African Art Auctions: To Ghettoise or Not

In May 2018, the Art Newspaper reported that “Unlike Sotheby’s, Christie’s has no dedicated contemporary African sale. …Christie’s has no interest in ‘ghettoising African artists’…” The later part of the sentence, attributed to Francis Outred, Christie’s head of post-war and contemporary art in Europe, has stirred up a bit of controversy in the Lagos art scene. It has been reported repeatedly online. It even came up at the ‘Art as an Alternative Investment’ Seminar organised by Omenka Gallery on 4 June 2018.

The word ghettoise, which could simply mean ‘to confine or restrict to a particular area, activity, or category’, is derived from the word ghetto (an isolated and underprivileged area) and thus has the pejorative definition: to set apart in or as if in a ghetto. We can infer from Francis Outred statement that Sotheby’s dedicated Modern and Contemporary African Art auction results in the segregation and placement of African artists in a figurative or literal position of diminished power. But is it that clear-cut?

On one hand, Sotheby’s entering into the African art sector with a dedicated auction, following Bonhams’ example, was lauded as a validation of the viability of this section of the market and a further confirmation that the growing interest in African art is not a mere mirage. Since this show of confidence by two major auction houses, others have joined in, including Phillips, Piasa, a French auctioneer, and Aspire Art Auctions, a Johannesburg-based auctioneering firm, causing an unprecedented focus on the African art market.

On the other hand (the Christie’s hand), if it’s accepted that an artwork can never be great if it is not universal, then isolating African art can rightly be construed as an attempt to keep it confined to the realm of exotic and multi-cultural, and a refusal to push it into mainstream and greatness. Elsewhere, critics proffered that an institute (in this case, an auction) dedicated to non-Western art is a patronising reinforcement of racist stereotypes and an extension of a certain colonialist vision—on the opening of Musee Quai Branly, a museum in Paris dedicated to non-Western art, in 2006. It’s assumed that any segregation of African artists would end up ghettoising them.

It seems clear that the disadvantages of separating African artists from mainstream are overwhelming. And yet, the dedicated auctions have so far given greater visibility to African art. This has resulted in more African artists getting solo shows, being invited to fairs, and museums expanding their collections of African art. The rising auction results (last year, Sotheby’s recorded the highest sale in a single auction of African Art) is one of the reasons this segment of the market is now described as flourishing and, partly, why Africa itself is making efforts to build a local market that will sustain the momentum. For this teething period, do I dare say, if the price of drawing attention to African art (and exposing artists that might be lost in a more general space) is to ghettoise its artists, then so be it?

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Adekemi is a lawyer and writer with a passion for the arts, particularly African art history. She is dedicated to discovering and documenting the most excellent artworks of our time. Follow her on Twitter at adekemitweets.
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