Next week is kind of a big deal for anybody interested in buying contemporary art from Africa – the latest edition of the Africa Now sale at Bonhams is offering eager bidders the chance to get their hands on pieces by some of the continent’s best-known artists.
Works from Nigerian greats Onobrakpeya and Enwonwu are likely to be a safe bet, but top of many people’s lists (and certainly top of the price list) will be a couple of early(ish) sculptural works by El Anatsui, which are expected to sell for anything between £25,000 and £50,000. These were made at a time when the artist was using a chainsaw and other power tools to carve deep gouges into hardwood, leaving the surface scorched with intricate, interlaced marks that are both brutal and delicate.
Riga Sequence (1995) - El Anatsui
According to the Bonhams catalogue, the artist is a knowing critic, playing with the language of contemporary western art by juxtaposing it with ‘ideas, techniques and material from never-yet-subjugated areas that lie far beyond the pale of western art’. This cryptic pronouncement makes me rather uneasy. As his high asking-prices and his fame indicate, El Anatsui is no stranger to the west and its contemporary art market, so the suggestion that his work somehow incorporates ideas from ‘never-yet-subjugated areas’ lying ‘far beyond’ speaks volumes about Bonhams’ view of art from Africa, and, perhaps, their anticipated audience; where might these ‘areas’ be, exactly? Who is looking for them? The temptation to seek a kind of redemptive vibrancy in art from an Africa that is somehow held at a distance seems irresistible, even while acknowledging the artist’s astute involvement in the process.
I wholeheartedly agree that El’s work is powerful, captivating, and in many ways profoundly West African. However, as I (and many others) have suggested before, there is something suspect about the idea that African art’s attraction is its potential to act as some sort of panacea for the shortcomings of contemporary Western art. While this notion is by no means the overt ‘message’ of Africa Now, it is certainly an undercurrent. This is especially problematic given that, with the exception of El, none of the artists featured here seem likely to appear in a general ‘contemporary’ sale in the near future. Of course, Africa Now is far better than Africa Never, and I should note that the El blurb is the exception in a catalogue which generally shows real signs of attention to the all-important context of the work, beyond the ‘redemptive’ impulse (although this only makes the description in question all the odder). Perhaps in the future, it would be nice to see El and his peers positioned less as a diverting antidote to the main event of the world’s contemporary art, and more as partners in it.
Anyway. As if 115 lots by some great artists weren’t enough to get you down to Bonhams’ pre-sale viewing, there’s also an eye-catching accompanying exhibition of Nigerian photography, organised by Tafeta + Partners. Nigerians Behind the Lens coincides with the launch of Ebi Atawodi’s book of the same title, featuring work from nine fine Nigerian photographers, including Jide Alakija:
'No more lies' (2008) - Jide Alakija
That’s enough to be going on with…
Africa Now / Nigerians behind the lens
Sun 13th March, 11-3
Mon 14th – Wed 16th March, 9-4.30
(Africa Now viewings finish at midday on the 16th)
Africa Now Sale
Wed 16th March, 2pm
101 New Bond Street, London