Ahead of the African and Oceanic Art sale in Paris on 13 June, collector Leinuo Zhang dropped into Sotheby’s in Paris to talk about his passion for African art.
Leinuo, you started collecting African Art recently; can you explain to me when and how this interest originated?
I was introduced to African art really early on in life, when I was a child, but I started to collect more recently. I think it was triggered by my last trip to Paris when I saw all the masterpieces of African Art in the galleries of Saint Germain des Prés. I began to recognize each tribal group and the differing perceptions of beauty held by each. For me, it really is an interesting world to enter and discover. After a couple of months when I had more knowledge about the market, the values and the different provenances, I felt that it was the moment to start collecting.
What was the first object you fell in love with?
The first object was the Dan/Kran mask from Jean Willy Mestach. I saw it in Milan in the Dalton Somaré Gallery. I was struck by its similarity to the Cubist paintings of Picasso. Its formal purity actually gives it a strong power. This contrast between simplicity and power awed me and instilled in me a desire to know more about the culture which created this masterpiece.
And which piece inspired you to start your collection?
My favourite ethnic group is the Kwele, so my first object was Kwele. I bought a mask which was sold at Sotheby’s in 2012. I have the feeling that its beauty purifies me, eyes and soul. It is a very rare piece, worthy to be in a museum and I feel really grateful to have it in my collection.
You are particularly attracted to masks, how can you explain that?
I have a huge passion for masks, especially for African masks. I find figures more humanist, or let’s say, more realistic. Masks inspire the imagination. They provide an image of the world which is so different from the naturalism we have been used to since the 19th century that it seems only logical they inspired modern painters so much. They have strong potential, they tell a story that changes every time you see them, and touch your soul. They cause a whole range of differing and changing feelings, which is fascinating to experience as a collector.
Regarding the Arts d’Afrique et d’Oceanie auction on the 13 June, which are your favourite pieces?
The Mambila mask and the Galwa are two of my favourites. The Grebo mask, the ivory Lega mask from the Willy Mestach collection, and of course, the Fang head, are also amazing. I don’t collect figures but the Bete figure is special to me.
The Mambila, Grebo, Galwa and Lega masks are all aesthetically very different, what do you like about each of them?
As they originated in different minds and from varying inspirations, all the masks instil different feelings. The Grebo mask is perfect in its volumes and cubism. What I like is its very small dimensions which, through its creative geometrical forms, build a very strong impression. I also love its rare, blue colour. I like the Mambila mask for the rarity of its corpus. One other famous Mambila mask is in the collection of the Barbier-Mueller Museum: both of these masks are very similar, but the one presented here is more creative, with more eyes, and I really appreciate its carving qualities. In my view, it is a museum quality piece. Among the rare pieces from Gabon, the Galwa pieces are even rarer, I think it is exceptional to find this kind of mask out of a museum. Both its exhibition and provenance attests to its importance, as it has been selected as one of the most importance pieces from Gabon. Finally, I love the Lega ivory mask for its small, intense dimensions, and the fact it passed through the hands of Willy Mestach, who is to me one of the most famous experts of African Art.
You also like the Fang head, how would you explain the impact it has on you and on African Art collectors?
I really love its deep patina and the fact that it has been broken, probably to be consumed as an ingredient of ritual medicine: it gives it added value. As Fang heads are made to embody the likeness of an ancestor and to prolong their life, I consider this example to be particularly impressive; I find that you can actually feel all these things by observing it. I also love the Paul Guillaume provenance, as he was the first to appreciate the beauty of African art and to establish its relevance to the art of his time, which gave added value to African art. I believe in his taste and his collection, and I am very happy to see this piece in the auction.
You also like the Bete figure which exhibits a totally different style. What do you find attractive about this piece?
Though I mainly collect African art, I have quite a wide knowledge about the arts in general, and this figure reminds me of Grecian pieces – the strong, powerful Kouroi from 570 B.C. They give the same impression and express the same feeling to me. I think that, as human beings, we have a lot in common and when we create to communicate, like here, the idea of a powerful man, an ancestor, we may use the same means to express a common idea. Art creates bridges between ages and places. Another striking example to me is the resemblance between Japanese masks and Punu masks. I think this gives African Art a great level of universality, which makes it attractive to a large range of collectors who may be used to other specialities.
Finally, if you could choose only one piece from all pieces of African Art, which one would it be and why?
I would choose a big Fang mask, such as the one from the Vérité collection, as this is such a rare corpus. Loving African art is not only about a matter of its primitivism, it is also about loving modernity of form and universal art.