Items up for auction on Circle Art's web site.

Items up for auction on Circle Art’s website (screenshot by the author)

Love them or hate them, auctions often signal a milestone, whether it’s for new media art or work from a specific region. Recently, Circle Art Agency, a Kenyan arts organization, hosted the first major art auction in East Africa. With 47 works from 43 artists, the auction was incredibly successful, garnering a total $216,000, according to Think Africa Press.

Auctions of African art, of course, are not new. A quick look at Sotheby’s African & Oceanic Art department reveals a wide variety of masks available for purchase, while the Auction Room just hosted an online sale of African art. Strauss & Co hosts art auctions in South Africa, including a selection by artists from within the country. But part of what makes the Circle Art auction remarkable is its collectors, more than half of whom are Kenyans. The agency certainly knows its market.

Allan Githuka's Election Time, 2013, which sold for more than double its asking price. Click to view larger.

Allan Githuka’s “Election Time” 2013, which sold for more than double its asking price (screenshot by the author) (click to enlarge)

“The traditional gallery sort of situation of going to a gallery and running for two or three weeks is not necessarily the best way to bring in a new audience,” said Danda Jaroljmek, director at Circle Art, in Think Africa Press. “Kenyans like a party. By having a big noise, some glamour, a sort of party atmosphere, that’s perhaps a better way of doing it.”

The article goes on to describe the challenges of Nairobi’s art scene, which has few institutions to support artists commercially or educationally. But what Circle Art has brought, apparently, is programming designed specifically for the market, with dinner parties and regular studio visits. “In Nairobi,” notes the author of the Think Africa Press article, Jason Patinkin, “art is interactive.”

This auction comes in the context of Kenya’s growing presence in international media. Although the country faced a major tragedy recently with the Westgate Mall attacks, its peaceful elections earlier this year provided much to celebrate. Kenyans on Twitter, who often tweet with the hashtag #KOT, regularly dominate trending topics regionally and globally with tongue-in-cheek humor and wide networks, while the country’s tech sector has produced world-famous projects like Ushahidi, a mapping platform, and M-PESA, a mobile payments platform. The success of the Circle Art auction and approach is a good reminder that as the commercial art world globalizes, the form it takes in different countries and cultures will be as different and diverse as the art that takes hold.

The Latest

AX Mina

AX Mina (aka An Xiao Mina) is an author, artist and futures thinker who follows her curiosity. She co-produces Five and Nine, a podcast about magic, work and economic justice.