How Nigerian Visual Art Has fared With Its Impact On The Economy

Enam Obiosio



Data and policy

Now that Nigeria is talking more about diversifying her economy, the Nigerian art and entertainment industry which is the bedrock of the tourism sector has to begin to witness a fundamental and revolutionary shift in its spending for considerable economic development.

But how can we track this industry’s financial and economic trajectory in the country where there is not consistently generated economic data to holistically tell, beyond the aesthetic, the needed arts development story?

The lack of economic data for the industry, except for the Diamond Bank-sponsored report, published by the Foundation for Contemporary and Modern Visual Arts (FCMVA), has since been an issue with its attendant business implications particularly for the arts practitioners, entrepreneurs and the economic shortfall for the country.

The government of Nigeria long before now obviously appeared not to show enough interest in the economic input of the industry, in spite of its huge investment potential. The National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) has not yet generated any data or shone its light on the industry. The patrons and collectors as well as the potential investors are in the dark; there are mostly no financial and macro-economic-related data provided to help in periodically assessing the performance of businesses in the economic sub-sector, which is the obvious reason that more investors are averse and not interested in the industry.  

All this has to change. Nigeria has to give art and entertainment the pride of place in her economic drive and assessment, just as it is done in other climes. The country has to this because looking back, art and entertainment events in the country have increased but not with the corresponding and encouraging aggregated increase in financial turnover. Research in other climes shows that art business has gradually replaced many preferred businesses; the megatrend is already visible in various actions in visual and performing arts now in Nigeria. This goes to confirm that everywhere in the world, wherever the affluent information economy has spread, the need to re-examine the meaning of life through art and entertainment has to be followed. And there is the greater need for government to provide the enabling environment for the industry to strive.

Economic Traction

Taking a cursory view of art and its meaning to life, art has contributed to helping humanity now to ponder freely, to explore what it means to be human. It is, for some people, a spiritual quest, but its economic implications by its sheer volume of information are staggering.

Art in the contemporary practice is having strong financial presence. At the London auction a few years ago, a Nigerian master, Ben Enwonwu, had set a world record; his unique edition of an iconic sculpture, ‘Anyanwu’ (1917-1994) was sold for an auction world record price of £353,000 at Bonhams Africa Now – Modern Africa Sale in London. Estimated at £150,000-200,000, ‘Anyanwu’, however, exceeded the target and gave the late modernist master his world record.

A statement from Bonhams put the total sale of the 2017 Africa Now auction at more than £1.4 million. Other sales that boosted the auction included ‘The Duet,’ by Yusuf Grillo which sold for £87,500; ‘Negritude’ by Enwonwu made £83,750; ‘The Glory of Ancient Benin,’ ‘Song of the City’ by Enwonwu sold for £75,000 against an estimate of £70,000-100,000; and ‘Adam and Eve’ by Prof. Uche Okeke, sold for £56,250, but estimated at £20,000-300.

‘Anyanwu’, widely considered the artist’s masterpiece, the 6ft 10 high statue, was first conceived in 1954, when Enwonwu was commissioned to create a work marking the establishment of the National Museum in Lagos. He made a number of versions of the statue in different sizes over many years – subtly altering the concept with each edition – but this was the first full-sized cast to come to auction. It is from the second edition cast in 1956, and is believed to be the only one of this size from the second edition in existence.

With the results of the 2017 Africa Now Modern auction, Enwonwu has etched his spot as one of Africa’s leading modernists in the international art market. “Nowhere is this more spectacularly displayed than in his masterpiece ‘Anyanwu’. As the result achieved indicates – this is a new world record for an Enwonwu sculpture – there was fierce bidding to secure the right to own this exceptional and moving piece.”

“The third largest auction house in the world,” Bonhams, according to Peppiatt, has been in the forefront of showing Nigerian art to the European market. He boasted that modern Nigerian art was shown to a wider market “for the first time in 2008,” when Africa Now auction made its debut.

Coincidentally, it is noteworthy that there was another event in 2008; Lagos-based Arthouse Contemporary actually made its debut with Nigeria-organised auction in the first quarter of the same year, followed by Bonhams’. For the first time in the history of African art, dedicated auctions for modern art of the continent unearthed high market value, courtesy of Arthouse and Bonhams.

In the same vein, the 2015 edition of Nigeria art market report looks at the country’s art business based on publicly available data compiled from auction sales in Lagos (and Bonhams’ Africa Now in London) as well as exhibitions in Nigeria. The report, according to the research, ‘is comprehensive’.

Economic Pressure

The Nigerian art market do also experience economic ups and downs. The value of artworks sold at auction in Nigeria declined for the second consecutive year from $1.77m in 2014 to $1.37m in 2015. The drop in sales in 2015 was 18%, three times more than that of 2014.

Professor El Anatsui, visual art teacher of repute, retains his spot as the artist with the highest turnover, after overtaking Ben Enwonwu (b.1917-1994) in 2014 — four works of art by Anatsui generated $229,713 in 2015, double the $152,710 that three of his artworks fetched in 2014. Comparatively in 2015, the average price of works by non-Nigerian artists at auctions held in Nigeria was 11percent more than the average price of works by the Nigerian artists, despite its three percent increase from the previous year.

The sales of artworks by Nigerian artists at Bonhams was $1,774,330 in 2015. This was 23 percent more than the $1,373,198 generated by artworks by Nigerian and non-Nigerian artists at auctions in Lagos. The rise in Bonhams’ sales was partly due to auction of the art collection of Afren, an oil company with financial problems.

Over 108 exhibitions — 69 solo and 38 group shows — were organised in Nigeria in 2015, according to data compiled; 64 of these events held in galleries. In the first ever compilation of the top 200 highest-selling works by Nigerian artists at auction since 2008, Anatsui and Enwonwu account for 86 percent of the value and 53 percent of the volume. Both are the bellwethers of art Nigeria at auction; their works consistently rank among the top 10 highest at every auction. Peju Alatise is not only the youngest but the only female artist at the feature.

One-quarter of the 70 pieces by non-Nigerian artists that had gone under the hammer in Lagos since 2013 was by Ablade Glover.

All this could be linked to the affluent information society, which has always laid the economic groundwork for art renaissance, creating new patrons whose wealth is to make some people look with envy. More important, it has spawn an educated, professional work force in the industry.


The Expectation

Predictably in the nearest future in Nigeria, for people committed to only petrodollar and any other fast money-spinning ventures other than arts, theirs would hold less allure; they will prefer to rather identify more with art and entertainment. This, arguably, is because art lovers obviously tend to be more educated; and this is in view of the fact that today’s consumer is sophisticated to appreciate the arts and can convincingly pay for admission into arts events.

The Emerging Experience

We are already experiencing a renaissance of sorts in the visual arts, poetry, dance, theatre and music throughout the country. This moment will be in stark agreement with the recent economic order, where the metaphor is the making of a shift from mono revenue economy to diversification. It is expected that new business models should fund the shift; leading corporations, individual collectors and the promising patrons should begin to abandon their comfort zones and increasingly turn to the art to define their image, to market products.

More corporate ads should exploit art. Indeed, among sophisticated consumers, corporations should win more prestige by supporting the art than by hawking products.   

This renaissance is not to be confined to only nation capitals; it should abound and flourish (in small and medium-size cities) throughout the fabric of corporate and government concentration. Attendance at art festivals should begin to grow tremendously in that art business and job opportunities in artistic fields are expanding dramatically — from art online marketing and e-commerce to corporate art consulting.

Nigerians and businesses are going to be the beneficiaries of the trickle-down effect, as art in the auction houses are to expand, and Nigerians would feel the growing market in sales and in financial value — and more people increasingly would now collect arts as a percentage of the population than ever before.

We have Nigerian great masters, the old artists, and in record numbers we are moved by the beauty of their masterpieces, followed by the presence of the not-so-young, young and the younger artists whose works are also very much of great value (immortality)  to behold. We must begin to associate arts with immortality, having works appreciating over time, like wine or landed property.  

Arts galleries in Nigeria are as much reaching out to the general public with creatively innovative exhibits as they are springing up across major cities in the country. Though their shows pander to popular taste, but no one denies they produce some badly needed revenue, after all.

More important, the galleries have got people into the museum habit, which shores up a growing constituency of art lovers. On a typical weekend, people in hundreds browse in galleries or art fairs, the modern-day market places of small and mid-size cities. For some people, gallery hopping is a favourite way to spend their weekends, and for some, “it is more than relaxing; looking at arts is one of the things that give a lot of fulfilment.”

Earlier Motivation

Nurtured by sheer ambition, the energy of the Nigerian arts scene, in terms of the volume of works and the quality produced, could be compared to any in the developed world. The history of art auctions in Nigeria started with Chike Nwagbogu, the proprietor of Nimbus Gallery, who organised the maiden art auction in Lagos in December 1999. In the auction which, according to Nwagbogu, was meant to create a more democratic climate for the marketing and evaluating of the art without the subjectivity of one buyer or collector, Bruce Onobrakpeya’s painting, ‘Palm Wine Women’ raked in the highest hammer sale for N1.7 million.

Ever since, art auctions have been adding stronger value to the contemporary Nigerian art as the works of the masters, Ben Enwonwu, Demas Nwoko, Kolade Oshinowo and others have at different auctions sold in millions of naira, the highest being Enwonwu’s ‘Anyanwu’ that went for N28 million at the last Art House Contemporary Art Auction held last year in Lagos. Different art auctions held in Lagos and Abuja last year to further strengthen the evolving market.

Culminating Value

In Lagos, Arthouse held its 6th and 7th auctions in May and November respectively, while Terra Kulture held its 3rd auction in May and in Abuja. Terra Kulture in collaboration with Mydrim Gallery organised the first visual art auction in the capital city and the results of all the auctions confirmed the increasing market value of contemporary Nigeria art.

The total sales of the works at the different art auctions ran into several millions of naira, a clear demonstration that the sector is capable of strongly adding to the nation’s economy, if the players are efficient and effective in their works. Data available revealed that at the 6th Arthouse art auction held at the Civic Centre Lagos in May, the top five sales were: Enwonwu’s ‘African Dances’ (cold cast, resin bronze, 40.5 in., 1982-89), N8 million; Ghanaian artist, Victor Butler’s ‘Waiting on God’ (oil on canvas, 86 x 71 in., 1985) N6.2 million; Enwonwu’s ‘Untitled’ (oil on board, 22.5 x 18.375 in., 1981) N3.8 million; Enwonwu’s ‘Drummer’ (bronze, 23 in., approx 1970s) N3.3 million; Bruce Onobrakpeya’s ‘Tottem of the Delta’ (copper foil relief on board, 57 x 72.5 in., 2004) N2.9 million.

And at the 7th auction held at the Wheatbaker, Ikoyi, Lagos, the top five sales were; Ben Enwonwu’s ‘Anyanwu’ (142.2 cm., excluding the base, 1956) N28 million, Ben Enwonwu’s ‘Untitled’ (1980, oil on board, 109.2 x 43.2 cm), N8 million, Ben Enwonwu’s ‘Untitled’ (1980, cold cast resin, 112 cm), N5.5 million, Ben Enwonwu’s ‘Untitled’ ( 1972, oil on canvas, 61 x 51 cm), N4.5 million and Chidi Kwubiri’s ‘Town Crier’ (2011, acrylic on canvas, 130 x 250 cm. was next at N2.6 million.

Also at the 3rd Terra Kulture auction held in Lagos, the top five sales were: Enwonwu’s ‘Untitled’ (ink on paper, 37.5 x 32 in, 1980), N13.5 million; David Dale’s ‘Tribute to African Woman’ (charcoal and watercolour, 26.6 x 37 in., 1995), N5. 5 million; Bruce Onobrakpeya’s ‘Dance in the Bush’ (etching, 40 x 115 in. 1998), N3 million; Yusuf Sina’s ‘Mood of Nation’ (oil on canvas, 42.5 x 49.5 in., 1994) N3 million; Okpu Eze’s ‘Untitled’ (oil on canvas, 28.5 x 52.5 in., 1984) N2.5 million.

While at the TerraKulture/Mydrim Abuja auction, the top five sales were: Bruce Onobrakpeya, ‘Sahelian Masquerade’ Panel 4, etching 59 x 87 inch (1987) N4 million. Kolade Oshinowo’s, ‘African Woman’, mixed media, 53 x 33 inch, (2011). N2 million. Segun Aiyesan’s, ‘Coloured Race’, acrylic on canvas, 60 x 96, (2011) N1.5 million, Kolade Oshinowo’s, ‘Home at Sunset’, oil on canvas 39 x 39 inch, (2011). N1.2 million and Fidelis Odogwu’s, ‘Kalakuta Republic’, metal, 44 x 31 inch (2010) N900, 000.

With these statistics, it is obvious that the Nigerian visual art is a viable investment option for the numerous people who are looking for where to invest their money.

Enwonwu’s work ‘Anyanwu’ that went for N28 million was indeed an auction record for him and the visual art community. At the International scene, his last auction record was £66, 000 (N16 million) for a 1957 piece titled ‘Negritude’ (acrylic and watercolour on card (120 x 75 cm), sold at Bonhams, London, U.K., in 2009.


Going by this development, it is suggestive that Nigeria also finds it necessary to have an Art Economic Index or a strong presence on the Nigerian Commodity Exchange for proper tracking of the market. This can also take the form of the NASD OTC and Alternative Securities Market (ASeM) or All Share Index (ASI) of the Nigerian Capital market. Although to measure the quality of an artist’s work by any amount is unreasonable for some people, collectors have different views.

But then we can ask the question about how many people are investing in art as just another financial instrument. Whenever there is major patronage, it means that more quality arts get created.  






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