‘Black art’ draws new collectors, better prices

Artists Richard Mayhew’s piece Transfiguration

by Lance Steagall

Special to the NNPA from GIN

New York (NNPA) –  Landscapes are the images that come to mind in the work of artist Richard Mayhew. The New York-born expressionist credits that to his part African-American, part Native-American roots.

“It’s a dual commitment to nature,” he says. “The land is very important to both cultures in terms of stimulation and spiritual sensitivity, and it’s very important to me.”

Mayhew’s work was on display at the recent National Black Fine Arts Show, an annual event. G.R. N’Namdi, the oldest Black-owned abstract art gallery in the U.S., represents Mayhew’s work. In 2003, his piece “Sanctuary” sold for 6,000 dollars. It’s now listed at 25,000 dollars.

Collectors and dealers who gathered at the mid-February show in New York are making note of the new and higher prices; though many works of Black art are still available at a low price, the value days aren’t here to stay.

Indeed, the market for African-American art is changing fast. Pieces are selling for higher prices, garnering more attention, and becoming an investment of choice for many. As the market booms, those who choose to invest are reaping the rewards, often selling works for many times their purchase price.

“It’s a function of African-American art being ignored for a long time,” said Melissa Azzi of the Chicago-based Lusenhop Gallery. “Relatively speaking, African-American art has been extremely undervalued.”

She likes to attribute the lack of appreciation to the attitudes of traditional art collectors. “More confrontational works tended to be ignored,” Azzi said. “But now institutions and collectors are a bit more comfortable looking back and taking note.”

In particular, movements of the 1960s and 70s that wove political and social commentary into their artistic vision, such as the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists (AFRI-COBRA), are getting a second look.

Azzi pointed to Wadsworth Jarrell’s 1972 portrait of socialist organiser Angela Davis, “Revolutionary”, as an example. In that piece, Jarrell depicts Davis in a moment of impassioned speech, using a collage of social slogans to form the scene. “STRUGGLE,” “RESIST,” “HAVE TO,” “GIVEN MY HEART,” and other textual messages radiate from the focal point – Davis’ head. The bright Kool-aid colors employed help place “Revolutionary” in its cultural frame. The piece has doubled in value over the past year, but, at 2,000 dollars, it’s still modestly priced.

The changing attitudes are not the only explanation for the changing market. Bill Hodges, owner of Manhattan’s Bill Hodges Gallery, attributes it to “African-Americans being able to afford an investment in art.”

Hodges has collected African-American art for more than 30 years. For most of that time, 90 percent of his customers were of non-African descent. Today, he says, the numbers have reversed – over 95 percent of his customers are fellow African-Americans.

And new interest is not confined to African-American art alone. The Ghanaian artist Tafa, now a resident of Harlem, New York, has seen attitudes evolve first-hand. “More and more people are appreciating Black art, definitely,” he said. “It used to be under-represented, but now it gets attention both here [the U.S.] and there [Europe].”

In late January, the London-based Bonhams became the first non-South African auction house to have a sale dedicated exclusively to South African art. The sale brought in 1,422,528 pounds, with Irma Stern’s works “The Tomato Picker” and “Portrait of a West African Girl” fetching the top prices – 186,000 and 138,000 pounds, respectively.

Both sale prices were more than 50,000 pounds above their pre-auction estimated prices. In 2006, Bonhams sold a self-portrait by South African artist Gerard Sekoto for more than nine times its estimate. That portrait of Sekoto, a pioneer of urban Black art and social realism, fetched 123,000 pounds.

In the U.S., the Los Angeles County Museum of Modern Art opened a new exhibit devoted exclusively to African art. The exhibit, titled “Tradition as Innovation,” opened in January of this year. Whereas the typical exhibit emphasises the influence African art had over modern artists who broke with tradition, such as Picasso, “Tradition as Innovation” presents African art in its own context.

At the Black Fine Arts Show in New York, Mark Small, owner of the Colorado-based Golden Galleries, was quick to point out the involvement of the youth in the scene. “All the time I see members of the younger generation recognising African-American artists that, throughout most of their career, have remained largely unknown. That’s really great to see,” he said.

Many of those older artists trained in the city of Chicago. There, two pioneering schools gave African American artists an opportunity to study when few others would: the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the South Side Community Art Centre. The city subsequently became a hub, and many significant artists, including Wadsworth Jarrell, spent at least one year studying there. The works they produced marked a turning point in the history of Black art.

Today, the growing interest in Black art may mark another.