Jean Pigozzi is an entertaining character who straddles the worlds of technology, finance and art. He makes good copy. His most interesting score remains his discovery of Africa’s seminal photographers, Seydou Keita and Malick Sidibe. The Keita story has been controversial and told in other places before. Here, at Lunch with the FT, we get more details straight from Pigozzi:
Conversation turns to his collection of contemporary African art, consisting of more than 10,000 works. “The way I do it, collecting art is very similar to venture capital. I have no interest in buying work by Basquiat, Renoir, Sisley – like my parents did. I don’t want to be a sheep.”
Instead, in the early 1990s, Pigozzi became aware of contemporary African art, particularly photography taken in the mid-20th century by the operators of small portrait studios. He hired a curator, André Magnin, who proceeded to scour the African continent for work, buying directly from artists. Pigozzi tells me he gave Magnin the following three rules: (1) the artists had to be black, (2) the artists had to be alive, (3) the artists had to live in Africa.
On his travels, Magnin discovered negatives that had been stored for decades, which he took back to Pigozzi, who sold the works, making international stars of local photographers such as the Malians Seydou Keïta and Malick Sidibé. Today Pigozzi loans his collection to galleries such as London’s Tate Modern, the Pompidou Centre in Paris, and New York’s Guggenheim; while a signed print by Keïta, who died in 2001, can sell for $100,000.
Pigozzi has been accused of plundering Africa for personal gain but is unapologetic. “I wouldn’t change anything about how I went about collecting contemporary African art. No one did it before me; so of course there would be controversy. Everyone said I was mad to collect African art produced after 1900. But now the market is picking up. Seydou Keïta is one of the most important artists of the past century, in the same category as Irving Penn. He deserves to be recognised.”
He has, he says, “spent a lot of my time and money fighting the cause of African artists in court and regulating the market for their work. I’ve helped more African people with building their homes and villages and sending their kids to school and paying for funerals and weddings – so zero exploitation there. But what I’m proud of most is how we saved thousands of negatives. Negatives are fragile things. And if you leave them in Africa, with the humidity and the way some of the people there were not caring for them, they would have all been destroyed by now.”
The controversy surrounding Pigozzi’s collection is, says Michael Hoppen, one of London’s leading photographic art dealers, “nothing more than professional jealousy. He’s been instrumental in bringing a lot of very interesting art from Africa to a lot of people’s attention.”
Lunch with the FT: Jean Pigozzi (FT.com)