The Rise of African Modern & Contemporary Art

An African 'Ife' style bronze head, probably from Nigeria. Part of a collection of tribal art from across the African continent available at Tabunov Antiques 

This spring, Bonhams African Modern & Contemporary Art department declared that they have seen 'an explosion of interest in modern and contemporary art from Africa'(1). Their statement is backed up by evidence of higher than ever prices reached at auction for the specialism, notably at the recent Marceau Rivière Collection of African Art at Sotheby’s Paris (18-19 June 19).

A rare Baule mask from the Ivory Coast hit the headlines after realising a hammer price of 4 million Euros (£3.75m), but there were several big hitters in the 250 lot sale. The highest prices were reached by items originating from the Ivory Coast, as these are the most extensively documented by the art historian Rivière. 

However, pieces from across the continent and its diaspora performed strongly across the board. Masks, statues, busts and textiles including Fang works of Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea, Kota works of the Sudan and Kongo art of Angola and the Congo were represented at the lively sale.

The auction will increase the growing confidence of buyers and traders looking to invest in African Art, both  modern and contemporary. But what is causing the draw towards these objects, is it simply market forces? A growing number of experts in the field are now encouraging a re- evaluation of the history of African art on its own terms by advocating for the voices of African artists to be heard above western interpreters.

 This fresh approach is encouraging more interest and excitement among pieces which were acquired in the mid- twentieth century, which may have been misclassified and misinterpreted  at the time by over zealous western curators.

In the early twentieth-century , artists like Picasso and Gauguin famously claimed the power of African art for their own inspiration, removing the objects from their own unique historical context. This arguably contributed to an a historical western conception of African art, lacking any grounding in the realities of tribal culture or African experience.

Without wishing to generalise what is an incredibly diverse field of art objects across a large and varied continent, it could be said that African art is best known for its use of masquerade and metalwork, sculpture and textile.  

Part of our inspiration for this blog was a collection of African tribal bronze and wood carvings now available at Tabunov Antiques who are based at Grays Antiques. These pieces were all acquired from the sale of an extensive collection of tribal art from a West-African estate in the mid-twentieth century . Find out more about some of the objects in this collection below…

Stylised wood carved Thcitchiri shrine figure, probably depicting an ancestor of spirit of the Moba people of Togo or Ghana. 103cm height.

Decorative wood carved post figure of a stylised male with horns, West Africa. 160cm Height.

Decorative Dogon ladder in the form of a Y shape with carved steps, depicting the ladders used to enter the upper level of "ginna" , lineage leaders house. Dogon, Mali. 104cm Height

Anthropomorphic carved bronze bell of the Nupe tribe, Central Nigeria. 32cm Height.

Carved bronze female head, Nigerian 'Ife' style.39cm Height
Highly decorative seated bronze figure in the Benin style, Nigeria, 49cm in height.


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