“Reconciliation Is the Embrace of Morality”

Frank Verpoorten on the Jean Pigozzi Collection of African Art

October 08, 2020 By: Adenike Cosgrove

The contemporary African art market is in flux. Recent record-breaking prices for works created by artists of African descent are attracting opportunist investors and flippers. But for one man—who’s been collecting for close to forty years—collecting is about the “the joy in discovery.”

After ‘discovering’ African art at the 1989 ‘Magiciens de la Terre’ exhibition at the Centre Georges Pompidou, Jean Pigozzi went on to build a collection of over 3,000 works of art created by artists from some thirty African countries. Now owning one of the largest privately-held collections of African contemporary art in the world today, Pigozzi recently donated 45 works to the Museum of Modern Art.

Despite the size and scope of the collection, it’s only ever been shown once in the U.S.—at the 2005 Museum of Fine Art, Houston exhibition, ‘African Art Now: Masterpieces from the Jean Pigozzi Collection.’ Fifteen years on, curator Frank Verpoorten plans to expose the collection again.

Working to realise a dream to curate an exhibition of contemporary African art, Verpoorten has completed a checklist of 55 works from the Pigozzi collection that he plans to tour across a number of U.S. cities. We spoke with Verpoorten to get the inside scoop on the exhibition as it develops.


Jean Pigozzi

I am appreciative for your interest in the story because we are just in the early phases of... I'm just starting to have conversations with venues that we have shortlisted. We are working with the understanding that in the current cultural climate and with the pandemic, a lot of venues are either at a standstill or their operations have dramatically shrunk. And so what happens is that it's complicated for museums—I would say mid-scale, or large-scale museums in the United States —[to] justify spending a hefty amount of money on a large exhibition like this, which we'll have to ship from Europe when they are also laying off hundreds of people or inviting staff to retire at an early age. And so, I think it's going to be a while out, but it is very interesting to have the conversations now with the venues and see what is possible.

It is a subject that I wanted to put out now because it is timely and I didn't want to wait another two years, so I did want the world to know that we are working on this exhibition and I hope that together with Jean Pigozzi's name, which really carries a lot of star power, especially in light of the fact that he has given about 45 prominent works from that collection to MOMA. He's one of five iconic collectors of African art in the world. I did some research on this and I think that this collection is considered the largest privately held in volume because it is really close to 3,000 works.

The relation there is that I have known Jean Pigozzi for many years. It's an interesting story. As director and chief curator of the Baker Museum in Naples, as part of our permanent collection, [we have] an interesting collection of early American abstract art from the first quarter of the 20th century. That collection was amassed by the Turkish American entrepreneur Ahmet Ertegun, who was also the founder of Atlantic Records. A very interesting person who lived a long and productive life.

I mean, he signed all those great acts Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, The Rolling Stones. Incredible career. He had a good ear for music, but also a good eye for art. And one of his early associates, when they collected this art in the sixties and seventies [correction: seventies and eighties], was Jean Pigozzi.

And so, through that collection, I became acquainted with Jean. In the first instance, I asked him for a loan of some photographs of Ahmet Ertegun and his family. That's sometimes how to goes, you develop a relation with a private collector and in this case, I learned then that he collects in these specific areas—not just contemporary African art, but also, for instance, contemporary Japanese art and he has this large collection of photographs by Weegee [Arthur Fellig] who was a 1930s/1940s, crime photographer in New York City.

I had organised a few exhibitions with works from his collection in the past but this was the big one that I was interested in working on. With everything in a shutdown now, I found some time to approach him and to say, let's work on this. And he gave me the carte blanche to do it. So I'm really happy.

J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere (Nigeria, 1930-2014)
Shangalti, 1971
Gelatin silver print
27.56 x 23.82 inches
Malick Sidibé (Mali, 1935-2016)
'Christmas Eve (Nuit de Noel)', 1963
Gelatin silver print
23 5/8 x 19 5/8 inches
Seydou Keita (Mali, 1921-2001)
'Untitled', 1952
Modern gelatin silver print
23 x 19 inches

Before we dig into the exhibition and the ‘why’, I’d love to learn more about Frank. So, who is Frank? It'd be great to learn more about you and your background and how you ultimately got to this point in putting the exhibition together.

Thank you for asking. I would consider myself a mid-career museum professional. I'm originally from Brussels, Belgium. I think that's important to know certainly in light of the conversation that we're about to have about African art and my early exposure to what is sometimes referred to as more 'tribal' or 'primitive' African art. I studied art history at the University of Brussels and then I got a dual master's degree in Art History and Cultural Studies. And then [I] came to New York to work for a museum where I had interned in the past. My area of expertise was 19th-century European academic art. And as these things go, you know, when you work, you go from one museum to the next, then you learn more about those collections and your expertise broadens.

And so for instance, when I came to the Baker Museum, I really fell in love and discovered passionately, the museum's collection of Mexican Modern Art and more broadly Pan-American Modern Art. This is to say that I have really broadened my expertise over the years. I worked as a curator mainly, then a chief curator. I was the director of a cultural centre in New York City for five years. Then I worked as the culture attaché for the Belgian government in New York. And in that capacity, we stimulated the idea of exhibitions of Belgian artists, Belgium theatre-makers, anything related to performing arts, literature, architecture, with the specific mandate, of course, to promote the Belgian or Flemish art in the United States. But my longing for going back to the role of a curator, exhibition maker was great and I had been looking to shift back into that.

When I worked at the Baker Museum, you may have seen that I separated from the museum, I remained working with them as an advisor. And we are thinking of possibly moving back to the Northeast region, New York and, or who knows Europe, but we'll see.

George Lilanga (Tanzania, 1934-2005)
'Tongue Competition', 2000
Enamel on canvas
55 x 98 inches

And I guess this is the way things happen, there's never like a straight path. You meander your way to ultimately get to the destination you get to. And it's interesting that the destination now is the Jean Pigozzi collection of African art. When you studied art history, did you cover African art at all?

No, not at all. No. I'm the first to say that it is an ongoing education for me as well, but it's great. What I appreciate so much in the process is that if you read about Jean Pigozzi's acquaintance and his early interest and discovery that he made and the joy in the discovery that he made.

In the late 1980s, he saw the very iconic exhibition, 'Magiciens de la Terre' ['Magicians of the Earth'] at the Centre Georges Pompidou, which is credited often as being the first exhibition to show global art from around the world. If you go back in history, you come back at the 'Primitivism' exhibition at MoMA, but I mean, the title alone just reveals how outdated that was.

But what I like is that Jean Pigozzi was self-taught as a scholar and just simply explains that he is often not interested in any sort of overly intellectualised discourse about why he chooses to collect this or that. He would rather say that he was so happy and fortunate to have fallen in love with the work... that quote that you referenced where we all think that African art is what we saw in museums and it is mostly what these cultures had made for use within their communities right? They had specific functions and so on. But then turning towards art that seems to respond more to a global dynamic.

And so, for him, that was an enormous revelation and he's the first one to say that he is self-taught and I think he appreciates in my coming to this exhibition, that I'm also learning. And so, I don't need to come with a very overcomplicated curatorial premise. I'm not interested in saying I specifically want to show artists from this country or this movement or whatever. It's like, I just come to it with a fresh perspective.

"I knew African art—what everybody knows, what you see in at the Metropolitan or the Tate in London or the quai Branly. You know, the wood sculpture or the dog with nails inside or the gold marks. To me that was African art. Then, when I saw this show 32 years ago, I saw these fabulous paintings and models of crazy houses and things, I completely fell in love in about 12 seconds." — Jean Pigozzi

I have such a trained eye. I have organised over 100 exhibitions the last 20 years and worked with so many contemporary artists. You go to art fairs and fall in love with work from all over the world. I actually told Jean Pigozzi years ago about Omar Ba. I talked to everyone about him when he was just emerging. And so, I do think I have a trained eye and a little bit of a quality instinct.

What do you mean by 'trained eye'? Because it's an interesting comment you raise in that, Jean Pigozzi doesn't say he's an expert and he's not looking at this from an academic perspective but even in the contemporary world, who is an expert in African art? What is African art, what is contemporary African art? What is an expert in this field? But it's interesting that you have a trained eye and you're looking at the work with a trained eye. What does it mean to have a trained eye when you're looking at African art?

Yeah, so I think what I mean by that is that when we... like imagine here in Naples, for instance. We organise every year, an exhibition of sort a showcase of contemporary Florida arts and a lot of artists from the Miami area, Orlando, Tampa, all the big centres for art. And so we get an enormous influx of applications and it's just, I think the sort of aesthetic, and of course, it is a personal preference nonetheless. I like to think, and we all like to think, that the selections that I make, surely everyone will find them as appealing as I do. But I know for my own process, I don't struggle with the system whereby I make the selections.

So in the case of Jean Pigozzi, all his works are available online. Well, the ones that are not available, they send me all in checklists. So I could do hours and hours of research. Once I had everything organised into folders, the way my eye goes immediately, I look at, let's say the entire body of work of an artist like Cheri Samba, and immediately I say, it's going to be this one and that one. And that's a little bit what I mean. It's like, how do I make these selections because I feel that in this particular moment, they will just be completely accurate and interesting.

Bodys Isek Kingelez (Democratic Republic of the Congo, 1948-2015)
'Bodystate', 1999
Paper, cardboard, plastic, and other found materials
32 x 204 x 102 inches

Do you worry that this is a fad? Do you worry that this is a trend? And how does that correlate with the timing of the exhibition?

So you’re suggesting that it is a little bit of a trend now right, African art or not no?

Yes, it’s feeling like a little bit of a trend.

One of the reasons why I came with the idea to tour it in the United States is because I know, and I acknowledge that European galleries and scholars and museums have been earlier to have promoted scholarship or interest around this type of work. And I think that obviously has to do for one reason because of geographical proximity. It is simply not as easy, of course, in the United States to bring the same types of work. I mean, there's the shipping expense and all that stuff for, for organising shows.

But I think that it's fair to say American audiences have not had the same exposure to this sort of work. I know that in Europe, when I mentioned some of these names to my mother who still lives in Brussels, she goes, "well, Cheri Samba is in every gallery". But in the United States, there is still capacity. And undeniably, of course, the timing was very intentional because I thought... my interest in this subject really, I think goes back to my upbringing in Brussels, in the eighties and nineties in a culture that really promoted tolerance and interest in world cultures and Brussels has this sort of great cultural accessibility, where you can travel to different cultures within the city. And I think it is for that reason that I fell in love when I first interned in New York City because it offers that in an even greater scale. You can really travel to Jamaica in New York, you can travel to Albania within New York, you can travel to all these communities.

And so it's in that sort of generous, sort of old-fashioned spirit that I come to this exhibition. My world is going to open up! So I don't have any other like cryptic political agenda. It is really from a fresh discovery and I want to try and translate the excitement that I know, and really the intellectual depth and the philosophical depth in the narrative quality of these works, because it is so, so interesting.

As I mentioned, I had similar excitement when I discovered so many wonderful works by the second and third generation surrealist artists from our Mexican art collections, Work that I just want everyone to be like, you all, you know, Diego Rivera, you know Frida Kahlo, but you don't know the work of fifty other artists, which is so good. It is just so fantastic.

Would you say that that's the aim of the exhibition? If we talk a little but about the show now, tell us about the exhibition. What is the exhibition and what will it entail? Is it the first time that his collection has been shown in North America? If not, how is it going to be different?

So it is not the first time that his collection was shown in the United States. I think in 2005, in the frame of a big cultural festival on the subject of maybe contemporary African art, or maybe even broader culture incorporating dance, theatre, I can't remember. But in Texas, there was a large exhibition. So again, in the frame of this festival, Jean Pigozzi was asked by all of the leading museums there in Dallas, in Houston, if they could have a joint exhibition with some works by these artists going in this venue.

But since then, it is fair to say that was the last time, so we're talking fifteen years since a proper museum show from his collection. I don’t know the reason for that. He’s a very well-known figure, sometimes it’s complicated. The established museums have their own curatorial premise… it’s very hard to break into museums with a certain idea for a show. A lot of the curatorial staff feel that they have all the expertise inhouse and they have an agenda… “we are planned out until 2024”. I am just confident that knowing how high profile a collector Jean Pigozzi is, that it will open doors. I think it'll work.

Abu Bakarr Mansaray (Sierra Leone, born 1970)
'Evil Detector', 2005
Ballpoint pen and graphite on paper
62.99 x 83.86 inches

And I know it's early days... Well, first of all, what dates are you thinking about what cities? Logistically, how is it going to work?

We have made a shortlist and I have literally just started. So for instance, Perez Art Museum in Miami would be [a venue].

I am certainly interested in the African diaspora, in the United States, where are the communities because I think this exhibition will resonate with those communities as well. The African community I read somewhere, is one of the strongest growing communities in the United States in the past couple of years. It's now well over 2 million. I think Baltimore, New York, Miami, a couple of other places.

But I don't want to just go by that. I think in some instances, of course, I know a lot of museum director and curator colleagues and I just know who is interested in these sorts of subjects. I of course think it's a super cool project. But it's going to be also informed by ‘where's the diaspora’.

But like you said, it's also a lot of contemporary work now, at least what I see it is touching on global issues. Right. it might be from the African lens. It might be from the African diaspora, that's in the West but they're typically touching on global issues. I mean, we're a global economy now we're a global world, you know, everything's connected. So yes, it's important to, you know bring visibility or give access to that diaspora in the US but you know, it really should be accessible by all.

I wish I could tell you what venues. We have none secured yet to tell you the truth. So it's just the early stages of the excitement.

Well, what time are you thinking about like, is it going to happen in 2021? Is it probably 2022?

Keeping in mind that a lot of the venues now are... they have mandates from their boards whereby they have to focus for the next year and a half or so on exhibitions from their permanent collection. Again, they cannot justify laying off staff and then saying, we're going to...

And I'm not suggesting that this is going to be an expensive show by all means. Actually, other than the shipping expenses and crating expenses, it won't be an expensive show. Jean is not interested in monetising this exhibition. Actually, the wonderful thing about his collection is that he never charges an exhibition fee. And I will also tell you that he does quite a lot to help either art centres or museums that are seeking to be established on the African Continent. He will help them with funds or resources. And it's only with his best intentions that he feels these artists deserve to be on the top shelf, on a world platform in a global context.

So, just a couple of questions about the show then. First of all, a tactical one, will that be a catalogue for the exhibition?

I'm discussing it with Jean, we have not decided yes or no. As, you know, exhibitions are wonderful projects, but they are finite. They take place anywhere from one to four or five months. And when they're done, they're done so exhibition catalogues are always a great way to keep that momentum locked. It's something we're talking about. I know that there is no comprehensive catalogue from this collection, surprisingly. I don't know if that's because the collection is still growing or constantly evolving, but it's something I'm keenly interested in.

And I think that that may also follow or go hand in hand with the conversations that we're having with venues. There are some university art museums on our list and they could be more inclined to say, "Hey, can we take the publication aspect of this under our wing with you, you will write a curatorial essay", and it is a Princeton University Press [publication]. Anything that will give this great circulation and academic context would be very desirable.

Calixte Dakpogan (Benin, born 1958)
'La Mort Debout', 2005
Iron, plastic, glass
33.46 x 15.75 x 10.24 inches
Jean David Nkot (Cameroon, born 1989)
'PO Box Labyrinthe.com', 2018
Acrylic and Posca on canvas
78.35 x 62.4 inches
Leonce Raphael Agbodjelou (Benin, born 1965)
'Untitled (Vodou Series)', 2011
37.4 x 26.38 inches

And again, I know it's still early days, but for the visitors coming to the show, seeing the work, what do you want them to leave feeling? What do you want them to take away?

As a curator, I always have a great interest in—and especially satisfaction when it's a success—great interest in subjects that you don't see every day. And if I describe them as obscure, I don't mean to say, of course, that contemporary African art is obscure, but I mean, subjects that have just not received sufficient exposure. And you know, you were talking about trends and, I'll give you an example. Some of the monographic contemporary art exhibitions that I've organised at the Baker Museum in the past couple of years, I started noticing that whenever I have a speaking engagement somewhere, members from the community would compliment us and say "I really commend you for the shows that you do because it's on subjects that are really not very well known, but it's always really interesting and these are not the sort of shows that we would see in the large fine art museums of the North." So that's something that I'm interested in.

And then I think of course speaking about the works themselves and the artists who I've selected for the show, as I mentioned to you and in the article, you may have read, in my discovery of their work, I really found that these artists are original. Their work is vibrant, innovative, imaginative, humorous, energetic. So I think it has a very large narrative content, which I find so fascinating, so much narrative or fabulous sometimes. I find it so rich in content and I absolutely love it. It is in different media. It is often in recycled materials.

And I found that if you look at the profiles of some of these artists and their creative output, they are almost like Renaissance people. They are engineers, they are craftsmen, designers, painters. They're all these things together. And I really, really like that.

I guess a final question then would be, are you going to use the African art label in this exhibition?

That's a great question and I wanted to share with you the title that I'm considering for the exhibition. So I fell in love with the title of a work by the artist from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Amani Bodo. He's a fairly young painter and is the son of an even more renowned painter Pierre Bodo. I'm referring to the image [of the world with the hands.] The title of that work is just brilliant. In French, it reads 'La Reconciliation, c'est le Baiser de la Morale' which you would translate as 'reconciliation is the embrace of morality'. And I just thought, Oh my God, like that makes me so... it is so moving. Like right now, look at what's going on in the world and in this country. Watching the speech of the Republican party yesterday, and all we need here is reconciliation. You know, it's just incredible. I just thought that those words carry such weight. I wrote to him about it, I sent him an email, but I may have to wrong email address. Apparently, Amani Bodo resides between a studio in Paris and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But I want to talk with him about that title and tell him how excited I am about it, and possibly use it either as a tagline for the show or as the primary title, but then I will need to reference the Jean Pigozzi collection.

Amani Bodo (Democratic Republic of the Congo, born 1988)
'La Reconciliation, c’est le baiser de la morale', 2008
Acrylic on canvas
37.6 x 48.82 inches

Also, it’s funny, we have made a checklist but I have not gone into detail. So how we would list that title. There is a very good question. I mean, why does that always need to be all squeezed into that denominator, “African”, right? I mean it’s a valid point.

The work is just… I think is phenomenal. You’ve seen some of the images reproduced but I can send you the entire checklist. I mean, it is so wild, it’s so vibrant. I actually think a lot of these artists have an edge over many Western artists too. So that’s for sure. I discover a work by an artist that I’ve never seen before from Mali or Senegal. And I said, this is so great. And sometimes you’ll think, “this reminds me.. this is exactly like so and so” and I don’t need to do that.

If Jean Pigozzi wants to draw attention to these artists, I mean, it’s a good point, I guess you could say “Exhibition collection of Jean Pigozzi”, but I think he comes to it with that intention, that like, “if I’m going to lend these works to such and such exhibition. To such and such venue” I think he would be still keen on using African art because then he hopes that people will come to see the exhibition and that these artists will get greater recognition. I guess either point could be made.

Chéri Samba (Democratic Republic of the Congo, born 1956)
'Quel avenir pour notre art?', triptychs, 1997
Acrylic and glitter on canvas
51 5/8 x 76 ¾ inches

It's tough question. It's a tough question. It's a continuum, like you said, it continues to evolve.

These works in the exhibition, they are in various media, as I mentioned. And they're often set against the background of military escalation, violence, political instability, turmoil. One constant thing that I feel is that there is so much commentary and narration in the works and sometimes the narration takes the form of the artist actually not just painting what they want to display, but also writing. Like in one part of the composition, they'll write to continue what they're actually telling you. And I can send you a couple of examples of that work.

There is a great word by Cheri Samba that is a triptych where he is openly questioning why are African artists not represented in the museums in the West, in their collections? And so he then, in the second painting of that triptych, he takes Picasso under his arm. And of course, you know Picasso was heavily influenced by "tribal art". [Cheri Samba] then goes with him to the Center Geroges Pompidou in France, which really was... Georges Pompidou was the home of that first exhibition that really broke open the discourse about this. It's difficult to describe, but you can see the triptych and it's very powerful. And it is an existential work as well because he questions on behalf of so many of his peers, "why are we in private collections, but still not in the museums when the thematic aspects of our work speak to issues that everyone else's work speaks to? Why are we not there?"

That's why I referred to a lot of these artists as storytellers, fabulous philosophers and existentialists. Cheri Samba draws the viewer in. He has a point to make in these three triptychs, get the message very well explained and visually rendered and it's cool. It's very direct and open.

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