Afro-British artists… brief history of their market emergence

[31.03.2020]

In 1980s London, Black art moved from the margins to the center of British culture thanks to personalities like Eddie Chambers, Lubaina Himid and Keith Piper, whose campaign for a greater representation of black art in Great Britain culminated with the historical exhibition The Other Story organized at the Hayward Gallery in 1989. At the time, several British institutions already started acquiring works by reference artists such as Sonia BOYCE (1962), figurehead of British Black Art, a group of feminist artists who challenged the canons of Western art history via practices that addressed issues related to colonization and representations of the black female body. But the art world being somewhat capricious, the excitement faded in the following years and they were largely forgotten. However, some thirty years after their first ‘significant’ exhibitions, these committed voices and thinkers have been ‘rediscovered’.

The role of the Tate

The Tate has actively focused on African-British artists working in the latter decades of the 20th century. In 2010, a first exhibition traced how black artists and intellectuals played a central role in the formation of Modernism from the early 20th century to today. This major exhibition hosted by the Tate Liverpool presented aesthetic and cultural hybridity in Modern and Contemporary art, bringing together artists like Picasso, Kara Walker, Isaac Julien, Adrian Piper, Ellen Gallagher and Chris Ofili.

The following year, the Tate Britain invited Lubaina HIMID (1954), a figurehead of British Black Art in 1980s England. Her work celebrated black creativity and the African diaspora while defying institutional invisibility, and her commitment earned her an MBE for services to black women’s art in 2010. Shortly after receiving her title, the Tate appointed her curator of the exhibition Thin Black Line(s) which focused on the contribution of black and Asian female artists to British art in the 1980s. The Tate subsequently acquired Destruction of the National Front, a political work by Eddie Chambers created soon after Margaret Thatcher’s televised speech in which she said she understood “the fears of the British people of being overwhelmed by immigrants of colour” (January 1978, World in Action). These words – which fueled xenophobic feelings and the rise of the National Front – added 11% to Thatcher’s popularity in the opinion polls.

In his book Black Artists in British Art: A History Since the 1950s, the same Eddie Chambers evokes the triumphant triumvirate of the African-British artists: Steve McQueen,Yinka Shonibare and Chris Ofili (the latter two emerged in the late 1990s along with the YBAs). Chambers ends his work with a focus on recently acclaimed artists, including Lynette Yiadom Boakye, a new star on the art market. In 2017, a key year for several Afro-British artists, her canvas The Hours Behind You reached the record price of $1.6 million at Sotheby’s.

Chris Ofili The holy Virgin mary 1996 (253.4 × 182.2 cm). Gift of Steven and Alexandra Cohen. MoMA

Chris Ofili, The Holy Virgin Mary, 1996. The Museum of Modern Art, New York (don de Steven et Alexandra Cohen en 2018)

2017: a turning point

2017 marked a turning point on several levels. In addition to Lynette YIADOM-BOAKYE‘s impressive new record, the 2017 Venice Biennale hosted a Diaspora pavilion supported by the International Curators Forum and University of the Arts London aimed at countering the under-representation of artists and of black/minority themes in the art world. The platform offered by the pavilion appears to have stimulated the market for several African-British artists like Khadija Saye (who sadly passed away the same year) and Hew Locke, whose works are just beginning to attract dynamic bidding. 2017 was also the year in which Lubaina Himid, 63, received the prestigious Turner Prize, the oldest artist in the history of the award and, more importantly, the first African-British woman to be awarded the prize. The 2017 Turner Prize also shortlisted artist Hurvin ANDERSON with a work entitled Is it OK to be black? that was shown at Tate Modern for the occasion. Shortly after, a work by Anderson fetched $3.4 million at auction, exceeding its high estimate by 2 million (Country Club: Chicken Wire).

The case of Chris Ofili

Chris OFILI was only 30 when he became the first black artist to win the Turner Prize (1998). His public profile received a significant boost after a controversial work, The Holy Virgin Mary, was exhibited as part of Charles Saatchi’s famous Sensation exhibition in London (1997). Scandalous for some, The Holy Virgin Mary was almost removed from an exhibition in New York in 1999. But collectors have a pronounced taste for artworks with an aura of scandal – seen as icons of their times – and when the work came to auction a few years later, it fetched a remarkable $4.5 million at twice its estimate (Christie’s London, 30 June 2015). The market obviously took into consideration the fact that Ofili was clearly at the summit of his career having already represented Great Britain at the Venice Biennale twice.

Yinka Shonibare and Henry Taylor: rising prices

Yinka SHONIBARE and Henry TAYLOR were both ‘revealed’ by Charles Saatchi at the same time as Chris Ofili. Today they are both famous and their works are sought after by collectors, but their good works are quite rare. In March 2018, a major work by Shonibare, Girl Balancing Knowledge, doubled its high estimate, reaching almost $330,000 at Christie’s and confirming the existence of motivated buyers. The price inflation is even more impressive in the case of Henry Taylor who has literally been igniting auction sales over the past two years. Taylor is not far from crossing the million-dollar threshold and has started a collaboration with the powerful Blum & Poe gallery. Accessible for under $10,000 10 years ago, his paintings are now highly sought after and highly valued.

Among the personalities who promote African-British artists with passion is a certain Zak Ové who explains that the black artistic community in the UK should not take its foot off the accelerator: “We should have more TV programs on the creativity of blacks in the UK, explore the dialogue between black artists and the way they communicate the experience of black people. There were a few exhibitions focusing on black creativity but (…) the movement turned out to be a short-lived programming trend and was subsequently forgotten for 10 years. In 2005 for example we had Kerry James Marshall at the Camden Arts Center, Back to Black at the Whitechapel Gallery and Africa Remix at the Hayward Gallery. All fantastic exhibitions… but there was no immediate follow-up. I would argue that we need to be more consistent.” For Zak Ové, the museums began to wake up around the time of the Chris Ofili retrospective at the Tate in 2010. After that, certain players in the art world realised “there is a massive market here just waiting to be discovered”.

Henry Raylor evolution du CAHenry Taylor. Turnover at auction (copyright Artprice.com)