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Collecting and the Market for African Art

Collecting and the Market for African Art,
Tracy Murinik and Federico Freschi.
Featured in the Art South Africa December digital edition.
 
What is the present-day valence of contemporary art from Africa for collectors around the globe? Who wants it? Why do they want it? Who is involved in developing the market for it? Where and how is this market developing? And is an ‘evolution of consciousness’ required to take place – for the collector and the market – for a collection to be considered truly successful?

These were some of the questions posed and responded to by a number of panelists at a series of three panel discussions about collecting contemporary art from Africa, convened by Prof Federico Freschi, during the Talks Programme at the FNB Joburg Art Fair in September. The panelists comprised a geographically and culturally diverse group of private and public collectors, museum directors, art consultants and curators, united by their common interest in, and passion for, diverse manifestations of contemporary art from Africa. In his introduction to the panels, Prof Freschi proposed that art and design are perhaps some of the most powerful transformative agents of democracy that we have, challenging us to see the world through the eyes of others, and so affirming a common humanity founded on a respect for differing points of view. He argued that art in particular has an important role to play in redefining perceptions and dispelling stereotypes, especially in the case of Africa as a continent, and in relation to what broader publics may imagine constitutes the limits of African creative production. As a starting point for consideration by the three respective panels about why, by whom, and in what ways African art is being collected and marketed both locally and globally, this issue of art’s transformative potential was further explored with regard to how that potential is being recognised, used, and developed by various players within the art community and its affiliates.
 
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Art Talks, FNB Joburg Art Fair 2013. Photo by KB Mpofu. Courtesy of Goethe-Institut.
 
Custodians of culture
 
Jeanetta Blignaut, founding director of the Spier Arts Academy, articulated Spier’s strategic investment over the past fifteen years as the development of a type of blueprint for activating, supporting and sustaining a market in which young artists in South Africa can viably be taught, supported and encouraged to produce artwork as a career. Creating a type of ecosystem, within which people choosing to embark on a career in art can learn through various Spier-conducted
programmes, the Academy supports candidates from the preliminary stages through to becoming professional; enabling artists both to practice fulltime and, through Spier’s facilitation, to find a ready market for their work. Blignaut described Spier’s role in this regard as a ‘custodian’ of local contemporary art; of a next generation of artists who can ‘afford to spend time in a studio doing what they do best’, which she identified as ‘pioneering our culture’. Critical imperatives that this custodianship seeks to achieve include significantly changing people’s lives by ‘creating opportunities for their success’ – within which their need for financial stability is acknowledged and respected; being involved in vulnerable communities to put energy behind socio-political change; and to archive that local heritage. Similar concerns about the imperative to develop artists were echoed by several of the other panelists as points of impetus towards how and why they collect or encourage the collection of work. The idea of creating a type of cultural archive resonates with Kenneth Montague, a Torontobased dentist and art collector, and the founder and director of the nonprofit Wedge Curatorial Projects (www.wedgecuratorialprojects.org). Montague has been exhibiting photo-based work with a strong focus on work that explores black identity and the African diaspora since 1997, when he began collecting and showing work exploring black subjectivity and cultural representation. Exploring his own Jamaican-Canadian heritage, he described his shift into curating as a desire to tell stories through the work of artists, whom he called the ‘chroniclers of daily life’,and as a collector his inclination to acquire work that speaks to others. He spoke about collecting being, for him, about his desire to share the experience of, and the narratives embedded in, artworks with others, as much as it being for his own private experience and pleasure. From his perspective there is always a public/private duality in that process, driven by a mindfulness of collecting with a sense of inclusiveness and sharing – something he encouraged other collectors to consider in their respective processes.
Emile Stipp, a South African actuary and art collector, similarly spoke of contemporary art shedding light on ‘what it means to be human in this time’ – the politics of time and place always being present in the artwork, and a strong incentive and reason to collect work that speak powerfully to him of those realities and currencies. Oba Nsugbe, a Nigerian barrister and collector based in the UK likewise maintained that art ‘gives you an answer at a particular time’.
 
Directing the market: advisors and initiators
 
But who is directing and educating newer collectors looking to collect African art in a meaningful and effective way? Bomi Odufunade, a writer and art consultant at Dash & Rallo Art Advisory, who specialises in art from Africa and its diaspora, indicated that generally demand for African art has tended to be confined domestically, on the continent. She has made it a mission to try and expand that demand into a broader global market. One way she has pushed this objective is through increasing education of the collectors/clients that approach her to source artwork for them, encouraging them to consider carefully what they are buying and where they are buying it from. She also collects work throughout the continent as well as the diaspora, so that what she is able to show clients is not only localised, domestic production, but a broad variety that encourages an understanding of the diversity of African expression beyond the traditional. Odufunade considers any artist that has a link back to Africa as being African, and she will describe him/her as such. She believes art advisors/consultants to be both initiators and mediators to collectors –] expanding and developing the parameters of what they would ordinarily consider acquiring, and how they begin to redefine their collections to themselves and those who see the works. She noted further that art fairs have become one of the most critical means of distributing
that awareness of, and demand for, work from or relating to Africa. The Internet, she argued, has also massively expanded the range of sourcing work beyond going to galleries and artists’ studios. The global accessibility of such work ‘joins the dots’ between Africa and the diaspora, and educates more widely. Samallie Kiyingi, a Ugandan-Australian lawyer, banker and art collector based in London concurred on the significance of art fairs as being a key means of introducing an artist to an international audience. She spoke about the art economy, particularly in Africa, being about finding new markets. Her interest in getting more people on the continent to collect African art leads her to prompt people she knows or that follow her to engage art as a means of understanding one’s world and identity.
 
‘The idea of Africa at the moment is hot, sizzling!’
 
This sentiment was proclaimed by Kiyingi during her panel discussion. ‘Africa is the next big thing’, she said. But what is the need to market African art as a commodity for its authenticity in being African – even in the diaspora? How is this work sold as a link to unraveling one’s own identity? Is there a need for artists working in a multitude of styles and thematics still to be identified as African? And to what degree, if any, does this run the risk of perpetuating the exoticising of Africa? And ultimately, what is it that makes one who and what one is? While the politics of location are incredibly complex, Kenneth Montague’s opinion is that being African is a state of mind rather than a geographical reference. He suggests that one should not discriminate in terms of Africanness, but rather adopt a post-identity position of hybridity that can encompass a sense of ones self at multiple levels.
 
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Warren Siebrits at the Art Talks, FNB Joburg Art Fair 2013. Photo by KB Mpofu. Courtesy of Goethe-Institut.
 
An ‘evolution of consciousness’
 
Warren Siebrits, a Johannesburg-based collector, dealer and longtime reader of this market, offered thought-provoking and provocative comments on what it means to be a successful collector of (African) art In considering the role of the art viewer/commentator/collector in relation to artworks and their market, he suggested that 50% of creativity is informed by the viewer/commentator who assists in creating an ‘evolution of consciousness’ around an artwork and how
it is perceived – that in effect critical discourse creates a legacy of art. He proposed that collectors be understood as conceptual rather than just practical market entities who have the ability to bring awareness, insight and a vision of greatness to a work of art. Siebrits further argued that there needs to be an evolution of a personal consciousness by the collector in terms of his/her own process of collecting: from Siebrits’s perspective, price should not become a factor in one’s decision to collect. Instead, he suggested, a collector should consciously slow down the process of selecting work in which s/he wishes to invest – to be discerning rather than collecting too easily; to make decisions in the course of time so as to identify works of art that are ‘going to remain great in the future’. He urged collectors to consider acquiring work that, even if haphazard in their thematics, style, and consistency (or lack of it) with the rest of the collection, nevertheless speak specifically to them. In other words, that collecting involves conscious and thoughtful discernment rather than just accumulation, and collectors would thus be well advised to develop a strategy for collecting that goes against the status quo.
 
Federico Freschi is an art historian and the Executive Dean of the Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture at the University of Johannesburg
 
Tracy Murinik is Research and Projects Director, and a Research Associate of the Research Centre, Visual Identities in Art and Design (VIAD) in the Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture at the University of Johannesbur