A Cultural Operator: Osei Bonsu in conversation with Sindika Dokolo

Portrait of Sindika Dokolo, courtesy of New African Magazine.

Portrait of Sindika Dokolo, courtesy of New African Magazine.

The Congolese entrepreneur began his collection of art in Luanda, Angola in 2004, with the aim of unveiling contemporary art to an African audience. In its inaugural decade, the collector’s personal project has entered the public domain, and can now be thought of as a blueprint for building an African collection of contemporary art. With plans to establish a new museum, his Foundation may be a pragmatic answer to the problem of only seeing the majority of African artists shown abroad and seldom on the continent – addressing the historical deficit of knowledge on African art in Africa.

Dokolo’s initiative has enabled the Foundation to negotiate the conditions of cultural exchange between its vast collection and Western museums by insisting they also bring relevant exhibitions to the African continent. The Sindika Dokolo Foundation is symbolic of the structural growth of the Angolan economy, led by a public investment policy in infrastructure, energy, education, and more recently in the arts. While we may have wondered whether there is a distinct lack of interest in contemporary production on the part of Africa’s leaders, Africa’s cultural operators can lay claim to its strategic importance in the formulation of national policy.

And while the destruction of history may have swept away Africa’s cultural institutions and any knowledge of them, the unified vision of Africa captured in the future plans for a centre for contemporary art along with the triennial of contemporary art in Luanda (which will be held next year) tell a different story. Sindika Dokolo Foundation is countering the dominant narrative that suggests African modernisation is bound to failure, triggering new potentialities for cultural development.

OB: When was your first encounter with art?

SD: My parents introduced me to art at an early age. The art in our home, whether western or African, books about art, going to museums, have educated my eye and developed my sensitivity. I started to collect ancient African weapons when I was ten, thanks to my father and his good friend the Belgian collector Jean Cambier.

They both offered me pieces, and encouraged me to research about the context in which these art works had been produced. I discovered my own culture, through powerful artistic expressions by those such as the Songye, the Chokwe, or the Mangbetu people of the Congo.

I soon realised how important and instrumental these singular art forms had been in triggering the revolution of modern western art.

It is my strong belief that without the exposure to African art, Picasso, Matisse, Miró, Giacometti, Modigliani would not have developed their vision. Yet, to this day, African expression is still referred to as primitive, or tribal art at best.

It is clear to me, that unless we Africans celebrate our own creation, cultures and values, this nonsense will perpetuate itself through many more generations. One day, the art of El Anatsui, Bili Bidjocka, Yinka Shonibare or Kendell Geers could be presented as anecdotic – or even worse, not particularly African. I decided when I created the Sindika Dokolo Foundation with my friends, the Angolan artist Fernando Alvim, and the Cameroonian curator Simon Njami, that something needed to be done to break this self-diminishing vicious circle.

OB: The collection has expanded both in terms of its scope and ambition. Was your aim always to branch out in such a way by establishing a collection that would later become a public organisation? What did you learn over this period?

SD: I don’t see myself as a collector, but more as a cultural operator. A collection is just a juxtaposition of objects. In a sense, it is sterile. Its only relevance is how it impacts on people. French businessman François Pinault acquired the Palazzo Grassi in Venice for that reason. Bernard Arnault is doing the same thing in Paris with the Louis Vuitton Foundation. As an African, it is even more important for me.

Exposing the African public to its own contemporary creation, is the added value of what I do in African art; its relevance. Being established as a foundation helps me reach more people. It also made me understand the highly political issues around cultural activity, especially on our continent.

OB: Clearly one of the most important things about the collection is its mission to be an “African collection of contemporary art” and not a “collection of contemporary African Art”. Why is this distinction so important? How do you feel the collection has impacted the African art scene?

SD: The collection is African, because it is based in Africa, owned by an African, and has the objective of creating as many dynamics on the African art scene as possible. As an art enthusiast, I refuse to limit my interest to a geographical area, or to the colour of the skin of the artists that I collect. I celebrate “Africanity”, which I define as the African influence in the history of art and our global aesthetics in general.

Our continent, its cultures and people, have influenced the global way of life in more ways than we care to admit. It goes from music, sports, the aesthetics of politics, to the way people talk, walk or eat. That is the reason why I’ve decided to incorporate artists like Warhol, Barceló or Basquiat in the first African pavilion of the Venice Biennale. Though they’re not African they produce vibrant images of “Africanity”.

OB: How do you feel the collection has impacted the African art scene, specifically in Luanda?

SD: I strongly believe that one can never be stronger outside than inside. For my art foundation, I’ve established a plan of activities that prioritises the Angolan market. We’ve created the triennial of contemporary art in Luanda, and the third edition will be held next year. We also work with a number of Angolan artists, to help them perfect their work, and to sell locally. We commission important pieces that can be exhibited and recognised internationally. It is the case for artists like Binelde Hyrcan, Yonamine, Kiluanje Kia Henda or more recently Edson Chagas.

We also believe strongly in the principle of reciprocity in art, to reposition our continent in the art world’s circuits. We accept invitations to participate in exhibitions around the world, but demand as a sine qua none, the condition that the same museum brings the exhibition onto African soil, to the country of their choice. These principles should in time, have a structural impact on the way the art world relates to Africa, and vice-versa.

OB: Your collection began as a personal passion; subsequently, it has become one of the foremost collections of contemporary art based on the continent. How do you manage the expectations of having both a museum, and maintaining your own subjective approach to collecting?

SD: The principle common denominator of the collection is my subjectivity and my personal evolution. Not being a museum, means that the corpus of the collection is less coherent at times. As my taste and interests evolve, the collection becomes more lively and interesting. It is the witness of a decade of research, encounters, and curiosity in different fields. Even though, our objectives oblige us to have a strategy for the collection, I try to stay as intuitive and responsive as possible. The way I see it, my foundation should create dynamics in the African art scene and my collection should try to grasp the effects of these dynamics. My objective is that the collection manages to reflect as much as possible, the best of what’s happening on the continent.

Recently Angola was awarded the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennial, in a year that saw considerable focus on the African continent as a whole. After 30 years of war and turmoil in Angola, there seems to be a newfound optimism led by fledgling economic prospects. What do you feel would help sustain the growth and confidence, looking towards other African nations facing difficult realities?

The past decade has been clearly marked by a structural growth in the Angolan economy. This positive evolution has created new perspectives as well as expectations, that have reshaped the Angolan society and the way Angolans look upon themselves, Africa and the world.

A new page of Angolan history is being written. A sustained public investment policy in infrastructure, energy, and education is generating a general sense of self-confidence in the Angolan economic and social future.

The particularity of the Angolan mindset, also comes from the war years. Having experienced deception and false promises, Angola has integrated the fact that it should only count on itself to reach its objectives, in terms of development. I think the other African countries should integrate that factor as well, and stop hoping that help is coming.

OB: Could you talk about how you see the collection expanding in the future? How will you ensure its preservation for future generations and that its reputation and legacy remain intact?

SD: My foundation has designed a project for a revolutionary museum that would be more accessible, more interactive and have a real impact beyond its own walls. The Angolan government supports that project and the new master plan of the city of Luanda will integrate this project as a priority. This museum will be a laboratory for new ideas and will host my collection.

Osei Bonsu is an independent writer and curator. He currently coordinates 1:54 Forum, a public programme of screenings, talk and discussions taking place between the 15th and 19th of October at Somerset House in London.

Sindika Dokolo Foundation is the main sponsor of 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair. Sindika Dokolo will give a keynote speech on the 19th of October at 1:54 Forum.

This interview was originally published by New African in October, 2014 © Osei Bonsu, 2014.