By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted 13 March 2018)
Circle Art Gallery’s didn’t just break records last Monday night during their 5th Art Auction-East Africa, making well over KSh21 million from the sale of 56 phenomenal works of African art.
Circle also shattered stereotypes, particularly the one that suggests East African art need not figure into international art auctions such as those taking place at acclaimed venues like Sotheby’s and Bonham’s. These are sites that just recently started giving auction time to contemporary African art. By recently, I mean Sotheby’s only started in 2017 to hold contemporary African art auctions and the closest they came to Kenya was Uganda. Otherwise, they were focused mainly on South African art and on West African artists like El Anatsui.
Bonham’s has been a bit better, having auctioned eight Kenyan artists’ works back in 2013. But even then, the revenue from the sales didn’t go to the artists. It went into a fund meant to promote ‘visual art education in Kenya.’
Bonham’s last art auction in February stunned the global art world when the Nigerian artist Ben Enwonwu’s ‘African Mona Lisa’ sold for 1.2 million pounds.
On Monday night, it was Kenya currency, not British pounds that was being used by the former Sotheby’s auctioneer Dendy Easton. Nonetheless, there were several sales that shot significantly over a million. The most highly prized was by the late Ugandan artist Geoffrey Masaka. His 1993 oil painting ‘In the Sugar Plantation’ went for a whopping KSh1.65 million. Just below that came Sudanese artist’s Rashid Diab’s 2016 ‘Bird Omen’ which sold for Sh1.4 million.
Those prices were anticipated since Masaka’s works have been sought after by international collectors for some years. The same is true for Diab whose main collectors are Middle Easterners swimming in oil money.
What wasn’t expected was the bidding war that resulted in Yony Waite’s 1989 ‘Cameleopard in the Clearing’ selling for Sh1.2 million. It’s a beautiful piece, one of the most subtly colorful works by the artist who is best known for her stunning black and white paintings.
But Yony’s painting wasn’t the only one that elicited a bidding war on Monday night. In the intimate assembly hall known as The Den of the Dusit D2 Hotel, there were several more ‘wars’ over amazing artworks coming from all over Africa (not only the East) than in years past.
In part the combative bids, picked up quickly by the eagle-eyed auctioneer Easton, had to do with the quality of works curated by Circle Art’s cofounder Danda Jaroljmek who this year assembled 53 lots and 56 artworks from ten countries. The ten were the Congo (DRC), Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Nigeria, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda.
What also could have contributed to enthusiastic bidding was the bubbly Moet & Chandon Champagne that the guests freely imbibed shortly before the bidding began.
But the reality was that the ‘bidding wars’ began early in the auction. In fact, Charles Sekano’s 2010 mixed media on paper painting ‘In the Jungle Night’ started the evening off earning just about what Danda had predicted (between KSh280,000-390,000) or KSh320,000. But the excitement took off by Lot 2 when the first Geoffrey Mukasa painting went on the auction block. His 1993 ‘Birds at Home’ got bidders going both by phone and from the floor. It was all strictly confidential but Danda had a table set up near the auctioneer where proxy bidders sat glued to cell phones as they listened to clients making instant decisions, whether to up the ante or not. Ultimately, the winning bid was for KSh850,000.
The energy in the room had warmed up fast and it wasn’t long before a second slightly shorter ‘war’ got underway for Peterson Kamwathi’s 2007 Untitled sheep. It didn’t matter that Kamwathi’s work was in charcoal and pastel on paper. What mattered was it was by this particular artist who happens to be one of Kenya’s most acclaimed painters whose career is being carefully observed by various collectors around the world. The sheep went for KSh800,000, which again is just about what Danda had predicted.
In fact, before the auction, Danda had told Business Daily that a good deal of research goes into making an estimated valuation of a specific artwork. It isn’t just the quality of the artist’s technique that count. It’s also the history of previous sales of that artist’s works among other factors.
There was no surprise then when Rashid Diab’s painting went for Sh1.4 million (although the estimate was slightly higher). But it was a thrill to see one of my favorite paintings in the show, the 2017 Untitled piece by the young Sudanese artist Miske Mohmmed inspire a mini-spat that led to her colorful acrylic on canvas work go for Sh380,000.
Miske was one of eight women artists in the auction. Eight out of 55 artists isn’t exactly gender parity. That’s one woman to every seven men almost. Nonetheless, the eight are all amazing artists. And while none except Yony incited uber-bidding wars, all of their work aroused bidding interest. For instance, the Egyptian artist Souad Abdel Rassoul’s Untitled painting tied with Miske’s for a sale of Sh380,000. Next in line was the Congolese photographer Gosette Lubondo whose ‘Imaginary Trip’ sold for Sh270 followed by the highly textured ‘Kingdom of Night’ painting by Nigerian artist Nike Okundaye which elicited another mini-bidding war till the final bid landed at sh260,000. After that, another photographer’s work, ‘City of Saints’ by Ethiopia’s Eyerusalem Jirenga sold for sh200,000. Finally, both Ugandan painter Theresa Musoke’s and Kenyan collage artist Rosemary Karuga’s works sold for sh190,000.
Personally, I feel Rosemary’s collage was under-valued as were several other sales, such as those of Nigerians Bruce Onobrakpeya and Rufus Ogundele.
Nonetheless, the art auction attracted a host of new bidders this year. Some were invisible, as they only bid by phone; others having heard the auction was an important place to be if one wanted a ‘crash course’ in what’s happening around the East African region artistically. That was true for Lorraine Maina, the regional Marketing Manager for Microsoft who attended her first East African art auction on Monday night and was thrilled with the prospect of coming back and bidding next year.
But there were also veteran auction attendants like the architect Karuga Koinange who won the Sh400,000 bid on Fabian Mpagi 1996 painting, ‘Masquerae Fetish’. “I’ve attended all five art auctions and I always take home at least one painting,” he says. “I enjoy being supportive of African art.”
Finally, the works by Kenyan artists in the auction all did relatively well. However, not all of them will benefit from the formidable sales the auction achieved. That’s because their art had already been sold, so it was the owner who came to Circle asking Danda if she’d like to put their art up for auction. As such, the two works by Kamwathi, the collage by Rosemary, Onditi’s painting of ‘Smokey’, Kyalo’s twin paintings and even those of Wanyu Brush all came from private collections. So only Gor, Edward Njenga, Yony and the Wajukuu artists including Shabu will be reaping the fruits from the 5th Circle Art Auction. Nonetheless, all the artists whose works featured in the auction are beneficiaries, however the pie is sliced.
Collectors Snap Up Artworks in Nairobi Auction
Margaretta wa Gacheru (revised with editor’s input)(what appeared in BDLife 14.3.2018)
Circle Art Gallery’s 5th East African Art Auction broke records on Monday night, making almost Sh21 million from the sale of 56 African works of art. Collectors snapped up modern and contemporary paintings, collage, photographs and sculptures in an exclusive auction held at Dusit D2 Hotel.
The auction’s success is a reflection of the renaissance that contemporary art generally is having among the well-to-do worldwide. According to the Knight Frank Wealth Report 2018, art is becoming the top luxury possession that the rich are buying. Forget about the classic cars, watches, wines and jewelry. It’s art, including African art, that had an outstanding growth rate of 21 per cent last year with classic cars and watches falling far behind.
“We’re delighted with the results of this year’s auction,” said Danda Jaroljmek, founder and co-director of Circle Art Gallery. She’s also the curator of all five East African Art Auction, making her what the evening’s auctioneer Dendy Easton called “a pioneer” in East African art.
The most highly-prized artwork of the night was by the late Ugandan artist Geoffrey Musaka. His oil painting done in 1993, ‘In the Sugar Plantation’ went for Sh1.9 million. The artist’s works have been sought-after by international collectors for many years.
Meanwhile, Ghanaian artist Ablaze Glover’s painting ‘Market Chaos’ also went for over Sh1 million.
There was a lively bidding war for Yony Waite’s ‘Cameleopard in the Clearing’. The one bidding by phone from the States ultimately secured the 1989 painting for Sh1.4 million. It is one of the most subtly colourful works by the artist who is best known for her stunning black and white oil paintings.
But Ms Waite’s work was not the only one that elicited a bidding war. There were several more ‘wars’ over amazing artworks coming from all over Africa, including DR Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Nigeria, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda.
In part the combative bids, picked up quickly by the eagle-eyed former Sotheby’s auctioneer Mr. Easton, had to do with the quality of works curated by Ms Jaroljmek who this year assembled artworks from 10 African countries.
The art auction is a strictly confidential affair with bidders’ and buyers’ identities carefully guarded. At Monday’s auction, there was a table set up near the auctioneer where proxy bidders sat glued to cell phones as they listened to clients making instant decisions, whether to up the ante or not. When Geoffrey Mukasa’s other painting in the auction, ‘Birds at Home’ done 29 years ago, went on the auction block, it got bidders going both by phone and from the floor. Ultimately, the winning sale was for Sh997,900.
The energy in the room had warmed up early in the night and it wasn’t long before a second slightly shorter ‘war’ got underway for Peterson Kamwathi’s 2007 ‘Untitled’ sheep done in charcoal and pastel on paper. The artist is one of Kenya’s most acclaimed painters. His sheep sold for Sh939,200, which was right within the range of valuation that Ms. Jarolmjek had estimated and included in the catalogue.
She informed BDLife before the auction that a good deal of research goes into making an estimated valuation of every artwork in the auction.
‘‘But it isn’t just the quality of an artist’s technique that counts. It’s also the history of previous sales of an artist’s works, among other factors, that affects the valuation,’’ she added.
In the case of Rashid Diab, one of Sudan’s most celebrated painters, the bidding for his beautiful ‘Bird Omen’ reached Sh1.4 million. But as that figure was below the low end of the estimated valuation, the artwork could not be sold.
Nonetheless, it was a thrill to see young Sudanese artist Miske Mohmmed’s ‘Untitled’ painting inspire a mini-spat that led to her colourful acrylic on canvas work go for Sh446,120.
But Miske was one of just eight women artists in the auction this year. The others included the 90 year old Kenyan artist Rosemary Karuga whose ‘Untitled’ collage went for Sh281,760. The other women painters included Theresa Musoke of Uganda whose ‘Birds’ went for Sh223,060; Nigerian Nike Okundaye whose ’Kingdom of Night’ sold for Sh305,240; Egyptian artist Souad Abdel Rassoul whose painting went for Sh446,120 and of course, Ms. Waite.
Women photographers also had work in the auction. Congolese Gosette Lubondo’s ‘Imaginary Trip’ got a top bid of Sh270,000 just below the minimum required, so that sale is pending. Another photo artwork by Ethiopia’s Eyerusalem Jirenga sold for Sh234,800.
This year’s art auction attracted a host of new bidders. Some were invisible, as they only bid by phone; others having heard the auction was an important place to be if one wanted a ‘crash course’ in what’s happening around East Africa artistically.
Lorraine Maina, the regional marketing manager for Microsoft who attended her first East African art auction on Monday was thrilled with the prospect of coming back and bidding next year.
But there were also veteran auction attendants like Karuga Koinange, an architect, an art collector who is now the proud owner of Fabian Mpagi’s 1996 painting, ‘Masquerae Fetish’.
“I’ve attended all five auctions and I always take home at least one painting,” he said soon after the auction ended. “I enjoy being supportive of African art.”
African art is attracting investors from all over the world. Sotheby’s, one of the world’s largest brokers of fine art, for instance, started to hold contemporary African art auctions last year. However, the closest they came to featuring East Africa artists was Uganda. Focus has mainly been on South African art and on West African artists like El Anatsui.
In contrast, the UK auction house Bonhams was auctioning Kenyan artists’ works back in 2013. However, the revenue from those sales did not go to the artists. They went into a fund meant to promote ‘visual art education in Kenya.’
For the past five years, the auction has attracted high net worth art collectors who bid energetically on phone or on the floor for pieces dating from the 1960s.
Last year’s auction netted about Sh19.2 million.
‘‘We are proud that the auction has continued to grow and build a space for collectors of African art and members of the East African business community to not only acquire art, but also to be able to learn about the important artists in the region,” said Ms Jaroljmek.
KENYAN ARTISTS & THE SECONDARY ART MARKET
Kenyan artists’ works did relatively well at the auction. However, not all the artists will benefit from the auction’s sales because their art had previously been sold. So it was the owners who came to Circle asking Ms. Jaroljmek to put their art on auction who reaped the spoils. They were owners of artworks by Peterson Kamwathi, Rosemary Karuga, Paul Onditi, Justus Kyalo and Wanyu Brush.
Those artists who benefited directly from sales are the ones who gave Circle their work to be auctioned. They include Gor Soudan, Edward Njenga, Yony Waite and the Wajukuu artists, including Shabu Mwangi, Ngugi Waweru and Joseph Waweru. Nonetheless, all the artists whose works featured in the auction are beneficiaries, however the pie is sliced.--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
OUTSTANDING HONORABLE MENTIONS:
+ Bruce Onobrakpeye, elderstatesman of Nigerian art. His Dancing Masquerade sold for Sh258,280.
+ Edward Saidi Tingatinga, Tanzanian painter died in 1972 but his style lives on. Original Tingatinga sold for Sh845,280
+ Samson ‘Xenson’ Ssenkaaba’s Pro Afro Woman sold for Sh915,720
+ Laila Mukhtar Adam’s painted clay figures sold for Sh223,060.