Home Magazine What artists attracted the most attention at Sotheby’s Modern and Contemporary African Art Auction in March 2021?

Appealing to a wide range of collectors, with estimates starting at a mere £1000, Sotheby’s Auction of Modern and Contemporary African Art fell under the spotlight of the Art World. Subject to a steadily increasing interest in 2020, African Artists’ work is attracting collectors with record breaking sales. 

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Organised from the 24rdto the 31stof March 2021, Sotheby’s online auction of Modern and Contemporary African Art included a broad range of photos, paintings and statues made in the 20thand 21stcentury. The auction included works by artists from Morocco, Egypt, Senegal, Mali, Sudan, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria, the Central African Republic, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, Zimbabwe, Eswatini and South Africa – a very broad and varied selection!


Ben Enwonwu’s ‘Africa Dances’ (1971) on the wall, n.d., Courtesy of Sotheby’s ©2021 Sotheby’s.


As expected, Nigerian artists Ben Enwonwu and Demas N. Nwoko, as well as Moroccan artist Mohamed Melehi, attracted a lot of attention as the great masters of the 20thcentury. Ben Enwonwu’s bronze statue ‘Atlas’ (ca. 1970s-1980s) takes a common Western image but embodies Africa, crucially holding up and sustaining the world. This artwork, representing a powerful concept, was sold within the estimate going for a record of £378,000 – the highest figure at this auction! A selection of this important artist’s paintings was also received with great enthusiasm. Two artworks depicting African dances, a powerful returning theme in Ben Enwonwu’s work, went for well over £100,000. Specifically, ‘Africa Dances’ (1971)was sold for £189,000, going way beyond the expected estimate of £40,000-60,000. 


Ben Enwonwu, ‘Atlas’, 1970s-1980s, Courtesy of Sotheby’s ©2021 Sotheby’s.


Acclaimed Nigerian artist Demas N. Nwoko, often contrasting modern and traditional themes in his work, saw his piece ‘Folly’ (ca. 1960) reach £226,800, overthrowing the expected estimate of £60.000-80.000. In this work, the violent cock fight is depicted with the colours of the Nigerian flag, making a clear reference to the social contrasts of Nwoko’s country. Further, Mohamed Melehi’s modernist work ‘Untitled’ (1984) also broke past the maximum estimate of £120,000 and was sold for a considerable £252,000. The typical vibrant motifs of this modernist painting, and others by this artist, echo the theme of the wave present in Islamic buildings and African art. It exemplifies the spiritual and religious beliefs of Moroccan culture. 


Mohamed Melehi, ‘Untitled’, 1984, Courtesy of Sotheby’s ©2021 Sotheby’s.


Other less well-known artists also reached – and surpassed – the three figures at this auction. The younger artists, ‘rising stars’ according to Sotheby’s website, with their powerful political works reached record prices just like the acclaimed masters. Ethiopian artist Elias Sime’s work ‘Tightrope: Contrast’ (n.d.), created with recycled electrical wires, reclaims and gives a new purpose to the e-waste produced by industries based outside Africa. It was sold for £138,600, nearly £50,000 over top estimate. Lastly, emerging Kudzanai-Violet Hwami’s artwork must be mentioned among these top sales. Originally from Zimbabwe, and having lived in the UK and South Africa, this artist’s piece ‘Tampon Incision Study 3 (SJW)’ (2016) represents a woman masturbating. It explicitly refers to the fight for institutional fairness and social justice (‘SJW’ in the title, and in the work), challenging sexual ideals and the representation of the black body. Her piece also reached £138,600, going £80,000 over top estimate.


n.d., Kudzanai-Violet Hwami’s ‘Tampon Incision Study 3 (SJW)’ (2016) on the wall, n.d., Courtesy of Sotheby’s ©2021 Sotheby’s.


Elias Sime, ‘Tightrope: Contrast’, n.d., Courtesy of Sotheby’s ©2021 Sotheby’s.


Overall, these artworks – and many others included in the auction – brought important themes to Sotheby’s and reached impressive figures at the sale. Given the broad price range of the estimates, it is definitely worth keeping an eye out for these artists in the next auction sales focused on Modern and Contemporary African Artists – especially as there has been an increase in the attention they are rightfully receiving!


Cover image: Demas N. Nwoko, ‘Folly’, ca. 1960, Courtesy of Sotheby’s ©2021 Sotheby’s.

Written by Zoë Rivas Zanello

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