The average Nigerian artist is probably not the richest person you’ll ever meet. They may paint brilliant portraits or sculpt exquisite statuettes, but their everyday life is typically not as pretty – more often than not, they’re struggling to make a decent living. Their hyperrealistic pencil sketches, stunning as they are, seldom earns them a living wage; it’s not uncommon for them to have a job that actually helps pay the bills.
But the ‘average Nigerian artist’ would probably not be chasing their art dreams if there weren’t any exceptions to the mood dampening reality we’ve just described. And indeed, there are. Think the late painter and sculptor, Ben Enwonwu, or the Ghanaian-born El-Anatsui, who’s spent much of his working life as an artist in Nigeria. Or, a much younger, perhaps more relatable example, Njideka Akunyili Crosby. They’re all of global renown, and have sold their works at the big international auctions, for significant sums.
It turns out that these names are helping to start a probable awakening of the world’s interest in modern and contemporary Nigerian art. That’s the impression you’re likely to come away with from the Nigerian Art Market Report for 2017, published by the Foundation for Contemporary and Modern Visual Art. The report, which covers aspects of Nigeria’s evolving art scene, focuses quite heavily on the performance of art works from country’s finest artists at African art auctions. Those auctions got Nigerian artists a total surpassing $5.5 million.
The gains were made off works put up at nine auctions. Four of these were held in Lagos: three by Arthouse, and one at Sogal. The other five took place in Europe. Bonhams and Sothebys, two African art auctions held in London, both had two events in which Nigerian artwork was sold; and one event, the Piasa, was hosted by Paris, the French capital.
Interestingly, of the total amount attracted by Nigerian artwork at these auctions, $2.4 million went to items created by Ben Enwonwu, who is late (he died in 1994). Global interest in Enwonwu’s art has surged in recent years. But the FCMVA report covers a period prior to an even more noteworthy achievement for an Enwonwu potrait: in 2018, a long lost painting of his, Tutu, was sold at Bonhams for £1.2 million- the biggest that’s ever been taken by a Nigerian modernist artwork.
However, earnings from the art market appears to be heavily skewed in favour of a handful of artists. The FCMVA report points out the top ten artists by turnover from African auctions took a whopping 89% of the total value amassed by Nigerian artworks at those events. While this is attributable to the world’s limited exposure to Nigerian (or African) art, it’s also true that this ‘earnings bias’ is also present in art markets elsewhere on the planet.
We find hints that this skewness is driven by exposure (or the lack of it) when we look at the difference between earnings from artworks auctioned in Lagos and in London. Pieces which went under the hammer in London garnered $4.6 million; Lagos’s auctions could only fetch Nigerian artists just under $860,000. The purchasing power of local arts collectors doesn’t exactly match that of their counterparts in the United Kingdom or France. But it’s also the case that not enough of them are bargaining for paintings and busts to begin with.
The FCMVA report doesn’t consider Nigerian-born artists who aren’t participating in the African arts market in its total earnings calculations. As a result, Njideka Akunyili Crosby – whose $3 million artwork, The Beautyful Ones, is the most expensive ever sold by a Nigerian-born artist – doesn’t have her works’ total value taken together with others who are players at African auctions.