A blockbuster exhibition of art by African artists is coming to a website near you on October 18th; curated for The Auction Room’, the online auction house, by Ed Cross, whose agency  represents many established and up and coming artists on the continent and internationally, the auction will include early work by El Anatsui, Sokari Douglas-Camp and Suzanne Wenger. Wanja Kimani, artist and writer, caught up with Ed Cross to discuss art buying online, marketing African artists, and keeping two feet on the ground.


Artist and curator, Ed Cross curates ‘The African Art’ Auction for the Auction Room in October, which features Skunder Boghossian’s ‘Homage to Abebe Bikila’ and El Anatsui’s ‘The Chief’ (detail pictured)

Wanja Kimani: How has the 21 years you spent in Kenya as an artist and art dealer helped you work in a responsible and ethical manner?

Ed Cross: I would like to think that living in Africa has given me a sense of solidarity with African artists – in that how hard it can be to operate there and I also know how important and inspirational their very existence is to society there – I do my best  to honour the integrity of the artists I am involved with.

WK: Your early visual inspiration in Kenya came from figurative sculptures made by unrecognized artisans who used found materials. A number of the artists in the auction are also using recycled material to address topical issues such as the environment, the tension between tradition and modernity and the question of beauty. What draws you to this appropriation of material?

EC: The issue of recycling can be a vexed one when it comes to African art as it can lead to another set of stereotypes – from “masks” to “recycling” – it is true that there is a lot of work being produced with recycled materials and we have a few examples in our auction. But one must be careful to look at each artist’s work individually – El Anatsui’s work is not “about” recycling per se – it is about transformation.

Wheras Nnenna Okore’s work does explore the whole notion of recycling in a throw away world. I think generally artists in Africa often use what they can get their hands on – pristine canvasses are a luxury and not a given. I think it’s appropriate and empowering that artists don’t feel constrained about the materials that they use – nor should they feel like they are “recycling” artists just because they use hubcaps and tins of Coke. The superb installation Les Cyclistes by Mamady Seydi from Senegal that we have in the auction – is made from iron, wood and sacking, most of, not all of which will have been recycled. But calling these works recycled art would be plain wrong.

WK: …What is the commercial appeal?

EC: Commercial appeal in art is very difficult to gauge. I think people are always looking for originality and if an artist produced a body of work that has traces of his own life or culture in it  – then people often respond to that. The Nigerian artist Kolade Oshinowo’s portraits of women in which he incorporates scraps of cloths from Lagos tailors are a case in point.

WK: As focus and commercial value of contemporary African art increases, what challenges, if any, can you identify for the artists?

EC: I think keeping their feet on the ground when the art world comes calling; some artists can be blown off track by the fame and money – may sound patronizing – but it happens. Being swayed too much by “the market” – the artists I tend to admire most are entirely self-directed and don’t get swayed by collectors asking them to do a few more in that style.

WK: The auction presents a number of predominantly male emerging and established artists. In your observation, are there fewer practicing female artists on the continent? If so, why do you think this is?

EC: It is true there are only five female artists in this auction – an alarmingly small percentage – Nathalie Mba Bikoro, Suzanne Wenger (who was Austrian by birth), Sokari Douglas Camp, Nnenna Okore and Virginia Ryan who is Australian but has spent much of her life in West Africa- an alarmingly   small percentage. There are several highly successful female artists at the top of the field such as  Wangechi Mutu, Magdalene Odundo  and Julie Mehretu  whose work I hope to feature in future auctions  – so in the higher price ranges of £150,000 – £3,000,000   women are doing extremely well and I  would say at the more emerging end of things – which our auction doesn’t generally cater for – they are also doing better – it’s the middle  territory in terms of age and price where female artists are few and far between. It is harder to be an artist in Africa if you are a woman.

WK: What are the challenges in an online auction?

EC: Auctions are challenging full stop! But I think the main challenge is the marketing of it – getting people to register to bid and bid either in advance or online at the time of the auction. We at The Auction Room make things much more difficult for ourselves by having a pop-up exhibition as well as an online auction – this means we are importing the works from all over the world and hanging them as one would do an ordinary art show – we hope then this will give our clients the best of both worlds – cheaper rates for buyers and sellers and a chance to view the works in the flesh.

WK: Art can increase awareness, debate and discussion. As African art increases its presence in public and private collections worldwide, what conversations do you think we should all be having but aren’t?

EC: Good question. I guess I would like to see the curator/artist discussed in the African context – I am wary of artists feeling excluded if they don’t conform to current art world norms. I read an article about Ablade Glover’s work and how it mostly celebrates the exuberance of Ghanaian life – Glover’s work may be viewed as very conventional in contemporary terms but how important is it for art to celebrate positive cultural qualities?

WK: If you were to have a second edition of this auction in 10 years, which emerging artists do you think would be featured?

Nathalie Bikoro, Mario Macilau, Peterson Kamwathi, Anthony Okello, Mamady Seydi – all of these artists are leaving the emerging label behind – this is not generally an auction for that category.

WK: If money were no object, which piece of art would you like to add to your own collection?

EC: Difficult question. It might be Skunder Boghossian’s wonderful “Homage to Abebe Bikila” the great Ethiopian runner who won the Marathon at the 1960 Rome Olympics, running barefoot.

The African Art Auction takes place on the 18th October 2013 – with a preview live exhibition on the 17th & 18th October. To register visit http://theauctionroom.com/how-to-bid