Hannah O’Leary, Sothey’s Head of Modern & Contemporary African Art 

Following the success of Sotheby’s first-ever online auction dedicated to Modern & Contemporary African Art this March, the sale will return to Sothebys.com, with bidding open from 2-9 October. The seventh iteration of its kind, the auction is expected to fetch between £3.6-5.3 million – the highest pre-sale estimate for a sale in this category anywhere. An exhibition of the works on offer will go on public view in London from 3-8 October (34-35 New Bond Street, W1A 2AA).

The sale will be led by El Anatsui’s undulating sculpture that from afar appears as an elegant glittering cloth, but upon a closer inspection, reveals a subtle weaving of hundreds of metal botlecaps in various shades of fiery reds, earthy yellow and dazzling gold. In its first appearance at auction, Vumedi is expected to sell for between £800,000-1,200,000.

Vumedi will star alongside 12 works by Ben Enwonwu, Nigeria’s most famous artist, none of which have ever appeared at auction before. Among them, The Court of the Oba of Benin, is a major discovery that leads the group with an estimate of £100,000-150,000. Depicting festivities in the royal court of the traditional ruler of Benin, this masterpiece was painted after the artist’s apprenticeship in the guild of Benin bronze casters in 1943. Enwonwu believed indigenous art and culture were central in the making of African and Nigerian modernity, and he was proud of his adopted Benin culture, referring to himself as a Benin Prince when he arrived in London the following year.

Other works by the artist include: a rare 1956 prototype of his best-known work Anyanwu (est. £80,000-120,000), the large scale bronze sculpture that stands outside the National Museum in Lagos and in the Headquarters of the United Nations in New York; a sensitive portrayal of his beautiful 19 year old niece Regina (est. £40,000-60,000) painted in 1953; two paintings and two sculptures from his famed Africa Dances series; and Agbogho Mmuo (est. £20,000-30,000), one of the finest of his masquerade dancers ever to come to the market, dating to 1977 when the artist served as consultant to FESTAC, the Second World Festival of Black Arts and Culture.

Wash Day, a newly discovered painting by Enwonwu’s contemporary Gerard Sekoto, with whom he shared a studio in Paris in the late 1940s, will be offered with an estimate of £50,000-70,000. Painted shortly before his self-imposed exile to France in 1947, the canvas is a superlative example of Sekoto’s social realism and stands as a visual reminder of the disappeared South African suburbs that Sekoto once called home. A highlight of the forthcoming sale, Wash Day shows a woman conducting an everyday routine, a theme Sekoto returned to frequently in the years immediately preceding the formal implementation of apartheid.

Six paintings by South African artist Irma Stern also punctuate the sale. The Yellow Shawl (1939) is a tender portrayal of a beautiful Cape Malay woman, her face framed by a honey-coloured scarf, leads this group of works in its auction debut (est. £400,000-600,000). Contemporary art critics described this work as a “Madonna-like beauty” and “truly a masterpiece that does credit to South African art”. The Green Sari similarly represents the artist’s sensitive portrayal of the diversity of the women of South Africa (est. £300,000-500,000) and formed part of the exhibition ‘Irma Stern: A Life Well Travelled’ at the Irma Stern Museum, Cape Town earlier this year.

Further highlights include works by Morrocan artists Mohammed Melehi and Hassan El Glaoui, Senegalese-born Iba NdiayeEddy Kamuanga Illunga from Congo, Ghanaian painter, Amoako Boafo. Exploring the role of diaspora, race, identity and masculinity, Boafo’s painting looks to the work of his contemporaries of the African diaspora, among them Kerry James Marshall, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Toyin Ojih Odutola and Kehinde Wiley who discovered Boafo and became an early collector and champion of his work. Earlier this year, the Guggenheim museum announced the acquisition of Boafo’s painting, Joy Adenike (2019).

Elsewhere, the sale is distinguished by a selection of classic and contemporary photography, including works by the fathers of African studio photography, Malick Sidibé and Seydou Keïta, two prints from J.D. Okhai Ojeikere’s celebrated ‘Hairstyle’ series (est. £3,000-5,000), and contemporary photographs by rising female stars Nandipha Mntambo, Mary Sibande, Ayana V. Jackson and Zanele Muholi, who’s exhibition at Tate Modern opens on 5 November.

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