At Sotheby’s Art for Africa Gala, a Preview and a Surprise

“A dear friend told me that once you have been to Africa, it will course through your blood and become part of your soul, and it has,” actress Archie Panjabi told a crowd at Sotheby’s on Wednesday night, at the Art for Africa gala dinner.  “And now it lives forever in my heart.”

Ms. Panjabi, who appears in the CBS television series The Good Wife, spoke of visiting the slums of Nairobi, Kenya, while filming the 2005 film The Constant Gardner. “There was such an urgent and basic need for education and healthcare in these villages,” she said. “My ten weeks in that area had such a profound effect on me—the beautiful faces, the contagious smiles, the outstretched arms reaching for hugs.”

And then, as Elise Knutsen reported for The Observer, Ms. Panjabi beseeched the crowd to support the Africa Foundation, which supports a variety of charitable work in the continent and had organized the event. “Tonight,” she said, “seventy-nine incredibly talented artists have lent their spirit, creativity and vision to support orphaned and vulnerable children throughout Southern and Eastern Africa in the hope that you too in turn will do the same.”

Those artists’ works, which will be auctioned at Sotheby’s on Nov. 17, were on view in the galleries outside the dining room. There were photographs by Nick Cave (a figure dancing in one of his Soundsuits) and Nan Goldin, as well as prints by Andy Warhol and charity-auction mainstay Alex Katz. A photograph by Hank Willis Thomas showed a black man hanging in midair against a black background, his hand slipped through a noose, holding a basketball.

There were also some surprises among the works, like an ethereal drawing by self-taught octogenarian artist Thornton Dial and a portrait session with Andres Serrano. (A selection of work in the auction is in the slideshow at left; the full list of offerings is available through the foundation.)

Later in the evening, philanthropist Audrey Irmas took to the stage and offered to provide $100,000 in matching funds, on the spot, if guests could together raise the same. Sotheby’s executive Eliza Osborne, in a champagne-colored dress, cajoled the guests to action, starting the donations at $10,000. She found two immediate takers, and for just one moment, Gallerist sat in awe, stunned to watch an auctioneer calling out for bids with nothing to offer in return but the satisfaction of philanthropy.

Ms. Osborne reduced the donation offer and continued to find donors at intervals of $2,500 and $1,000. “It’s for the children,” she said in a low, serious voice at a point when the bidding–or rather, the donating–slowed. “For the children.” A few more hands shot up from the table. “That always works,” she smiled.

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