Out of Modern Africa

Italian collector Jean Pigozzi is the unrivaled champion of contemporary African art. His collection goes on display in Houston in January with an exhilarating exhibition of paintings, photographs, and sculptures. What drives him?

Fifteen years ago Jean Pigozzi walked into the Pompidou Center in Paris and saw an exhibition titled Magiciens de la Terre. He walked out with a mission. The Italian entrepreneur—heir to the simca car company—had an interest in art, but it was hardly exceptional, certainly not obsessive. But amid the museum's polyglot display of work from every continent, he was struck by a visual coup de foudre: the art from sub-Saharan Africa. Almost immediately he tracked down one of the exhibition's curators, André Magnin, and in the years since, the two have forged one of the world's most intense collector-curator partnerships, searching from Senegal to Madagascar to South Africa and myriad places in between for talent.

The result is the Contemporary African Art Collection (CAAC) of more than 6,000 objects. Some are by internationally renowned artists, such as photographer Seydou Keïta of Mali, whose portraits document Bamako society. But Pigozzi, now 52, and Magnin have also purchased works from many artists unknown beyond Africa. The painters and sculptors might use traditional art forms to narrate modern stories or they might be commercial artists—sign painters, coffinmakers—who upturn conventions.

The collection has not been built without controversy: Pigozzi and Magnin often choose the self-taught artist over the European- or American-trained one—and some critics question whether this offers a limited view of today's African art. However, when an exhibition drawn from the CAAC opens at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (January 29 to May 8), the question of what is "true" Africa may be moot for viewers in the U.S. The art—fresh, personal, forceful—will come as an utter surprise, revealing an Africa totally foreign to most Americans.

Here, in an interview of Pigozzi by Magnin excerpted from the MFAH catalogue, the collector vigorously celebrates—and defends—his mission.

André Magnin Who were your parents?...Did they introduce you to creative figures?
Jean Pigozzi My parents were typical European super-bourgeois. They had a modest collection of Renoir, Sisley, Boudin, the usual. All really safe Impressionists, but no Picasso or Braque or Jasper Johns. My mother took me to hundreds of museums and art galleries but nothing too avant-garde...I was not really brought up surrounded by artists. My parents' friends were industrialists, bankers, politicians, ambassadors, ladies with little dogs and blue hair who played gin rummy with my mother, but no contemporary artists or brilliant art curators.

AM When did you start collecting?
JP When I was at Harvard from '70 to '74 I often went to New York for the weekends and would spend many hours at the Museum of Modern Art and at the Whitney. I would also visit some of the galleries downtown. It was all so exciting. This was the time of conceptual art and minimalism. Carl Andre, Sol LeWitt. I also had [conceptual artist] Douglas Huebler as a professor and he was great.

AM When and how did you decide to collect non-Western art and African art in particular?
JP After seeing the show Magiciens de la Terre in Paris in 1989.... This show was a huge revelation for me. Especially the African art part. Up until this show I had no idea that so much amazing, great contemporary art was being made in Africa. For me African art was the stuff that one sees at the Metropolitan in New York: dark wood masks, dogs full of nails, gold jewelry, carved drums, but not paintings that could have been done by a hip artist living in a loft in Brooklyn, or sculptures made out of plastic that could be seen in an elegant gallery in Berlin. That was the real shocker. The colors. The imagination. The subjects. All new and often fun.

Alvia J. Wardlaw (MFAH curator) What differentiates African art from other contemporary art and other "world art" expressions?
JP The education (or better the noneducation) of African artists is so much part of their work. They are totally innovative and nonderivative. Even the best art schools and best teachers influence their pupils. Very good teachers will let their students develop their unique styles, but if there is no great teacher nor wonderful school, then your inspiration must come from deep inside your imagination. That is what fascinates me.

AM Most of the artists in your collection are self-taught?
JP Absolutely, that is what I really like.

AM You could have collected the grand masters of Western art; why did you prefer unknowns coming from elsewhere?
JP If one has a lot of money and a few good friends who know what they are talking about, it is not that difficult to buy a good Warhol, a great Jeff Koons, an interesting Jasper Johns, a fascinating Thomas Struth. But this doesn't interest me. I always wanted to assemble a collection that would be different and new. Something that had never been done before. I do not have an acquisition committee. André and I decide in a few minutes.

AM What do you particularly appreciate in the works of the artists you collect?
JP They are different. They are not derivative of Warhol, Renoir, Matisse, Koons, Clemente, or Picasso. They are original. Most of the good African artists get their inspiration in the street, in everyday life, on TV, radio. [Artist] Chéri Samba said, "Contrary to academic painting, I'm not challenging the kind of painting that needs to be explained to be understood; it isn't my way. I draw my inspiration from everyday life and from wandering around different neighborhoods."

AM Can one like the works of an artist without knowing him, without knowing his culture, where and how he lives?
JP Absolutely. To love Matisse's work, do I have to know that he spent five years in a hotel in Nice? Or that Sol LeWitt likes baseball, and Mick Jagger is wild about cricket?... I am mainly interested in what the artist creates, the end product that I will have in my collection, and that it will stay and be remembered.

Alison de Lima Greene (MFAH curator) It seems to me that what is fascinating about the CAAC artists is that so many live with a sense of tradition and at the same time they address the everyday realities of Africa now.
JP It goes without saying that if Andy Warhol lived in Kinshasa, his subjects would have been totally different.... So the same is true for these artists. Their education, their political situation, religion, environment, even the climate influence what they create.

AM This collection never could have been built without many, many trips to Africa. It required direct contact with the artists on their own turf. Is that the reason why these artists are absent from the international art market?
JP That is one of the reasons. It is easier for the owner of a gallery in Chelsea to visit an artist in lower Manhattan than to travel for four days to the southern part of Madagascar and visit [artist] Efiaimbelo's village. I also would imagine that there is still a lot of racism around and that lots of collectors are still not prepared to hang a large painting of two rather fat, scantily dressed African ladies in their $37 million apartment on Park Avenue in New York.

AM What criteria do you use in judging an artist?
JP I have to fall in love immediately with the work of an artist. I do not want to know about age, sex, life, education, or religion. I want to have a coup de foudre. But I also need to see work from the prior three or four years to understand how the artist got to what he or she is doing now. Some artists can make one or two great paintings, some architects can build a [single] great house, some rock-and-roll singers can have one super megahit. But that does not make them great artists. A great artist is somebody like Picasso or Matisse or Richard Serra or Mick Jagger or Amadeus Mozart, who can produce a huge number of "hits" over years and years.

AG Once you began working with André to build the CAAC, what kind of work did you ask him to seek out?
JP I asked André to get in touch with all of the African artists who were in Magiciens de la Terre and to look for new artists as well. Over the last fifteen years, we have discovered at least twenty great artists.... Without his hard work there would be no CAAC whatsoever. André's eye, his ability to work in very difficult conditions, his sense of humor, his numerous cigarettes, his impossible sentimental life are totally part of the constitution of the collection.... I hope we will work together for another twenty or thirty years....André is the scout. Together we decide which artists to concentrate on, then André works with each individual artist to realize the current project.... The most important thing that André does is to keep in touch with all of the artists and to help them with their work. Also, quite often, one artist will tell us about another artist. That has been a great source of discovery.

AG Are there countries in Africa where the political situation has prevented you from discovering artists?
JP I would imagine that a country in the middle of a civil war or revolution is not a safe place to look for art. Nor is it conducive to making art.

AM There are very few women in your collection. Why is that?
JP I love the work of Seni Awa Camara and of Esther Mahlangu. Sadly, I think that women in Africa don't really have the opportunity to become artists. But I am extremely interested in filling this gap. My eyes are open for great art created by African women.

AG What do you think we can learn from Africa?
JP We can learn that interesting art can be created and found all around this little planet of ours, that strong artists do not have to study at RISD [Rhode Island School of Design] or at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts for four years, that artists do not need large air-conditioned studios in SoHo filled with assistants in white gloves to produce powerful, groundbreaking work. I feel that in the next five to ten years the most important art may not come from us or from Europe but from Africa or China or, who knows where....

AM From the beginning did you have a strategy? A utopian scheme? Has your dream been realized?
JP This collection started as a small dream that became a huge, exciting reality. It is now, I am sure, a very important entity that will help the Western world understand that good art can also come from the dusty streets of Mombasa and the poor, remote villages of Ethiopia.

AM What are the great moments, the great memories of this collection?
JP The day I received my first Chéri Samba. The day I saw all the [Frédéric] Bruly Bouabré drawings in a huge room at Documenta [the German exhibition of contemporary art]. The day that I saw a photo of Keïta hanging at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

AM What place does your collection occupy in your daily life? Do you show it to your friends?
JP I live with tons of African art around me. It makes me happy. I think many of my friends like to see this collection. Some are very surprised. So few people know what contemporary African art is. I feel like a global attaché culturel for all of sub-Saharan Africa.... It is one of the great joys in my life, nearly as big as eating Häagen-Dazs coffee ice cream.

AG Could you say that you are in some ways a self-taught collector?
JP I've never heard of a degree in art collecting. I don't think the Medicis, Charles Saatchi, François Pinault, David Geffen, or Mrs. De Menil attended a special university in order to learn how to collect. Collecting is a contagious disease. Some people have a worse case than others. Some—not many—do it better than others. Some collections are more interesting than others. But how do we know a Barbie doll or rock-concert poster collection from 1978 won't be considered important or priceless in 2010?

AM Are you still looking for new African artists?
JP Absolutely. I am totally convinced that dozens of great and fascinating artists are hiding from André and me, all around Africa, but we will find them sooner or later.

This excerpt is taken from the book African Art Now, published by Merrell Publishers in association with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; hardcover $50, softcover $40.

Kinshasa, Congo: Art Capital

As curator of the Contemporary African Art Collection, André Magnin travels constantly throughout the continent. But one particular city keeps calling to him: "Lagos, Dakar, Abidjan, Cotonou, and Bamako all have many cultural highlights, charm, and attractions, but Kinshasa [the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo] is the city I visit most often. There are a large number of artists, musicians, dancers, intellectuals—a great deal of talent, desire, and hope. This megalopolis...is dense, noisy, chaotic, exciting, animated, dynamic, festive—hellish and tumultuous—but incomparably warm and welcoming. At night some neighborhoods are invaded by crowds, all the generations show up (everyone is togged out); we get together over a Primus beer and a grilled chicken with an unbelievable commotion. Everyone in this beau monde meets again very late in the nightclubs. It is a magnificent shambles! All these extravagant customs do not hide the poverty and the daily difficulties, and yet there is an overwhelming joy in living."