Africa Ascending, Part I: Contemporary Artists on the Continent Find a Collector Base at Home

MAY 23, 2016


Africa Ascending, Part I: Contemporary Artists on the Continent Find a Collector Base at Home

Congolese collector Sindika Dokolo with paintings by Mustafa Maluka.


In its May 2016 issue, Art+Auction looked at the art market in Africa, where contemporary artists from the continent who have enjoyed largely European patronage in recent decades are now finding an emerging collector base at home. In the series of articles, which will be released on ARTINFO this week, the magazine profiled some of the figures who have played critical roles in furthering the cultural dialogue within Africa as well as bringing the continent’s artists into the international spotlight. Here is part one:

“It has been exhilarating to be part of something good for Angolan society—for the human conscience, for a future built on peace, and for the fostering of greater communication between cultures,” says Lisbon- and Luanda-based artist Francisco Vidal of the postwar emergence of the art scene in the southern African nation over the past decade. Angola’s artists have been attracting international attention since their debut pavilion garnered the Golden Lion award at the 2013 Venice Biennale. This was followed by a critically acclaimed encore at last year’s Biennale and, more recently, the opening of the Luanda Triennial, the fourth edition of which runs at a suite of venues in the capital city through the end of this year.

Angolan artists’ star turn on the international art world stage is just one part of a growing recognition of contemporary art from Africa. Angola and South Africa have led the charge, followed by Nigeria, Ghana, Ivory Coast, and Senegal, where a host of galleries have sprung up of late, including Echo Art in Lagos and Galerie Cécile Fakhoury in Abidjan. Senegal hosts the 12th edition of Dak’Art from May 3 through June 2. Curated by Simon Njami, the biennial presents the work of 65 artists from across the continent.

Meanwhile, American audiences looking for a chance to acquire works that remain relatively undervalued had their chance this month at the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair. The event, which ran May 6 through 8 to coincide with Frieze New York, offered a coda to the high-profile solo presentations by galleries that participated in the Focus section of this year’s Armory Show in March. Focus featured the work of more than a dozen African artists, including Vidal, whose paintings filled the stand of London-based Tiwani Contemporary.

Beyond interest generated by the fairs and exhibitions, it seems the market, too, is waking from its slumber, with prices on the auction block in a distinct climb. “When we launched our spring Africa Now sales at Bonhams London in 2008,” says Giles Peppiatt, a director at the house, “the market was quite challenging. Since then we have seen a general improvement, particularly over the past three years, and in response we have doubled the frequency of our sales.”

“Africa has long honored the traditional artists in her communities, and her artists have always had an empowering relationship with the art they create,” says Congolese collector Sindika Dokolo. “In a sense, we are coming full circle.” Here, Dokolo shares his thoughts on African contemporary art.

Sindika Dokolo
The Congo-born, Angola-based businessman—who in 2003 married Isabel dos Santos, the daughter of Angolan president José Eduardo dos Santos—began collecting contemporary art when he was just 15. Today his holdings include more than 5,000 works by some of Africa’s foremost contemporary artists, among them Kendell Geers, Olu Oguibe, and Yinka Shonibare, as well as Angolans Fernando Alvim, Binelde Hyrcan, Edson Chagas, and Nástio Mosquito. Dokolo’s eponymous, Luanda-based foundation recently inaugurated its headquarters in the Palácio de Ferro and is expanding into three surrounding buildings, with some 21,000 square feet of exhibition space slated for its public debut later this year. Renovations have begun on a sister space in Porto, Portugal, expected to open by year’s end.

Art+Auction: What drew you to African contemporary art at such an early age, and how has your collection evolved over the years?

Sindika Dokolo: My parents were collectors, and they taught me to be very open-minded, so I developed a special relationship with art early on. Given that my mother was Danish and my father was Congolese, there was quite a mix of African traditional art, works by avant-garde artists associated with the CoBrA movement, and of course pieces of Danish design. When I was a teenager, I discovered Jean-Michel Basquiat; with its rhythm, its emotion, and its strength, his work revealed the true potential of African art, even though the artist only set foot on the continent once.

When I came to Angola in 1999, I met [the Angolan artist] Fernando Alvim, who had been working with Hans Bogatzke, a prominent German collector of African contemporary art. Bogatzke had been ailing for quite some time, and Fernando told me he hoped that one day his collection might be returned to Africa. Upon Bogatzke’s death, I think there were 600 works in his collection. After some discussions with his widow, I picked 10 of them, ones made by South African artists around the early 1990s. For me, art is always more interesting when it has another ambition, when it is part of the making of history, which was definitely the case with the South African artists working at the end of apartheid and at the beginning of the rainbow nation. And so I made her an offer. She was silent for a couple of seconds, and then said, “OK, but I want everything gone, so when can you come and pick it up?” It was quite funny, really. For the price of the 10 pieces that I wanted, I bought the whole collection.

I soon realized I wanted to share the collection, given the fact that I was the only collector in Africa—at least to my knowledge—in this kind of position. I decided to create a foundation to house it and to start working with the artists directly. For me, it is important that the collection be far more than a number of objects put next to each other; it really needs to give a pulse to what is African contemporaneity at a very crucial point in time.

A+A: Angola has experienced unprecedented growth in its economy in recent years. How has this influenced the nation’s art scene?

SD: It is an interesting time in Angola from an artist’s perspective, and the nation has a lot of particularities. First of all, it was a Portuguese colony for almost 500 years, so it’s a very multicultural society, with a sort of Western mind-set that is at ease alongside traditional ways of life. The position of women, for instance, is superior to that of any other country in Africa. Yet at the same time, the country was isolated from much of the world during nearly a half century of war—first in the war for independence from the 1960s until 1975, and then during a protracted civil war that lasted until 2002. When the war ended, artists found themselves thirsting for life and the ability to dream. So many of the younger artists never imagined that there would be life beyond the war because it lasted so long.

Despite decades of war, one of the other particularities of Angola is that it is one of the very few African countries where you actually have some collectors. You have private collectors such as myself, and you have a lot of public interest in contemporary art. When we started our foundation more than a decade ago, we saw it as an amazing opportunity to expand and capitalize on all these energies and connect with the artists as well as to promote them to the outside world as a sign of renewed life.

A number of Angolan artists who have traveled and are now working internationally are always very happy to come back to Angola because they feel that they need to be very close, not only to the source of their inspiration, but also to their market. They understand that it’s always risky to have spontaneous interest from the market outside without really having a solid base of clients and collectors back home, and I think that is a very good thing about some of the most successful Angolan artists today.

A+A: In your mind, how is African contemporary art different from that produced elsewhere?

SD: For me, African artists are the natural heirs of an important heritage, a cultural and artistic heritage with powerful ways of expression. Our ancestors tended to live in societies that developed elaborate relationships with art—far more intertwined than in Europe, for instance. For them, the power in art came from the act of giving potent, ritually charged physical form to the invisible world. So, in an African context, artworks tend to possess a transcendence. In this way African artists through the ages have been empowered by the very act of creation. Many of our young artists—those in their 30s such as Nástio Mosquito and Binelde Hyrcan—are quite comfortable proposing original and often powerful video works and performance pieces because they understand where they’re coming from. In a sense, African art is not about representation as much as it is about communion.

As far as new artists in other areas, what I always try to do is to dispel the perception that Africa is being rediscovered every other year. That’s something that we really suffer from. Art in Africa is a continuum from generation to generation, and as such, I think the African artistic scene really needs to look at itself in terms of a timeline, as an evolution, and as a progression. I think for an African artist, what is very important for me is, how relevant is he within his context? Does he have the vision, as Cocteau once said, to “remember the future,” to dream of something that is structured and elegant, and to create a world that is complete and consistent with the context that we live in?

A+A: Do you still collect African tribal art?

SD: Well, actually, my current interest in African classical art has been in buying and repatriating some works that were stolen in the years of civil unrest. I have been working with the Dundo Museum in Luanda on this. Since February, we have had an exhibition of repatriated Chokwe works on view at our foundation headquarters.

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