The Art Market for Contemporary African Art: Interview with Christophe Person from Art Curial.
Updated: Apr 19, 2021
Christophe Person is Head of Contemporary African Art at Art Curial, an auction house in Paris, France. Laura Harris interviewed Person in March 2021.
Person says: 'I started at Art Curial in 2020 where I was headhunted for a new role and before that, I was working at PIASA, another French auction house, for five years. Previous to this, I worked in banking. I then decided to embark on an MSc in Art, Law and Business at Christie's Education where I was able to learn and understand the art market and concepts around Art Law. Whilst there, I focussed my studies on African art, which five years ago wasn't as what it is today. The opening of the Venice Biennale focussed on African arts and there was an opportunity for me to specialise in this area.
Of his banking background: 'It's an advantage to have an open background, I developed methodologies in finance and also developed relationships with clients in finance, which is essential for the art world. What I do now is linked and I understand artists which I convey as messages. The commercial component is very important and so it's a very good compliment. There are constraints in the art world which I can understand coming from banking. On running the auction house during Covid19: 'We are adapting day by day. We are able to run auctions at a moment's notice online behind closed doors, as well as in person. We have developed ways to carry on with the business.' Regarding the current developments in the African art market: 'What is very interesting about the African Art market, you have all the energies and synergies dedicated to the very Contemporary- with the curators, museums, exhibitions and institutions, galleries and auction houses. Modern African Art is sometimes sidelined, there is a wealth and diversity of modern art in Africa is fantastic but not so many actors are working on modern works. There are very few artists' estates in Africa as far as I know or secondary market galleries specialising in this area. The auction houses aren't doing so much either, except for Sotheby's, they are doing some but there is a lot to do. I believe in hyper specialisation, so that's why I dedicated an auction to one school and one country to present a mini auction of only forty artists.' Of the countries within Africa in which Person works with artists from: 'I work with artists from the DRC: Democratic Republic of Congo and a lot of Belgians and other people went there during the colonisation, one of these in the nineteen forties developed in a city called Elisabethville, now known as Lubumbashi, DR Congo. This school is an homage to nature and eco systems and witnessed a period of time which is over now.' Person continues: 'The production at that time is a mix of what the artists wanted to produce and also what the clients wanted to buy. I think it is something that is very interesting, The dynamic is the other way around, as to what usually happens. The auction house is doing the first step to reveal the wealth to the market and this is really new and very exciting to me, not only the commercial component of it but also the research that can be done to understand everything. The context in which it is produced, the aesthetic, who were the buyers, philanthropists and artists. Very little has been written about it. It's attracting a lot of interest from the press and media who are trying to understand modern art from Africa at that time, Africa was not independent then. When you see the work it's made with a lot of freedom actually, it doesn't seem to me to be orientalist in the bad sense of the word, it's very spontaneous and very sincere. it is difficult to work out exactly what was going on at the time with the production of the work.' Person comments on the reasons behind the strength of the French art market in terms of a highly developed market for African Contemporary Art outside Africa, compared with much smaller markets in London or New York, other key art market centres in the Western world. 'Brexit is leading to a reshuffling of the market, large galleries who had headquarters in London are now opening spaces in Paris especially around Art Curial near the Champs Elysees, we now have an area that is looking like Mayfair, with art galleries mixing with luxury hotels and fashion. Galleries who specialise in African Art coming from Chicago are setting up in Paris, which is very positive for the Parisian scene.' Person says: 'France and Africa both for a long time, have a very strong relationship, sometimes good and sometimes bad. Also many Africans still come to France and we have the French language in common as well as Portuguese and English which are commonly spoken here, so it's a way of easing those discussions. France is a place where a lot of art has been made historically, so it is very attractive for artists and why we have a dynamic market here. Person has an entrepreneurial streak and works on other projects outside of the auction house. Person says it's easier for people to promote, buy, sell, hang and store paintings, but more difficult to show and promote the work of African scupltors, even though the work was conveying relevant messages. In response to this, in 2019, Person co-founded BISO, a biennial in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, foccussing on these artists. This was a fascinating insight into the growing art market for Contemporary African Art, and a market which will no doubt grow in size, both in France and in the UK this decade.