Cyrus Kabiru pushes the boundaries.
Cyrus Kabiru pushes the boundaries.
A piece by Blessing Ngobeni, recipient of the 2012 Reinhold Cassirer Art Award.
A piece by Blessing Ngobeni, recipient of the 2012 Reinhold Cassirer Art Award.

What is the real value of Ayanda Mabulu’s art? The price tag attached to the work by this controversial artist, who has created some of the most contentious paintings of President Jacob Zuma, has never been fully disclosed.
It was rumoured that Yakhal’inkomo (Black Man’s Cry), featuring Zuma crushing the head of a miner under his foot, which was banned from Commune 1's stand at the Joburg Art Fair, sold for over a million. Some of his art is displayed with a price tag, but what are art collectors willing to pay for it?

In as little as one hour in a disused warehouse in Cape Town docks on Saturday 17 February, the art world will find out when the first bona fide contemporary art auction takes place.

It is going to be an art-world game-changer.

Art collectors, curators, critics and artists will pile into the Cruise Terminal at the V and A Waterfront, where Strauss and Company are staging their landmark event, to discover the value of this burgeoning entity dubbed contemporary art.

William Kentridge charcoal drawings, Penny Siopis’ distinctive impasto cake-inspired painting, David Goldblatt’s searing social black and white photographic social commentary and Helen Sebidi’s Afro-pointillism are all represented in Strauss and Company’s inaugural contemporary auction.

Not that this established circle defines the "contemporary"; the limelight will be shared with a new generation of politically driven artists such as Zuma’s art-world foes Brett Murray and Mabulu.

Mabulu has two works on auction and they are surprisingly tame for the artist. Both Marikana Widows and Black Poetry are collaged multi-media works recalling Picasso's famous Guernica. They are valued from R40000 to R70000, which is a far cry from the millions his work is said to have commanded in the past. However, they are not shocking or contentious images.

Less well-known artists such as Patrick Bongoy from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Blessing Ngobeni and Mongezi Ncaphayi are all represented in this landmark sale.

It is looking to be a game-changer by virtue of the fact that it will show what people are willing to pay for contemporary African art and which artists indeed are viewed as "valuable", which only auction figures can substantiate.

This inaugural auction’s contemporary edge won’t only be advanced by the industrial vibe of the setting - the complete opposite to the usual plush hotel locations - but also the inclusion of high-risk art.

Fitting this bill is Michael MacGarry’s LHR-JNB, a filmic work made between 2002 and 2010 that could fetch up to R70000.

It is a satirical work featuring a cast of artists trying to get to the UK in a flimsy, dingy boat. Video works are a notoriously hard sell - it was rumoured MacGarry was cut from the Stevenson gallery because he was concentrating on film works.

The sale of an editioned film at auction will have an impact on what kind of art is perceived as valuable.

MacGarry will monitor the outcome of the auction closely.

“That some of these manifestations have a life after me is great, and made even greater if they have a lasting presence in the life of an art collector.

"Yes, I do pay attention to the secondary market as it does offer alternatives to the endless cycle of the ‘new’ (both real and imagined) forwarded by the commercial gallery system,” he said.

This auction should provide the first roadmap to the value of contemporary art, although it has been gradually trickling into auctions as established buyers and serious collectors make room for new art, refine the slant of their collections or try to fill a museum.

This maturing or growth of collections is reflected in the mushrooming of new contemporary art institutions; from Wendy Fisher’s A4 institution in Cape Town, the soon to be opened Norval Foundation in Steenberg, which boasts the collection of Louis Norval, the Javett Art Centre, which will open in Pretoria in April 2019 to provide a home for the Javett family’s collection and, of course, the highly-publicised Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art, which presents Jochen Zeitz’s collection.

The Art of the Nation Exhibition at the British Museum, Performa 17 in New York, which showcased African talent made the establishment of a contemporary art auction critical, said Frank Kilbourn, chairperson of Strauss and Company and an avid art collector.

“These events have  created an awareness, interest and deeper appreciation of African contemporary art which we hope to enhance through our inaugural Contemporary Auction.

“With the opening of Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, a dedicated focus has been brought to Contemporary African Art and our auction aims to build on that platform and to broaden the scope of work sold on auction in South Africa, as well as the target audience,” he added.

Christopher Till is the director of the Javett Art Centre.

The Sunday Independent