East African Art: Moving Forward Into the Global Scene

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East African Art: Moving Forward and Into the Global Scene

East African Art: Moving Forward and Into the Global Scene, Photo – Geoffrey Mukasa (Ugandan, 1954-2009), Title – At Home


Circle’s 3rd Modern and Contemporary East African Art Auction took place on 3 November 2015 from 6pm at Villa Rosa Kempinski, Nairobi, Kenya. This year’s auction was the highest, grossing to date with over Ksh 19.5 million (USD 187,000) in sales and over 80% of lots sold.

In the previous article, Danda Jaroljmek shares the challenges and opportunities Circle Art Agency encountered during its early days and how she and her team approached them. Today, she talks to us about their most recent auction.


How it All Started

It all started with Bonhams: Africa Now. We were invited to put together a small selection for the preview of their 2013 Africa Now auction. This gave us the opportunity to discuss the practicalities of starting a gallery and auction house in Africa with Giles Peppiatt, Director of Bonhams: Africa.

Nairobi is the ‘art’ capital city of the region, with the most developed art market and the highest number of collectors in Eastern Africa. It is also a regional hub, with a number of multinationals having their headquarters here.

Luckily, finding the right location for our annual auction was easy. Three years ago when we held our first auction, the Villa Rosa Kempinski Hotel was just opening and made the perfect partner. The hotel had a large enough ballroom to house 51 artworks and 300 guests.

With our cumulative experience, we know the East African art scene well and which artists from the region to include. In the beginning, the challenge was finding the collectors who were interested in selling through an auction.

In 2012, when we established Circle Art Agency Limited, we began to build up our collectors list and continue to gather and attract potential collectors. At first, it was difficult but over time art buyers have come to know and trust us.


The Best Auction So Far

The first auction was a great success! At first we were terrified that no one would come and no one would bid. But we needn’t have worried there was a great buzz and we had an amazing audience. Captains of industry, CEOs of rival businesses bidding against each other, the movers and shakers of Nairobi and international art collectors.

The whole experience exceeded my expectations. It was amazing to realise that what we had planned and believed in was right, and that we had the timing right.

This year the pressure was on having held two very successful auctions. But not only did it go well – it was the best so far. We had a serious art-buying crowd who were genuinely interested in East African art. Over 300 people attended with half of the audience being new bidders. We even had telephone and absentee bidding.

The atmosphere was electric with  a glamorous crowd of Nairobi’s business community. Moët & Chandon champagne and this year’s lead sponsors Standard Chartered Bank brought a new group of potential art collectors to us.

We had higher sales for less art – fifty lots instead of fifty seven last year. 85% of the artworks sold for nearly $200,000. Four lots went over the 1 million Ksh mark (almost $10,000), which is more than in previous years. In 2013, only two were sold for over 1 million Ksh, and only one Lot went for over Ksh 1 million (almost $10,000)  in 2014.


Eli Kyeyune  (Ugandan, born 1936) This is an extremely rare, very early painting of Kyeyune, recently returned from the USA to Kenya for this auction.

Eli Kyeyune (Ugandan, born 1936) This is an extremely rare, very early painting of Kyeyune, recently returned from the USA to Kenya for this auction.

A Balance of Modern and Contemporary

We always include new contemporary artists, to ensure we have an unexpected and fresh selection whilst retaining some masters.

We had the relatively unknown artist Dickens Otieno with a wall hanging from 2015. We introduced a Namibian modern artist the late printmaker John Mafangejo this year who did very well. We also included old East African masters such as Ugandan Geoffrey Mukasa, and Kenyan Edward Njenga.

Other interesting works of East African art that were shown this year were the Emerson Foundation collection of rare Tinga Tinga, George Lilanga and Simon Mpata (Lots 28-33), and, a beautiful Geoffrey Mukasa (Lot 22).

This year, we had a great balance of modern and contemporary East African art. We have some collectors that only buy contemporary, so it was not hard to sell the works of new artists. So both modern and contemporary art works sold really well.


Bringing East African Art Closer to the World

We certainly gained more international exposure this year compared to the previous years, with great press coverage both locally and internationally. Many of the works sold at a much higher price than was estimated. An example is the wonderful portrait of a woman by Eli Kyeyune from 1970 that we had been sent back from America. It went for almost three times the estimate.

This year, we had a bigger local audience. Some were buying for the first time – Kenyan business people as well as our existing clients. We also had some big buyers from Dubai, London and for the first time a collector from Hong Kong. I feel that people trust Circle and have come to understand that local art has value and is a potential investment. People have sat up and taken notice after three years.

This year’s auction cemented the Circle Modern and Contemporary Art Auction’s place on the African art calendar and has proved that East African art is to be taken seriously.




Photo credits –  Circle Art Agency

You can download the Circle Art Agency 2015 Auction Catelouge here