Collector Spotlight

Roberto Domingos, Germany

August 08, 2016 By: Adenike Cosgrove

Africa — Body & Soul

I was born in Brazil and I came to Germany to do my “Konzertexamen” at the University of Music Karlsruhe. As a concert pianist and with my Brazilian heritage and Catholic influences, I developed a very eclectic taste for art and music.

There are huge African influences in Brazil and growing up there it was impossible not to get connected or in contact with voodoo and candomblé art and beliefs. I remember as a child, I’d see voodoo altars on the way to school and my mother would forbid me from touching the objects—she considered it black magic. These influences however, this mixture of history, heritage and Africa is in my body!

What motivated you to start collecting classic African art and antiques?

Even though I was surrounded by the rituals and beliefs from Africa, I never saw any real African art pieces in Brazil; I experienced the ritual but not the objects.

When I moved to Germany I started collecting master drawings and prints from the 16th to 19th century, and also developed an interest in modern art—pieces by Picasso and Klee—and the ways in which African art influenced the artists. I wanted to understand why great painters and sculptors decided to incorporate elements of Africa into their work. That initial question became an explosion of curiosity to discover as much as I could. Like many others, I began to read a lot of books and go to the major fairs; Bruneaf and Quai Branly in Paris. I also developed a network of collectors in Germany to learn from. That curiosity led to me purchasing my first piece of African art about four years ago and I haven’t looked back since.

Art From a Frozen Time

What was the first piece you collected?

My first piece was a nicely carved Luba headrest from the 50/60s, I suppose – but it was never used and is for sure a fake… I still have it though. Another early piece I bought was a Massai book holder. It was not a classic African Art piece, more decorative, I soon got rid of it. My biggest mistake when I first started collecting was not being informed enough.

What types of objects do you collect?

I love pieces from the Democratic Republic of Congo, the ‘magic’ appeals to me. Being Catholic you have an appreciation for things you can’t see or understand but that you can feel. It’s the same power I find in those libation pieces – this is the magic. This to me is the most important thing when looking at Classic African art and it’s the reason why I don’t want to buy beautiful Lobi pieces that have not used in ritual. For me it’s important that the objects I collect are used ritually; this is the special part of traditional African art. It has meaning, it’s not just beauty for beauty’s sake, it’s beauty for magic, power and expression.

I don’t collect masks, I prefer objects and figures. I was thinking about it, why am I more attracted to figures than masks? Masks are beautiful but I believe that masks work better in their traditional context of the dance, costumes and music. Mostly you find just the mask without the raffia or costume – I find this lacking. And I think I appreciate things which are figurative but a little bit stylised too; figures from the Yaka, columnar Baule figures, Wurkun figures from Nigeria and Mama figures. I like the crude, I like the stylised, I like things with a patina. They speak to a frozen time.

Wurkun Kundul Male Figure, Nigeria
Ex: Philippe Guimiot
Ex: Christie’s Paris 2015
Ex: Zemanek
Ex: Helga Redlich Collection
Detail Shot:
Wurkun Kundul Male Figure, Nigeria

What is your favourite piece in your collection?

I have over 140 pieces in my collection but mostly made up of small figures. This question reminds me of when i’m asked what my favourite piece of music is to play. It really depends on what i’m working with at the time. If i’m working with a Beethoven piece then that’s the piece of music i’m in love with! It’s the same with the African art objects I collect. I really like the last Kusu figure I bought. I love the patina and charge on top of the head, the mystery.

I have a very eclectic taste. It’s a difficult job deciding what I want to buy because I like most things if they’re good and if they speak to me. Four years ago I liked objects that were raw and crude, objects from the Losso, Fon or Lamba ethnic groups. Now I am much more interested in things from Kusu and Yaka ethnic groups. However, over the four years, i’ve stayed in love with Lobi objects – the wide range of styles keep things interesting, i’m discovering new Lobi styles everyday.

How often do you add to your collection?

Sometimes I can go two to three months without buying. Last month, because I had a bit more time, I bought four pieces. It really depends on what’s available at auctions or what the dealers have on offer.

How do you live with your collection?

I display my objects in my home, I like to have them around me. I rotate the objects from time to time but always keep them in specific groups; groups of Lobis or Baules for example. I also like to mix old furniture with African figures, modern design and paintings and old figures.

A Perfect Pair:
Modern Art With Classic African Art
Yaka Figures:
A Study of Stylised Forms

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

Last time I had a concert rehearsal in my home with a Soprano, Malika Reyad, she loved the pieces but said that she felt ‘observed’. Another friend was concerned about the many ‘spirits’ residing in the pieces, as if they’d come out at night to harm me! Mostly people are surprised by how modern the figures are.

Shared Passion Builds a Network

How do you source pieces for your collection?

The best pieces I’ve bought were directly from collectors, galleries or from auctions. The first contact I developed was on eBay with a collector called Thomas Pillen, I learned a lot from him in the beginning. I have found very good pieces from his collection. It’s important when buying online to ensure that you have an agreement with the seller; if you don’t like the piece once received, or find it to be a fake, that you have the option to return or exchange the object. For example, three years ago, I bought a few pieces from one collector. I recently discovered that two of the pieces are dubious. We’ve since agreed to exchange the pieces for others that I prefer. I still like the figures, they’ve been carved beautifully, but now that I know they’re dubious, the relationship between me and the pieces are broken.

For newcomers, auction after sales could be another source for collecting. I think it’s also important to buy objects with a provenance if you’re not experienced.

What steps do you take before a purchase?

I try to be intelligent and ask friends and galleries for advice before I buy. You’d be surprised how generous people are. Thomas Waigel, a friend of mine has a great collection in Germany, since we met each other he’s guided me and gave me one great piece of advice, “if you have a small doubt about a piece, don’t buy it”. Robert van der Heijden, Rui Miguel Pintovasquez and Jan Kusters have also been very generous in providing advice.

If I have the time, before buying a piece, I research online and through books, to ensure that I’m making an informed decision. But in the end the decision is mine, people can have differences in opinion so it has to be down to the collector to buy what he or she is passionate about.

What star piece are you still looking for?

A Fang reliquary, a sweaty one at that! I think they are very refined but also abstract. They also have the magic power I love in African art. I’d also love a Mumuye figure.

What advice would you have for collectors starting out in African art?

Do what I don’t do, try to buy very little but high quality objects. And get informed. This is very important. Go to collections, go to museums, look at old Sotheby’s and Christie’s catalogues, compare prices. Try to collect against the trends. For example, for some reason, Igbo figures and masks are not very expensive at the moment. However you need to realise that to buy good pieces you have to spend money, or be very lucky!

If you’re someone like me with an eclectic taste, you must decide in which direction your collection will go, you can’t collect everything. I think this way, you will discover which pieces or ethnic groups are most interesting to you.

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