Is South Africa loosing artists to the International Art Market?

by Andries Loots - 2 August 2004

Candice Breitz
Becoming Cameron
, 2003 stills from 31 min 22 sec video
(Photocredit: Max Hetzler - Artnews) 

Regarding the current state of the International art market and the status of the selected few South African artists who have been successful internationally since 1994, the question can very well be asked if we are loosing the cream of our art crop to a much more appreciative international audience ? 

Since the demise of cultural sanctions and the opening up of marketing opportunities because of the Internet, it has become easier for artists to promote their work to the International Galleries and buyers with previously dominant and controlling Galleries playing a less significant role. 

Although many artists are claiming International fame and exhibition status on their CV’s, it is but a selected few that have attained credibility at the more prominent galleries. There are various factors contributing to the internationally success of an artists - the number of Solo Exhibitions, the existence of a secondary market and prices realized at International Auctions all play a role in establishing fame and status.


Zwelethu Mthethwa
Sugar cane series

The ones who do make it are set to become household names with the rest of the distinguished artists from around the world. In a publication on the 100 most influential International artists, launched recently in Japan, two South African artists namely William Kentridge and Zwelethu Mthethwa are included. Both these artists have had numerous solo exhibitions in Galleries representing their work in Europe and New York. Their works are appearing regularly on auction at Sotheby’s, Christies and Phillips. Kentridge had numerous Museums and touring exhibitions and his work is represented in numerous Museum-, corporate and private collections around the world. Zwelethu Mthethwa whose prominence has only recently escalated, is planning his first Solo touring exhibition starting in the USA in 2006. Mthethwa’s works have also been taken up in some the world’s most prestigious museum collections and his photography is sought after worldwide by collectors.

When artists like these are achieving high prices for their work Internationally, pricing their work locally in South Africa becomes an increasing dilemma regarding affordability for local collectors. This results in the artists works not being available to the handful of local collectors who sometimes squabble over prices with no idea about the international status of the artist. 

Good examples are newcomers like Claudette Schreuders and Candise Breitz who although being South African, do not sell their work in South Africa due to the pressure from their international dealers. 

The South African Galleries, buyers and collectors can partly also be blamed as in many cases they didn’t show interest in the artists during their early careers but only later once they become successful internationally. Poverty and lack of education result in a very thin and uneducated local market. South African artists like Marlene Dumas are now regarded as Dutch and she has been lost to the local market. More and more artists will look for better opportunity internationally and like many of our other professionals, we will have to go abroad to view or buy works by these artists...

Claudette Schreuders
Officer Molefe, Wooden sculpture

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