Why Buy Ethiopian Art? Esthetic Value or Dollar Signs?

We instinctively shop for art with our eyes and hearts. We place an emotional-sensory value on artworks. Taking in the esthetics - or Aesthetics - which the greeks very appropriately defined as "judgments of sentiment and taste". A trained eye will recognize a worthy technique in an artwork, but anyone - trained or otherwise, can come across a piece that "sticks" to our psyche  - courting our needs, desires, aspirations and inspirations - making us fall in love with an art piece. So we want to take it home. And we buy. 

But what if we want it to be a worthy investment as well? What if we want to put some dollar signs to our coveted art piece? And in the context of The Next Canvas - a gallery that deals exclusively with Ethiopian contemporary paintings, what exactly is happening to the investment values of African - particularly Ethiopia art? There is no doubt that prices of contemporary African art is surging. There is a marked increase in the number of institutional buyers and private collectors wishing to buy african art - both for its aesthetic as well as investment value. Today’s bargain’s (mostly at entry level) are very likely not to remain so for long. Giles Peppiatt, Director of Contemporary African Art at the auction house Bonhams says  “Interest in contemporary African art has exploded, particularly among international collectors, who expect it to be the next market where values increase in the same manner as contemporary Chinese art”. 

Ethiopia is not new for the international art realm. Not by a long shot. The nationally revered and internationally celebrated Ethiopian Modernism representatives, a.k.a.  Artists Troika: the late Art Laureate Afework Tekele, Gebrekristos Desta, and Skunder Bogossian have enjoyed international recognition with their pieces shown in major international galleries such as the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Musee d’Art Moderne, Paris, just to mention a few. 

However, Ethiopian local markets are still mainly ungenerous to local artists. It is an underlying fact that Ethiopian artists’ work gains value as they transition from the local to international markets - but one would hope there would be a roll over effect for the rest of the market as well. 

Emerging young Ethiopian artists market their work anywhere from 500 USD to 20,000 USD. Heavy artistic hitters such as Wosene Kusrof - whose pieces such as Mind of the Healer and Where It all Begins are priced 50,000–75,000 USD. Ethiopian born Julie Mehiretu is considered to be among the most expensive living women artists of today. One of Julie’s most widely known works is an 80-foot-wide mural located in America’s most notorious investment bank Goldman Sachs tower at 200 West Street in New York, entitled Mural, which was marked as $5m (fabrication is said to have consumed $4m of the commission). Her painting Untitled 1 sold for over $1million at Sotheby’s auction house in 2010. Its estimated value had been $600-$800,000. At Art Basel in 2014, White Cube sold Julie Mehiretu’s Mumbo Jumbo (2008) for $5 million, a record for the artist. Her 2001 work “Retopistics: A Renegade Excavation" sold for $4.6 million at Christie’s in 2013.

Oil on canvas painting by Mezgebu Tesema

Acrylic on canvas paintings by Tewodros Hagos - Derebew, 130cm by 110cm, 2013  

Ethiopian artists such as Tadesse Mesfin, Wossene Kosrof, Girmay Hiwet and Yohannes Gedamu remain probably the most recognized artists in Ethiopia and beyond.  Other highly regarded and revered artists - Mezgebu Tessema,   Behailu Bezabih,  Bekele Mekonnen, Assefa GebreKidan, and Elias Sime, Mulugeta Tafesse, Tewodros Hagos and Lulseged Reta, are household names with collectors familiar with African contemporary art giants - their work connected to Ethiopia as well as the international artistic currents, enjoying the attention of museums and private collections, as a result boosting prices. A younger generation of Ethiopian artists - such as Dawit Abebe and Ephrem Solomon - whose works are going to be shown in Pangaea II at Saatchi Gallery in London, from 11 March – 6 September 2015, are capturing the attention of the international art curators and collectors - commanding increasing value for their work.

Julie’s Mehretu's most widely known work is an 80-foot-wide mural located in America’s most notorious investment bank Goldman Sachs tower at 200 West Street in New York, entitled Mural


Wosene Kusrof - Mother’s Day 2003, 2005, acrylic on canvas, 22.25” x 21.75”

Art experts believe that given the rapid economic growth in the continent, there is  no reason why contemporary African art should not continue to attract greater interest, and therefore increase in prices. Moreover, as the African diaspora is widespread and becoming increasingly wealthy, they start to buy pieces from their own history. “Increased interest from African buyers come with economic growth in Sub-Saharan Africa” states the Telegraph. African art is also primed for market advantage depending on its colonial histories - for instance in France and Belgium, contemporary and antique African art prices have already soared. France colonized West Africa; Belgium, central Africa. British colonies were mainly in the east and south, and art experts argue that a vast room exists for the potential increase in value for art among the British buyers. Ethiopia has a history with Italy (defeating Italian invasion in 1896 and 1941) and indeed, in 1981, the late Ethiopian Art Laureate and pan Africanist Afewerk Tekle’s self-portrait was the first work by an African artist to enter the permanent collection of the Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy.

Yet another reason to buy African art - and in our particular case Ethiopian  art - is that buying art supports local artists directly, allowing them to continue with their creative process. Buying Ethiopian art today, is a good-will investment - investing not necessarily in the today’s artistic outputs of the artists, but in the future potentials and thereby tomorrow’s prominent talents of Ethiopian and African contemporary art.

All this said however, the reality is that African art is still regarded as a “frontier” market by many auction houses. In other words, there are no guarantees that your piece will increase in value. Which bring us back to our main point -  don’t choose to buy art for investment reasons, buy a piece of art because you love it, not in the hope of making money on it. What say you?