in this new issue of The Debrief, Foreign Agent's interview series, Christophe Person tells us all about his big move from Piasa to Artcurial and the one work of art from his personal collection he would save should the world really fall apart. He also shares insider intel on the African Contemporary art market.
You recently left Piasa after five years as Head of the African Contemporary Art Department to join Artcurial in November as Director of Contemporary African art. Tell us more about this move.
The last five years have been great. After working in Finance and Development for ten years, I decided to leave banking to do a Master's Degree in Art Law and Business at Christie's Education in London. When I was there, I focused my studies on Contemporary African art and its market. I felt that it was starting to move, thanks to the acceleration of institutional and private initiatives showcasing the wealth of African creation.
When I started organizing the first dedicated auctions, I saw early on the opportunity to show Contemporary African art to "mainstream collectors" and I thought that the auctions were a good channel for it. My aim at Artcurial is to carry on that development and reach out to a larger number of collectors, in the West, which is where many of my contacts are, but also in Africa. The auctions that Artcurial holds in Marrakech should further support this.
What will be your priority at Artcurial?
My aim will be to give more visibility to African creation. Today, many collectors have pieces of CAA bought from galleries, however some might not be aware that the secondary market is developing and that works they have bought a few years ago have now increased in value. Artcurial is the good platform to valorize their collection, presenting it in the larger context of global modern and contemporary art and to a broader audience.
Tell us more about your first encounter with African contemporary art.
I have always been really passionate about all kinds of art, from all historical periods and all origins. Just as for literature, music, cinema, theatre or fashion, I see visual art as a way of understanding what other people's life and state of mind was at the time it was created. It is a way of travelling in time and space, which in the current context is more important than ever.
If until recently Contemporary African art has not been the most accessible one, I have always been attracted to African art for its otherness. The same applies to any form of creation that is not Western-centred.
About ten years ago, I went for a trip to Burkina Faso. It was the first time I bought a couple of works in Africa, a mix of painting, collage and installation of found objects. I felt very attracted by the synthesis the artist made between tradition and the current state of the world as he was perceiving it. That is still what I am looking for when looking at a work of art by an artist from Africa or the Diaspora.
Beyond the fact that it is so fashionable right now, what is so special about African contemporary art in your opinion?
Because of history, African people have always travelled the world, sometimes because they were forced and sometimes because they decided to. I think it gave them the capacity to understand the world in a different way. For the artists, it means that they are able to have a relevant view on the social issues that we are facing today. I am thinking about topics related to identity, gender, the environment, migration of people and goods, North-South relations… Technically, the artists are also benefitting today from all the opportunities of residencies that they do all over the world. All these elements make their works especially relevant to the current context and also appealing to the art world and especially to collectors.
What are the trends in the African contemporary art market we should be expecting in 2021?
2020 will have been special enough to give a lot of food for thought. What strikes me the most is that now there are no more local issues: everything is global. Whether you are in Europe, Asia, Africa or the US, every single citizen is impacted by the COVID crisis, the Black Lives Matter movement, #metoo or conflicts linked to religion, only to name a few. These topics will certainly be at the centre of creativity.
If you had one single piece of advice for a collector entering the African contemporary art market today which one would that be?
When assessing a work of art with the aim of purchasing it, I look at the same things whatever the origin of the artist or of the work. What is important is the fact that the work is "contemporary". In other words, it has to fit within its current world and not copy what has been made before. In order to be able to judge this, one should know about art history, the Western one and also the non-Western one. It is hugely challenging so it is important to consult and be in touch with people with various profiles in order to get their opinion.
If by some unfortunate twist of fate, you could only save one artwork from your personal collection which one would that be?
I am not able to choose! I own one piece that I really feel living with because it is in my bedroom. It is called Eve by the Ugandan artist Ian Mwesiga. I am totally fascinated with the composition of very subtle colours. The title of the work evocates the origin of the world and the posture of Eve is very much ours at the moment. With a background of a crop field, she seems to come from nature, wanting to go somewhere, hesitating on the direction to take, expecting something to happen. I am aware of probably not fully understanding it but the work means a lot to me. It is part of a series that I saw in the artist's studio in Uganda, that I subsequently chased to eventually buy from Circle Art Gallery based in Nairobi during the 1:54 art fair in London to enjoy it in my apartment in Paris. Even the trajectory of this work makes me think about the globalization of the world and of the art market, and somehow of the absurdity of it.
What is your favourite secret hideout in Africa?
Still too hidden is BISO, the Biennale of Sculpture that I created with my friend Nyaba Ouédraogo in October 2019 in Ouagadougou. In a difficult security context for Burkina Faso, we gathered about 40 artists coming from everywhere to work on bronze and other techniques during residencies and an exhibition at the Institut Français. BISO was also the catalyst for the emergence of many events in the context of an OFF festival dedicated to the arts. We have now launched the call for candidates for the next edition that is scheduled for October 2021. We cross our fingers to have this time even more participants and visitors from Burkina and elsewhere!