I will not look away

I will not look away
  • PublishedAugust 27, 2018

Sindika Dokolo is one of the biggest art collectors in Africa. Having quietly gone about his business for a long period of time, shunning the limelight, he is today shaking things up, as much in the world of art as in his home country, the Democratic Republic of Congo. Group Publisher, Omar Ben Yedder, met him in London, in what turned out to be an explosive interview.

When I initially reached out to Sindika Dokolo, it was to have a conversation about African art, the importance of owning our art and our identity and also about the restitution of African art to its rightful owners, a subject that has grabbed headlines since France’s President Macron promised to return African artefacts looted during the colonial period.

As I prepared for the interview, I was debating whether I should keep the discussion solely around art or whether I should bring up other issues, given that Dokolo has become more and more vocal in the past year and that he is married to no less a person than Isabel dos Santos, daughter of the former President of Angola, and arguably the most renowned business woman on the continent.

Dokolo himself has started a grassroots movement in his native DRC while his wife is being attacked for her business dealings in Angola and for her time at the helm of Sonangol, the national oil company.

As for Sindika, friends and acquaintances I spoke to who know him always reported positively, saying he is a down-to-earth, family guy, someone who is genuine, measured, discreet, intelligent and truly passionate about the arts.

I concluded that I would reassure him by telling him that we wouldn’t speak about Angolan politics or the Dos Santos saga; but when we meet, one evening in London, which is where his family is based, he quickly tells me that when he agrees to an interview there is no subject that is off-limits. He is cool and composed, impeccably dressed, offering me a glass of water, and refills my glass throughout our two-hour chat.

The conversation starts off gently, with him talking about his foundation, the museum in Angola where he has a permanent exhibition of his collection.

His passion for art came at an early age, through his parents, he says – his late father, a very successful banker and businessman, was a collector of classical art.

The African-American artist Basquiat, whom Sindika rediscovered in his mid-twenties, had triggered his interest in art, he tells me, which led him to start collecting seriously: “There was something very unique in Basquiat and very strong about African art that came from African classical art.  And so, I went back to it and this is when I really started collecting very seriously.” 

It was a Congolese art dealer in Belgium, Didier Claes, who introduced him to the breadth and range of African art, and more specifically, classical African art.

It is said that Dokolo is the ‘single biggest African collector of African art’, but it became clear from our discussions that he has strong objections to the way people define art by nationality or race. He calls it ‘anti-artistic’.

Through his foundation, he wants to ensure that African populations can gain access to art and be aware of their heritage and history, without which they cannot truly have “self-worth, dignity and self respect”.

He has a space in Luanda, an old building originally commissioned from Gustave Eiffel in the 1800s, that the government is helping renovate and where he exhibits parts of his collection. He describes the collection as largely eclectic. representing his mood and state of mind during a particular stage of his life.

His collection has toured to a number of different countries in Africa, helping to advance his mission of raising awareness among the African public, about art and culture and the need for people to reclaim their history.

As a precondition for lending his collection to other museums or galleries, he insists that they will then have that exhibition also displayed somewhere in Africa. The objective of the foundation, he says, is to be able to expose the African public to its contemporary creation and to integrate Africa into the circles of the art world.  “It’s so important today because Africa is torn by doubts, lack of self-confidence.

“That is the case today for a lot of African countries, which feel like they are incapable of any form of ambition, or thinking differently, or creating – there is no audacity whatsoever,” he says. 

“We think we are just going to be consumers forever. The role of an artist is to actually confront a society, expose it to its demons, to its doubts and also, help it reflect, go deeper than only on the surface; it increases the depth of a society and a capacity to understand that this is just a point in space and time.”

When I tell him that today Africa actually seems more confident, and no more so than in the creative industries such as the arts, and how its impact today is truly global, he dismisses this and says that it’s dangerous to measure yourself against what others think.

“Africa has been systematically rediscovered every five years, every 10 years. In the art world, since Magiciens de la Terre in the 1990s, every five years there’s somebody, whether it’s an art promoter, or an art mogul, whatever, who comes and says, ‘We’ve just rediscovered the continent!’ This is a bit complicated and sad. 

“I think what is relevant and very important is the fact that you have so many more institutions now that create conditions and interest and awareness around literature, music, and art in general, to be available to African audiences in Africa. I think this is relevant.”

Restitution of art

His latest project is to ensure that African art that has been acquired illegally is resituated to its rightful owners. This is a debate that has gained wide prominence since President Macron of France declared that returning African art was a top priority and that he could not accept that a large part of the cultural heritage from several African countries was in France.

But the issue is fraught with complications, says Dokolo: “This is why I’m saying, restitution is not something I embrace as a general principle. It has to be very specific and very well documented from a legal point of view, very solid.”

But he applauds Macron: “Restitution is a very strong word, it literally means to give back something that is not legitimately yours and especially when this concerns a state – you talk about resituating territories for instance, which are not legitimately yours.

“Macron even gave a timeframe for it. He said ‘in the next five years’.  So, it’s really incredible. Hopefully, this will create a precedent and open up a way that will enable a lot of countries that have 90 or 99% of their history and their art abroad, inaccessible, to actually address these two issues, which constitute national pride and sovereignty,” he adds.

Dokolo’s own quest revolved around the Dundo museum in Angola which had been renovated by the previous administration. When he went to enquire about some pieces of Chokwe art – the Chokwe civilisation flourished in what is now Angola, the DRC and extends all the way to Zambia – the museum said it had never seen those pieces, although they had clearly been part of its collection. Dokolo realised that during the civil war in Angola, art raiders had acquired those pieces.

Encouraged by his friend Ron Lauder, who was the head of the Jewish World Congress at the time and who had purchased works stolen during the Nazi era to return them to their owners – as well as by the example of Nigeria, which had made it illegal for objects from the Nigeria Ife Kingdom to be sold at auctions – he decided to go and retrieve stolen Chokwe art.

He set up a team to identify which pieces had gone missing, reconciling what the museum should have and what it currently has. The team was to track down the pieces, locate who now owned them and negotiate a ‘fair’ price – what they had bought them for – or threaten to name and shame them. So far the team has managed to locate 17 pieces and has returned a dozen to the museum.

Murky and racist

Sindika Dokolo gained massive prominence at the Venice Biennale in 2013 where the Angolan pavilion, which he financed, won the MOMA Prize, which also comes with $100,000 in prize money. However, when the organisers saw that Dokolo had ‘political links’ with Angola, they said that it would look bad for the prize to go to a country which was associated with corruption and in a continent where children are still suffering from hunger and there are families living on a dollar a day.

“It showed the extent to which invisible doors are still closed and need to be opened,” Dokolo reflects. “I didn’t ask for the prize money. But when they told me we can’t give you the prize money, this is when I told them this was not acceptable.”

The Angola pavilion was duly awarded the prize, but the experience influenced Dokolo. It is unclear how he views the established art world, but from the way he talks about it, he doesn’t hold it in high esteem. “The amount of drugs money, and fiscally stinking money that’s in the art world is shocking.

“[With the African pavilion] We were treated like… a second-class dog! You know, we basically had to bring everything ourselves to build the pavilion; we brought all the nails, the hammers, everything. We rented two apartments for everybody. And the show itself was amazing and it was critically acclaimed. It was an historic occasion for me – a very small history but a very relevant page of history for art in Africa.”

For the first time in our conversation, I could sense that Dokolo was agitated and angry. It seemed that pent-up frustrations that had built up over the years were coming out.

He is clearly frustrated at the way African art has too often been dismissed by the West; the way Africa is portrayed and perceived; the way – rather than the fact – that his wife and his father-in-law, whom he seems to admire greatly, are continuously criticised.

Stand up

And after years of sitting back and operating behind the scenes in a discreet and understated manner, the tipping point occurred two years ago, when his team in Dundo, a village in Angola bordering DRC, reported back to him that many refugees were coming from neighbouring Congo, fleeing their villages because of violence and atrocities, which he says were being instigated by Kabila’s men to sow fear and make the elections impossible to organise.

Dokolo went to Dundo to see for himself. “I thought I owed it to my father not to look away. I thought to myself, I have to do something. My father wrote a book in ’67 or ’68, called: Telema Congo, which means ‘Congo Stand Up’. 

“It’s a small book of thoughts that he had, which had to do with identity, with culture, with politics, the role of society and the way he looked at our young nation. And I asked myself: Do I stand up or do I look away?” 

Essentially, he wants the Congolese to be conscious of what is happening and take ownership of their future. He says that his father’s generation had a clear purpose: ‘Colonialism was bad – we will defeat it and build our country’.

He feels the youth are without any clear purpose and he says that there is no real ideology in politics or politicians, no movement – no real ideals that people can follow.

He knew Joseph Kabila and says that he is someone who had a real ambition for his country, but who somehow got caught up and completely lost track of what he was doing. “I don’t know what it is that makes a guy come to such ends,” he adds.

Elections are due in December, having already been delayed twice. Dokolo predicts that they will not happen and that somehow Kabila will find another way of remaining in power. Nevertheless, he is hopeful that civil society will stand up and says that Kabila’s regional allies are quickly abandoning him.

The problem, he says, is that Kabila will never organise any elections that would lead to his complete loss of power because he understands the gravity of things that he’s done and he’s not ready to face the consequences. 

Today, Dokolo says his own movement has over 1.5m members and alongside other groups such as the Catholic Church, will continue to organise marches and not tolerate another sabotage of the elections.

Interestingly, he feels that, despite all his ills, Mobutu was more interested in the wellbeing of his country and in defining a Congolese identity than Kabila. There was a sense of nationalism and civil responsibility. Every Saturday morning, everyone had to sweep out the fronts of their houses and help clean their neighbourhood. It was known as ‘Salongo’.

Mobutu used drastic measures to impose this but people understood their sense of duty and hard work, and that change “starts with you, it’s in your hands”. Dokolo also infers that Mobutu was much smarter in recognising the diversity of the country and keeping it together; the Congo of today is divided and Dokolo’s movement is about defining what it means to be Congolese, from the bottom up. (See also our article on Franco, p. 68.)

Political appeal?

Will we see ever Dokolo go into politics? He’s not interested, he says. He does speak highly of his father-in-law, whose family it appears is being persecuted by the new administration. 

It is normal, he says, for Angola’s new President to want to show that he is his own man, not operating in the shadow of his predecessor, although he feels João Lourenco is badly advised, and more than the persecution itself, he is surprised by the way in which it is being done.

He is also surprised by the fact that the people who were the cause of Sonangol’s ills are now back at the helm of the company. This is a claim that I have heard from a number of investment bankers and analysts I have spoken to. Irrespective of how she was elevated to that position, Isabel dos Santos pushed through reforms that no one else would have done and steadied a fast-sinking ship at a time when the price of a barrel of oil was under $30. She cut costs, restructured debts and renegotiated contracts.

He also defends his wife – who is still highly active with numerous business interests in Angola and elsewhere – saying she gave dynamism to the private sector, creating thousands of jobs in the process.  NA

Written By
Omar Ben Yedder

Omar Ben Yedder is the Publisher and Managing Director of IC Publications. After a short stint at investment bank Merrill Lynch, London, Omar joined the group in 2003. Omar's work and personal interests include media, development economics, leadership and education. Omar studied Economics and Languages at Durham University and also is a chartered management accountant. Omar is Tunisian, and is based out of London, spending two weeks a month on the road.

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