Despite the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the global art market, a young generation of African artists defied the gloom by breaking new auction sales records and raising eye-brows among the international art community.

Among these, were Ghanaian artists, Amoako Boafo (b.1984), who became the second highest selling African artist last year, with more than $5.49 million in auction sales and with no auction history from previous years, as well as Otis Kwame Kye Quaicoe (b.1990) who debuted with $800,000 in auction sales during his inaugural year. What caused this sudden rise in demand for this new generation of African artists? This is not a coincidence, but part of a 30-year process, where the stars seem to have aligned over the last 12 months.

As just mentioned, the interest in African artists is not new, and can be traced back to 1989, and the seminal exhibition ‘Magiciens de la Terre’ at Centre Pompidou, curated by Jean-Hubert Martin. Fifteen years later, this was followed up by important museum exhibitions such as ‘Africa Remix’ which opened in 2004 at museum Kunst Palast in Düsseldorf and then went on a three-year tour. More than 80 artists from 25 countries were shown in this exhibition. Africa Remix had a significant impact in the market for Modern and Contemporary African art and led to a series of new commercial initiatives emerging at the depth of the financial crisis in 2009, such as Bonhams’ inaugural ‘Africa Now’ and the establishment of the leading South African auction house Strauss & Co. A new commercial market for modern and contemporary African art was born.

Other initiatives such as the influential 1-54 Art Fair (founded in 2013), helped introduce a new generation of African artists to international audiences through a dedicated African art fair platform – offering a focus on African art that had been lacking at many of the international art fairs. It’s immediate success, allowed it to expand its footprint from London to Paris, New York and Marrakech. African galleries have also become more international in the last two years, with outposts springing up in Paris, London and Los Angeles. Last year, Ethiopia’s Addis Fine Art and Ghana’s Gallery 1957 opened in London and Rele Gallery from Nigeria launched a new Los Angeles space. They join a group of other African galleries that have recently established international presence, such as South Africa’s Goodman Gallery, which opened in London in 2019 and Stevenson, which has set up an office in Amsterdam a couple of years ago.

Finally, there is no escape from the fact that the African art market is also being influenced by the global movement around racial injustice, which reached new heights during last year’s killing of George Floyd, and the global protests that followed. The global art industry has itself struggled to support black artists as well as nurture black leaders within both the commercial and institutional art organisations, but has over the last 10 years taken some actions to address these issues. This has led to a renewed focus on both past and current generations of Black artists across the world, both from museums as well as the commercial market. Hopefully, the growth and interest in the African art market could act as a catalyst for addressing the under-representation of both African, as well as Black artists in the global art market today.

However, the global art market is a fickle beast, susceptible to hype, speculation and opportunism. It’s important that the current boom experienced among this new generation of African artists, promotes a new legacy and does not become victim of the latest international collector fad. But this success also needs to be nurtured from within the continent itself, and it is important that a home-grown art eco-system is developed to support cultural legacies as well as living African artists and their future careers, without the strong reliance on the global art market.

This is already happening, African collectors are building new museum infrastructure, such as the recently opened Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art in Nigeria, funded by Prince Shyllon. According to research by ArtTactic, philanthropic activity across the African continent increased exponentially over the past decade. From more than eighty non-profit organisations and initiatives surveyed, 60% launched since 2008 and almost half this growth came from private initiatives, funded by individual patrons or foundations, including artists themselves. International artists of African descent, such as Yinka Shonibare’s G.A.S Foundation and Kehinde Wiley’s Black Rock Senegal, have established residency programmes in Africa and cultural exchanges and mentorship for local artists. It is encouraging to see new models of philanthropy helping to address the gap created by the lack of art institutions and coherent funding mechanisms on the continent. Hopefully the international success of a few young African artists will attract new funding and talent into the African art market and help build a sustainable future.


Record year for a young generation of African artists: Auction sales of young contemporary African artists surged by 120% during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Online sales of African art up 590% in 2020: African artists saw $7.4 million in sales generated through online-only auctions last year, almost 7 times higher than 2019. More than 2,200 lots were sold online, which was more than double that of 2019.

NextGen African artists included in mainstream international sales: A total of 72% of auction sales by young African artists were sold through Post-War and Contemporary auctions in London, New York, Hong Kong and Paris between 2016 and 2020. This shows that many African Contemporary artists are increasingly becoming part of the mainstream international auction market, and are moving away from African-themed auction sales.

Female artists accounted for 31% of total sales in 2020: Female artists continue to play an important role in the overall African Modern and Contemporary auction market. Four out of the top 5 artists based on auction sales between 2016 and 2020, were female and include Marlene Dumas (b. 1953), Julie Mehretu (b. 1970), Irma Stern (1894-1966) and Njideka Akunyili Crosby (b. 1983)

Top 10 Young Contemporary African Artists

By Anders Petterson, Founder of ArtTactic