By Onome Amawhe
NIGERIA’s burgeoning art industry is experiencing a transformational moment. Since the growing demand for modern and contemporary African art in the global market, the price of Nigerian art has been on the increase. With the price value hitting the multi-million naira mark, the thrills for local artists and buyers is just as exhilarating.
To the vast majority in the Nigerian art scene, say the word “auction” and one name comes to mind: Arthouse Contemporary Limited, one of Africa’s leading art auction houses conceived with international expertise on West African art.
Founded in 2007, Arthouse Contemporary is widely known as a bright spot on Nigeria’s art market scene, squaring off auction power quite unshakable in its might.
During the annual modern and contemporary art auction in May 2017, the hammer fell –on the work of iconic modern artist; Ben Enwonwu’s 1962 Anyanwu sculpture – at a toe-curling NGN 54,050,000 (a record price for the work of a Nigerian artist).
Since setting an international benchmark price for Nigerian art, Arthouse Contemporary has steadily built and maintained a growing base of savvy clients; helping them to focus their taste and identify unifying themes for their collections.
The audacious emergence of the Nigerian art industry on the international scene is hugely attributable to trading and connections of Kavita Chellaram, one of Africa’s most prominent auctioneers driving transparency in price and structure.
The Indian born founder of Arthouse Contemporary Limited is among the elite group of auctioneers helping wealthy clients to navigate the ever-expanding art market. The great cause she has championed on Nigerian/West African art industry has also enabled hedge fund managers view art as the next great frontier for investment.
WHAT sparked your interest in art generally?
I always grew up with art. I came from a family background that collected, so it was in my mind from a very young age. I originally began my art collection for a very simple reason, in order to fill the walls in my home. I first started collecting Indian art, and then moved to Nigerian art. The first works of Nigerian art I bought were at an exhibition in Lagos in 1977, two works by Twin Seven Seven and JimohBuraimoh. I have been passionate about collecting African art ever since.
You started out as an art collector, before venturing into art auctions. Could you explain the intricate experiences being both?
As I started off as a collector, I experienced the growth of the Indian art market, and I saw that auction houses played an important part of building the market there.
I thought that we could adapt this model to Nigeria. It is important to have documentation of works and transparency in pricing and value, which was not existent at the time in Nigeria. As a collector and auctioneer, I wear two hats. As a collector, you collect what you love first. Though it is also important to think in investment terms, and auctions are able to create real statistics and verifiable results.
What do you think makes a good auctioneer?
It is important to create a vibrant secondary market, which Arthouse has been able to accomplish, and to consistently find great works to put in each auction. It is also important to develop and maintain a strong collector’s base, and be able to produce solid figures of sales and values to the public.
What are some of the more expensive things you’ve auctioned?
Our top auction sales have always featured the iconic modern artist Ben Enwonwu most prominently. Our top sale of Ben Enwonwu, his well-known Anyanwu sculpture from 1962, sold at our May 2017 auction for N54,050,000.
In our November 2016 auction, Enwonwu’s Obitun Dancers, an oil on canvas from 1990, sold for N52,900,000. El Anatsui has also been a major figure in our art sales. Anatsui’s wood panel, Reflekisi, sold for NGN 16,675,000 at our May 2017 auction, and we have also sold his work Zata, a wood panel from 2015, for N15,400,000. Yusuf Cameron Grillo is another modern master, and we have consistently made records for his works. Most recently, we sold his work Threatened Innocence, an oil on board, for N18,400,000. Other top sales include Bruce Onobrakpeya’sGreater Nigeria, which sold for N10,120,000, Demas Nwoko’s The Wise Man, which sold for N 9,900,000, Ben Osawe’s Untitled B, which sold for N6,380,000, and Uche Okeke’sVirgin Mary & Baby Jesus, which sold for N5,225,000.
How would you describe the role of collectors and auctioneers in the contemporary art world?
The role of collectors are of vital importance in the auction world, as these are primarily the clients that buy and resell artworks. The auctioneer becomes the mediator when building or transforming their collections. Auction houses create verifiable pricing that is out in the public sphere, which is an important part of building the market. This in turn is a vital resource for collectors.
How does the contemporary Nigerian art scene compare to other countries?
It is exciting, because the Nigerian art scene is beginning to have the world’s focus. There has been an increased interest in modern and contemporary African art on a global scale, and Nigerian artists rank highly within it. Many of the artists who are becoming leading names in global art circles live in Nigeria or can claim Nigerian heritage, including Njideka Akunyili Crosby, El Anatsui, Yinka Shonibare, Chris Ofili, Kehinde Wiley and Ike Ude, to name a few. At auctions, Nigerian artists consistently fetch high prices as the second biggest market outside of South Africa. Some Nigerian artists are beginning to be represented by major international art galleries. Surely, something is happening. That being said, we are of course still small in comparison to the US and Europe, but we are growing. It is important to develop the art infrastructure in Nigeria, which Arthouse Contemporary attempts to aid in.
Peter Wilson, the former chairman of Sotheby’s; the world largest and oldest auction house once said: “You have to covet art to appreciate it.” Is that true?
I have an intimate relationship with my own collection, as I live with it and see it on a daily basis. You begin to form a bond with your art that develops over time. There are times when it is difficult to decide to sell an artwork at auction, because you become so attached to it
How do you see Art-house developing in years to come?
Arthouse Contemporary has expanded from our auction house to creating new platforms for contemporary art in Nigeria. We started “Arthouse-The Space” to present exhibitions of important modern and contemporary artists locally in Lagos, and we have organized exhibitions of Yusuf Grillo, Bruce Onobrakpeya, Peju Alatise, Diseye Tantua, Victor Ekpuk, George Osodi, EmekaUdemba, Chidi Kwubiri and Eva Obodo. We have also participated in international art fairs, including Art14 and Art X Lagos. As we grow, we want to collaborate with museums abroad and help produce museum quality exhibitions of Nigerian artists. We want to bring Nigeria to a broader audience.
What are your visions for art auctions?
We want to expand our reach online, which is a market trend that is gaining a lot of traction abroad. We have also developed the annual Affordable Art Auction, which aims to build new audiences and collectors by offering artworks at a more affordable price range.
So you mean the internet can transform the life of an auctioneer in a positive way?
Yes, the Internet has changed everything. There is now a source of databases about art sales that are open public knowledge. The internet is also a way to gain new audiences. We recently held our first online auction of hyper-realist Nigerian painter, OlumideOresegun, and we hope to do more in the future.
How many auctions do you conduct in a year?
We hold three auctions a year, two main auctions of modern and contemporary art in May and November, as well as the Affordable Art Auction in February.
When was your last important sale?
Our last major sale in the May 2017 auction was Ben Enwonwu’s Anyanwu, an iconic bronze sculpture from 1962, which sold for N54,050,000. This created a new auction record of the artist’s work. Even during a recession, we have been able to maintain our business and achieve strong results. There is always a price for good
premium art.How do you select your consignments? Do you reach out to clients, or are they coming to you?
For each auction, we have an open call for entries that we publicize, and we also reach out to particular clients and try to find artworks by our strongest artists. We also have a lot of art that come directly to us. We then have a selection committee and a team of specialists to decide the final selection of the auction.
Have you noticed a trend in the origin of your buyers and sellers?
We see certain trends of collectors that have worked with us over many years. Many collectors that bought diverse artworks early on are becoming more focused in their collections, honing in on particular artists or time periods.
Where is the next likely hot spot for art?
Lagos! Our art scene is developing so rapidly, and we expect it to cement itself as a major international art hub.
Has the growth of the African Art Market impacted your business yet?
Yes, absolutely. We have seen this growth expand our network and build new clients and players in the field.
If you could have dinner with any three artists, living or dead, who would you, choose?
Pablo Picasso, Ben Enwonwu and El Anatsui