A sight to behold: Cyrus Kabiru's spectacles. Picture: SUPPLIED
A sight to behold: Cyrus Kabiru's spectacles. Picture: SUPPLIED

In gallery-sales pitches and online listicle articles naming African artists to watch and collect, "important" has become a popular prefix to the word "artist".

But since the rush to name the hottest contemporary African artist took hold from around the late 1990s, museums have been crippled by poor budgets, biennales have ended and the commercial art scene and fairs have gained strength.

Another shift is coming on February 17 when the first auction dedicated to contemporary African art will be held in Cape Town. This landmark moment has been organised by Strauss & Co, SA’s largest and inarguably most important auction house.

The value of contemporary African art has so far not been determined at auctions — commercial galleries have become the leading authority.

It has become less easy to discover the actual cost of artworks as many larger galleries no longer have price lists available, leading to the suspicion that it fluctuates according the size of the buyer’s pocket.

Stand the test of time: : David Goldblatt’s photograph of the semifinal of the Miss Lovely Legs competition in Boksburg in 1980 will be on auction on February 17 and is expected to fetch R240,000. Picture: SUPPLIED
Stand the test of time: : David Goldblatt’s photograph of the semifinal of the Miss Lovely Legs competition in Boksburg in 1980 will be on auction on February 17 and is expected to fetch R240,000. Picture: SUPPLIED

An auction should provide a level of transparency on the cost of contemporary art and set figures that will provide firm markers, taking some of the guessing out of the game.

"There is no question that they set benchmarks and give a frame of reference. Everybody wants to know what an artist’s auction record is," says Christopher Till.

As a director of a Joburg Biennale in the late 1990s and the Joburg Art Gallery, and having served as a curator of the South African pavilion at the Venice Biennale, Till has dictated or affirmed the importance of certain artists. "People would closely watch the triennial prize exhibitions and the Standard Bank Art Young Artist award to see who they should collect. You couldn’t buy contemporary art at auction," he says.

Contemporary African art has been creeping into Strauss & Co auctions for some time and artists including William Kentridge, Penny Siopis and Robert Hodgins are included in the upcoming sale.

Several London-based auction houses have been dedicating auctions to contemporary African art, but edgy works are rarely included. Clichéd African scenes rendered in a modernist language tend to be the general fare, which is perhaps why the houses have held little sway in the contemporary art market.

Abstract art has come to dominate and is represented in the Strauss & Co auction with works by Moshekwa Langa, Zander Blom, Marcus Neustetter, Mongezi Ncaphayi, Jan Henri Booyens and Julie Mehretu.

As curator of the 1997 Joburg Biennale and later Documenta and the Venice Biennale (two of the world’s top art platforms), Nigerian curator Okwui Enwezor hand-picked contemporary African art stars. His central interest appeared to be photography, documentary style and staged, often featuring artists in various guises.

He curated the Rise and Fall of Apartheid exhibition with Rory Bester, which showed at various venues around the world before coming home to Museum Africa in 2014.

Photography has not been as highly valued as other art forms, but this looks set to change.

Photographic works by Guy Tillim, Mohau Modisakeng, Hasan and Husain Essop, Mikhael Subotzky and David Goldblatt will be on sale at the auction. Goldblatt’s image of a white women competing in a leg competition in Boksburg in the 1980s is expected to fetch as much as R240,000.

The Strauss & Co auction will take place at the cruise terminal at the V&A Waterfront, near the Zeitz Mocaa where many of the works on offer are hanging.

This includes Kudzanai Chiurai’s Creation 1, a staged photographic work from the titular film valued at R150,000, Leonce Raphael Agbodjélou’s 2015 Egungun Masquerades VII and Jody Paulsen, whose wry fashion felt work Donatella ver-jay-zee — referring to fashion designer Donatella Versace — is valued at R150,000.

This is just the beginning of auction houses setting prices for contemporary art and a host of new contemporary art museums wrestling back the power.

The Norval Foundation in Cape Town will open in April and the Javett Art Centre in Pretoria will open its doors in 2018.

• Strauss & Co’s contemporary auction will be held at the V&A cruise terminal on February 17 at 6pm. The works can be viewed from February 15. To view the lots online visit  Strauss & Co.

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