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Sotheby's unveils its inaugural Sale of Modern and Contemporary African Art
Irma Stern, Still Life with Sunflowers, 1942. Estimate: £350,000-550,000. Photo: Sotheby's.

LONDON.- Hannah O’Leary, Sotheby’s Head of Modern and Contemporary African Art: “The marketplace for modern and contemporary art from Africa has transformed dramatically over the past decade, but despite this long-overdue correction, there’s still a considerable way to go towards addressing the underrepresentation of African artists, who account for just 0.01% of the international art market.

In recent years, I’ve seen an exponential increase in market demand from collectors in Africa and the African diaspora, as well as international art collectors and influencers who are embracing art from Africa as exciting, innovative and relevant. Sotheby’s entry to the market is in direct response to its current strength and its even greater potential over the coming years.

In our sale, you’ll find works by the giants of Modern and Contemporary African Art, who’ve established auction prices over $1 million, alongside little-known artists who have never, or barely, appeared at auction before. This is our opportunity to redress some of the current price anomalies; to identify those artists who we think currently undersell but have huge potential.

Modern and Contemporary African Art spans many different decades, themes, cultures and geographies - we’re not suggesting that the art included in our sale forms one cohesive body, but hope that the auction and our international exhibitions will provide a fresh platform for these artists, attracting the interest of new collectors and enthusiasts who have not yet explored this field.”


LEONCE RAPHAEL AGBODJELOU (Beninese) Untitled (Demoiselles de PortNovo Series), 2012 C-print, 180 by 130cm £4,000-6,000 / US$ 5,000-7,500

No works by the artist have ever been sold at auction before The ‘Demoiselles de Porto-Novo’ series spotlights young women of Porto-Novo, Benin, photographed in a mansion owned by the artist’s family that was built in 1890 by Africans who returned after the abolition of slavery in Brazil.

In combining the setting of modern architecture, with bare breasted women wearing ethnographic masks, Agbodjelou addresses the evolving nature of African identity.

EL ANATSUI (Ghanaian) Earth Developing More Roots, 2011 aluminium bottle caps and copper wire, 320 by 338cm £650,000-850,000 / US$ 810,000-1.06 million
El Anatsui’s work is included in the permanent collections of public institutions worldwide, including the Guggenheim, LACMA, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, MoMA and Tate Modern.

Auction record US$1.4 million (Sotheby’s NY, 2014)

This large-scale hanging sculpture is made from discarded foil bottle-neck wrappers and copper wire. With their textural form, El Anatsui’s works are reminiscent of the traditional kente cloth from Ghana: the red, yellow, and black are colours commonly used in the woven fabric, and symbolic of Ghana’s flag. El Anatsui’s father was a master weaver of kente cloth, but his relationship with weaving cloth is a complex one, his interest lying in the sculptural form of textiles.

As suggested by the title, Earth Developing More Roots alludes to the growing of more organic life on the planet, with long compact strands of colour spread freely cross the sculpture, as if in moving micro-biological form.

BEN ENWONWU (Nigerian) Ogolo, 1987 gouache, pen and ink on cardboard, 29 by 21cm £60,000-80,000/US$62,500-99,500

Auction record £361,250 (Bonhams London, 2013).

Ben Enwonwu is widely regarded as one of the greatest artists of the African modernist movement; Time magazine named him Africa’s greatest artist in 1949, and he was awarded an MBE by Queen Elizabeth II in 1955.

Ogolo was created in 1987 after Enwonwu attended the burial of his elder brother, where the traditional masquerades of Mmonwu Ogongo (tall masks) and Ogolo were performed. Over the next decade, Enwonwu created over fifty masquerade themed works of paintings, sculptures, and drawings.

MESCHAC GABA (Beninese) Le Pavé dans la Mère, 1999 Textile and coins, 220 by 120cm £20,000-30,000/ US$24,900-37,300

Auction record US$6,750 (Sotheby’s Amsterdam, 2010)

Artist offered at auction fewer than 10 times before.

A stitched flag made from a re-used jute sack, often used for exporting goods, Le Pavé Dans La Mère references the economic factors involved in African trade and manufacturing. Gaba uses flags to explore the concepts of cultural identity, political boundaries, and African unity in his work, and the obsolete coins attached to the end of the flag are further reinforcement of the passage of the relationship between time and economics.

This work was made following Gaba’s 1996–7 residency in Amsterdam, during which he created his seminal work Le Musée d'Art Africain, which was later concluded at Documenta XI, Kassel in 2002 and exhibited in a solo exhibition at Tate Modern in 2013.

WILLIAM KENTRIDGE (Beninese) World On Its Hind Legs, 2010 CorTen rust finish steel, 71 by 42 by 61 cm £70,000-90,000 / US$ 87,000-112,000

Auction record US$1.5 million (Sotheby’s NY, 2013).

This is a maquette for a public art piece of the same name, which stands more than 13 feet tall and was unveiled in Johannesburg in 2010. While the world appears so powerful and direct in its stride, the composition can only be seen from two vantage points, suggesting the fragile and tenuous nature of how the world is held together.

The artist can boast numerous solo exhibitions at renowned locations such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, and more recently, The Whitechapel Gallery in London.

ABDOULAYE KONATÉ (Malian) Composition No. 25 (Soleil), 2015 Textile, 189 by 107cm £10,000-15,000 / US$12,500-18,700

Auction record £31,250 (Bonhams London, 2015).

Artist offered at auction just three times before.

Using locally made traditional Malian fabrics, Konaté manages to create works that act as political, historical, socioeconomic and ecological commentaries whilst also serving as celebrations of traditional Malian craftsmanship. His use of Malian textile allows the artist to bring West African fabrics, usually seen as symbols of tradition and everyday life, into a contemporary sphere, prompting a new discussion about the potential of these rich textiles as well as the broader aesthetic traditions of West Africa.

The artist has been exhibited at prominent locations around the world such as the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris and the Smithsonian in Washington D.C., and has been selected to participate in this year’s Viva Arte Viva, the central exhibition at the 2017 edition of the Venice Biennale.

WOSENE WORKE KOSROF (Ethiopian) Beauty of Your Own IV, 2011 acrylic on linen, 106 by 106cm £20,000-30,000 / US$24,900-37,300

Auction record $22,500 (Phillips NY, 2010).

Artist offered at auction fewer than 10 times before.

Kosrof is known for his development of contemporary abstract art from the altering of traditional Amharic script. Inspired by his love of music, Kosrof also uses jazz notes and symbols to form the foundation of his painterly compositions.

His work has been exhibited at the National Museum of African Art, National Museum of Ethiopia, The Newark Museum, Neuberger Museum of Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Fowler Museum at UCLA, and Fleming Museum, where his work is held in permanent collections.

CHÉRI SAMBA (Congolese) Une vie non ratée (A Successful Life), 1995 acrylic on canvas, 130 by 195cm £20,000-30,000 / US$ 24,900-37,300

Auction record $98,500 (Phillips NY, 2010)

Samba is a founding member of the Zaire School of Popular Painting, a movement characterized by the creation of bold representational works, often incorporating narrative text, in order to comment on the political and socio-economic issues of their respective communities. At the heart of Cheri Samba’s practice lies his desire to combine humour and irony in order to create works that reveal the truths about daily life in his hometown of Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

The artist’s work has been showcased in the travelling exhibition Africa Remix: Art contemporain d’un continent in 2004, at the Fondation Cartier’s Beauté Congo in 2015 as well as the upcoming Art/Afrique, le nouvel atelier exhibition at Fondation Louis Vuitton.

YINKA SHONIBARE MBE (British-Nigerian) Crash Willy, 2009 mannequin, Dutch wax printed cotton textile, leather, fibreglass and metal, 132 by 198 by 260cm £ 120,000-180,000 / US$ 149,000-224,000

In 2010, Crash Willy was the centrepiece of the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy and the recipient of The Royal Academy of Arts Charles Wollaston Award for ‘Most Distinguished Work’.

Auction record $194,500 (Christie’s NY, 2011)

Born in the United Kingdom to Nigerian parents, Yinka Shonibare MBE explores questions of cultural hybridity as well as what it means to be African in a contemporary and globalized context. The artist is most notably recognized for his use of Dutch wax cloth, which Shonibare began to use after an encounter with one of his professors who encouraged the young artist to create ‘African Art’. The great irony in Shonibare’s work is that there is nothing inherently African about his work: Shonibare consistently uses ‘Western’ references, and yet by choosing to use Dutch batik cloth, his work is immediately associated with Africa. Crash Willy is an adaption of the death of Arthur Miller’s Death of A Salesman protagonist, Willy Loman. The work was conceived in 2009 in the aftermath of the 2008 stock market crash: it is no coincidence then that the piece is called 'Crash' Willy and that the number plate of the vehicle spells 'FTSE' (the UK stock market index).

IRMA STERN (South African) Sunflowers, 1942 oil on canvas, 86 by 86cm £350,000-550,000 / US$435,000-685,000

Auction record: £3 million (Bonhams London, 2011)

Irma Stern is revered for the sumptuous still lifes she painted in her Cape Town studio throughout her career, as well as for the portraits she painted on her trips to Zanzibar in 1939 and 1945 and the Congo in 1942. Sunflowers, painted in early 1942, is not only one of the finest examples of the artist’s still life painting, but has a fascinating history. She took the painting with her on her seminal trip to the Congo, where she stored it in Elisabethville (present-day Lubumbashi) while she made the arduous journey further north. On her return to Elisabethville she included Sunflowers in an exhibition with her new works at the Musée Ethnographique, before bringing it back to Cape Town, where it was purchased by the wife of Sir Ernest Oppenheimer, founder of the Anglo American Corporation and chairman of de Beers.

OUATTARA WATTS (Ivorian) Masada, 1993 wooden sculpture, mixed media, 295.91 by 256.54cm £15,000-20,000 / US$ 18,700-24,900

Auction record: $34,375 (Sotheby’s NY, 2008)

Masada was made shortly after Watts moved to New York, following an encounter with Jean Michel Basquiat. The two artists met in 1998 at Basquiat’s exhibition opening in Paris, and Basquiat insisted on visiting Watt’s studio, where he bought a painting that same night. Basquiat, who had exhibited in the Ivory Coast in 1986, was a keen supporter of Watt’s work and convinced him to move to New York, where they worked together briefly before Basquiat’s death.

Watts’ love for jazz, alchemy, cosmos, human relationships, and numbers are common themes in his work, which has been exhibited at MoMA PS1, the Whitney Biennale, and the New Museum in New York, and Documenta in Kassel

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