Brendon Bell-Roberts talks to Los Angeles-based collector and art industry maverick Stefan Simchowitz
Simchowitz is a popular target for critics who claim that his particular penchant for promoting young, undiscovered artists through bulk acquisitions of their work to later flip for profit destabilizes established workings of the art world – age-old, value-determining systems composed of a long-standing and tight network of critics, publications, universities, museums, and galleries that collectively define the nature of good art. He subverts this establishment by selling his curated acquisitions directly to a diverse network of wealthy clientele who trust his taste implicitly.
Brendon Bell-Roberts: From an international perspective how do you see the challenges facing contemporary art practice in Africa on the eve of the launch of the Zeitz MOCAA museum in Cape Town?
Stefan Simchowitz: The challenge facing Africa is the lack of cultural infrastructure, a small collector base and a gallery system that is not plugged in globally. Missed opportunities for artists to sell and promote their art, and distribute and finance the production of their work are compounded by galleries whose regional thinking is adequate at marketing artists within the narrowly defined category of “African Contemporary” but not sufficient in enabling these artists to cross the international boundary.
In addition because the market is small and competition extensive there is a lot of paranoia over the representation of local artists. This leads to inefficient outcomes and decisions for both artists and galleries whose development and global exposure is hampered by decisions made from fear.
The colonial echo is mirrored in the North(EUROPE)/South(AFRICA) representation structure in which exposure of artists from Africa is largely controlled by a small subset of galleries who have limited knowledge of how the international industry actually operates. This is why you see artists from Africa primarily showing at art fairs dedicated to geographic thematic exhibitions. I would like to see more collaboration and integration in the mainstream art fairs and international art galleries.
The added challenges of geographic isolation and art schools on the continent deploying the mandated institutional education of post-colonial ideas and the ensuing leftist/marxist critique encourages artists to produce a very similar kind of “serious” work. Ironically the west, institutionally and critically, wants this kind of work from Africa. So the infrastructure of art schools is set up to serve this European system. I find it ironic that Ghana’s main art academy is called Kunst Academy. Once again I would like to see a more open infrastructure and a broader acceptance and acknowledgment of what makes cultural production so strong on the continent. There is a tremendous amount of raw talent producing work and we have seen this work in exhibitions like the show in Paris and the Louis Vuitton Foundation. I would like to see this kind of work showing up in exhibitions and galleries that are not thematically purely African.
Stefan Simchowitz. Jacket by Bernhard Wilhelm. Malibu, CA.
“the world completely underestimates the sheer power of artists from Africa”
I see problems manifested in these 3 areas: The Gallery System, the Artists and the Collector base.
Firstly, the gallery system in Africa relies on strong contractual mechanisms to ensure the exclusivity of artist’s representation. It is not that common that such agreements are signed in western galleries and although artists display an incredible lack of loyalty when better opportunities arise I think this balance of power encourages artist representatives to do their job properly and to build a level of intimate trust with artists as opposed to relying on a strong contract. There is a richness of signed agreements with artists working on the continent and an impoverishment of good representation.
The second problem lies with the artists themselves who overnight become professional businessmen with the slightest scent of success. This is hard to deal with as the reality of the potential riches of the global art market arrive at your studio door. The typical cliche of greed leads to poor decisions made by artists who – struck with such potential riches – can make poor decisions without the full understanding of the true complexity and pitfalls of the global art market. Add this to the fact that the people who represent them often have no clue either and you have a perfect recipe for a Chocolate Souffle that never rises.
Thirdly a global collector base must be built and this must be dealt with by being creative and inventive in ways to reach audiences not in direct reach of the North/South nexus – that wants to primarily consume an “ethical” and “post-colonial” narrative of art from Africa. Too many African artists build their entire practice on this narrative and are emboldened by the easy institutional support they find of this critique and use it as a crutch to avoid building more realistic and sustainable markets for their cultural output. The European system that looks to Africa to explore history with the cultural lens of race and post-colonialism must be updated to present the ‘New Africa’ that is brimming with life and a cultural energy that is unique on the planet today. Africa can and must lead cultural discourse with it’s own narrative now, unencumbered from the silos of European Institutions and their “African” art departments. Artists on the continent must and can be seen as just artists, one and the same to all artists globally. Once their gallery systems see this perhaps you will see engagement with local galleries of international artists mixed with African artists. We need to integrate the art world – not represent what the system has so elegantly set up for us to do. In other words Africa must lead, not follow.
“the world completely underestimates the sheer power of artists from Africa”
Stefan Simchowitz. Carl Andre Retrospective at MoCA Geffen. Los Angeles, CA. © Stefan Simchowitz.
Marc Horowitz in his studio. Altadena, CA. © Stefan Simchowitz.
“Africa must lead, not follow”
It is not dissimilar in China which is why artists like Ai Wei Wei do so well in the west. Ai Wei Wei is a terrific artist naturally, but he succeeds so well in the west because he fulfills the western narrative of what China is to the west. Many Chinese collectors see through this and prefer artists like Cai Qoou Chang whose work in the medium of fireworks and large scale events is intrinsically more authentic and less in line with the western critique of seeing China exclusively as an authoritarian regime.
The problem in South Africa is that the collectors are white or CEOs or Ex-CEOs of major companies and almost have an unspoken subconscious mandate to fulfill this narrative through their engagement. Many of these “collectors” want to be seen as supporting the industry and artists, they want to be seen as “moral,” “good” people. The results however often entrench this singular post-colonial cultural narrative.
What international impact do you see the Zeitz MOCAA having and what role and strategy should they be activating?
Well their strategy is possibly flawed. In other parts of the globe where there are established and deeply entrenched institutions covering contemporary art, it is welcome when private/public institutions are born to further engage and expand the conversation and exhibition of contemporary art. The Broad, The Prada Foundation, the Pinault Foundation and many others are extensions of an already existing base of museums. Naming rights are therefore not so important because in all the major cities there are existing museums that are not attached to an individual and/or a luxury brand. When the first major institutional project on the continent for contemporary art is named, I think it poses a series of issues. Africa, obviously, is not Europe and the primary overriding institutional conversation surrounding African Contemporary is always the post-colonial narrative mixed with three scoops of solid Marxist ideology. It is the elephant in the room. So naming the first major establishment Zeitz MOCAA presents one with the not so subtle issue of colonization once again. To take all this cultural energy and production is to needlessly burden it with this tired narrative is the problem. You have this horse, beautiful and filled with energy and power and you go and put a German saddle on it. The irony of it is rather amusing. One would think such a simple thing as naming rights and this conundrum could be avoided. In the art world however ego is the better part of valour and MOCAA Cape Town or SA MOCAA would have been more inclusive for all. Nevertheless, this is such an exciting project. All involved, especially Mr Zeitz, should be commended and supported for such an ambitious venture in such a tricky land.
Andrew Berardini standing in front of a work by Serge Attukwei Clottey at Leadapron. Los Angeles, CA. © Stefan Simchowitz.
Stefan Simchowitz holding Petra Cortright test prints. Office. Los Angeles, CA. © Stefan Simchowitz.
Would you care to touch on some of the artists, narratives and strategies that you think are really exciting?
Oscar Murillo was disliked early on by the traditional westernised art scene in Columbia and seen as a sort of pariah, because of his youth and the speed of his success. Oscar uses his Colombian roots and experiences to discuss hierarchy, colonialism and race that invents and utilises a unifying aesthetic strategy that was very appealing to collectors. He excited the market with his energetic production and challenged the accepted critique of how an artist should approach these themes.
Accra is very exciting right now, I think there is tremendous energy there and a lot of creative fireworks. Zimbabwe also seems to be a centre for creative work that is promising.
I come from the movie business where the studios buy scripts in order to prevent their competition from producing them – they won’t compete against the blockbuster films the studios have invested in. In essence to avoid a ‘David vs Goliath’ situation. This happens in a more subtle way in the art business. Not as directly, but indirectly within the mechanisms of the ‘Apex Predator Gallery’ system.
I took in the exhibition ‘Art/Afrique, Le nouvel Atelier’ at the Foundation Louis Vuitton which also included works from the Jean Pigozzi collection of African art. It was a truly amazing exhibition and I totally enjoyed the juxtaposition of the West African works which have the incredible energy of artists working outside a system, alongside the young South African artists born in the 70s and 80s whose work is symptomatic of new issues and realities, more than 20 years after the end of apartheid.
What are your thoughts on inclusivity and accessibility in the art world?
I think social media is underutilized. As Stefan Simchowitz, I’m extremely easy to get a hold of, if you have 5 minutes you can go online and find out how my life is going and what I do. I think that it would be nice when you put your name on your building that you offer the same kind of insight and access. There is this museum in Australia that I love called MONA (Museum of Old and New Art), it is a private institution and doesn’t conform to the establishment. The founder is a professional gambler and says, “I’m going to do it my way, fuck this,” and he didn’t call it David Walsh’s MONA in Australia, it’s just called MONA.
I believe in access, and it is so difficult to buy good art when you’re a neophyte. I believe dealers and gallerists should be far more accessible and communicate their positions more openly. There is a culture of cultivating neutrality in the business at the expense of being forthright. You may piss off curators, clients and artists if you express your views in the art world. I would like to see this change.
What we need now are unconventional and inexpensive alternatives to support artists. We need to build hundreds of little draw-bridges so we can create a culture in Africa comparable with the infrastructure of western systems. I think the young generation is tied to a new kind of Africa, not the Africa we currently see through the lens of the west. It’s an energy that is looking forward and moving forward.
Lastly what was your first art collecting moment and what inspires you?
When I was seven years old I went to a stamp auction in Hillbrow in South Africa and I put my hand up for the winning bid and bought a Cape Triangle stamp. I also collected stamps from these pseudo South African Republics that were set up. I loved stamps aesthetically and organizing them was a ritual I loved. Also stamps from Sierra Leone, they were big and puffy with different shapes and were nothing like traditional stamps. I don’t know what that impulse was. I have always had a profound relationship aesthetically to things, clothes, people, stamps, furniture and art. I believe an object can have soul if it perfectly expresses its purpose. It can have a soul if it is mass produced or hand carved as long as the object does exactly what it is supposed to do, no more, no less.
I think my photographs, which I have taken all my life, are a constant search to capture the soul of a thing – inanimate, animate, human, animal, object. I want to find that thing, that simple thing, that is perfect. This is my goal.
Stefan Simchowitz. Fabric store. Los Angeles, CA. © Stefan Simchowitz.