Sotheby’s Classic & Contemporary Art Exhibition Review

Highlighting the Universality of Classic African Art

May 10, 2017 By: Adenike Cosgrove

Sotheby’s will hold its annual African and Oceanic art auction in New York on May 15, 2017 and in Paris on 21 June 2017. We spent time with Alexis Maggiar, International Specialist of African and Oceanic art and Director at Sotheby’s Paris and Brussels, to discuss the latest Sotheby’s exhibition of African, Oceanic, and contemporary art.

© 2017 Sotheby’s

The market likes to divide art into discrete categories. What was the motivation to combine classic African art and contemporary art in this exhibition?

The day I discovered African art, it was a love at first sight. I will remember that moment forever. I saw some pieces and thought, this is the art! I had no education about the origin and ethnic groups involved nor did I know about the traditional use of the objects. The genius of unknown artists struck me. I’ve been exposed to art from a very young age and to me, the best works transcend cultural metrics, they speak to common humanity.

For this exhibition, we combined contemporary art (including artwork Andy Warhol, Takashi Murakami and Martin Barré—auctions of which will take place in Paris, June 6 and 7) with African and Oceanic art. I wanted to see what the reaction from collectors would be; I wanted visitors to have a dialogue and discussion about the art before we went down the route of discussing the religion or ethnic group that created the piece. I appreciate when people either hate or love the combination because to me, I feel that ‘feeling’ is what art is all about. If there is no emotion, then the exhibition is a nonsense.

I also chose contemporary art, instead of modern art that is closely linked, because sometimes it can be counter intuitive. I think it can be more powerful to mix with something really different. I wanted to create a new alchemy with no link at all to the past. It should create space for a more powerful dialogue.

© 2017 Sotheby’s

The exhibition’s interplay between colour, form and texture is brilliant. How do you identify the pieces that are complementary? What is your eye looking for?

I just look at paintings and pieces and combine them based on what I feel—the dialogue and emotion I’m looking to arouse. It is not always combinations that I personally like, but the pieces close to each others have to interrogate. The colours, the textures, and the shapes are universal, you just have to find the right association. I trust my eyes and I like to disturb them.

What were the stand out pieces from the exhibition?

With our International team (Marguerite de Sabran, Jean Frits and Alexander Grogan) we have curated a wonderful selection of African and Oceanic art coming up in our New York sale on 15 May 2017 and a Paris sale on 21 June 2017.

The first piece that comes to mind is a major Chokwe queen figure which was only exhibited once in 1968, previously in the Jacques Kerchache collection. It's a real discovery unseen for the last 40 years. It’s the main piece we’re selling in New York. In Paris, we have a highly curated selection of major masks including a stunning Yaure mask with a figure on top, an archaic Kanak mask from the Berend Hoekstra Collection, and an Ngbaka mask from Paul Guillaume before 1919. The figures will be highlighted by a magistral Kongo-Vili, and a Fang ancestor from the Epstein collection and a lot of surprises.

In total, we exhibited 20 African and Oceanic classical pieces and 16 paintings at the exhibition.

What sorts of reactions do collectors not familiar with classic African art have when they see the art for the first time? Are they interested in collecting?

For the visibility of this art, we do our best to promote it widely. Last year we organised some exhibitions in Moscow and in Hong Kong and met so many art collectors not familiar with this field. Their reactions were of course diverse. It is hard to know what they feel about it, but some are fascinated at the first sight and are eagerly waiting to possess one.

We now have collectors from Brazil, Russia, Singapore and China, in addition to our more historical ones from the U.S. and Europe. I believe that it is just the beginning of the acknowledgement of African & Oceanic Art (AOA).

Do you see a trend of collectors not caring about if a piece is 'African art' or by a 'European Master'? Are they interested in collecting the best from all fields or do you still see specialist collectors?

At Sotheby’s, we have the opportunity to show pieces to a wide range of collectors and a lot of them are open to a range of aesthetics. A highly important contemporary art collector, or others interested in design, modern art or Master paintings may one day see a piece of AOA and jump on it.
There’s something strong about our field, it draws you in. When you start you can't give it up. You are obsessed.

The purchase cycle typically starts with the collector falling in love with a piece, they fall purely based on the aesthetic and emotions the pieces engender. Then it turns to a discussion about quality, origin, provenance…

Collectors trust the experts to confirm the age, quality and authenticity of the art. We do not see specific tastes, some like classical naturalist pieces, and others like pieces with cubism shapes. There are no rules, like in love, just taking care of the emotion.

© 2017 Sotheby’s

"The best work has to talk to all common humanity."

What are your hopes for the classic African art market over the next decade?

My hope is to continue to increase the visibility of African and Oceanic art to a wide range of people; these include collectors and the general public. I want classical masterpieces of AOA to be viewed as all other art is consumed. I want that those unknown African and Oceanic artists are seen as equal and are as respected as other known occidental great masters. I want to change perceptions.

A last hope is to meet the descendants of famous artists, and to share with them the incredible talent of their ancestors. Everyone has to understand the importance of classical African and Oceanic Art and its place in worldwide creation. The best work has to talk to all common humanity.

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