous Margaret Trowell School of Fine Art at Makerere University in Uganda. Darwish studied at Slade and SOAS in London.

Dawit Abebe’s work has increased dramatically in value since we started showing him. One of the older generation Kenyan artists, Sane Wadu, was represented with a tiny, delicate – and most unusual for him – watercolour. These were just a few!

Dawit Abebe, X Privacy 33, 2016. Mixed media on paper, 140 x 100 cm. Image courtesy of Circle Art Agency.

In particular, which artists have benefitted most from exposure at your auctions and why?

A hard question, and rather one that individual artists should answer. What I have seen is a general increase in awareness and interest in East African artists since the start of the auctions, rather than particular artists.

I think we have been able to re-introduce the modern artists from the region who had been neglected and even forgotten, especially the Ugandan artists practicing between the 70s and 90s such as Geoffrey Mukasa, Eli Kyeyene and Francis Nnagenda.  We have given prominence to the older generation to make sure that our collectors are aware of the rich history of art in the region as many only know the contemporary artists here.

Amongst the contemporary artists, we try to feature new artists each year to give them some exposure.  The catalogues have become important for reference as there is a lack of publications here too.

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