Leinuo Zhang has built a career on good taste. The Chinese-born, Milanese resident currently works in fashion, architecture, and interior design, furnishing homes, castles, and villas. Zhang’s natural discernment for finery has also helped him build a collection of African art.
We had the chance to speak to Zhang, one of the youngest private collectors of African art, to discuss his methods of judgement when it comes to collecting, his ideas about what makes a masterpiece, and his “soul connection” to African art.
I learned about classical African art when I was a child on a trip to Paris. My family was mainly collecting contemporary art or antique Chinese art. But, to be honest, I'm not a big fan of either. When I saw African and Oceanic art in the museum in Paris, I felt like, okay, one day for sure I will collect it. After I started work and financially could afford it, I started to really collect African art, which was about four or five years ago.
I went to Paris to see all the galleries and also the museums to really see everything again. I wanted to understand the market. I also went to Sotheby's and Christie's to exactly understand the value. Then I started to collect it.
You see how you look in the mirror, but you see exactly who you are in art. I feel myself, I see myself in African art. This is a vital reason that I began collecting. I feel that I cannot live without them. I see who I am in this Yombe mask, in all the pieces I selected for my collection.
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"I feel myself, I see myself in African art."
Basically, I'm a mask collector. I’m most attracted to masks. I think the mask is the base for classical African art. They’re made to be functional and are used for very vital reasons. So, that's why I think it's really the best approach to understand them, the cultures they came from, and to understand their ancestors' mind, so you can really understand how it inspired the important artists of the 1900s like Picasso, Matisse. You read this from these masks.
From my point of view, I like all of my pieces. But for me, the ones that are most attractive to me are the ones that you have like a soul connection with. For example, I really like this mask that I selected here on the column. It's a Yombe mask, and apparently, it's the masterpiece from the Yombe group. This mask was also published in so many books and has been in many auctions before. I like that it has a history. It's been passed through the hands of important collectors.
The mask comes with this history of collecting, and it presents exactly how this mask has been appreciated by different generations. For the mask itself, the white parts represent the moon. When you see the mask, you feel a strong energy. It looks impressive under natural light. It's so convincing; I understand how the leader of a group wearing the mask could entice people to follow him. So because of its strong provenance, its aesthetics, and also the usage of this mask, makes me pick this one as my favourite piece.
I'm a minimalist. All the furniture is in an antique English style, and because the wood is dark, it won’t compete with the art.
Read books, do the research, and it will widen your horizon in collecting. It will teach you what are the most beautiful pieces in each group, which are the masterpieces, how they look, and exactly how you can distinguish it from the other pieces in the same group. You must be good at quality control with your collection. The pieces you select should be museum quality or better. When you’ve done your research, you’ll know how to approach choosing work. Whether you can get it or not, of course, depends not only on if it's beautiful, but also, if it's the right moment in the market, if it’s the right price, and if you can get it along with all the information you need.
For a masterpiece, I consider the antiqueness of an object to be necessary because we’re considering classic African art. And with antiqueness, you should focus on exemplary objects. For example, when you see a mask, it first has to be well done. The carver has to be skilled enough to make the mask which is not copyable. The art shouldn't be easily copied. If it can be easily copied, then it's not a unique piece, a singular piece that can be appreciated.
Also, the spirit of the piece must speak to you and to give you the idea of exactly what was happening there. So for a masterpiece, if it's only well carved but cannot convey or give this really strong impression or strong energy that will help you understand how it was used or how it was presented, then it's pointless. African art and other "tribal arts” are the arts of use. We are not talking about Picasso or work of the Quattrocento. Those paintings are beautiful because it's for the pleasure of people. But African art is the art that they were using for a purpose. So in this case, I feel, if you can really feel that soul and the spirit speaking to you, then for you it could be a masterpiece.
"The spirit must speak to you."
I really have been working on collecting masterpieces from each group. They can be pieces that are now really popular in the market, like those from Gabon, Ivory Coast, or the [Democratic Republic of the] Congo, but they could also be from groups that are not that hot in the market like those from Tanzania, Cameroon, and Nigeria. I feel like each group has their own personality, their styles. So if you really like African art overall, you should be able to read the aesthetics of each group.
For me, I really appreciate the different kinds of beauties of African art. It could be like Bete, which sometimes can read a bit aggressive, but it could be Baule, which is really soft and kind. I like the Makonde helmet masks because they give a strong impression of tranquillity. And the Pende because they give you a sleepy feeling, calmness. So, each mask brings different ideas, different inspirations for my daily life, and I think there is no limitation for me to collect if it’s something that speaks to me.