The Craze for South African Art

David Chancellor

Contemporary artists in Cape Town and Johannesburg move beyond the country’s embattled past as the art scene there reaches world-class levels.

I wasn’t so long ago that South African art was dismissed by the art world cognoscenti as unshaped, isolated, insubstantial. But now the range of both talent and contemporary media it engages with is on par with the great markets in Paris, London and New York. A new post-apartheid identity has emerged, and it isn’t defined primarily by the struggle of previous generations.

The growing profile of South African art really caught the market’s attention in 2011, when, at fine art auctioneers Bonhams, modernist Irma Stern’s Arab Priest broke all the records for a South African work of art abroad, selling for $4,974,780, followed a few months later by the sale of her Two Arabs for a still-astonishing $2,591,740 at Strauss & Co.—a record-setting price for art at auction in South Africa. And while initially the focus on Stern and peers like J. H. Pierneef eclipsed the work of contemporary artists, the market is quickly diversifying. “We no longer find Stern and Pierneef contributing 50 percent–plus of sales gross,” wrote Michael Coulson, a South African financial journalist, in the South African Art Times in 2012. Indeed, the growing array of artists being sold includes Sam Nhlengethwa, a 59-year-old artist born near Johannesburg, whose best-known paintings and collages celebrate jazz, and Julia Rosa Clark, a 38-year-old collage and installation artist who creates wild bursts of color using paper and found objects. Of critical note as well are Mohau Modisakeng, a 27-year-old sculptor, photographer and performance artist whose work confronts South Africa’s colonial past, and Nicholas Hlobo, a 39-year-old Johannesburg artist who has won the Tollman Award for Visual Art for his sculptural works using rubber, ribbon, organza and found objects. High-profile sales and growing international acclaim are forcing a global rethink of the status of South African art.

One South African artist whose work commands stunning sales figures on the international stage is Marlene Dumas. Based in Amsterdam, she’s one of the highest-selling living female artists at auction, and prices for her work continue to rocket.

But a further example of the rise of the country’s art status is that even an artist who chooses to stay in South Africa can achieve widespread acclaim. William Kentridge, the rock star of the local art scene, represented by the Goodman Gallery, is one of the country’s most sought-after living artists. A 2013 sale at Sotheby’s in New York saw a collection of ten works by the multitalented Kentridge; one of them, consisting of 25 small bronze sculptures, set an auction record ($1.5 million). A close second in popularity to Kentridge is the critically acclaimed photographer Zwelethu Mthethwa, whose work has a distinct painterly touch. Mthethwa has been a rising star much in demand in the art world, but his trajectory faltered dramatically in April 2013 following allegations that he’d beaten a woman to death on a Cape Town street (he is awaiting trial). Even so, the Jack Shainman Gallery currently represents him in New York, and his work is in the collections of the Guggenheim there and the Getty in Los Angeles. “We’ve been selling more of Zwe’s work recently,” says his Cape Town gallerist, Elana Brundyn of Brundyn+, though she is quick to note the trend is unrelated to the allegations. “A large photograph in a single edition will set you back $28,000, and smaller ones in an edition of three go for $19,000.”

Even artists in South Africa who are less than critically adored can find a wide audience and fetch incredible sums. The Russian émigré painter Vladimir Tretchikoff, who died in Cape Town in 2006, may have been ridiculed as a master purveyor of kitsch (his work “defied the canons of good taste,” said his obituary in The Telegraph, snobbily), but his Chinese Girl, which is one of the most reproduced pictures on earth, was sold at auction in London in March 2013; breaking records, it went for $1,483,220, more than three times the low estimate—and that was just the first serious Tretchikoff to reemerge. Diamond dealer Laurence Graff bought it, and it is now the focus of a magnificent display of trophy South African art at the flashy Delaire Graff wine estate and hotel (rooms, from $795; Stellenbosch; 27-21/885-8160; delaire.co.za) near Cape Town. The healthy markets for works by Tretchikoff, Dumas, Kentridge and so many others reflect a seemingly insatiable appetite for the imaginative, radical art made in South Africa or by South African artists. The trend won’t always continue this way, but no matter—the world has finally sat up and taken notice.

Pictured: Johannesburg-based Mohau Modisakeng, a sculptor, photographer and performance artist, confronts South Africa's troubled past in his work.