I think it’s first useful to understand the context—how all of this first started. As a child growing up in Paris, I was always surrounded by classic African art. Even though I wasn't consciously aware about African art, my parents taught me the importance of cultural identity, and how art was a vital part of that identity. My father had developed a taste for classic African art and I grew up with these pieces in our home. He was also friends with the collector, Jean Cambier. Aged 12, I made weekly visits to Jean’s home to see his collection. Much like a museum, his home was built around his art. We’d taste wine together and sat on medieval chairs, we’d both view his latest classic African art acquisitions—it was like a ceremony, like an initiation. Those weekly visits planted a seed in me, they made me discover the 'powerful art of exorcism'.
My family left Paris for the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DR Congo) in 1994, after which I left for Angola in 2000. Angola and DR Congo share common cultures and people, and even though Luanda is only a 45 minute flight away from Kinshasa, I was surprised by how little I knew about the Angolan reality, the nation, its people, and its cultures. But they certainly moved me. The environment in Angola at the end of the war was galvanic. Angola knew who she was, her people didn’t care about perceptions—they are loud and proud. Angolans have control over their narrative, they are true to themselves and demand respect. The end of the war in Angola was also a special moment in history, when Angolans felt that nothing could defeat them.
The other event that I remember having an impact on me was a visit I made to Paris. My family was looking to buy an apartment there. We viewed a very beautiful apartment that belonged to a music producer and his wife. The ground floor of the apartment had César sculptures on display, and walking up the stairs, hung on the wall was the Jean-Michel Basquiat painting 'Pharynxs'. I was floored. It was a right hook to my stomach. The conversation with the homeowner very quickly turned from the apartment to his art collection.
The question of bringing back classic African art is very recent, the project started in earnest in 2013. The thing I first realised when I was so impacted by the Basquiat painting, is how his powerful contemporary art found its roots in African heritage. I thought, wouldn’t it be great if today’s African artists can also be inspired by their heritage, by works created by their ancestors. Exposing today’s artists to classic African art could be an interesting key to unlocking the potential of new artistic themes. I wanted to be an engine, to grab as much of Angola’s energy as possible and spur on the next generation of artists.
The thing I love about the African practice of art is that it's not about the artist or aesthetic impression. It's about a higher purpose. The ability to give shape to the invisible world, a spirit. That's not only what make it different, but also makes it superior to other art practices.
I first started personally buying classic African art pieces at auctions—at Christie’s and Sotheby’s—where I’ve bought contemporary art in the past. I then became friends with dealers Tao Kerefoff and Didier Claes. Through them, I continued growing and curating my collection. I organised my collection by going for not only what I liked but also what I felt was the best in its class. I am working to have all the main streams of African classic art as well as the best possible quality of each object. Each piece I buy has to fulfil the historic and pedigree requirements—it’s been exhibited, has a strong provenance, and has been featured in important books and catalogues. I want masterpieces that belong in the pages of the best art books.
A lot has been written about African art but primarily from an ethnographic or anthropological point of view. Very little has been written about the art itself or about the artists that created the pieces. So I made it my mission to gather as much information about the art as I could. I sourced the best books and tried to learn all that I could about classic African art.
Collecting contemporary African art, and growing up around classic art has trained my eye and given me the taste and self-confidence to collect classic African art masterpieces. The objects in my collection have to be AAA.
"I’m working to create the best collection of classic African art in the world."
"It’s important to use numbers and valuation to trigger public interest and debate on the value of culture."
I ensured that we followed a pragmatic approach. I’m a collector, I know how this market works, I know when a piece stinks, so I know that if I go after that piece I’m taking a risk. I understand that in collecting African classic art, there can be significant amounts of money involved but I also know that the market spun out of control about five years ago. I also know that many of the Chokwe pieces we were looking to return back to the Dundo museum were bought in the ’80s and ’90s. So I decided that I would personally buy back the pieces for the museum but that I would only pay the price the collector or dealer paid for it when it was first acquired. I would give them the money they spent on the piece but not a dollar more.
Let’s use the Greek as an example. 99% of Greek heritage is well documented, studied and accessible to its people. Everyone in Greece has a clear conscience about the fact that theirs is the birthplace of modern Europe. They understand who they are, where they come from and what they are worth—their art contributes to this understanding.
These are fundamental things missing in parts of Africa today. We don’t have access to our heritage and we don’t understand how important that heritage is to our self-worth, confidence, knowledge, and understanding. Without that knowledge, it’s impossible for us to be valid and productive citizens with centres of our own thought. It’s impossible for us not to be puppets. We are missing roots and that’s why I feel it’s vital for us to reconnect with classic African art. To be proud of the treasures that have long been forgotten.
I was watching a documentary last week in which the presenter was talking about the history of the Congo River. In it, the presenter described how Diogo Cão, the Portuguese explorer, discovered the river and erected a huge stone pillar to signify the discovery. Stood by the stone, she said, “This is where our history begins”. I found it so interesting that even today, after all the struggles countries like DR Congo and Angola have faced to date, we still believe that our history starts the first day a white guy laid eyes on us. It says so much about the distance we still have to cover in order to be the centre of gravity of ourselves. We still have a lot of work to do to take control of our history. We will never reach the level of economic development we desire if we don’t know who we truly are.
Democracy is sensitive to public opinion but it can’t take the heat when its morals and ethics are called into question.
Not only did Africa start the race late, we now unfortunately don't know in which direction to run. However the important thing is that the debate has been triggered. People are generally sympathetic to the cause because it is clearly defined. This is a debate about self-affirmation, a fight to demand respect and dignity. For me, I feel I am doing my part for my kids and grand-kids. I have a responsibility as a father to clarify the struggle and put my own finger on the heat. It’s no longer enough to be the 'nice African', that’s counter-productive. I believe that to be fully realised Africans, we have to first have a sense of self-worth and understand what we stand for. We have to understand that we belong to a chain, a trajectory that started way before us and will go way beyond us. Our worth doesn’t begin when someone lays eyes on us. This has to be addressed seriously and I choose to do it through art and culture.