Smoking a cigarette on a balcony overlooking the green fields of Kenya’s Rift Valley, South Korean art collector Juno Lee surveys the works hanging before him.
He has just agreed to buy two of the bright graphic tableaux painted by Joseph Bertiers, a Kenyan artist whose satirical paintings include global celebrities such as boxer Mike Tyson and late Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez. Chickens wander about the metal feet of his outsize sculptures at his rural home-come-studio.
Mr Lee, a businessman and martial arts expert in a dapper powder-blue jacket and slicked back hair, is among a new wave of international buyers trying to boost the profile of African art. “African art is now getting more attention from Korean, Japanese collectors – I want to see the east African art market boom,” says Mr Lee, who lives between Nairobi and Seoul and set up his own gallery, Africafe, in Seoul.
He started his African art collection six years ago when he bought his first painting in Kinshasa, the capital of DR Congo, which at the time was recovering from a protracted and devastating regional war. He now has more than 400 pieces. “In South Korea we have some strong negative stereotype of the African – I just want to let [Koreans] know the positive image of African culture,” he says.
Cognoscenti have for years sought out works from collectable African artists, particularly those from west Africa, South Africa and the diaspora. But there are signs that as African economies grow, art from the continent is becoming an emerging asset class in the tradition of art from China Brazil, India and other growing economies.
In recent years, African artworks have gained new buyers and top price tags have climbed to six digits. Last year, an annual Bonhams contemporary African art auction into its fourth year garnered a record sale price of £541,250 for a piece from established Ghanaian sculptor El Anatsui. His tapestry, which charts the globe with flattened bottle tops, is named “New World Map”.
Next month, Bonhams will hold its fifth auction of African art. The Tate’s African Art Acquisitions committee – set up last year – will this summer dedicate a wing to two artists from Benin and Sudan. Mr Lee offers pieces for auction in Seoul and hopes African works will attract collectors such as billionaire Samsung chairman Lee Kun-hee, who set up Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art.
“In recent years the international art world has taken a keen interest in Africa as an investment opportunity; emerging financial markets are frequently followed by emerging art markets,” says Fiona Fox at Circle Art Agency, who helped set up the Tate’s Africa committee. Her Kenya-based agency hopes to hold the country’s first art auction later this year with a retrospective of the best Kenyan works from the past 30 years “to create a buzz” and “regulate” prices.
The boom is most pronounced in Nigeria, where several new galleries have sprung up promoting artists and developing a clientele from as far afield as China. In Lagos and Johannesburg, domestic and international corporates adorn their walls with local works, while galleries and auctions seek out buyers from home and abroad.
Across the continent, the quality of art education can be poor and there are few homegrown galleries. Some artists recount bad experiences with galleries that pay late or not at all and difficulties affording materials. As a child, Mr Bertiers was beaten and deprived of supper because he wanted to draw rather than copy down writing on the blackboard at school.
Mr Bertiers changed his name in an attempt to boost his global appeal. Bertiers is a more European rendering of his surname Mbatia. “It’s like an international name; I thought that name can help me in trade and get some more attention,” said the former commercial signwriter, wearing paint-splashed trousers at his studio-home.
Philanthropist and art lover Robert Devereux, former business partner of billionaire Richard Branson and former chairman of chic private members’ club Soho House, hopes to help artists overcome the challenges. He fell in love with African art in the 1980s, has bought more than 400 works and is co-chairman of the Tate Africa committee.
Mr Devereux rejects the notion of “collecting” art because it focuses on possession; rejects the tag of “African art” because it is falsely reductive and says considering art as an investment asset is “abhorrent”.
“Ultimately it all comes down to how good the work is … I have no doubt there’s a wealth of wonderful artists practising in Africa who haven’t really had an opportunity because of the lack of infrastructure and support and education – all the things that artists in the west take for granted and yet still have a hard time.”
That is why, three years ago, he sold 329 of his postwar British works, including from Lucien Freud and Frank Auerbach, for more than £4m to set up the African Arts Trust. He hopes to donate his collection to a Kenya-based museum of contemporary art yet to be founded.
Another more immediate fillip comes next month – a charity auction in London of works from eight Kenyan artists, including one from Mr Bertiers. The aim of the sale, whose proceeds will go to support arts in Kenya courtesy of the African Arts Trust, is to create “a climate of confidence”, says Mr Devereux. For Mr Bertiers, the auction represents a fundamental shift: “It will be the first for Kenyans – it will prove something.”