“Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Lynette Yiadom-Boakye.” Naomi Beckwith laughs. The Manilow senior curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago is talking to her friend, jeweller and art collector Catherine Sarr, about dream acquisitions – and the paintings of London-based British-Ghanaian artist Yiadom-Boakye feature highly.
“I adore her work,” says Sarr. “It attracts you through its beauty and visual poésie, then goes deep on subjects of representation and identity.” Yiadom-Boakye’s portraits of fictitious subjects are certainly gaining traction. In 2010, Beckwith gave Yiadom-Boakye her first solo museum show at The Studio Museum in Harlem; in 2013, she was nominated for the Turner Prize; and in November, a major survey of her work opens at Tate Britain. “She is amazing,” agrees Beckwith, enthusiastically. “She now sits at the centre of some of the best art being made. Strong painting. Great narrative undergirding. And a really beautiful commitment to craft. So, good luck [buying one] Catherine.”
This type of back-and-forth is the crux of Sarr and Beckwith’s relationship – forged over regular family dinners at each other’s Chicago homes, and circling around the Sarr art collection. “There are lots of different issues that we debate – strongly,” says Sarr, who was born in France to Beninese parents, and worked at De Beers before launching her own jewellery brand, Almasika, in 2014. “When it comes to art, sometimes we disagree. We have our own perspectives. But it always feels like a positive debate.”
The two women first met in 2017, not long after Sarr, her financier husband, Mamadou-Abou, and their four children moved from Abu Dhabi to Chicago. “We were already collecting at the time. It started as an introspection. Definitely Africa and our heritage was the start,” says Sarr. “We’re drawn to African art in terms of the diaspora. Now, living in the US, we have moved more towards African-American art. It’s all about understanding where you are.”
At the heart of this endeavour is photography. Images by Adama Sylla, Seydou Keïta and Mimi Cherono Ng’ok – from Senegal, Mali and Kenya respectively – have been joined by photographic works by black American artists such as Carrie Mae Weems and Lorna Simpson. Sarr singles out a photograph by Boston-born Jamaican artist Lorraine O’Grady. Entitled Art Is…(Cop Eyeing Young Man), it is one of a series of images documenting a performance at the 1983 African-American Day Parade in Harlem, where actors danced with picture frames to capture moments of the event. Talking about the series in 2015, O’Grady said, “A black female social worker told me that she didn’t think avant‑garde art had anything to do with black people. So I decided to prove she was wrong.”
The series as a whole is inherently joyful, but Sarr’s image strikes an uneasy note, bringing to mind issues of racism and police brutality. It also highlights how the Black Lives Matter movement is asking galleries and art institutions to address issues of representation. “The art world is not immune from the same inequities and blind spots the world is protesting against today,” says Beckwith. “I’d love to see the art world examine what and who is missing in the current art-history canon and in the market. Above all, I want the art world to ask, ‘Why not?’ Why not champion more women, more artists of colour, more black-owned galleries, more artists from outside of Europe and the States? It only makes for a more interesting and equitable world.”
All of these elements can be seen in the Sarr collection. In a paper-cut silhouette by Kara Walker. In the dazzling, 24ct-gold gilded painting by British-Liberian artist Lina Iris Viktor — bought through black Chicago gallerist Mariane Ibrahim. And, most recently, in a wall-based sculpture, Votive Deposit (2019), by 39-year-old artist Nate Young, which showcases a horse bone in a finely crafted wooden vitrine. On the front panel is a spray-painted excerpt by New York Times sports journalist William C Rhoden about the Jockey Syndrome — “a series of manoeuvres to facilitate racist outcomes” in horse racing and beyond.
“Nate really represents our relationship with Naomi, because we were not familiar with his work at all before she mentioned him. His work is a whole journey into American history for us,” says Sarr, explaining how Young’s recent exhibition at Chicago gallery Monique Meloche looked at the Great Migration of African-Americans, including the artist’s great-grandfather, from the south to the north. “If we go to an art fair like Expo Chicago, we’ll ask Naomi who she recommends we see – and she always has an unbiased list for us.”
Beckwith is quick to point out that the Sarrs also bring artists to her attention. One such is French-Senegalese photographer Alun Be. “He creates these beautiful futuristic images, but he’s also a beautiful soul,” says Beckwith. “When my husband and I went to Dakar, he was basically our minder – and introduced us to other artists. I really feel like I’ve gained another brother through the Sarrs.”
Curator-collector relationships can raise the odd eyebrow – especially in light of the 2017 resignation of Beatrix Ruf, director of Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum, amid claims she had been running a highly lucrative art advisory company as a side hustle. “I don’t get paid to give this kind of advice,” says Beckwith. “I’m not an art adviser who’s taking commissions. I have literally no personal skin in the game. But I will only give advice if you are supporting my museum. Then I am happy to walk someone through the process of collecting. I’m happy to do so for a couple of reasons. Number one: the people who support institutions are basically supporting me and my livelihood, so it’s a way to show my gratitude. And two: my responsibility as a curator is to build up really strong collections. So I am thinking about, let’s say, the long-term benefits to a museum.”
These benefits are highlighted by another Chicago-based curator-collector pairing: that of Art Institute of Chicago curator Mark Pascale and Irving Stenn, a prolific collector of postwar and contemporary works on paper who in 2015 donated more than 100 drawings to the museum. “I feel that Chicago is a special place in terms of art collecting. It’s a very civically engaged city,” says Sarr, highlighting the MCA show Duro Olowu: Seeing Chicago, which was organised by Beckwith and guest-curated by Nigerian-born British fashion designer Olowu as a showcase to the city’s public and private art collections (and to which Sarr lent a photographic work by Eritrea-born, New York-based artist Dawit Petros).
“Duro had a really beautiful way of talking about the people who collect in this city,” says Beckwith, a native Chicagoan. “He said: ‘I don’t even call them collectors. I call them facilitators.’” It’s a befitting title for the Sarrs. Over the past five years, they have supported art institutions such as the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Pérez Art Museum in Miami. In Chicago, they support the Museum of Contemporary Photography and the Art Institute of Chicago as well as the MCA. They’ve also funded a number of artist residencies through the FACE (French-American Cultural Exchange) Foundation.
“The Sarrs really think about how collecting can be a kind of advocacy project, not just a way to amass things,” says Beckwith. But although collecting is “not shopping”, she adds, “it is still important to keep a list. To know what you want to focus on. So that when opportunities arise, you are able to jump.” Currently on Sarr’s list alongside Yiadom-Boakye is the late Nigerian painter and sculptor Ben Enwonwu. “I love his work,” says Sarr. “I actually had the opportunity to buy a sculpture of his and am really upset with myself that I didn’t take it.”
Enwonwu is an example of an earlier generation of artists whose work is influencing contemporary circles. And this kind of historical context is something Beckwith is keen to see in the Sarr collection. “It’s part of the preservation of African heritage,” concurs Sarr, who recently acquired a bronze figure (Le Nouba Couché VII, 2004) by Senegalese sculptor Ousmane Sow, who died in 2016. She also owns several works by 88-year-old Nigerian artist Bruce Onobrakpeya.
“I have a dream for the Sarr collection,” muses Beckwith. “I think it can be the core of an amazing archive. As The Centre of Global African Art in the early 21st century, at a major museum. Or the Sarr Centre for Global Black Cultural Production. I really see that potential.”
An exhibition of works by Nate Young and Mika Horibuchi opens at the Driehaus Museum in Chicago (driehausmuseum.org) on 26 September.
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