Cameroonian artist Bili Bidjocka, whose work appears in Simon Njami's curated group show "As You Like It," at the opening of the Joburg Art Fair. Photo by Sean O'Toole.
Jubilant Debut for Joburg Art Fair
By Sean O'Toole
Published: March 17, 2008
JOHANNESBURG—March 13 was a day of jubilant highs for South Africa. While international news anchors announced record prices for gold, arguably the country’s best-known export commodity, in Johannesburg, nicknamed the City of Gold, residents and visitors were fussing over contemporary art at the Joburg Art Fair, Africa’s first-ever fair devoted singularly to contemporary art.
Bank executives and celebrity athletes aside, attendees at the opening included artists, dealers, and art-world insiders eager to make sense of this new event. Johannesburg artist William Kentridge numbered among the invited guests, as did a suave contingent of Cameroonian expatriates, including the renowned scholar Achille Mbembe, curator Simon Njami, and artists Bili Bidjocka and Joel Mpah Dooh, who had works available at Njami’s curated show at the fair.
Business on the opening evening was unexpectedly brisk, despite the recent devaluation of the South African currency and political uncertainty surrounding incumbent president Jacob Zuma’s constitutional court battle to stave off corruption charges. A 1947 oil on canvas by pioneering South African modernist Gerard Sekoto grabbed most of the attention. The modestly sized self-portrait, notable for its glowing yellow tones and the subject’s proud bearing, made headlines last May when South African dealers Michael Stevenson and Johans Borman, together with their London counterpart Michael Graham-Stewart, purchased it for $250,000 at the inaugural South Africa Sale at Bonhams in London. Although the dealers were unwilling to disclose the price they achieved in Johannesburg, reliable sources suggested it had sold for over $600,000.
Commenting on buying patterns generally, Neil Dundas of Johannesburg’s Goodman Gallery said most of his sales were between $2,500 and $12,500, a range that some commentators anticipated would show the slackest returns. Goodman is South Africa’s leading contemporary dealer and represents, among others, Kentridge, whose bronze statuette of a horse, from an edition of seven, fetched $42,000.
A painted bronze statue by South African sculptor Claudette Schreuders, also in an edition of seven, earned a similar amount at the Jack Shainman Gallery booth. Claude Simmard, a director at Shainman, remarked that there was a definite nationalist undercurrent at the fair, with works by South African artists generating the most interest.
Tellingly, in the same booth where the Sekoto proudly looked on at visitors, a compelling series of midcentury paintings by Nigerian artist Ben Enwonwu remained unsold after the fair’s first two days. But by the conclusion on Sunday, March 16, eight of the 11 works on offer had eventually sold, five to a Nigerian art foundation seeking to repatriate the artist’s work.
Dealer Michael Stevenson ascribed the relative lack of interest in African art among South Africans to ignorance about practices from elsewhere on the continent. Two years ago Stevenson showed a signature fabric work by Nigerian sculptor El Anatsui at his Cape Town gallery. Despite energetic attempts to sell the piece, priced at $25,000, he was unable to find a local buyer. Now, following the artist’s Venice Biennale debut last year, Anatsui’s market has suddenly spiked. Simmard stated that Shainman, which represents Anatsui, fielded numerous requests for the artist’s work despite current price points of $200–400,000 and having no available stock.
Although plagued by the occasional technical glitch and the late arrival, midway through the fair, of some works in Njami’s show of African artists, sentiment was generally positive, and most galleries indicated they would return next year. The fair’s director, Ross Douglas, echoed the upbeat mood while waiting in line to collect his vehicle following the opening evening’s festivities. “Look at my phone, it has 250 messages,” he said.