At the last Monday's ArtHouse Contemporary Limited auction, a master of the unusual ruled the roost. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke reports
Even for its habitués, the enduring quality of the ArtHouse Contemporary Limited auctions really deserves a resounding round of applause. Also laudable is the full-house gathering at every one of its editions. On its ninth edition last Monday at the Ikoyi, Lagos-based Wheatbaker Hotel, the biannual art event trundled on, in blissful oblivion of the gloomy economic prognoses of the outside world.
Obviously defying that Malthusian whim to satiate pressing human needs, there seemed to be this subconscious phototropic groping for the transcendent among the bidders. For why would El Anatsui's oil on wood panels "Grandma's Cloth Series VI" (Lot 54) edge out others to become the auction's bestselling work at the hammer price of N11.4 million? Could it have anything to do with its unique aesthetic qualities? Or, was it simply a tacit acknowledgement of the artist's pedigree?
One never really knows with art. Nor could one easily wring coherence from the bidding trend here. To the casual observer, there was indeed something rather arcane about this gathering in this Wheatbaker Hotel upper-floor room. Granted, there was this homage to the masters, which accounted for the fact that their works clinched the first five positions as the bestselling works. Yet, it is undeniable that the bidders' whims - albeit momentarily - seemed to take flight, far off into more conceptual realms. That explains why Nnenna Okore's clay and burlap work, "Akwa Ocha", could sell for a respectable hammer price of N1.5 million or Chidi Kwubiri's pointillist oil and acrylic on canvas offering going for N1.1 million. Then call the N1.6 million hammer price sale of Peju Alatise's mixed-media relief, "Aso-Bora", a nod to both industry and creativity.
The sale of Yusuf Grillo's oil on board painting, "Ogun Worshipper" for the hammer price of N 7.4 million, as the second bestselling work, corroborates the homage-to-the-masters theory. Ditto the respectable hammer prices of Ben Enwonwu's oil on board painting, "Agbogho Mmoo" and his bronze head, "Remi", which sold for the hammer prices of N3 million and N2.5 million, respectively.
It not was unexpected that the masters had a good outing in this auction. Yet, something about this auction harped on a lurch towards the more modern art trends. Prodded on by the globalist aesthetic trends, works like Eva Obodo's "Journey of a Hundred Kilometres" and Victor Ekpuk's "Uyai Iban 2" (Adorable Maiden 2) escaped the "Not Sold" category. But the N1 million hammer price sale of Jerry Buhari's circular oil on board, "Melting Planet II" should really surprise no one. For, indeed, this is a work that mollycoddles to the interior deco whims of the buyers.
Packaging, or lack of it, might have sounded the death knell for those works which fell by the wayside. One of the lots was already doomed for rejection even before the auctioneer called for biddings. A collector was overheard as he sniggered that it deserved to be flushed down the toilet. Tastes, of course, may be known to be subjective but it was obvious that the artist wasn't being driven by pecuniary motives.
Of course, it is hardly fair to judge an artist's creativity by its performance at auctions. But impressive hammer prices have their way of oiling the wheels of creativity. This, after all, is one environment where grants are virtually non-existent.
For this reason, it was a remarkable feat that George Osodi's c-print on aluminium photograph, titled "Eyo" could become the first photograph to sell above the N1 million mark in the ArtHouse Contemporary Limited's auction series. Photography, which is a relatively new introduction to the auction's offerings, seems to be gradually gaining acceptance amongst the traditional art aficionados. Even so, the medium's performance could be deemed woeful going by the prevailing expectations and its giant strides so far. So far, the trends out there seem more and more favourable. Besides the established photography biennales like the Bamako Biennale and festivals like LagosPhoto, individual photographers have wormed their way into aficionados' hearts.
There may indeed have been good reasons to carp about the quality of last Monday's offerings but its successful 74 per cent sale makes it easy to overlook them. Flawed, though the auction house's expertise at harnessing local talents may be, the overall sales make it less obvious. But choosing the best works does not seem to be the point of the biannual exercise. As a result, some of the acknowledged artistic greats whose works have never made to the auctions -or made it but never sold - are robbed of their mystique.
Apparently, not every collector comes to the auction looking for great names. Otherwise, an Nnenna Okore would not be selling higher than a David Dale's recent bead on board work, titled "Peace II".
The auction provides a level-playing field for all artists to prove their mettle. Through consistent diligence hitherto hopeless artists have the possibilities of pushing their way up the ladder-rungs of reckoning. Beneath the veneer of hype, talent has continued to draw its retinue of fervent admirers. More stirring is the spectacular shifting of the aesthetic boundaries, which have recently assumed mind-numbing dimensions.
In these promising times, the conceptual art forms might yet savour more glory moments at the auctions. The widely-acknowledged high priest of the less conventional art forms, El Anatsui, has blazed the trail for others to follow. Should connoisseurs expect a repeat of this feat at the auction's future editions?