Mamadou-Abou & Catherine Sarr
Photograph by Studio Harcourt

Collector Spotlight

Mamadou-Abou & Catherine Sarr, United States

April 21, 2018 By: Adenike Cosgrove

Tell us a little about yourselves.

[Mamadou-Abou] Catherine and I are French with similar West African backgrounds, respectively from Benin and Benin and Senegal. We were born and raised France and lived in London, Abu-Dhabi and Chicago over the past fifteen years. I am financier and Catherine is the founder and owner of Almasika Fine Jewelry.

I believe that when you collect arts with passion, your values and your history come alive. Growing up and travelling back and forth between France, Benin, and Senegal, we were buying small pieces that were not necessarily collector material, but symbolic pieces for us. At that stage, we were not necessarily collecting arts as per se but bringing back wood sculptures and bronzes as souvenirs.

The first collector art piece I bought was actually in Gabon probably about 15 years ago. I got my first job in London as a trader for Citi and was placed in Senegal and travelled across much of Africa. I remember vividly entering into an art gallery in Libreville and discovering an amazing sculpture made of a stone called Mbigou. Mbigou is a small region in Gabon that’s known for producing natural stone with grey tones, hints of green and garnet that gives an ethereal glow to the polished surface of the sculptures.

Mbigou Sculpture & Kara Walker Paper Cut Silhouette

Catherine and Mamadou-Abou Sarr Collection
Photograph by Stephen J. Serio & John Boehm
Mamadou-Abou's Father's Zenith-E Camera

[Catherine] My first addition to the collection was actually a commissioned piece by the French artist, Florence Hamelin. It’s a pastel of a photograph I took of Mamadou-Abou and my oldest son looking at the Arabian sea. A fantastic pastel capturing the bond between father and son. It was a birthday gift for Mamadou-Abou.

Before we dig into your collecting philosophy, tell us about how you discovered contemporary African art. How did you make that transition to contemporary art?

[Mamadou-Abou] I was always drawn to the arts. My father had a Zenith-E Russian camera from the 60s and he was taking fantastic pictures with it. I used to borrow his camera, acting as a professional photographer with my siblings and childhood friends. When I turned eighteen years old, my father gave me his old camera as a gift. That moment coincides with my interest and discovery of contemporary African photography.

When we eventually had the means, we were so eager to make the connection between our upbringing and an art collection, especially photography. From that first piece in Gabon, to where we are today, I’d say that we have a very eclectic collection from artists from around the world yet with a focus on photography from the African Diaspora.

For me, it’s important for African curators and cultural services within the continent, and outside with the diaspora, to tell a narrative that links objects to what they mean to us and ultimately to the world. There is nothing more powerful than letting people speak with their own voices.

So if were to reflect on our collection, we have French artists, we have African American artists, African artists from Benin to Senegal to Nigeria, South Africa, Ghana, and other places from the continent. We have artists from the U.K., from Korea, from Germany and so many other places... We all have a different way of expressing ourselves through the arts but we’re all connected.

'Potentiality', Edification Series
Alun Be (France / Senegal)

Catherine and Mamadou-Abou Sarr Collection
Photograph by Stephen J. Serio & Joh Boehm

Our collection and the way we work with artists are focused on providing a platform where we can protect our heritage and where also, we are advancing the story and narrative told through the medium of art.

I’m often asked the question, “why do you collect? Is it for value, are you going to sell next year?” We have four lovely children so it’s not about selling next year but building a collection to be passed from generation to generation. It’s about creating value for them and making sure they appreciate the art and understand what it means to collect. We’ve collected hundreds of works over the years and we often start with a feeling, what the piece means to us and also how does it translate.

"Us, in a modern way"

What types of artworks do you collect?

[Mamadou-Abou] From my childhood 'acting photographer' play I have developed a passion for photography. I serve on the Council of the Museum of Contemporary Photography (MoCP) in Chicago. The reason why I’m into photography is because as a medium, it allows you to walk through the years and capture emotions, landscapes, historical moments that we can reflect on.

Our collection is made up of a lot of photography that spans the globe and not just Africa—from works the iconic Carrie Mae Weems, Lorna Simpson, Deborah Willis, Lonnie Graham, Hilton Braithwaite, Leslie Hewitt, Dawood Bey (United States), James Barnor (Ghana), Ike Ude (Nigeria) and then the younger generation, Deana Lawson (United States), LaToya Ruby Frazier (United States), Ayana Jackson (United States), Dawit Petros (Eritrea), Alun Be (France, Senegal), Zanele Muholi (South Africa), Hamese Harness (South Africa). It’s amazing because, between James Barnor and Alun Be, you have 70 years of production.

We also have mixed media from Korean artists, works from German and Japanese photographers, some paintings like the Babatunde Olatunji photorealistic paintings.

[Catherine] I really like sculpture. We have bronze sculptures of historical figures like Lat Dior (Senegal) but also contemporary Gelede masks from Kifoli Dossou. I really wanted specific masks from Kifouli yet he explained to us that he never creates the same mask twice for spiritual reasons. So we had to compromise and respect his beliefs. Those cultural elements are very important for us.

We also have a large collection of original etchings from the 1700s that provide chronological documentation of the Senegal and Kingdom of Dahomey, including historical figures like the king Béhanzin, Lat Dior all the way to the Amazons of Benin. We have one of the biggest collections of these etching, we’ve been collecting them for a long while now. And for us they are amazing because they are a true representation of African kingdoms and way of life at that time of history.

Gelede Masks. Kifoli Dossou (Benin)
Tribal Marks Series III #23, 2017. Babajide Olatunji (Nigeria)
Untitled, (Prologue), 2016. Dawit L. Petros (Eritrea)
'Untitled', 1993. Lorna Simpson (United States)
Etchings of King Behanzin of Dahomey, 1894 & 1892 respectively

Catherine and Mamadou-Abou Sarr Collection
Photograph by Stephen J. Serio & Joh Boehm

Earlier, you brought up an interesting point Catherine in terms of having a dialogue with the artists. When you make a purchase, do you think it’s important to understand where the artist was coming from?

We like to connect with artists. As an example, we’re hosting an art series in our home. We do that on a regular basis. The last artist featured was Alun Be. We invite curators, collectors, gallerists, and museum directors into our house to see our collection but also to listen to the artist talk about their work. We call it ‘French Delicacies and Art’.

Who's your favourite artist and why?

[Catherine] My favourite artist is Olafur Eliasson. He explores the elements—light, shape, geometry—and what’s very common to all of us, it transcends cultures. The power of light and the elements. He talks to me the most when I look at his art.

[Mamadou-Abou] Well mine is very complicated. I have hundreds and hundreds of artists in my head. For me, art is the only field where you don’t need to have favourites. They all strike a different part of my psyche. I look at my art pieces every single day and I have a lot of them on my phone.

I love the work of James Barnor for a lot of different reasons. I consider him to be the father of contemporary African photography—his work showcases life in everyday Ghana.

Bronze Figure of Lat Dior, Senegal

Catherine and Mamadou-Abou Sarr Collection
Photograph by Stephen J. Serio & Joh Boehm
Andre Butzer and James Barnor Photograph

Catherine and Mamadou-Abou Sarr Collection
Photograph by Stephen J. Serio & Joh Boehm
James Barnor Photograph

Catherine and Mamadou-Abou Sarr Collection
Photograph by Stephen J. Serio & Joh Boehm

Joël Degbo has a special place in my heart because his work brings to the fore the French banlieue. Joël’s work is critical and very unique. We asked him to create a commissioned piece for us. The piece is a circle that represents symbols of our respective families.

From Left: Dawit Petros, Joël Degbo, Ike Ude, Dawood Bey
Ousmane Mbaye designed seats

Catherine and Mamadou-Abou Sarr Collection
Photograph by Stephen J. Serio & Joh Boehm

What was your biggest mistake when you first started collecting?

[Mamadou-Abou] If you love a piece sleep on it, don’t impulse buy. I made that mistake where I saw a piece and that was it, I thought I loved it. Then on bringing it back home, it wasn’t what I felt when I saw the piece on the gallery wall. So now, we have the rule where when we love something, we sleep on it, we talk about it but also, we research more about the art and the artist.

[Catherine] And now with online platforms and social media, everything is accessible easily. You don’t even need to go to a gallery. This allows for thinking time. So definitely one of our mistakes is to have bought things too quickly.

You’ve mentioned social media and online platforms a couple of times. How do you think online channels are changing art collecting?

[Mamadou-Abou] It has changed the landscape. Initially, the African art market was so scattered. The only hope for some order was to go to fairs like the Dakar Biennale or to the Bamako or Lagos Photography festivals.

Now, online platforms create a floor for a lot of the artists that would otherwise not have had a platform. Collectors typically had to seek out their work in their studios, often times way out of town. Very few had gallery representation in Europe or the United States. So technology is allowing younger artists to showcase their art. With Instagram, you can find and buy from artists that sometimes don’t even have a website.


[Mamadou-Abou] I have to share this story. Catherine and I once bid against each other, one the same piece, at auction! I’m a former trader so I’m a very impatient guy. I had a meeting planned during the auction so I asked Catherine to bid on it for me. She said, “look, the kids are at home, I’m busy but I’ll try to bid”. I didn’t like the answer so during my meeting, I sneak out my phone and start bidding online. What I didn’t know was that Catherine was bidding too! So we ended up overbidding for the piece. I get home and ask her, so did you bid and she said “no, someone bid a ridiculous amount, I let them have it. I don’t think it’s worth it.” I kept it in for a day… but then admitted that the crazy guy was me!

'When and Where, Enter', 2006
Carrie Mae Weems (United States)

Catherine and Mamadou-Abou Sarr Collection
Photograph by Stephen J. Serio & Joh Boehm

Have you ever presented your art collection publicly?

[Mamadou-Abou] Yes, we do the art series in our home that we mentioned earlier. We are also supporting exhibitions and artists through different channels. We’re supporting the current exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago (MoCP) called ‘In Their Own Form’. The curator, Sheridan Tucker Anderson, is trying to focus on giving a voice to the African diaspora in contemporary photography. And the reason why it’s called ‘In Their Own Form’ is that she wants the artists to tell their stories for what it is. She has artists like Ayana V. Jackson, Alun Be, Paulo Nazareth, and Alexis Peskine, that younger generation of artists that are showcasing Africa in a different way.

Then we are also the founding members of the Chicago chapter of a foundation called FACE (French American Cultural Exchange). The goal of that platform is to support exhibitions of Francophone artists in the Chicago area. For example, we brought Palais de Tokyo to Chicago in the South Side in September last year.

We’re part of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (MCA) and also part of Emerge, an acquisition group of collectors. We are Patron of the Arts Club of Chicago. We are always working to introduce artists that we are eager to see in museum collections because that’s where contemporary African art is still quite limited.

“Collecting is a journey... Look at the work of new artists today but don’t feel pressured to buy now. ”

What advice would you have for collectors starting out in contemporary art from African or African diaspora artists?

[Mamadou-Abou] Don’t rush it, don’t rush it. I think it’s very important to take your time to discover the artists. Do your research, do your homework. There is nothing better than knowing what you are doing and it’s also fulfilling to learn something new. I probably spend most of my time researching than acquiring. See and try to understand what the work means. Read and take notes.

Look at the work of new artists today but don’t feel pressured to buy now. Rediscover them two years later. I have some artists on my radar but I’m not quite ready to acquire their work. I want to see what they will be doing in the next series.

And enjoy it, enjoy the art. It’s not like buying stocks! It has to mean something to you and how you want to express yourself.

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