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Contemporary Art

For Jwan Yosef, Making and Collecting Art as an Outsider is “Liberating”

By Stephanie Sporn

W ith a site-specific installation at the Santa Maria Montesanto Church in Rome, group show at the Tom of Finland Foundation in Los Angeles and art rug collaboration with Swedish company Henzel Studio, Jwan Yosef’s current projects are almost as diverse as he is. Raised in Stockholm by a Christian-Armenian mother and Muslim-Kurdish father, both of Syrian descent, Yosef has increasingly embraced that which makes him different. Recognizing the tremendous influence Yosef’s heritage and sexuality have had not only on his practice but also his collecting and patronage, Sotheby’s asked the Contemporary artist to lend his eye to our BENT. auction (27 June, New York) which celebrates WorldPride and commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. “It’s a perfect depiction of sexual revolution and also a mental breakthrough in queer art and history,” said Yosef. “There is such a range of works, including art with a more overt sexual tone, as well as pieces that are actually quite conceptual.” Ahead, Yosef discusses the auction, his myriad influences and the genres that distinguish his art collection formed with husband Ricky Martin.

What genres of art do you and Ricky gravitate towards? How has your collection evolved since becoming a part of each other’s lives?
Fusing our art collections was quite organic. Ricky was collecting years ago, but my work within the art world triggered his sense of collecting even more. The two major common threads would be Latin American art and queer art. Artists in our collection include Mapplethorpe, Warhol, Betty Tompkins, Félix González-Torres, Wifredo Lam and Rufino Tamayo.

Is there one piece in your collection that is particularly meaningful?
Probably the most recent one. It was love at first sight with this super simple Mapplethorpe Polaroid he took of a man in a T-shirt that says “Puerto Rico.”

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JWAN YOSEF AS A STUDENT AT THE PERNBY SCHOOL OF PAINTING IN STOCKHOLM.

Which artist most inspires your own work?
I’ve followed Neo Rauch, a German painter from Leipzig, since my late teens, and his narrative has set the tone for everything I’ve done. He has a very different approach to painting. He makes extremely theatrical and intense Socialist scenes.

"There are so many layers to me being an outsider: my sexuality, heritage, religious point of view. Somewhere along the way I just learned to embrace it in my own practice."

You speak often of the importance and unimportance of belonging. How has being an outsider influenced your creative production?
Recently I realized being an outsider can be liberating, but I am still searching for understanding. This is why my question about the importance versus unimportance of belonging is crucial to both my artwork and collecting. There are so many layers to me being an outsider: my sexuality, heritage, religious point of view. Somewhere along the way I just learned to embrace it in my own practice. In many ways I am a classical painter. I work with portraiture, but my schooling has been very conceptual. I’ve gone to colleges where painting has been almost frowned upon. So there is this torn mentality because I can’t just simply accept that I am a painter, and again, that becomes another form of being an outsider.

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INSTALLATION VIEW OF A SELECTION OF YOSEF'S PAINTINGS CREATED DURING HIS TIME AT CENTRAL SAINT MARTINS, LONDON.

Arts education is a key platform of yours. How have you given back through The Bomb Factory Art Foundation?
When co-finding the foundation, we were all artists who had gone to Central Saint Martins together. We were fed up with super expensive rent, and we created our own foundation that allowed over 20 affordable studios to be built in an old Victorian bomb factory. Our program enables established and emerging artists to work in the same space where they can learn from each other’s practices.

Why do you find the educational and charitable components of Sotheby’s BENT. auction to be so critical?
I believe our own personal revolutions are not linear but rather cyclical. If people don’t actively work with charities like The Center, they could easily forget the rights they’ve been struggling for so long to achieve – and the fact that such rights can easily be taken away. It’s crucial to take a stand because we also have a generation that has grown up without fully understanding what it meant to have been gay back then.

Jwan Yosef’s Favorite Works from BENT.:

“One of the first pieces that stood out to me was this photograph by Gillian Wearing, one of the Young British Artists whom I personally love and have followed. She became this fantastic figure to me, having been in London for many years. This series, which almost unmasks people on the street, has really shaped my adult work.”

“When I first saw Peter Hujar’s work years ago, I couldn't place him. I thought, ‘Is this something that was taken in the 1800s, the 1950s or now?’ There is a timeless aspect to his work and such a strong form of mysticism. The artist’s story of dying from AIDS also encompasses the tragic history of an entire group of people dying in the 1980s. This sets the tone for a lot of my work.”

“When going through the BENT. catalog, there were a few eyeopeners, especially with these images of males swimming together from a romanticized gay point of view. There was a lot of work that I wasn't aware of, but it was fun to discover that this aesthetic has essentially been there forever.”

“There is a beautiful selection of Andy Warhol photographs but also beautiful and romantic early drawings. Before the whole Pop art thing happened, there was this sensible Warhol creating sweet drawings that I feel are almost titillating.”

“I'm a huge fan of Mapplethorpe. This particular selection of photographs is really beautiful and quintessentially him.”

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