Black artists are finally receiving the attention they deserve, something an art lover would notice while following international art market trends and auction results. Although it is not all that we should focus on, this phenomena does highlight some names for us to look at. We will look at the career and styles of five established or rising artists in the art market, ranging from modern pioneers, auction favourites and newly discovered talents both from Africa and the African-American community.
Jean-Michel Basquiat – a Hero to Many Black Artists
Truth be told, Basquiat is no longer a rising black artist in the art market. Established solidly as one of the art market’s darlings, his pieces often fetch astronomical prices and are very much in demand. Jean-Michel Basquiat was born in Brooklyn in 1960 to a Haitian father and a Puerto Rican mother and died at the age of 27 due to a drug overdose. His artistic career was short but certainly left a mark on American art history. An emblematic East Village figure, Basquiat left behind many paintings and drawings and was known for his collaboration with Andy Warhol. Basquiat’s interests were diverse and eclectic ranging from the popular to savant, including a number of topics from anatomy and graffiti to Egyptology. The trailblazing genius created a unique style that is well appreciated and successful during his own lifetime.
Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa spent over a hundred million on a 1982 skull painting from Basquiat. This is likely to be renewed with new offerings from auction, such as another large-scale 1982 painting to be sold in Hong Kong, Warrior. Warrior depicts a full-length warrior with a sword in his right hand and is thought to be an autobiographical work. 1982 is certainly Basquiat’s most expensive year. It is also an affirmation of the stability and strength of the Asian market to purchase trophy works. In the last decade, Basquiat’s auction prices had multiplied manifold. His monumental paintings continue to be extremely desirable.
Kehinde Wiley became a household name when the painter delivered President Barack Obama’s official portrait for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. Both Barack and Michelle Obama chose African American painters for this commission, the latter chose Columbus-born Amy Sherald.
Kehinde Wiley is a painter based in New York. Of Nigerian and African American descent, Wiley studied at the San Francisco Art Institute and Yale University. His artworks are mostly large-scale portraits marrying the very classical Old Masters style Renaissance tradition with modern decorative elements from urban culture and contemporary design. The subjects in his artworks are often black and brown young men. The painter situates them in positions of glorification, power, and majesty. His works are socially provocative and challenge our understanding of the portrait genre and history. Wiley paints from models recruited anywhere from Harlem to Dakar and Rio de Janeiro, embarking on a physical journey to paint the African diaspora.
He is not a black artist limited by the home scene. Kehinde Wiley’s series The World Stage took him to investigate the relation between highbrow and popular cultures as well as between traditional and contemporary artistic expressions in the current socio-political context. This led him to create in many different places such as Rio de Janeiro, Mumbai, and Beijing, where he keeps a studio. He is represented by high-end galleries and collected in many public collections. The painter’s work is also sought after on the auction block, where hammer prices have risen from thousands to hundreds of thousands. His art is relevant to American identity and continues to evolve. Wiley is also a black artist with a vision that does not stop at his own work. In 2021, he launched the Black Rock artist residency program in Senegal, a welcome and exciting addition to the West African artistic scene.
Beauford Delaney is a modern pioneer and forerunner of abstract painting. Born in Tennessee in 1901, Delaney studied art in Boston and lived in New York. In 1953, he embarked on a trip to Europe with Paris as a first stop. Like so many that are enchanted by the City of Lights, Beauford Delaney stayed and lived in France until his death in 1979. In Paris, he became friends with many other black artists and writers, such as his good friend James Baldwin, who had settled in Europe, finding it more hospitable and less racist.
Whereas Delaney’s is never far from figurative references like landscape, he was also interested in formal experimentation on the canvas with colors and composition during his French period, resulting in more abstract paintings. The black artist is also particularly fond of using yellow paint in both his portrait paintings and more abstract works, and subsequently, his yellow-toned works earn the reputation of being Delaney’s more expensive works.
Delaney’s heritage was revived by a dedicated Friends Association that has contributed to promoting his art with exhibitions both in the US and in Europe. His works are now housed in prestigious permanent collections like the MoMA and were exhibited in important recent exhibitions about African American art such as Soul of a Nation by the Tate Modern. On the art market, Beauford Delaney is also getting his due for recognition as an important modern master. Only a few years ago, most auction house specialists would ignore his name, but his works now fetch handsome prices in the six-digit figure from just a few thousand dollars ten years ago. Art historians have certainly been making an effort to revise the narrative and to understand the development of modern art in a more inclusive and diverse manner. This is in turn reflected in the collector and market’s collective knowledge.
Amoako Boafo – the New Phenomenon of the Art Market
Amoako Boafo’s name became a phenomenon on the art market in 2020 following a sold-out booth at Art Basel Miami in 2019. Born in Ghana in 1984 and based in Vienna, the painter is skyrocketing to the artistic hall of fame. His prices reached the high end of a six-digit figure in an auction and one of his works is now housed in the Guggenheim Museum collection. Boafo is also looking at a collaboration with Dior. However, the black artist remains stoic when confronted with his incredible and dazzling rise. It is better to be cautious than riding with speculative collectors and too high a turnover on the secondary art market, a possible path to downfall. Of course, any artist’s success in the market is a collaborative effort combining supportive collectors and dedicated gallerists. The artist now maintains a studio in his native Accra and has more plans than quick sales, including establishing a residency program.
Most of Boafo’s works are portraits, sometimes of his more famous friends. This young black artist celebrates black identity and uses social media to find visual inspiration. He is known to paint with fingers, and this dynamic, sensible, and tactile quality transpires through the finished works. The men and women he depicts have emotions and texture. Painting with fingers is a liberating process for this black artist.
Depending on the viewer’s stance, he was either criticized or lauded for emphasizing his subjects’ blackness, in stark contrast with often pastel-colored backgrounds or clothes. However, this does not mean that Boafo’s work does not draw from other references such as European art. He is noticeably influenced by Egon Schiele’s style. Most of his works are large-scale portrait paintings. Boafo is a hardworking artist who continues to explore how portraits can be painted, varying from the sitter’s poses and sometimes working on multiple works at the same time.
A Famous Black Artist From Ghana – El Anatsui
Born in Ghana in 1944, artist El Anatsui works and lives in Nigeria. He started teaching at the University of Nigeria in Nsukka in 1975 and still resides in that area. His work started gaining international attention in the 1990s, starting with exhibitions in the United States at venues such as The Studio Museum in Harlem. El Anatsui received the Golden Lion award at the Venice Biennale in 2015, one of the rare African artists to achieve such a level of international recognition.
His artworks are admired globally, having exhibited at biennales such as Dakar and Gwangju. This appreciation has translated into art market awareness where El Anatsui’s work is often featured as important in Post-War and Contemporary Art sales, achieving remarkable auction sales prices, often over a million US dollars.
His artistic creation process shares ideas with earlier movements such as Arte Povera. Sculptor El Anatsui developed his iconic style when started making large-scale installations with found objects such as plastic bottle caps or broken pottery shards. The artist is interested in giving new meaning by reusing seemingly small and insignificant things.
His famed bottle-top installations are structured with wire. Even though their sizes look daunting, the pieces are actually quite malleable. These works show the artist’s sensibility and mastery in dealing with aspects such as textures and colors to completely transform every basic unit into an evocative ensemble combining African visual traditions and abstraction. In addition to these found objects, Anatsui also works with other materials such as clay and wood to create artworks inspired by traditional Ghanaian beliefs. His artworks are concerned about environmental issues and comment directly on problems such as waste management and consumption.