Building A Collection, Interview By Shannon Fitzgerald

Building A Collection, Interview By Shannon Fitzgerald

Building a Collection of Contemporary Art in Africa:
Interview with Collector Sindika Dokolo

by Shannon Fitzgerald

Sindika Dokolo is a Congolese-born, Luanda based businessman, community leader, activist, and art collector who began building upon one of the most important collections of contemporary art in Africa in 2003. He founded the Sindika Dokolo African Collection of Contemporary Art (SDACCA) based in Luanda, Angola with the goal of exposing the African public to its own contemporary production. Since its inception, the foundation has launched the first African Triennnial in the heart of the continent. Plans are underway for the Triennial De Luanda in 2010 and Mr. Dokolo’s dream of creating the first Centre for Contemporary Art in Luanda in 2012 is becoming a reality. Works from the collection were featured in the first official African Pavillion at the 52nd Venice Biennale of contemporary art in 2007 in an exhibition entitled Check List-Luanda Pop, curated by Fenando Alvim and Simon Njami. The collection boasts works by some of the most prominent African artists with international visibility such as Kendell Geers, Ghada Amer, Yinka Shonibare, Billi Bidjocka, Ingrid Mwangi, William Kentridge, Olu Oguibe, Marlene Dumas, Chris Ofili, and Pascale Marthine Tayou, among others. Of equal importance is the support and platform provided to artists not as well known and emerging Angolan artists. In addition to the African art collected, Mr. Dokolo is committed to including important art by artists such as Andy Warhol and Basquiat not before made accessible in Africa. With the rise in international group exhibitions across the globe, perhaps Luanda will become the next critical destination for curators, collectors, and art

Shannon Fitzgerald: What first led you to begin collecting art?
Sindika Dokolo: My parents had a lot to do with it. My father was Congolese, my mother is Danish, I grew up in Paris. Our house has therefore always been an interesting cultural mix. These different backgrounds have induced very early a strong subjectivity and perso-nality in my taste. My parents took me to museums around the world, I had the chance to discover Athens and the Greek classical aesthetic, the Prado and the Louvre at a very early age. The second influence comes from one of my father’s closest friends, Mr. Jean Cambier, a major Belgian collector of pre-Colombian and what used to be called “primitive African art”. I used to spend all my week ends at his place in Waterloo near Brussels. I was only a child, but he took me in like a friend and shared his passion with me. He taught me that objects have a soul and can carry a meaning so strong they can mark your life in unexpected ways. He gave me the bug of collecting. Years later, in Paris, I stumbled upon a Jean-Michel Basquiat while searching for an apartment. Being exposed to Basquiat’s painting for the first time was such an incredible moment, I remember it as if it happened in slow motion. Art had never made me feel that way before. The painting revealed very intimate and confused feelings, and yet in a deep and crystal clear way. It explored feelings in ways I never thought possible — stress, strength, emotion, identity, fear, violence, sex. I realized at that moment how colours on a canvas could express human emotions in such an accurate way, while words seem too limited, too clumsy. Later, after much hunting and negotiation, I eventually acquired it, which I think must have cost as much as the entire collection. Pharynx is a very special piece to me. It has changed the way I look at art and relate to it, it has revealed to me how powerful, intense and yet beautiful and minimal contemporary art could be, it has taught me what African contemporary art should be : expressive, audacious, rhythmic,
sensual, universal.

SF: Until recently, the most important collections of contemporary African art were based in Europe: the Jean Pigozzi Collection in France and the Hans Bogatzke Collection in Belgium. In 2003, you acquired the private collection of the late German collector Hans Bogatzke based in Belgium. How did that come about?
It begins with my friendship with Angolan artist and curator Fernando Avlim. He is an incredible human being : very generous and yet demanding, highly productive, resourceful, and creative. He has an amazing ability to mix art, politics, philosophy, and identity at the same time. He introduced me to emerging artists and the Bogatzke collection. Right after 9-11, I received the terrible news of Bogatzke’s passing. Soon after, Alvim contacted me and asked me to buy the collection. It was an urgent request based on his desire to protect the collection as a whole and bring it to Africa where it would be the first collection of that importance made available to the African public. I thought about it; it was ten times over my budget, but I realized it was important and decided to do it. I bought around six hundred pieces in one go and decided to incorporate 250 works in the Sindika Dokolo collection that I really liked. I decided to donate the rest to the future museum of contemporary art of Luanda. Since then, the collection grew, it has now about a thousand pieces.

SF: Was the most important goal of acquiring this collection to return it to Africa, particularly sub-Saharan Africa?
I am very proud of the collection. Yet I think it manages to be more than a number of aesthetic objects put together because of how it is exposed to an African audience. It interacts with it, confronts it, celebrates it, challenges it. Try to imagine for a second a situation where none of the masterpieces of Indiana, Lichtenstein, Warhol, or Rothko would be available on American soil. What would be the impact on European societies and people if you took away Da Vinci, Vermeer, Vangogh, Manet, Schiele, Giacometti, Picasso, Gaudi, Duchamp on the one hand and Hirst, Soulage, Beuys, Fontana, Lucian Freud on the other hand. Well that is the cultural desert, the civilizational nightmare that the foundation is trying to eradicate. Angola, which has only been independent since 1975, has been destroyed by the several wars it’s had to face. First against the colonialist Portuguese, then against the racist South Africa of the 80s and finally against internationally backed rebels. Despite all the suffering and destruction, it is a country that is recovering from its wounds. Contrary to what people think, the reason for this spectacular rebirth is not the price of oil, but it is the inner strength of the Angolan people. Angolans are determined and lively, they are altruist and strong. They are also sensitive and passionate about their country and their culture. Our first president, Agostinho Neto, was a poet. His poems about his country and the fight for freedom not only for us but for Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe who only overruled apartheid in the 80s and 90s are taught in all the Angolan schools. At the peak of the war, when there wasn’t enough food, the government was importing musical instruments from Bulgaria and bringing in Russian ballet professors from Russia. Such a people needs and deserves to have access to the art world. My ambition is to constitute over the years the best possible contemporary collection in Africa. Not the most expensive one or the biggest one in volume, but the one that stimulates and enriches the best the African art scene.

SF: Now that you have housed the collection in Luanda, Angola and created a public forum for ideas and exhibitions, moving forward, how do you build upon what you have acquired and have impact locally?
I am completely obsessed with the idea of creating a museum of contemporary art in Luanda. I think it is the next step. I am also interested in establishing a museum in Congo. Right now, the art market in Angola and Congo (less in Angola) remains decorative and scholarly with the only objective being able to make something beautiful, sell it, and make a living. If I could use the critical mass of the collection to create a market based on a stronger artistic perspective, I think it would already be an amazing achievement.

SF: The collection has grown significantly since 2003 with your additions. What is the philosophy behind building the collection and creating the Sindika Dokolo Foundation in Luanda?
In the collection, I have a personal and intimate relationship with each object and at the same time the collection has an existence of its own because its main goal is to expose the African public to its contemporary creation. When I buy art, I don’t imagine how it would look like
in my living room, since its objective is to be exhibited. I also have to consider its pertinence with other pieces that I already have. Yet, at the end of the day I’m not a museum, I’m a collector. I like art in a very personal way. I would never buy art that I don’t approve of or that doesn’t seduce me or attract me. There are several aspects that I personally consider when I buy a work of art. The aesthetic has to please me of course, but most important for me are the artistic “language” of the artist (is it dominated or still too intuitive), the meaning, the dialogue between the work and its audience, the elegance of the artist, his universal ambition and the credibility of his approach.

SF: Your collection was recently featured in the exhibition Check List-Luanda Pop, for the African Pavilion at the 53rd Venice Biennale. It was curated by Fernando Avlim and Cameroonian, Paris-based Simon Njami. What was the most significant thing about that experience that has stayed with you?
Alvim and Njami are strong curators with strong ideas, and they took a risk and created a great exhibition; I am proud of that. Our objective was to show what Luanda Pop is about, and to celebrate the fact that for once it was Africans (curators, artists, patrons) who got to invite and show Africa to a western audience and not the other way around. However, after all the controversy surrounding the African Pavilion in Venice, I decided to focus on the mission of the Foundation, its role in Africa, and how it could have the most impact there. For now, I strive to affect change on the ground, where it is so necessary and worthy. This trend of saying that Africa’s worst enemies are its elites is shameful, stupid and racist. It’s all the more sad when these simplistic theories are developed by Africans.

SF: Are you interested in expanding your collection to include artists of the European and/or American Diaspora in your collection?
The only reason why I differentiate African art from art in general is because I can not accept to live in a continent that has no reference, no point of view no perspective, past or present. Not only do I want to buy art from the Diaspora ( I never actually do it consciously), but I want to buy art without boundaries. Maybe not within the collection, but as I tried to express before, my point is to make an African collection of art, not a collection of African art. By the way, one of the greatest things I bought last year was a Chris Ofili. Its as big as a postage stamp. I love it, it is my favourite. His work inspires me to look further. I want to start a significant African-American collection and try to gain a larger perspective. I am beginning a long road trip in this endeavour that I hope will last a life time.

SF: In addition to your Jean-Michel Basquiat, you have an Andy Warhol in your collection. What is your interest in that work specifically?
Muhammad Ali is without a doubt one of the most iconic persons of the twentieth century: first, I love boxing, I used to be a boxer and I was born in Kinshasa a little bit before the rumble in the jungle. Second, he is a living aesthetic statement and the ultimate romantic hero. I think he is even more iconic than Nelson Mandela. I was walking down the street in London and bumped into the picture in a gallery. It managed to convey everything Ali was about without even depicting his face. Wow! I thought it showed the genius of the subject as well as that of the artist. Let’s not forget what a brilliant artist Warhol was before being recuperated as a show off artefact by yuppies who have no interest in art. It resonated on another level too. Why is it that Africans do not have access to universal culture? How come we have never seen Karel Appel, Calder, Basquiat, and Warhol? So I bought it, took it to Luanda, and included it in the Triennial. It’s been printed on an out board in the street for months and people loved it. In this new context, it became a cultural reference, a symbol of the Luanda Pop experience.

SF: Your collection includes many women artists – women artists who are breaking down boundaries, challenging perceptions, and gaining visibility like no other time in our history. How do you see the role of women artists and their support improving in Africa?
I’m interested in art that confronts society with its flaws, injustices, identity and moral issues. Whether because of culture, religion or more generally sub-development linked issues, women’s status in Africa is, as the oppressed often are when they fight, in an ideal position for severe questioning and confrontation. Even more so when it comes to artistic practice. I like it when artists’ proposals disturb, challenge, create polemics. It induces a dimension of intensity and necessity that makes the artwork not only interesting in itself, but also pertinent within its historical and societal context. Confronting people’s established ideas requires courage. Without wanting to sound sexist, I think female artists are often more courageous than male and tend to be more accurate when exploring sensitive areas. The women artists I’ve had the chance to meet seemed, as people, very coherent with their work, while men sometimes manage to take some distance more easily. Maybe because being a woman, whether you are African or American, is still a challenge in our modern societies. Artists like Ghada Amer, Tracey Rose, Ingrid Mwangi, Minnette Vári or Marlene Dumas are super skilled artists. As empowered African women, they also explore and confront the boundaries of our male controlled societies and invite us in their world where death, sex, gender or race are redefined by them with a unique accuracy and liberty of approach that is bound to make us evolve. The same works internationally with artists like Jenny Savile, Vanessa Beecroft, Tracey Emin, Shirin Neshat or Nikki de St Phale.

SF: Do you envision your collection growing with more North African Artists in the future?
For various reasons, North Africa is a very prolific area for interesting art. First, it’s geographically linked to the Mediterranean region and is thus an interface between continents (Europe, Middle East, Africa) that have differences in culture, religion, perception of global issues. Topics such as religion and civilization gaps, geopolitics, migrations, social and cultural issues like women’s status and self-affirmation constitute very interesting grounds for exploration for pertinent new artists. Northern Africa is also very interesting because of the importance of emigration towards Europe after the Second World War. A lot of young artists of Northern African origin who are European born with African background make stunning works and proposals related to issues such as identity and confront the old continent from within — about its ethics, its capacity to absorb novelty and regenerate itself and to live the true meaning of the concept of global plurality. Artists such as Zoulikha Bouabdellah, Fatmi Mounir or Kader Attia are very interesting in that perspective.

SF: What is distinct about the Triennial De Luanda, specifically in respect to the Dakar Biennial, the Cairo Biennial, and the now defunct Johannesburg Biennial?
The particularity of the Triennial is that it corresponds to an artistic movement that we called “Luanda Pop.” Luanda Pop was part of the name of the African Pavilion in the 52nd Biennale of Venice. This movement is conjecturally the result of several factors: peace after 30 years of war against apartheid in South Africa and civil war, reconstruction and economic stabilization mixed with urban explosion, and structurally, political approach of culture, a philosophical need for self-affirmation and identity and cultural determination. The other distinction has to do with the way the event interacts with the city and its population. There is such a thirst for novelty and national culture that the whole population without limits of age or social groups celebrates creativity and cultural richness. It happens in 15 different spaces in the city, it is very contemporary, and it promotes various media of expression: video, performances, theatre, contemporary dance, design, and even fashion. It works a little bit like a carnival in the sense that it is popular and inclusive, the whole city beats to the rhythm of the Triennial — 3 months before and 3 months after. About 100 billboards in the city are offered to the Triennial community during 6 months. We expose art or cultural information everywhere in the streets. Art invites itself in the urban jungle of Luanda and feeds a new cultural fact: Luanda Pop.

SF: Looking forward, what do you hope to achieve for the Triennial De Luanda 2010?
My hope is that it will be as good as the first one in terms of freshness and impact on Angolan society. My dreams are many: I want to organize a Basquiat exhibition in Luanda as soon as we have a proper venue; I want to launch an artist-in-residence program in the desert of Namibe (South of Angola) on a site that we identified with my friend Miquel Barcelo; I want to invite for the Triennial artists that don’t necessarily have connections with the African Art scene but that I like, such as Anish Kapoor, Banksy, or even Damian Hirst, and why not living legends like Cy Twombly or Lucian Freud. I realize that it might be difficult to organize, but my paradox as a collector is that I have very little interest in the market. What I love is art and what interests me is how art works on people, how it impacts and interacts with them, and how it changes them. Art is universal, and the best possible art is the most universal one, the one that will constitute the common asset of human kind and mark its time. Therefore, by not considering the importance of sharing that fundamental asset with the Africans, the developed world confiscates a little bit of our humanity. My opinion, and the battle of my foundation, is that it is true that being very poor and still unable to provide for our own populations, we need food, medicines and assistance, but at the same time, as long as we don’t get books, professors, and as long as the world doesn’t help us create museums where we can see the treasures of our past cultures — Delacroix, Picasso, Lucio Fontana or Warhol — the need for assistance will never stop. That is also the logic of the Triennial and I hope it will be a success in bringing these important issues forward, both for the public and the art world.

SF: Can you share with us names of artists that will be participating?
Being originally from the DRC, I would like to create some bridges with my country of origin where contemporary art is struggling so much to have a proper scene, market and public. Certain groups of young artists — like Lybrists and Eza possibly in Kinshasa or the Vicanos in Lubumbashi — are trying to organize the Congolese scene but are still fragile and need exposure. The Triennial de Luanda would be a great opportunity to invite them
to join and become a part of Luanda Pop by receiving some of our experience and participating in our quest for our own contemporanety, aesthetic and Africanness. Luanda Pop and the Triennial are not about selling art or desperately trying to prove to the artists to interact with a public they never expected to exist. It’s a place where art comes first and artists don’t need to justify themselves or become merchants. It’s the ideal place for experimental proposals and deep reflection on what art can be for people in our modern societies. That’s why one of the projects that has already been defined is a series of works by the Cameroonian artist Bili Bidjocka, where he reflects and echoes between his perspective as an artist and Joseph Beuys’s. I would also like to invite Ghada Amer to make a landscape that could stay like a work of art for the city of Luanda, as well as Miquel Barcelo and Chris Ofili. Besides that, I would like some of the African artists that I find critically important for any young African to know about to participate in the Triennial and leave a trace of their passage. People like Kendell Geers, Ingrid Mwangi, Olu Oguibe, El Anatsui, Oladele Bamgboyé, Tracey Rose, Julie Mehretu, Marlene Dumas, Wangeshi Mutu and Sue Williamson are fundamental.

SF: Are there plans underway to document and publish your collection in a printed catalogue?
We are currently working on several projects regarding the content of the collection. First, there is a catalogue that should be ready for the end of the year. We are also working on a website that is almost finished, and on a documentary film about Luanda Pop. The difficulty with the catalogue is that there is too much to show and to explain. With the help of friends like Simon Njami and Iris Buchholz I’m nevertheless very enthusiastic about that project.

SF: This moment in contemporary art represents an exciting juncture as the visibility of a contemporary Africa and contemporary African art continues to shape and define perceptions about the aesthetic and cultural production within a vast continent. Do you see your work as contributing to the reposition of art historical discourse?
Strong and lively art expression existed in Africa before post modernists tried to analyze or categorize it. I think it is time for Africa, for good or for bad, to be defined by the Africans themselves. Curators and intellectuals like Okwui Enwezor, Simon Njami, and Olu Oguibe, artists like Bidjocka, Alvim, Tayou, Mofokeng, politicians and all Africans that have a strong opinion about the matter constitute and enrich the mosaic of Africanness in the twenty-first century. By creating an opportunity for all these people to gather and along with the African public reflect through their work on these fundamental and existential issues, the collection participates actively in enabling Africans to take back control of the discourse about African modernity. Fifty years after our independences, we are still looking at ourselves through the eyes of others. The way to correct that is, in the long term, to work on culture, awareness, and selfconsciousness That is why one of the aims of the Foundation is to make knowledge about our history, philosophers, and artists available to the public. With time, we might be able to free ourselves from the “referent,” the big brother inside ourselves that is constantly watching us and judging from a perspective that is not ours. In the art field, it is the same logic, trying to create a market by giving the opportunity to young artists to have access to the world, to the history of art, but also to confront them with their public, we are helping them to participate in that redefinition of ourselves by ourselves.

SF: In conclusion, Is there anything else about your collecting philosophy or your foundation you would like to share?
One cannot understand Luanda Pop if they don’t understand that I am a collector on a mission. My perspective is clearly political, the aim of the Foundation is to raise awareness within the African public opinion and set a battlefield where post independent Africans will be able to contribute to the well-being of future generations. The collection is a cultural weapon around which Luanda Pop gravitates. It works like an electroshock, questioning our perception of the “established fact,” wherever it prevents us from getting closer to our goal. I want my children, their cousins and friends, to have a clear consciousness of themselves. I want them to have an intelligent and demanding look on the world, and most of all, I want
that look to be their own.

SF: Such hope, optimism, vision, and hard work goes a long way. I look forward to the future of contemporary art in Luanda and beyond! Thank you Sindika!