East African art market ready for International recognition – Q&A with Circle Art Agency Director, Danda Jaroljmek

The Circle Modern and Contemporary East African Auction follows the lead and success of London based Bonhams and Nigeria based Arthouse Contemporary auctions which have staged regular art auctions in a bid to build the emerging African art market. The Circle auction, the only one in East Africa; has transformed the art scene in Kenya, creating enormous interest in East African art regionally and internationally.

Danda Jaroljmek, Founder and Director, Circle Art Agency confirms that this has enabled a gain of international recognition for East Africa’s contemporary artists and the re-introduction of regional modern artists.

“Hosting the third Circle Modern and Contemporary East African Auction gives us a unique opportunity to introduce modern masters and cutting edge contemporary artists from six countries from both the secondary and primary market and prove that art from this region is worthy of investment.” She said in a press release.

To celebrate its third year running, STARTjournal.org an online platform for visual arts in East Africa talks to Danda Jaroljmek.

START: The Modern and Contemporary East African art Auction has already established itself as a major art event on the East African art calendar. How did this idea of an art Auction come about?

Danda: Circle Art Agency was established in 2012, to support East African artists by developing new markets locally and internationally. An auction is an established international platform for acquiring art and encouraging a secondary market for art. We were advised by Giles Peppiatt from Bonhams in London and felt that the time was right for an East African auction. Arthouse Contemporary had been successful in Nigeria so we took a chance and it paid off.

START: Aside from artists getting a big paycheck for their art once it’s sold, what are the other benefits of the Auction to the East African art market?

Danda: Where do I start! Well we only take 15% commission from artists and the secondary market so they stand to make more from a sale. The auction establishes prices for artists work, we receive considerably press coverage locally and internationally on Auction sites such as Artnet which is great exposure for art in the region. We have bidders who only buy at auction as they like the excitement and the challenge. The catalogues have been distributed worldwide to thousands of collectors and are being used as reference. We are able to give prominence to the Modern artists in the region many who have been forgotten as people know more about the contemporary artists in the region.

START: How is the art for the Auction selected?

Danda: A Balance of contemporary and modern, a balance across the region, a balance of primary and secondary market and of course excellence, the best art we can find from the artists we want to include.

START: The phrase “Africa has the coolest new Art” is common today in many art circles. How possible is this when the continent still has many artists who are illiterate about the art they are making and obviously there’re few art infrastructures in Africa compared to the West?

Danda: The Art market frequently follows emerging economic markets; the continent has lots of exceptional artists. In all of the 16 or so African countries I have travelled to in the last 2 decades there are hardworking artists and people who support them. Internationally museums like MOCAA in South Africa, the Tate Modern in UK are collecting African art. Information is accessible nowadays unlike in the past, so artists have access to opportunities and there are some great art events across the continent such as the Dakar Biennale, Bamako Rencontres, Addis Fotofest, KLA Art and art fairs in Johannesburg and Capetown offering direct opportunities for artists to participate.

Duncan Willetts
At Home, Goffrey Mukasa. Image by Duncan Willetts courtesy of Circle Art Agency

START: Female artists complain about gender inequality in art festivals on the continent. As Circle Art agency how are you addressing this disparity?

Danda: We work with many female artists, our first show in the gallery this year was almost entirely women, many of the most well known artists gaining international recognition are women.

START: There are still a dismal number of artists from Uganda who are represented in the Auction compared to Kenya, Tanzania and Sudan. Why is this so?

Danda: We have eight Ugandan Lots this year out of 51 as we are featuring the Emerson Foundation Collection from Zanzibar. Last year we had twelve Ugandan artworks so Uganda is fairly represented. We feature around 50 Lots each year from 5 or 6 countries so we try to balance and focus on one country a little more each year.

Duncan Willetts
No African Pope, Paul Ndema 2015 image by Duncan Willetts courtesy of Circle Art Agency

START: The economic situation in the East African region is currently volatile. What infrastructure have you put forward to make sure the Auction is successful albeit this economic meltdown?

Danda: I don’t believe it will affect the auction, Nairobi art collectors are excited about this year’s auction, we already have a lot of bidders registered and the price of most East African art is still very affordable compared with other art markets, if anything it should be advantageous to us as the market is still developing and prices are fair.

START: Where do you see the East African art market in ten years from now?

Danda: Booming, following the lead of South Africa and Nigeria, we hope East African artists will have the recognition they deserve.