Husband of one of Africa's richest women fights for African art

The businessman and art collector Sindika Dokolo in Porto, Portugal. Credit Patricia de Melo Moreira for The New York Times.

Sindika Dokolo, a Congolese businessman and art collector, is on a crusade to force Western museums, art dealers and auction houses to return Africa’s art, particularly works that might have been removed illegally during the colonial era.
 
“Works that used to be clearly in African museums must absolutely return to Africa,” Mr. Dokolo said in an interview while in town for an exhibition showcasing some of the works in his collection. “There are works that disappeared from Africa and are now circulating on the world market based on obvious lies about how they got there.”
 
To forward his cause, Mr. Dokolo’s foundation has set up a network of researchers and dealers to comb through archives and monitor the art market in search of stolen African art. Any time such artwork can be identified, Mr. Dokolo said, its owner will be offered a simple choice: Either sell him the work for the price at which it was acquired or face a lawsuit for theft.
 
Mr. Dokolo, 43, has the financial wherewithal to turn such a threat into action. Besides his own family wealth, he and his wife are one of Africa’s richest couples: She is Isabel dos Santos, the eldest daughter of José Eduardo dos Santos, the president of Angola since 1979.
 
Ms. Dos Santos is one of Africa’s richest women and she has spearheaded Angolan investments in Portugal, in sectors ranging from energy to finance.
 
Mr. Dokolo is mainly active in Angola’s cement business, but also has assets in the Democratic Republic of Congo and sits on the board of Amorim Energy, a company in Amsterdam that owns a third of Portugal’s main oil company, Galp Energia.
 
Mr. Dokolo’s deep pockets have allowed him to amass a massive collection of African art — more than 5,000 works of mostly contemporary pieces he has stored in Angola and Belgium. (He declined to estimate the total value of the collection.) His latest initiative is to set up a European subsidiary of his Luanda-based art foundation in Porto, and to open within two years an exhibition space with educational programs to promote African art.
 
Mr. Dokolo arrived in Angola in 1999 on what was meant to be a stopover on his way to Brazil, he said. He decided to stay and eventually married Ms. dos Santos.
 
His interest in art stems from his father, Augustin Dokolo Sanu, who he said was also “a passionate collector,” as well as a leading businessman who founded Bank of Kinshasa during the regime of Mobutu Sese Seko.
 
Still, Mr. Dokolo’s cement company and other business activities are now based in his adopted country, Angola, which is now considered a top African economy. “I work during the day and I do art at night,” he joked.
 
Mr. Dokolo’s Danish mother went to Zaire as a Red Cross worker. He was educated in Belgium and France.
 
But despite his own close ties to the West, he argues that African art must become less reliant on the European art market.
 
“Today there is not a single museum in the world which has managed to really value classical African art,” Mr. Dokolo said. “Sotheby’s and Christie’s mostly capitalize on how important African art has been in the modernization of European art, in terms of its influence on artists like Picasso or Braque.”
 
Such statements ruffle the feathers of Western experts on African art. André Magnin, a French curator and dealer of contemporary African art — he curated the exhibition “Beauté Congo: 1926-2015” that opens Saturday at the Fondation Cartier in Paris — said that Mr. Dokolo “is now one of the very few Africans to collect African art, but that doesn’t give him the right to decide on his own what is good or not for African art.”
 
He added: “I don’t think you’ve got to be from Africa to appreciate African art, but I do think you’ve got to have traveled a lot across Africa to understand its different cultures, which is something that I really doubt Sindika Dokolo has even had the time to do.”
 
Cécile Fakhoury, who has a gallery in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, said that Mr. Dokolo’s views were “coherent with what he has done and who he is, even if I wouldn’t perhaps go as far.”
 
She added: “There are exhibitions in Europe and the United States that have helped promote African art, but more certainly needs to be done on our own continent and to develop a local market.”
 
Mr. Magnin also said that any fight against the removal of art from Africa should not focus only on Westerners. “There is a huge quantity of African antiquarians who come through Paris, so he should go not only after the buyers but also after the Africans who take works out of Africa,” Mr. Magnin said.
 
Mr. Dokolo asserts that some African museums have been looted by Westerners, citing the national museum in Kinshasa for one. He has been trying to locate 6,000 pieces made by the Chowke people of Central Africa that were in the Dundo Museum of Angola and that disappeared during the Angolan civil war. So far, Mr. Dokolo said that he has managed to recover a few masks, including one of the masks missing from the Dundo Museum, which he bought from a private Dutch collection.
 
Mr. Dokolo would not give details about other works he wanted to recover. He said that he was being helped by a network of private dealers and galleries, which were overseen by Tao Kereffof, a dealer in Paris, and Didier Claes, the owner of a gallery in Brussels. Mr. Dokolo and this team were monitoring art fairs and auctions, including ones at Christie’s and Sotheby’s.
 
Even if he prefers to discuss African art, Mr. Dokolo is also scathing about Western politicians and commentators who he said highlight Africa’s most negative aspects, like the wealth gap in Angola, whose capital, Luanda, was ranked this year by the Mercer consulting group as the most expensive city for expatriates in the world.
 
“There is nothing more racist than this idea that African elites are Africa’s problem,” Mr. Dokolo said, “that there are some nice Africans and then a few other Africans who live off the suffering of most Africans.”
 
Pascale Obolo, the director of Afrikadaa, a publication in Paris about African art, said that Mr. Dokolo’s efforts to promote African art should be praised independent of any debate over African politics.
 
“If an African collector can help educate young Africans about their culture,” Ms. Obolo said, “and can allow African artists to be valued by other Africans and not only by the European art market, that’s real progress, whatever the origins of his wealth or whether or not he is close to a dictatorial regime.”
 
In addition to his Porto project, Mr. Dokolo’s foundation also plans to build a museum and a music school in Luanda, as part of his push for African countries to create their own cultural institutions.
 
Porto’s City Hall rolled out the red carpet for Mr. Dokolo even before he committed to investing here. In March, it awarded him a medal for his contributions to contemporary art. “Portugal was the first European country in Africa, so we don’t now want to be the last to connect again with Africa,” said Paulo Cunha e Silva, the councilor in charge of culture at City Hall.
 
The Sindika Dokolo Foundation was also a guest of honor at the Bruneaf fair for non-European art in Brussels last month, which included several works from his collection in an exhibition called “Belgian Treasures.” Being feted as a patron of the arts “is definitely a better image than the usual caricature of African elites,” Mr. Dokolo said. “It’s nice to be considered somebody cultured, sensitive and who is relevant and sophisticated. But how good I look in your eyes shouldn’t really be my issue.”
 
Source: The New York Times – Breaking News, World News & Multimedia

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