Jean Pigozzi


Italian Harvard-educated venture capitalist Jean Pigozzi owns the biggest collection of contemporary African art. But he has never considered collecting art as a business or as some kind of speculation. ‘I am just an obsessive collector.’

Interview by Mart Engelen
Photography by Mart Engelen

In 1989 jean pigozzi saw a show in Paris: Magiciens de la terre. It had a profound effect on him. Before this show, he had no idea that so much amazing contemporary art was being made in Africa. After the show, when he met Andre Magnin (one of the curators of the show), he decided to collect mainly contemporary African art. From this meeting, the Contemporary African Art Collection was born. Based in Geneva, it is a passionate personal adventure that made its mark bymeans of careful and unbiased choices.
Mart engelen: You have been described as
the biggest collector of African art. Looking back on
the past 20 years, how would you characterize your
jean pigozzi: It is not African art but contemporary
African art. That is a big, big difference. If you
look at traditional art, like in the Barbier–Mueller collection
in Geneva, that is not what I collect. What I
collect has been made in the last 20–25 years. People
mix things up. They think what I collect is tribal art
or what you can buy at the airport in Nairobi, which
is ‘artisanal’. I collect paintings, photographs, sculptures,
drawings and forms of conceptual art. Art that is
made by living Africans – some of them unfortunately
already dead – who are black and who live in Africa.
This art is comparable to the art that is produced today
in Berlin, New York and London. Of course it has a
connection with traditional art because it has it’s roots
in tradition. Also Picasso has roots in tradition, in the
drawings of Leonardo da Vinci for example.
Me: Do you invest a lot in emerging artists?
jp: Oh yes, every year I add one or two young ones.
I am always interested in looking at the work of new
Me: Do you feel a sense of personal responsibility towards
artists whose work you collect and towards art
in general?
jp: I feel a certain responsibility, especially to African
artists. Because of the hard work by Andre Magnin
and myself over the last 22 years, a lot of them are now
known around the world. We have done more than a
hundred shows and we also publish catalogues. If it
had not been for us, most artists would still be in their
local community. As for my responsibility towards art:
I have never considered collecting art as a business or
as some kind of speculation. I am just an obsessive
collector. I have collected and I have been very open
about lending my pieces to museums and institutions.
I think it is very strange to see collectors who keep
their art in a safe or warehouse and never show it to the
public. Usually I am happy when a serious institution
wants to lend my pictures. When I started collecting
people used to say: “You are nuts, what you are collecting
is useless”. They told me the only interesting
African art is tribal, pre–1900. “Everything you collect
now is crap for tourists”. So they did not really understand
what I was doing which was fine with me. And I
just kept on doing it. Now, the Tate and the Guggenheim
in Bilbao and many other institutions are doing
shows with my collection. So this ‘crap’ has turned out
to be quite important.
Me: Do you think contemporary African art is taken
seriously enough by the art world after all these years?
jp: Well, it is coming. I would say in the last three
years it has become very important. The Tate did
some shows and I have been speaking to other museums
too. I really feel that they are waking up. But neither
Beaubourg, nor the Metropolitan nor the moma
have a curator for contemporary African art. That’s
interesting, because they do have curators for Asian
and South-African art. They have completely passed
over Africa which is – as we all know – the cradle of
our civilisation. Now all these museums feel that they
have made a big mistake. In the next two to three years
there will be an explosion.
Let me tell you something interesting: art is always
connected to the price of art in business. If you look at
Chinese art, one of the reasons the price of Chinese art
has exploded in the last five years is that a lot of Chinese
people have been collecting their own art. That
is not happening in Africa. When a man in Africa becomes
rich, he usually builds a big house. He buys a
Mercedes and a golden Rolex, but he does not buy art.
Or maybe he will buy some tribal art. In China there
are contemporary paintings that will sell for four to five
million dollars. This could also happen to Africa.
Me: So you think African art is going to explode in
the next two or three years?
jp: Look, people always want something new. I have
the feeling people have seen Chinese art, they are
slowly discovering Indian art and then there will be
African art, then Brazilian art. It is like fashion, you
It is the same with furniture. Of French furniture
from the fifties people said: “What is this horrible
stuff?” Now they are going crazy and pay a lot of
money for a chair from that period. I was in school and
sat on one of those chairs and I can tell you: I was not
impressed by it.
By the way, this African art is great art, it is not bad
stuff. Peole will finally open their eyes. The problem
with Africa is when people think of Africa they think
of corruption, aids, war and maybe a bit of music, but
you definitely don’t think of paintings, drawings or
photographs. Still I am pretty sure that it will happen.
Me: Do you think galleries like Gagosian are seriously
starting to invest in contemporary African art ?
jp: The problem is that it’s very difficult to collect.
It’s much more easy to go and buy a painting in the
studio of for instance Damien Hirst. His studio is an
hour away from London and if you are really rich you
can take a helicopter to get there. But to go and see an
artist’s studio in Kinshasa or Ivory Coast, that is a long
flight. You arrive and have absolutely no idea what’s
happening. You will never find the place. Physically
it is incredibly complicated. Once you manage to buy
the painting and try to send it back, it gets suddenly
blocked at customs. You need an immense patience.
For a lot of galleries it is a lot easier to see the airconditioned
office or studio of an artist where the assistants
with white gloves serve you green tea. That is the reason
why very few people have put together a serious
Me: What do you enjoy more, the hunt or the pleasure
of owning the artworks?
jp: Especially the discovering is interesting. You see
one or two little paintings of some artist, then you start
working with him and five years later you discover this
is really a great artist or this guy is no good. Sometimes
you are rewarded and sometimes you make a mistake.
Me: Being a photographer yourself, which photographer
do you admire most?
jp: Robert Frank by far. He took pictures in the fifties
and also later that were completely revolutionary.
I also like Richard Avedon, Seydou Keïta, Irving Penn,
Guy Bourdin and Helmut Newton. They are all great
photographers in their own field. The problem with
photography now is that even your dog can take a picture.
It has become so easy. Still there is an ocean of
difference between a good and a great picture. Taking a
great picture is not so easy…
Me: What do you look for when you are buying a
work of art?
jp: I always look for something I have never seen before.
The most interesting thing in life is creation. Ninetynine
percent or more of the people in this world is not
creative. I am interested in people where you can see
their imagination. So you feel: now that is an interesting
image, or color, or shape. It will not look like a bad
Picasso or Monet. When Damien Hirst put the shark
in a tank, that was really a new idea. Also, ninetynine
percent of art is completely boring.
Me: Sometimes you hear statements like ‘painting is
dead and has been dead for the last forty years’. What
forms of art do you prefer at this moment?
jp: I don’t care. It is like you would say: writing is finished
because we invented radio and television. Painting
is absolutely there and will be for much longer. I
buy paintings, photographs, sculptures. I have a slight
problem with videos – I love them – but I keep losing
the disks. If not, I like videos too.
Me: What was the first thing you started to collect in
your life?
jp: Hm… As a child I collected anything, from pebbles
on the beach to small bottles of whisky – you know,
the ones you get on the plane? Which is strange because
I don’t drink. When I was very young, I had a
bad collection of stamps. I have been collecting all my
life. Now I have to limit myself.
Me: Where do you keep your collection?
jp: A lot is stashed in warehouses. A real collector is
somebody who buys much more than he can put on
his wall. When somebody says he has only paintings
on his wall and nothing in a warehouse, then he is not
a real collector. He does not have the disease. He is not
included in the club of collectors. If you are an alcoholic,
you can go to AA. But I have not seen a place that
is called Collectors Anonymous. It is a disease till your
last living day.
Me: Don’t you wish to have your own museum one
jp: Yes, I would love that. If my name were Bill Gates,
I would certainly have one. A museum is incredibly
expensive. To build it would cost maybe ten million
dollars. To run it would cost an extra two or three million,
every year! In this lovely economical crisis, I don’t
really know. But I am obsessed with finding a home for
my collection. It would be sad to have spent the last 22
years of my life collecting and then one day I am going
to die from a heart attack and somebody of Sotheby’s
will come and disperse this work in a bad sales. So if
anybody has some great ideas, I am open for it.