Collector Spotlight

Anna Demina, Milan

Collection Website April 10, 2020 By: Adenike Cosgrove

“I am a traveller and an artist and this is the most crucial part of me because as much as I travel around the world, getting into different traditions and different cultures, I’m always doing sketches of all the places I’ve travelled around. When you sketch, you look more carefully and precisely at the object,” says Anna Demina, on why sketching is crucial to her collecting efforts.

For Demina, while sketching, she observes details that may have been missed by briefly glancing at objects, “small details, small scratches,” says Demina. “And then, if you have a good imagination, you start imagining, why is this scratch [here], what happened with the object, what life did it have, who was the first person that these eyes saw? It’s an artistic attitude,” she concludes.

In this Collector Spotlight, we spend time with Anna, her Kota collection, and her Yorkshire Terrier.


How did you discover classic African art?

I lived for some period of my life in Ethiopia, in my uncle's house, in Addis Ababa. Then I left Africa and went back to Russia and then I came back already with my little daughter and spent a period of my life in Morocco, in Marrakesh.

But at that period of time, it's so funny, I was not that much into African art. At that period of time. I was collecting Asian art and these, all these delicate things—Netsuke, Okimono—I was more into. But all the objects that surrounded me, nature, the people, the traditions, the culture. I think this stuck in my heart. And then when I left Africa, I came to a small gallery here in Milan. It was a long journey to Milan, through Helsinki, through Rome, through London also.

And finally in Milan when I saw this first object, this Wumbu, the big one from Semangoy atelier, I tell you, it was a shock for me, I remembered all my students years in Africa. I remember it just like a kind of deja vu and maybe I was missing a bit of my youth spent there, so I just felt a connection.

What was the first piece you bought?

I started learning more and more and more and only after, I bought the first piece, this big Wumbu from Semangoy collection [atelier or workshop] with the shell instead of the mouth. It was amazing when I saw it first, it was like, "how it is possible to be from Africa?" No! First, I'd never seen these kinds of things while being in Africa, I never saw Kota.

This tradition is maybe the rarest in Africa, it doesn't exist elsewhere because usually, they make masks and figures. But to reduce the human form to its basic elements and do it perfectly, so you immediately understand this is the human body and only geometrical forms are left of it.

So it was a shock for me, honestly and I was really impressed and I was also impressed by the owner of the gallery who didn't push me, you know? Absolutely. He just said, "if you like, come one more time."

Semangoy-Kota Guardian Reliquary Figure, Gabon
Mid-19th Century || H: 63 cm (24.8 in.)
Wood, Copper, Brass, Iron, Shell
Provenance:
Colonial Belgian Collection, Brussels
Galerie Ratton-Hourdé, Paris acquired from the above
Collection Marc Larock, Paris acquired from the above
Anna Demina Collection, Milan

I love this piece. Really love. I went to Switzerland for my holiday. I didn’t rush to buy. I bought a lot of books. Thank God we have the internet right now, Artkhade and all the databases. I started exploring, just reading, reading, reading.

And then, for me, it was a big surprise when I heard the price for the object. I was just like, boom, boom, boom. How is it possible that the tiny object made of wood, okay covered with brass and a bit of copper can cost that much.

But then, you know, step by step I started to understand the price range also for the objects. It can be also low, it can be medium, it can be super high, you know? And finally, I bought it. It was a bit, shaking hands. I should say, it’s hard to buy the first one. Then you just say goodbye to your money easily, just because you understand that return, you got something more.

Mbumba Bwiti Reliquiary with Guardian Figure, Masango, Central Gabon
19th Century || 25 cm (9.8 in.)
Wood, Brass, Copper, Iron, Natural Fibre, Clay
Anna Demina Collection, Milan

How do you live with your collection?

Really happily! As they say, "she will live a long and happy life with my collection".

I think the more, they are together the more power they give also to me into my life because as you know, they were just like religious objects and the charge they send through this world, it's incredible, you feel that. I never feel that, for example, in front of contemporary art as I feel in front of tribal art, especially religious objects. They're just giving you like a shot of energy.

Honestly, it is just really easy to live with all these pieces because they make me calm. I feel safe, I feel their protection and I feel very, very quiet with them. It's easy, to live with the collection is easy.

The display as you see, I prefer to put them on the top of the library but some of the pieces I'm working on, for example, this one I'm just now making the sketches and then will continue with oil on canvas, I put it here because it's easy to reach and see all the details and to make this sketch. For me, it is like, it looks more powerful when they are all together. I don't like to separate them because it was an idea to put some of them on the fireplace. But then I decided to leave them all together, like a small tribe.


"When I put the first object over there on the shelf I felt like it just looked so sad because it is alone. So I started looking for another one and then another one and another one. So all the objects could be happy all together, not alone."


What steps do you take before a purchase?

I'll tell you the whole process of how it is working for me. It's just my personal experience. First I [take] make a photo of the object like. Then I go home and starts sketching. Because if I understand that this object touches me, and I want to sketch it every day, more and more and more, I go back to the gallery. I just make your one more tour around the object. Check all the details. Then I started reading. I started exploring, always myself, because dealers, they're just like cool. They have their knowledge.

But in a way, I don't love the idea when people say, "ah, I love the object just only because of the form." I hate it because behind the form there is a history, there is a huge, huge story of where the object was made where and for what purpose it served.

Honestly, I don't like to call myself a collector because 'collectors', it sounds a bit strange... collecting, collecting. You can collect everything but when we talk about art, and this is art really, art masterpieces... So I would love to say that we're like temporary custodians of the objects. Because these objects, they changed my life as they changed the life of the people before, where they came from so, and then they will change some other's life when I give the collection to somebody else. It's really interesting for me to collect.

Why are you so fascinated by Kota reliquary figures?

Gabon, Gabon, Kota! Let's talk about Kota, because Kota, I think is misinterpreted. This is not Kota. This is the object made by Songo tribe from the Kota region in Africa. The whole region is called Kota, but there are a lot of different tribes and each tribe has its own style. The tradition is the same, to reduce the human body to geometrical shapes, it is like the basic elements of all the tribes and the purpose itself, it is also all the same.

But this tradition, it doesn't exist elsewhere in Africa. Maybe that's why it attracts me that much. It's really unique and you could never find elsewhere. I like the idea of these protective reliquary figures. You know that Kota people, they were just like slash and burn farmers. So they were travelling, they stayed in one place for five, six years and then they moved out. So to keep loved ones together with you, not to leave them behind, they made these reliquary baskets with some pieces belonging to the ancestors and while moving, they would more together with their beloved. I also like the idea of this, that the persons that you love, they're always with you. So these babies are always with me.


"To reduce the human form to its basic elements and do it perfectly... you immediately understand this is the human body and only geometrical forms are left of it."


What star piece are you still looking for?

I have two in my bucket list. So one Mahongwe and one Shamaye, my dream pieces.

What are some of the reactions you receive on your collection?

Some people when they are coming in they just like, "Oh my God, it looks fabulous. It's amazing. It's incredible." And another reaction is less happy. Some people are saying, "Oh my God, how you can live with that? Don't you [get] scared of them? How [can] you just sleep in the apartment with all these figures?"

So it depends honestly, it depends on the person and for me, it is like a check, a test. If the person can't see the beauty, it means that it's not my person.

What do you wish you knew when you started collecting?

Five years ago, I would give a piece of advice to myself, just don't trust the dealers too much. Trust your heart, trust your knowledge, ask for advice. But in a way, the choice and decision should come from inside, you know, not from some others heart or some others wallet. You know, because dealers, they usually think about the margins, it's business so they never think how this piece will fit you, how this piece will be in your collection and how you will feel together with this piece. Because it's a family. You know, it's just like a part of my life and I'm living with them.


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