Art collectors turn to contemporary African art as industry sees boom

In an art gallery in the heart of the Ugandan capital Kampala, abstract paintings by a Ugandan painter hang.

Paintings by Charlene Komuntale, a contemporary Ugandan artist, are among many by African artists that have graced these gallery walls over the years.

Contemporary African art has a rich and diverse history that dates back to prehistoric times, with a variety of artistic expressions, including sculpture, masks, paintings and textiles.

For a long time, African artists never got that same kind of recognition as their European and American counterparts.

A new trend, however, is tilting that narrative with many art collectors now focusing on African contemporary art, as Daudi Karungi, an artist and curator at Afriart Gallery, explains:

“This is a great time for art from Africa and from Africans, because for many years it was neglected, there was no attention to it… until I would say 7 or 8 years ago,” he says.

Karungi says that in the past, most collectors of contemporary African art were expatriates who worked on the continent.

Indigenous Africans did not pay much attention to the stories being told through art and neglected the industry, leading to many artists selling their work to buyers from outside of the continent.

With modernization and exposure to the different cultures in recent years, the art industry has seen a significant increase in local clientele that are consuming African art, says Karungi.

“The middle class has grown, people have built houses, they have big walls that are gazing at them so they have to fill those walls,” he says.

“So, that shift used to be, that market used to be expatriates who were already aware of art and they were working at an embassy, or something, now those people they are still there but the Ugandan middle class has also kind of joined them.”

Art collectors like Linda Mutesi have been at the forefront of ensuring that some African art now remains on the continent.

She says for a long time, the continent was losing its valuable pieces to global collectors.

“You realise that there has been sort of black hole of people taking from the continent, they keep taking and I feel that we are approaching collection of art as an intervention,” says Mutesi.

“We are sort of safeguarding and saying let’s not have this continue, let’s not have the bleeding of these works and all this intellectual property leaving the continent, let’s keep it here,” she adds.

Over the years, African art has evolved, reflecting social, political and cultural changes on the continent.

Lillian Nabulime has been sculpting intricate art pieces for decades.

At her workshop in a suburb outside capital Kampala, Nabulime is busy working on a female figure that she hopes to complete and sell soon.

She says she’s excited by the recent wave in art collection and the various media and materials artists are using to create their pieces.

“Art is not only limited to painting, and sculpture or ceramics. It’s now taking on fashion, film, video. That means the range has grown,” she says.

“It has a wide range of concepts, so that means then the people are attracted to a wide range of artworks you can choose from.”

For Nabulime, globalization and access to social media has played a significant role in the growth of the African art market by creating opportunities for African artists to showcase their work internationally.

“More artists are selling and I think more avenues for selling have also come up, like the social medias. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. All those artists can display their work and they sell,” she says.

“The galleries are also doing better than ever before, so there is hope that art will sell.”

According to the Art Basel 2023 report, Contemporary African artists saw a record number of works sold at auction (more than 2,700) – almost twice as many as before the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2022 alone, works by Contemporary artists born in Africa generated $63 million (USD) at auction versus a previous record of around $47 million (USD) in 2021.