"It’s a conundrum that such a large continent represents so little in the art market" - An Interview with Olivier Sultan on African Art

My subject of study is the understanding of the socio-economic and artistic issues of the contemporary art world. I begin my research by studying the work of contemporary African artists. For this, I was interviewing a gallery owner specializing in the field, a gallery owner with a different eye. He had the courage to open a contemporary art gallery specializing in the work of African artists. Olivier Sultan had this premonition for the success of African artists. I will share with you part of an interview that immerses you in the world of contemporary art with a strong African influence.

Can you introduce yourself?

Hello, my name is Olivier Sultan, I have been a gallery owner for 25 years and I specialize in contemporary African art.

If I am not mistaken, you are one of the first gallery owners to have presented collections exclusively dedicated to contemporary African artists?

Indeed, as a gallery yes, at the time there were 2 or 3 curators including André Magnin.

What prompted you to dedicate your career as a gallery owner to African art?

So initially it was the circumstances of life because I studied philosophy, and I went to do civilian national service in Zimbabwe. And on this occasion, I fell in love with the contemporary art scene in Southern Africa. I did not suspect that there were so many truly contemporary artists because, as a European, we had somewhat exotic and cliché images of Africa, and to see that there were so many original singular artists, that made me wonder. Really opened my eyes. So I decided to stay put to found my first art gallery, I stayed there for 12 years. At the time Zimbabwean artists were portrayed in a rather condescending and ethnic way, we said "this is Shona sculpture, etc" and the individualities were a bit neglected. And by discussing with the artists, by getting to know them, I understood that they were contemporary artists, each with their own philosophy, their way of approaching art and of course all with their roots in Africa but with their own originality. It’s from this observation that I have focused on their promotion. For this, I wrote books on contemporary art in Zimbabwe and Southern Africa to show that these are not stories of tribe, ethnicity because it was presented like that at the time.

Presented like this or? In Europe?

Yes, in Europe and the United States. In the 80s in the United States, for example, I had a lawsuit because I was talking about a gallery that reinvented African myths, it was common at the time, they could say here are the tribes that gather in boxes, etc. And so, fortunately, today it is no longer the case too but at the time it was a bit what motivated me, that is to say, to reestablish the path of artists and showed that each of them has his own path. I really wanted to show that it does not fit into a cliché path that Europeans or Americans could imagine absurdly.

After this 12-year period, what motivated you to come back to France?

Unfortunately, it was not really a choice on my part, I was forced to leave because at the time in Zimbabwe there was a dictator called Mugabe who at the beginning of the year 2000 started a movement against the opposition and in particular against the presence of white people in Zimbabwe. As I have children I returned and during the year 2000 I opened a contemporary art gallery in Paris. At the time, the musée du quai Branly was under construction and it was about to be called the museum of primitive arts at the time and I decided to name the gallery "gallery of later arts". This choice I made first it's funny, there's the pun and the serious thing is that contemporary African artists hated to be talked about, or comparing them to primitive art. This is to shatter the clichés we have about contemporary Africa. 

Can you define what contemporary African art is to you? 

So for me, it's a question of identity. You could simply say that they are artists who come from Africa. But in reality artists from the African diaspora have settled in many countries in Europe and the United States. What is important is their relationship with Africa, either linked to their origin or their imagination that they project in their works as linking them to Africa. Obviously, Africa is not a country, there are 54 countries but there are common points including the search for identity because they are very attached to their cultural baggage which has been questioned or even completely deleted at the time of colonization. And at the same time the artists who build themselves from what they can see in the present. These two aspects are found in their work. For example, I refuse to exhibit artists who will give a complacent image or who will be expected of them as an "African artist". That does not interest me, I am looking for a singular and sincere itinerary in each of the artists that I exhibit. To come back to the question, contemporary African art is what allows certain artists to define this and to build part of their identity. It seems obvious but for many, it does not have it, when one hears that such and such is Senegalese or that another is Ivorian one thinks that one has said everything but not each artist redefined personally they are not necessarily the country's direct ambassadors, but above all they are artists.

Earlier you told me that you would refuse to exhibit an artist who does what is expected of him as an African artist, what do you mean by that?

This is a limit that is often very subtle. Unfortunately in Europe, there are certain values ​​that one would expect to see appear on works by an African artist or who are defined as such. Some artists may have fallen into this facility which is the cliché of an African artist.

We know European art well over very wide periods of time, we have seen American art explode for nearly 50 years, we know Asian art, in your opinion why we know less about contemporary art from Africa?

I think there has been a break that has been created by history, by the very great historical cultural economic domination of the West over Africa. And the problem is that not everything passes through the recognition filters that are in the West. This means that it is very rare for an artist to be recognized in his country of origin and then in the West. It must be validated by Western critics before being successful in his country. It is very rare for the reverse to happen. It’s possible that in Senegal under President Léopold Sédar Senghor or in the 1960s in Zimbabwe, but it remains very rare. It’s very complex. I also believe that there is a correlation between economic development and the development of the art market.

As you said art has a market, can you tell us why buy African art?

Full of reason. (Laughter) First, by definition, investors are looking to get a good deal, so at the pragmatic level, there is still a huge gap between the quality of works and their price. There is a big margin that exists. Internationally known African artists produced works that are now worth three times or more. African artists are still a little underestimated for me. There is also the will to participate in increasing the popularity of artists who deserve to be better known. For me, it’s a conundrum that such a large continent represents so little in the art market. But that changes, that evolves in a very fast way.

What could bring African art to the forefront of the international stage? An event that could change things?

There was an event in the year 1989, an exhibition in Beaubourg which changed things. I think it's with this kind of event that the general opinion will change, around major exhibitions in museums. Major investors and collectors follow these events which take place in prestigious museums. In fact, even if that changes, the real change would be that African countries themselves invest in their own artists. There is an awareness of the elites which is being done and which is evolving very quickly at the moment. We stayed in the scheme of the rich man who invests in a nice house and a nice car now that they have them they are going to get to works of art. (Laughter) When you look at contemporary Chinese art it has been very supported in an almost patriotic way. So for me, it is time for Africans themselves to support their artists.

In a future utopia, what project would you like to highlight?

My dream would be that in 5 or 10 years we will pass this purgatory and stop categorizing artists, talking about them in their own name, forgetting the African qualifier. I hope they’ll be in the most beautiful galleries and the greatest museums. For my activity, I would also like to get out of this categorization in order to be able to exhibit, probably always on the theme of Africa, artists who come from all over the place. Indeed, my deepest wish and it becomes the case is that the name no longer comes with the qualifier African. This is especially the case when we hear names like Chéri Samba or Barthélémy Toguo and that makes me happy.

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