What I Learned From Africa's Top Art Collector

Isoul H. Harris

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I met Sindinka Dokolo in the spring of 2015, at his art exhibition “You Love Me, You Love Me Not” in Porto, Portugal. Staged at the Municipal Gallery Almeida Garret, the show featured 50 African artists and over 100 works — all exploring African and Black identity and representation through the lens of history and political activism. It projected a modern and progressive Africa, not the often belied continent illustrated in dusty and dated textbooks. “This exhibit does not tell you what Africa is or who Africans are,” said Dokolo, a Congolese mega collector, businessman, and philanthropist. “Instead, it tells you what Africa is not and what Africans are not.”

The Sindinka Dokolo Foundation owns more than 5000 African artworks, making it one of the most extensive compilations globally. The title “You Love Me, You Love Me Not” alludes to the collage work of Kenyan artist Wangechi Mutu. Dokolo approached collecting as an act of collage — blending classic and contemporary to highlight Africa’s truth and possibility. Other African artists included William Kentridge, Kendell Geers, Samuel Fosso, Marcia Kure, and African American artists Kara Walker and Nick Cave.

The success of the exhibit earned the foundation an invitation to establish a satellite headquarters in Porto. Securing a partnership with Portugal was significant for Dokolo. The European country once colonialized Angola, the African nation that he, his wife, Isabel Dos Santo, and two children called home. Dos Santos is the continent’s first female billionaire and the daughter of former Angolan President Jose Eduardo Dos Santos. Dokolo’s excitement over the collaboration was palpable. “We are not yelling in the desert anymore,” he told me.

Augustin Dokolo was a wealthy Congolese banker and art enthusiast. He inspired his 15-year-old son Sindinka to begin collecting. The younger Dokolo would eventually launch Angola’s Luanda Triennale, an initiative promoting Angolan history and modernity. He lent his venerable collection to the Venice Biennale for its first African Pavilion in 2007. He was also instrumental in bringing Adam Szymczyk’s “Documenta 14” to Luanda in 2017 by helping underwrite it. “African art is our history, our identity, and our dignity,” Dokolo posted on Instagram in 2019.

Sindinka Dokolo died on October 29, 2020. He reportedly drowned while scuba diving in Dubai. His wife and two children survive him.

Dokolo was not without controversy. He and his wife faced corruption allegations. In January, documents dubbed “Luanda Leaks” accused the two of inappropriate dealings. Both Dokolo and Dos Santos denied all allegations.

A dizzying multitasker, Dokolo’s work spanned activism, collecting, curating, world travel, lecturing, mentoring, philanthropy, and public and private programs. He was relentless in his global efforts in repatriating African art and artifacts stolen and looted from the continent during the colonial era. He confronted Western museums, auction houses, private art collectors, and art dealers. Dokolo aggressively demanded that institutions and individuals sell his foundation their stolen property for the amount they paid for it — or face lawsuits. He successfully retrieved many of those works and placed them in African museums. In 2019, the Sindinka Dokolo Foundation advertised these efforts on the NASDAQ electronic billboard in Times Square.

During our conversation, he spoke excitedly about art, life, and the future. Below are some insights from our talk.

Generation Dragging

We should engage with art at an early age. We have to drag our younger generations to museums and galleries.

Museums As Barriers

The concept of the museum is dusty, cold, and at the root of the problem. A string keeps you from some art. We need to rethink museums like the church needs to rethink the way it relates to people.

The Racism of ‘Tribal’ Art

Thanks to my journey, I have educated my eye in classical art. Ancestral African art is classical, not tribal. The use of the term ‘tribal’ is racist. ‘Primal’ translates as ‘Art from a people that do not know how to read or write.’ That is not cool. It is condescension. Some of the classical art should not be in private hands.

The Value of Revolution

The price of an artwork should be a reflection of its value. Value is determined by how revolutionary and impactful an artwork has been. The real value of art is in how it engages with society. Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying, stupid and completely out of touch. You must consider if something is revolutionary and relevant. Picasso was revolutionary because his work was relevant.

Understand Africa, Understand Its Art

Africa has a cultural DNA of engaging with art in a way that the art world has not yet explored or discovered.

The Secret of The Art World

The art world today is full of bubbles. It’s full of sub-primes. I don’t know if I am revealing a secret and will be labeled a whistler. But, as long as everyone believes these delusions — as long as people are sheep — it will continue. There is only so much tension you can place on this rope before it snaps. Much of the art today is solely about aesthetics, the story, or marketing. There is no relevance in the context of the world. The art world must make an extraordinary effort to put itself in question. There is a moral responsibility. Art is important to civilization.

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I explore culture through curiosity and compassion.

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