African Modern & Contemporary Art

Meet Hannah O'Leary – Champion of Contemporary African Art

By Sotheby's

Since establishing Sotheby’s Modern & Contemporary African Art department in June 2016, Hannah O’Leary has found that collectors’ desire for new artists, as well as museums’ efforts to diversify their collections, has led to major potential for growth in this vibrant field. After studying art history and cultural anthropology at the University of Glasgow, the Dublin-born O’Leary began her career in the Australian art department at Sotheby’s Melbourne in 2005. Moving to London in 2006, she helped launch Bonhams’s first African Modern and contemporary art auction in 2009, and by 2010 she was leading the department. For the past year, O’Leary has brought that expertise to Sotheby’s, which will hold its first sale in the category in London on 16 May. Mariko Finch spoke with O’Leary about this dynamic collection area and its burgeoning market.


When did you begin your study of African modern and contemporary art?  

I’ve always been interested in international art. I worked with Australian art at Sotheby’s Melbourne, and then moved to Bonhams in 2006. There I discovered Modern African masters such as Gerard Sekoto, Ben Enwonwu and Skunder Boghossian, whose work referenced local and international art movements while also speaking of political and social changes around them. At the same time, I saw a growing demand for these artists from private collectors, particularly from the burgeoning economies of South Africa and Nigeria. Within a year we started sales of South African art, followed by sales of Modern and contemporary African art in 2009. So African art has been my area of expertise for more than a decade now. 

The term “African Art” is very broad. Is this a problematic label?

An issue arises when Africa is referred to as a country, as often happens in the media. The continent has 54 countries covering a vast area. To talk of African art as if it were one school, or as if artists in South Africa and Morocco had a shared art history – that is incorrect. However, Africa has been largely overlooked by the international art world until recently, and so it benefits from the platform our sales and expertise provide.

WOSENE WORKE KOSROF, BEAUTY OF YOUR OWN IV, 2011. © THE ARTIST. Estimate: £20,000–30,000.

Do people in Europe make assumptions about the art you are bringing to the market?

Absolutely. Many people immediately think of traditional ethnographic art, or of wildlife or tourist art. They do not associate Africa with well-known contemporary artists such as William Kentridge from South Africa, or Julie Mehretu, who was born in Ethiopia. The art in our sales deals with contemporary issues such as politics, immigration, race, gender, sexuality and so on. We want to change the clichés about Africa and its art and represent a diverse continent rich with culture, talent and innovation.

Who are the artists to watch that you are excited about?

Njideka Akunyili Crosby, a young Nigerian artist I’ve been raving about for years, made her first auction appearance at Sotheby’s New York last November in the Contemporary Art sale, where her work fetched more than one million dollars. I also have my eye on Mohau Modisakeng from South Africa, Eddy Ilunga Kamuanga from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Léonce Raphael Agbodjelou from Benin and Pascale Marthine Tayou from Cameroon, to name a few. 

WILLIAM KENTRIDGE , WORLD ON ITS HIND LEGS , 2010. Estimate: £70,000–90,000. © THE ARTIST.

How do you see this market developing? 

I feel confident that this is a market on the rise. I don’t believe the biggest names from the continent, such as Ibrahim El-Salahi and even El Anatsui, have reached their full potential at auction yet. African artists currently account for less than 0.1 per cent of the international art market – fewer than ten have ever realised more than one million at auction – and so there is huge potential. African economies are growing, museums are looking to internationalise their largely European and American collections, and collectors are always seeking out exciting new artists. 

What has been your primary focus this year in the run-up to the sale?

I have been listening to collectors and curators in cities such as Johannesburg, Lagos and Accra, as well as in the international art capitals of London, New York and Paris, to discover which artists to watch, who is in demand, and also what we can do differently at Sotheby’s. We want to represent the biggest names from the continent in our auctions, those with established reputations who collectors can be assured will stand the test of time. This curatorial approach is very much needed in this relatively young market.


What is your advice for getting involved in this fast-developing area?

I would advise collectors to get in touch – I am always happy to share my knowledge and advise on where to see the work.  Of course I would encourage everyone to travel to the continent, but even in London we have a number of galleries and museums that exhibit work by African and diaspora artists and an annual contemporary African art fair. Plus, some of my favourite artists live and work here, including Yinka Shonibare, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye and Hassan Hajjaj. As with any art, I would always advise buyers to check authenticity and provenance, and above all, to buy what you love. 

Hannah O'Leary
Director, Head of Modern & Contemporary African Art
Telephone: +44 207 293 5696

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