Sindika Dokolo on ‘Africanity’ and the crisis of African contemporary art – video

Prominent Congolese collector Sindika Dokolo talks about his collecting philosophy and shares unique insights on the state of African contemporary art.

Sindika Dokolo, entrepreneur and distinguished art collector, spoke in London during the second edition of the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair in October 2014. Art Radar summarises the talk by the passionate promoter of contemporary African art.

"Luanda, Encyclopedic City", Pavilion of Angola, 55th Venice Biennale, installation view. Photo by Paolo Utimpergher. Image courtesy Beyond Entropy.

“Luanda, Encyclopedic City”, Pavilion of Angola, 55th Venice Biennale, installation view. Photo by Paolo Utimpergher. Image courtesy Beyond Entropy.

The second edition of the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair took place in London from 16 to 19 October 2014. Sindika Dokolo, young entrepreneur, ‘rockstar’ collector of African art and Founder of the Sindika Dokolo Foundation, was invited to speak about the philosophy behind his work in collecting and promoting contemporary African art.

In conversation with writer and curator Simon Njami, Dokolo shared important insights about the current status and future of African art. Art Radar summarises the illuminating discussion.

A rockstar collector’s story

Sindika Dokolo (b. 1972, Kinshasa, Zaire) grew up surrounded by his banker father’s collection of classical Congolese art. It was only after coming across Jean-Michel Basquiat‘s Pharynx at a private collector’s home that Dokolo fell in love with contemporary African art. An article by Sue Williamson (PDF download) quotes him as saying that the experience was

like an electric shock, exposing me forcefully to the strength of contemporary African art, to an energy that seemed to transcend time and space and to explode off the canvas.

Dokolo went on to establish the Sindika Dokolo African Collection of Contemporary Art in Luanda, Angola in April 2004. He bought the entire Hans Bogatzke collection in 2005, which included a substantial collection of contemporary African art. The works were exhibited in the first ever Luanda Triennale in 2006, which the collector spearheaded along with Angolan artist, curator and publisher Fernando Alvim. Dokolo also played a key role in the design and execution of the first African Pavilion at the 52nd Venice Biennale in 2007.

Over the next few years, what began as a personal project, had become a much lauded blueprint for building the African collection of contemporary art it is today. But Dokolo’s ambitions go beyond mere collecting: he hopes to promote African art at home and abroad and drive cultural development on the continent. With grand plans to establish a new museum, the collector has the double-edged aim of introducing contemporary art to a still artistically-immature African audience, as well as building and securing Africa’s status on the international art stage.

Click here to view the Sindika Dokolo talk at 1:54 in London on youtube.com

The problem of ‘Africanity’ 

The discussion begins with the distinction between a ‘collection of African contemporary art’ and an ‘African collection of contemporary art’. Dokolo stresses that it is the latter that is his project. He declares at the outset of the discussion:

The category of saying ‘African art’ is a bit problematic, […] it sort of confiscates the debate. I prefer generally to think in terms of ‘Africanity’, which is […] the contribution of our continent to the global aesthetics.

The question of what constitutes ‘Africanity’ seems to be a matter of ongoing creative self-exploration. According to Dokolo, the dynamics of Africanity go beyond nationality and skin color. Recalling the criticisms he received for exhibiting non-black artists at the first African Pavilion in Venice, including Andy Warhol, the charismatic art collector says:

What interests me is not if an artist is black or white, […] what interests me is something that is much more sensible and sensitive. It’s like the sonority. It’s like the pace. Africa has to be more than a passport and the existence of a visa. […] We really have to […] go back a few steps to redefine Africanity, to redefine the way we relate to our own culture, the way we look at our own history and the way we look upon ourselves. […] It’s a very political dynamic.

Paul Ndema, 'Wings Spread', acrylics and ink on watercolour paper, 38 x 55 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Kampala Art Biennale.

Paul Ndema, ‘Wings Spread’, acrylics and ink on watercolour paper, 38 x 55 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Kampala Art Biennale.

From collecting to a search for identity

Such an ambitious search for Africanity stretches Dokolo’s collecting philosophy beyond the mere preservation of work by African artists. The problem that occupies the collector is

the fundamental problem of […] exposing Africa to its contemporary creation.

He stresses the need for Africa to exert itself and project itself onto the world, but more importantly, onto itself – to its own African audience. According to him, contemporary arts and culture is a crucial medium through which such self-expression and self-assertion are achieved. He says:

The projects, the artists, the exhibitions […] is what is fundamental. […] The collection is just a trace of these moments that have happened.

In addition to merely collecting, therefore, the passionate art lover generously supports and sponsors numerous arts and culture initiatives through his Sindika Dokolo Foundation. He declares emphatically:

We urgently need to, as Africans, understand that there are problems with the way we relate to our culture. […] We’re not yet the center of gravity of our own thinking. We’re looking at the world and at ourselves through lenses. […] There’s still a fight that needs to take place.

Rotimi Fani-Kayode, 'Cargo of Middle Passage', 1989. Image courtesy Autograph ABP and Tiwani Contemporary, London.

Rotimi Fani-Kayode, ‘Cargo of Middle Passage’, 1989. Image courtesy Autograph ABP and Tiwani Contemporary, London.

Curating an ‘African Renaissance’

According to Dokolo, this fight – or the internal, introspective search for Africanity – is what is at stake for the future of African art and Africa itself. He makes a bold statement: Africa is on the verge of an African Renaissance. As long as artists, curators and cultural workers continue to dig deeper, there is great potential for a revolutionary ‘explosion’ in Africa’s culture, identity and global status.

The bold assertions are matched with grand ambitions. Dokolo is planning a new museum to address the problem of Africanity and, more importantly, to expose the African audience to it. He dreams of a groundbreaking, radical exhibition that, in a unique and defining way, combines the classical and the contemporary, unites varying media and art forms, and fuses cultures from different African regions:

Some people have tried [to curate expansive exhibitions] either by region [or medium, or chronological order], and it’s not pertinent. It doesn’t work. The thing you have to do […] is you have to find a thread that is intellectually much more pertinent, […] maybe the sonority of it, or the pace, or the rhythm, or the heat […] that would enable you to put all these works together [and] have [a] coherence […] beauty and […] strength […] that has never been done before. […] If you manage to nail it, I would like the museum to be like that. I would like the museum to be a celebration of Africanity.

Michele Chan

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Related Topics: African art, collectors, curatorial practice, promoting art, art fairs, events in London

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