African art amassed by collector who’s never been there

By Antoine Froidefond — A new exhibition in Paris is showcasing one of the world’s biggest collections of contemporary African art — which was amassed without the collector himself ever once setting foot on the continent.
“The Insiders” at the Louis Vuitton Foundation features works by 15 artists selected from the 10,000 collected over two decades by larger-than-life businessman, photographer and bon vivant Jean Pigozzi.
After inheriting a fortune from his father, who founded the French carmaker Simca, Pigozzi partied in the 1970s with the jet set in Los Angeles — where legend has it he “invented” the celebrity selfie.
But he switched his focus to Africa after a lightbulb moment at the 1989 “Magicians of the Earth” exhibition at the Pompidou Centre in Paris — as well as some advice from legendary British collector Charles Saatchi.
“I went on the last day, just before closing. The staff were pushing me towards the exit,” Pigozzi, 65, said. The exhibition has been described as the first truly international show where contemporary works from all over the world were shown on an equal footing.
“I had been collecting like a provincial notable. I had a little Warhol, a little Schnabel, a little Sol LeWitt. It was not an interesting collection. Charles Saatchi had said to me ‘you must specialise’.”
He turned to “Magicians of the Earth” deputy curator Andre Magnin, a specialist in art from non-Western cultures, and for the next 20 years Magnin criss-crossed Africa to build up the Pigozzi collection, acquiring thousands of works which have been shown in some 200 exhibitions around the world.

Despite championing African art for so long, Pigozzi has never been to the countries his collection comes from, preferring to avoid the various perils the continent throws at visitors.
Pigozzi, born a stone’s throw from the Louis Vuitton Foundation in one of the French capital’s most exclusive districts, says that for him the “greatest” country is Congo — one of the continent’s poorest and most unstable.
Though he has never travelled there himself, Pigozzi acknowledges the huge challenges faced by the artists whose work he supports.
“It’s hard to be an artist in Africa. I was their only client,” he said.
“Some of them have to have a second job to feed their families. Often they don’t even have what they need to paint. There are problems with transport, packing of the works, infestations in frames, canvases sticking together because the paint hasn’t dried….”
Most of the work comes from French-speaking Africa and Pigozzi says there is little to link it, apart from its provenance.
“There is no connection between all these artists, but they have three things in common: they are living, they live in Africa and they are black. The ones who emigrate, I don’t collect them any more,” he said.
At “The Insiders”, each of the artists has a dedicated space represented by a different colour and the work varies enormously.
There are masks made from rubbish by Calixte Dakpogan from Benin, strange machines deconstructed in virtuoso drawings by Abu Bakarr Mansaray of Sierra Leone and photographs of remarkable Nigerian hairstyles by J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere.
“The large majority of these artists are self-taught. They don’t know Renoir or (20th century French artist) Yves Klein,” Pigozzi said.
“They learned their technique themselves. They have incredible inspiration and incredible power.” — AFP