The Collector With A Conscience, By Sylvia Smith

The Collector With A Conscience, By Sylvia Smith

The collector with a conscience

Sindika Dokolo might be a successful businessman, but the story behind his unique art collection—the only African-owned collection held on the continent—is less about profit than it is about philanthropy. We sent Sylvia Smith to meet the modest visionary

Many people believe that you can’t be a good businessman and a real art lover at the same time. The general notion is that if you are involved in a profit-making enterprise, you will be driven to invest in art that is virtually guaranteed to increase in value. Congolese-born, Angolan-based collector Sindika Dokolo has turned that belief on its head, along with other cherished ideas about contemporary African art.

Sitting in the spacious office of the Sindika Dokolo Foundation in Luanda, Sindika is a courteous, quietly-spoken and modest man in his mid-30s. He speaks French, Portuguese and English—the latter with a light French accent—and in his typically understated way explains that his core collection was initially acquired from a German four years ago.

«Many of the works in my collection belonged to Hans Borgatzke, but I haven’t taken all the pieces into my collection,» he says. «About 30% are still in packing cases.» This leaves Sindika with more than 700 works of art that are by African artists or refer to the continent. Since his initial acquisition he has increased the collection consistently with art of the highest quality.

The story of the only African-owned body of art that is held on the continent doesn’t fall into any of the usual categories, although the collection has already caused a stir on its first international outing at the Venice Biennale. Sindika smiles at the memory of this important event, which awoke the world to the face of contemporary African art. «It was a chance to meet the most important art institutions, he explains. «Our hope is that Luanda will naturally take its place on the international art circuit.»

Once in a while an extraordinary event has huge repercussions and that is what happened in Venice, where African innovative energy stole the thunder. Although only 30 pieces were on display in the Africa Pavilion in an exhibition entitled ‹Check List Luanda Pop›, they dispelled any notion that Africa was lacking in top-league contemporary art. The city fell under the spell of works by Angolan artists such as Angel Ihosvanny, Viteix, Kiluanji Kia Henda, Nástio Mosquito and Yonamine, who explore ideas in a variety of media and give insights into a country recovering from almost three decades of civil war.

But the rest of the continent is equally well represented in the collection. Bili Bidjocka from Cameroon, Mounir Fatmi from Morroco, Amal Kenawy from Egypt and Ingrid Mwangi from Kenya sit comfortably alongside African artists from the diaspora—Chris Ofili, Yinka Shonibare, Ghada Amer and Oladélé Bamgboyé. The intense scrutiny that the art has come under underlines the pioneering nature of the collection. The level of interest in Venice mirrored the exhibition’s pulling power in Luanda, where the collection formed the country’s first international art ‘triennial’.

The city was literally festooned with art for months last year and the unprecedented display— minimalist and figurative work exhibited alongside conceptual art, installation, film and video —met with unforeseen results. «We were apprehensive that the work would be seen as elitist,» says Sindika. «But the people loved seeing internationally known artists like Andy Warhol. They had only seen images on television before and then there it was in front of their eyes.»

The choice of artists such as Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat, a black American with Haitian roots, inevitably raises questions about allowing non-Africans into the collection. «I say that it is an African collection,» explains Sindika. «Not a collection of African art.» lt is all part of the mission to open up Angola to the world of art and build a confidence in Africans that they can determine their own aesthetic, rather than have it imposed from the outside. As Sindika says, for many African art has remained frozen in the past of traditional wood carvings and masks.

«We have thrown open the doors that have held us in check,» he declares. «We cannot advance unless we have control of our own creative processes.» Taking control of the artistic process took a step forward with the Angolan government’s recent decision to create a new and spacious art college in Luanda.

It’s also reflected in the artists’ residence that is planned for the desert area close to the border with Namibia. «We want artists from around Africa to be able to come and work there,» Sindika enthuses. «We’ll also invite artists from the West. It’s an amazing place. I discovered it when travelling around in a four-wheel drive with an artist from Spain, Miquel Barceló.»

The Sindika Dokolo Foundation is also putting together a funding scheme that will allow African artists to apply for grants if they want to travel abroad to take part in a biennial or are invited to show in a foreign country. «It will make a world of difference not having to ask some unknown committee in New York,» he says.

But finally, it is the work that really counts and all the pieces in this collection are excellent examples of their type. Beyond the usual modern or post-modern framework, they speak volumes about serious, inventive impassioned artists grappling with social themes of global importance. The Sindika Dokolo Collection ticks all the right boxes and offers a unique window on the world and one that can be seen in the heart of Africa.