Helene Love-Allotey rewrites the rules of the African art market – ARTnews.com

African art is in great demand in museums, galleries and on the art market. But international recognition didn’t come overnight, as many might assume. Instead, it came about through the concerted efforts of African art experts like Bonhams specialist Helene Love-Allotey.

Selling at this auction house, Love-Allotey has been quietly rewriting the rules of the burgeoning African art market. In 2020, Love-Allotey broke with the tradition of putting the most expensive lot on the cover of retail catalogs and placed Zanele Muholi’s Sasa, Bleecker, New York, 2016 from her Somnyama Ngonyama series on the front. She was also part of the team involved in the high-profile sale of Ben Enwonwu’s 1974 painting tutu, long considered lost. It ended up selling for $1.6 million, more than $1 million more than its estimate.

Related Articles

London-based Love-Allotey was appointed Head of Sales for African Modern and Contemporary Art at Bonhams last April. She previously joined the company in September 2015 as an art dealer.

ARTnews spoke to Love-Allotey about how the African art market is changing and why collectors are adding works by African artists and artists from the African diaspora to their inventories.

What is important to you in your work to bring more African art to the market?

Africa is a huge continent. There are many countries, different ethnic groups and many artistic styles. We always try to ensure that as many countries as possible are represented in the sale to show the diversity of artistic practices.

Additionally, there are artists who have immigrated and continue to be influenced in their practice by their heritage, which is why we have expanded to include artists who identify with the African diaspora. I also try to champion the full cycle of African art and build relationships with collectors and art lovers across Africa.

I was particularly pleased to present Seth Dei’s collection in Ghana a few years ago. We exhibited the work in Accra. It was a great opportunity to showcase these important works before they were put up for sale. It was really successful, with a great turnout, and everyone appreciated that we nurtured those relationships.

What do you enjoy most about working at Bonhams?

It’s a unique environment to work in and I don’t think anyone fully understands auction houses until they work in one. I am truly fortunate and privileged to be able to handle and be surrounded by so much artwork every day. I learn so much by seeing these works in person. I get to work with so many different artists and we are encouraged to discover our own passions. I’ve always wanted to introduce photography into our sale and it’s great to have had the support to do so.

What are you looking forward to most about the Upcoming auction of modern and contemporary art from Africa and its diaspora this Wednesday in New York?

It’s a smaller curatorial focus, but we cover a wide range, from photography in post-colonial Mali to contemporary South Africa, to abstract paintings and works on paper. This is the first time we have expanded to the diaspora [in an African art sale at Bonhams]and I’m thrilled to offer works by Aubrey Williams, who was born in Guyana and then moved to the UK.

This is also the first time we’ve included photography. The catalog cover shows photographs, works by Malick Sidibe and Samuel Fosso on the front and back. We have some work by photographers who have lived and worked in Mali. They accurately portrayed the post-colonial energy of Bamako, known to this day as a hub for African photography.

We also have four paintings by Abdoulaye “Aboubia” Diarrassouba. Aboudia’s market is incredibly exciting as we sold his work for around £10,000 two years ago. His works are now fetching over £150,000, as evidenced by our last two auctions in London and Paris.

We also have an early work by Skunder Boghossian and a portrait by Godwin Oluwole Omofemi, which is currently very popular with contemporary art collectors.

Abstraction with mottled red, sky blue and mustard colored shapes.  Figures seem to emerge from abstraction.

Caribbean Ritual (6)a 1973 painting by British-Guyanese artist Aubrey Williams, is among works offered at Bonham’s first African art auction, which includes works by artists from the African diaspora.

Courtesy of Bonhams

What changes have you noticed in the market for African art and art of the African diaspora?

I have noticed in our area that many collectors are now looking at African art. Because in recent years people’s attitudes have changed, especially when it comes to diversifying their collections and reflecting on art history and its Eurocentric past. Many people want to diversify their collections and consider acquiring works by African artists.

In our market there is a lot of interest in African artists from the 1950s and 1960s such as Papa Ibra Tall, Gerard Sekoto, Skunder Boghossian and Demas Nwoko. They’ve done incredibly well in their careers and in their lives, but they’ve slipped off the radar and have only just begun to come back and get the attention they deserve.

[There] is also a huge explosion of interest in black figurative painting. Many emerging artists from Ghana do this, including Cornelius Annor. These artists have achieved incredible results – pretty amazing considering how new the trend is.

What is the reason that Ghanaian artists and art are in demand in the market?

For a while the focus was on Lagos and the artists and galleries that were gaining importance there. But lately the focus has shifted to Ghana, which is really interesting. I think it is a credit to the great art school in Kumasi [the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology] which has produced some of the most amazing artists. There are many people involved in arts in Ghana, from Accra to Tamale. For example, Ibrahim Mahama has a place in Tamale, the SSCA Tamale [Savannah Center for Contemporary Art]with which he supports local artists and education.

Painting of a street scene with merchants selling their wares.

Cornelius Annor, day break2017

Courtesy of Bonhams

They also run an Instagram account called African art history. What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned while running?

In art history education, there is not yet a major focus on African art. The account focuses on the representation of women and artists dealing with queer issues. I’ve been fortunate to go to a university that has a particular focus on African art, so I use my account to make it more accessible and often work with my professors to gain insight. Sometimes they use my research and writings for their classes.

I always encourage people to visit our sales previews as it is an amazing opportunity to see so many African artworks from so many different countries and time periods in one place. I think people often think that auction houses are only commercial, but so much research and expertise goes into every sale. We spend most of our time developing detailed catalogues, so it’s very educational.

I like to take my insights from the auction house and make them more accessible via social media. I often feel like I’m wearing two hats – the commercial and the educational – and I’m passionate about both.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.