Nigerian auctioneer and art collector Yemisi Shyllon says there was virtually no domestic art market in 2008. Since then, about 775 million naira (R55m) worth of art has sold at auctions, according to data he has gathered, and maybe three times that in galleries or private sales. Photo: Reuters

Lagos - The haunting stone sculptures have stretched bodies with enlarged heads, mask-like faces and elongated chests – the kind of sharp, geometric qualities that inspired the works of Pablo Picasso and the Cubist movement in the 1920s.

Displayed at a Lagos gallery alongside colourful paintings of domestic scenes, they represent a revival of ancient art forms in Nigeria, rooted in traditional spirituality, that Christian missionaries tried to banish a century ago.

That revival coincides with a turn by the country’s super-rich elite and small but growing middle class towards art as a store of wealth.

An art investment boom is under way across emerging markets, but it has been seen as largely centred on China, India and Gulf Arab countries.

The planet’s poorest continent is still widely viewed in art circles more as a source of fine art for auctions in the developed world rather than a market in itself.

That may be slowly changing. Artist and designer Nike Davies-Okundaye sees growing interest by local, as well as foreign, collectors in the Nigerian art in her four-storey Lagos gallery, part of which is given over to traditional work: wood carvings of priests and stone statues of Yoruba deities.

A growing number of wealthy Nigerians are adding such pieces to their collections.

Yet for many Christian or Muslim Nigerians, traditional African art, because of its link with animist religion, is still viewed as taboo – an invitation to dangerous black magic or idolatry.

That is a hurdle for artists trying to resurrect their suppressed culture. But local interest in art is growing.

Lagos-based accountant Jumoke Ogun used to think of art just as something nice to hang on the wall, but that changed when her sister bought a painting as an investment.

“So now I no longer just dive in. I go away, try to find out more about the artist, how much their other works sold for,” she said.

Oscar Onyema, the chief executive of Nigeria’s stock exchange, has a very small but growing portion of the exchange’s portfolio in Nigerian art, about 20 million naira (R1.2m) so far.

“People are now using art as an alternative to other asset classes. We think this is a wise thing to do,” he said. “We certainly expect that our own collection at the exchange will increase in value.”

Nigerian auctioneer Yemisi Shyllon – whose own collection is valued at roughly 5 billion naira – says there was virtually no domestic art market in 2008.

Since then, around 775 million naira worth of art has sold at auctions, according to data he has gathered, and maybe three times that in galleries or private sales, he says.

That sum, while no more than a single work might fetch in New York, is significant for a country whose domestic art market is just beginning.

Shyllon fits the global mould of the eccentric collector, with a garden featuring bronze or wrought iron sculptures, ornately trimmed hedges and peacocks, porcupines and crested cranes from east Africa.

“Southern Africa and east Africa are still ahead of our region when it comes to producing internationally recognised art, but Nigerians are becoming Africa’s biggest collectors of art,” he said.

Regardless of faith, many of Nigeria’s top artists are influenced by sacred traditions, especially those of the Yoruba ethnic group predominant in the southwest and the main city of Lagos.

Some Nigerian artists, like Bruce Onobrakpeya, have made it big internationally in recent decades, but in the past four years their works are also increasingly being bought at home. – Reuters