By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted 8 March 2019)
Circle Art Gallery’s sixth Art Auction East Africa in the ballroom of the Radisson Blu was a jaw-dropping event, filled with multiple bidding wars and a slew of bold buyers assured that money was no object when their hearts were set on owning a particular painting, print, etching or sculpture.
The result was that this auction was a record-breaking spectacle, with sales totally nearly USD 300,000 or Ksh30 million. Last year’s sales of Sh21 million were also impressive at the time as were the total sales in 2017 of Sh19 million. But making so substantial a gain between this year and last, and of course between now and the first art auction that was held in 2013, must send a message to both sincere lovers of African art and skeptics who don’t believe that East African art is already making it on the global art market map.
The results of last Monday night’s art auction has to be a powerful indicator that not only is appreciation of our contemporary art growing substantially. It should also send a signal that investing in East African art is a wise choice to make. For most art connoisseurs understand that good art invariably accrues in value over time. So right now might be a good time to start researching regional artists and also investing in their work while it’s still undervalued.
One has to congratulate Danda Jaroljmek, the co-owner of Circle Art with Arvind Vohara, and her team for assembling the largest lot of artworks ever. (There were 59.) But it was more than quantity that made sales shoot so high this year. The quality of the works that Danda curated also played a major role in whipping up enthusiasm early in the auction. Starting off with two very special Kenya-based artists, Ancent Soi and Fitsum Berhe Woldelibanos, was wise since both paintings are among the artists’ best. The fact that Soi’s sold for KSh763,100 and Fitsum’s for a little less at Sh610,480, paved the way for other prospective buyers to follow suit. And so they did.
For instance, a number of paintings went for more than a million shillings. The late Geoffrey Mukasa’s ‘Artist’s Home’ actually sold for almost Sh2 million, or Sh1,995,800. His other piece in the show, ‘Under Palm Leaf’ went for substantially less. But still, the buyer was prepared to pay nearly a million shillings (Sh986,160) for it even though the still life was on paper while ‘The Artist’s Home’ was on canvas. He or she was probably aware that as much as they loved Mukasa’s art, his paintings are bound to appreciate in value over time.
The Kenyan artist whose two works also sold at vastly different prices was the late Samwel Wanjau, Neither of his sculptures sold for a million, but Wanjau’s ‘Woman Reading’ went for almost Sh850,000 (Sh845,280). Yet his ‘Untitled’ buxom ‘Lady smoking’ sold for less than half a million (Sh455,640). But again, the difference is understandable, both because of size and subject matter. The woman reading looks regal unlike the reclining nude which is smaller and looking less refined.
Nonetheless, there were other works that sold for over a million, such as Samson ‘Xenson Ssenkaaba’s ‘Matoke Farmer’ and the late Robin Anderson’s ‘Untitled’ (Women’s Market), both of which went for almost Sh1.5 million (Sh1,408,800).
All of these mind-boggling sales were finalized efficiently at the hand and gavel of Kenyan auctioneer, Chilson Wamoja. But they came as a result of breath-taking bidding wars which Wamoja handled masterfully. This was the first year that Circle invited a local auctioneer to take charge, rather than one imported from abroad. But clearly Wajoma was the man for the job, having worked for years with Antique Auctions, one of the oldest auction houses in Kenya.
Mr Wajoma kept his cool even when Edward Said Tingatinga’s two whimsical ‘enamel paint on board’ works came up for bids. He and the audience had already been through several bidding war. But they were skirmishes compared to the bidding ‘battle’ that went on for Tingatinga’s ‘Untitled’ (Elephant eating from the Marula Tree). Those were the jaw-dropping moments that made us feel we were witnessing African art history in the making since the final bid got up to almost Sh5 million. Then after VAT and the ‘buyer’s premium’, the late Tanzanian artist’s Elephant sold for well over Sh5.5 million (Sh5,635,200).
It was an unbelievable experience to watch, particularly as we had just seen the first of two Tingatinga paintings go for almost nine times less (Sh645,700) than its partner painting. His ‘Untitled’ (Hunter with bird) was actually slightly larger than his Elephant work. But here was a case where the buyer had his heart set on obtaining that Tingatinga and apparently, for them, money was not an issue.
Several other buyers said they felt similarly. For instance, Maria Amelina was delighted to have won the bid for Mohamed Otaybi’s ‘Flying Woman’. “I simply couldn’t pass up what looked to me like an Islamic Marc Chagall,” she told Business Daily right after the auction, when a number of shoppers gravitated towards their prized purchase of the night.
Another one of them was Pamela Dale, an American working with UNEP who’d persevered in bidding on Charles Sekano’s ‘Blue Woman Sitting on the Beach.’ “I’d seen it in the catalogue, but when I saw it in person I loved it,” she said. “I’m not sure where I’ll hang it since my walls are almost full, but I will definitely find a place,” she added.
Among the artists on hand whose works had sold well at the auction, there was a general feeling of elation. Tabitha wa Thuku, Camille Wekesa, Yassir Ali and Sane Wadu were all delighted both for having their art selected for the auction and because theirs sold well. Michael Musyoka said he was humbled by the experience. Meanwhile, the woman who won the bid on his “Offerings of the Same Things” said she’d bid on her friend’s behalf, someone she said had ‘his heart set’ on owning that painting.
This was the second year that Nigerian artists were represented at the auction but the first time one of the five West African painters in the show attended the exhibition. Chief Muraina Oyelami (whose painting ‘Three Dreadlocks’ sold for more than a quarter million at Sh258,280.) spoke on behalf of the five when he said, “We feel it’s a great honor to have been in the auction, and also to see how far Kenyan art has come. It’s clearly serving as a beacon light of artistic excellence for the whole region,” added Muraina who is one of the founders of the renowned Oshogbo School of Art. Accompanying him was Chief Nike Seven Seven Okundaye whose paintings sold well at last year’s auction. She’s also the gallerist responsible for bringing the Nigerian art to Kenya. She added that it was gratifying to see that all the Nigerian art sold well this year. Her former husband Twins Seven Seven’s ‘Hunter’s Dream’ fetched more than half a million (SH587,000), while Bruce Onobrakpeya’s screen print on paper entitled ‘Red Bird’ went for almost Sh400,000 (Sh399,160).
But by far, what was the most exhilarating aspect of this year’s auction (apart from being bowled over by the multi-million shilling sale of Tingatinga’s art) was seeing how well the Kenyan art sold, particularly as compared with the works of artists from Ugandan, Tanzania, Sudan, Ethiopia, South Africa and Nigeria. For while money is not the single determining factor in appraising the value of any artwork, it plays a part in enhancing an artist’s name.
For instance, it matters when Dickens Otieno’s aluminum tapestry and Ancent Soi’s painting both sold for more than three-quarters of a million shillings (Sh751,360 and Sh763,100 respectively). And it matters when Edward Njeng’a’s terracotta sculpture (SH448,120) and the paintings of Sane Wadu, Richard Kimathi and Robin Anderson all went for well over Sh400,000.
Practically all the Kenyan artists contributed substantially to making this year’s Circle Art Auction the best one yet both in monetary terms and theatrically speaking. It’s one arts event in Kenya that will be remembered for quite some time.