We were recently featured in the stunning ìmọ̀ dára magazine by their lovely editor Adenike Cosgrove. Check out the interview below!
Montague Hermann, United States
March 08, 2018By: Adenike Cosgrove
Our 2017 collectors survey found that almost 30 percent of you plan to increase your spending in contemporary African art and 15 percent plan to pivot entirely to contemporary works. What better way to learn about this new world than to speak with a collector that did just that.
Starting with the purchase of his first Bundu mask from Liberia, Montague Hermann has since pivoted to solely collecting contemporary works from East and Southern African artists. “While most were milling around traditional pieces I thought, there’s really cool stuff over here, there’s a conversation to be had about contemporary African art,” says Hermann.
Montague guides us through his journey to discovering contemporary African art and his advice to those looking to enter this field of collecting.
Tell us a little about yourself. Why Africa?
I’m currently Director of Global Market Development at Element Inc., a biometric startup based in New York. I recently moved back to New York but before my move, I was based, full time for the last seven years, in several African countries.
Most recently, I spent three years in Nairobi as a regional marketing advisor for a public health social marketing NGO. But I oversaw 12 countries there and had the opportunity to travel quite a bit around East and Southern Africa. Before Nairobi, I spent two years in Somalia and before that, two years in Liberia.
My father was a doctor, and for better or for worse, he at least came home every day, exhausted and fulfilled and I wanted something like that, where I felt like I’d done something to make an impact on the world. So I joined the Peace Corps after working in marketing in New York for several years and moved to Liberia to teach in a rural town in Bomi County. I guess my love for Africa started when I was really really young. At three months, my mother took me on safari in South Africa. She always credits that for planting the seed of love for the Continent.
So I moved to Bomi County and that was where I took a hard right turn. I loved it! It was totally off the grid—no running water, no electricity—it was an incredibly powerful time. I spent a lot of time watching the Sande society rituals—the women coming out into society, the unveiling process. I’d spend hours sitting with some of the older guys and talking about their experiences in the Poro society. I joined formal events, like when there was a big decision to be made by the town and even informal ones like when someone was sick. The Sande bush devil would come out and pass judgement or just be there as a voice of reason.
While I was there, I became part of the community to the best of my ability. Seeing how, even today, the reverence for historically salient spirits and archetypes is still super strong. That really cemented for me that I wanted this to be a part of my life forever.
So of course, wanting that experience to stay with me forever, my immediate reaction was to find something physical that would remind me of that moment. The thing that I was able to acquire, was one of the Bundu masks from the Sande society of the town.
A lot of people that have started in classic or traditional art are thinking about making that transition to contemporary. So at what point after that Bundu mask did you discover the contemporary scene and decide that actually, this is what I’m passionate about?
I actually remember very vividly. I was in Dakar for the Biennale and I remember walking around from gallery to gallery. But looking at all the traditional works on display, I couldn’t wrap my head around the sheer number of them. It felt like they were being mass produced.
I was frustrated. The objects didn’t resonate with me. I found myself thinking about my experiences in Liberia. Experiencing the complexity of a nation that was post civil war, learning the nuances of traditional society and hierarchy. A country trying to grapple with some of these newer challenges of democracy, power structures, equality, and human rights.
I was thinking about all of this when I stumbled on some contemporary works and I was like wow, this is so different! It was so of the times, it was local but also global. It was voicing discontent in a way that was digestible and part of an international conversation. It felt less of a one-way conversation and seemed to allow for a two-way dialogue.
I realised at that point that I had been thinking about things all wrong. While most were milling around traditional pieces I thought, there’s really cool stuff over here, there's a conversation to be had here. I realised that this was a space where I’m better spending my time, I’m going to get more satisfaction from these contemporary works.
A number of artists that are of African descent have an issue with the label ‘contemporary African art’ in that why are we putting ‘Africa’ in here, it’s just contemporary art. What do the artists you engage with feel about this?
I don’t think there’s a one size fits all approach to that. There’s one artist, Ato Malinda, who does a lot of work that’s LBGTQ. If I were to ask her about how she characterises her work, she’d probably mention that she's focused on embracing her Africanness in her work but also challenging her African heritage with concepts around LGBTQ and equality. So Africa is relevant to her work but I don’t know if she would want to be pegged as African.
It’s kinda like Henry Louis Gates Jr. when he says ‘race matters’. It’s always going to be there, it’s always in the background but you don’t always have to talk about that when you talk about the creation of art. So for example, Beatrice Wanjiku, with her straightjacket series, I don’t think she would consider herself an African artist at all. I think she would consider herself a contemporary artist who’s tackling issues of society being restrictive. Whether it's in Kenya or Russia or Texas, it doesn’t really matter to her. I think it’s just about her personal experience as an artist who is a woman that has decided that she doesn’t want to get married yet and she’s not going to pop out ten kids.
I just asked this question of Dave Thuku in an interview I just did with him. He definitely doesn’t think he’s an African artist. I mean as an African he recognises that he probably does play a role in championing other artists who are from similar backgrounds. He started a school, Bora Bora, an incubator or collective where he’s bringing in young artists to promote them because he sees value in their experience here in Nairobi and wants the world to experience it too. Anyway, I think that’s a super interesting question.
I like to think of this as a transitional period that allows for a balancing of the playing fields. Contemporary African art should be everywhere, but I think it needs to overcome the historical prejudice of what it was. The Zeitz MOCAA is a great thing—to have a powerful jaw-dropping gallery like that may be considered African art at first, but in maybe 20 years, maybe they’ll drop the African part. I think that’s bound to happen. But moving from the first generation of artists to the second generation, there’s a big shift to that art and you just want to ensure that the second generation gets the recognition for the change they brought about.
What was the first piece you bought?
I started off cautiously. The first piece I bought was a George Lilanga etching. There’s a lot of debate about Lilanga’s work. He only produced work for a short amount of time but there’s a ton of Lilanga out there. Most of it's fake because he was so hot for a while, back in the 80s and 90s. It’s really really hard to tell the difference. It’s all about the source and the provenance. So, for instance, there’s a foundation in Zanzibar called the Emerson Foundation. This guy, Emerson, was from the West Village back in the 50s or 60s. He moved to Zanzibar and started development work there. He then restored two really cool old hotels and started this trust for artists. He was very friendly with a lot of the young artists. Edward Tingatinga, George Lilanga, the old school artists. He was gifted a lot of pieces directly from the artists. So in terms of provenance, that's probably one of the best places you can buy from. The Emerson Foundation now sells through East African Art Auction.
So, I bought a few Lilanga pieces first. The thing that drew me to the etchings were not their collectability but they were just so mesmerising. I played it safe because I felt I could understand, very clearly, the transition from a traditional piece to these contemporary pieces. Lilanga did it really well when he took Makonde shetani bush devils and put them in vibrant colours—in sculptures and in paintings. His sculptures are so cool—there’s a shetani in a vest smoking a Marlboro with an old cellphone—how cool is that!
That’s where I started and I thought "wow this is super cool", and then I made a bunch of mistakes after that!
And what were those mistakes you made when you first started collecting?
I started buying name brands. Lilanga was a safe buy in a way. It was safe insofar as he had brand equity. So then I foolishly thought, I need to round out my collection with some more well-respected painters, works from the first generation of Kenyan painters. I have one painting that I can see it right now in my mind's eye that my wife hates. It’s not my style at all. It looks like a Renoir of some ladies in a field. Starting out, I thought it was appropriate to start with older more well-known artists without thinking if they suit me or if I love them.
But some of them have stuck with me though. Like I got this piece by Kivuthi Mbuno, I really love it cause of the story behind it. He worked for a safari company as a cook and he was always fascinated by how tourists would go out to the Mara and say "oh it’s so peaceful here" and he would always so "no it’s chaos here! Everything is hanging in the balance. One thing dies and everything attacks and eats. He saw this tense landscape of potential disaster and chain reactions. He’s considered one of the early painters and total self-taught. I like his older pieces—an animal, eaten by another animal, being eaten by another animal! You get lost in his work.
So I bought without my gut, maybe that was my biggest problem. I was buying intellectually, with thought. I was buying historically important artists. I thought the best strategy would be to start with the older artists to have a well-rounded collection and then start dabbling in crazy new stuff.
I wish that I always went with my gut. I didn’t make first impulse buys with my gut, I bought cause I thought they were the smart decision.
There were some works and artists that I really loved but decided to wait—I kick myself for waiting because now they are much more expensive. Like Dawit Abebe from Ethiopia. He is a fantabulous painter, fantastic painter! He did a show at Saatchi Gallery in 2015 called Pangaea II and Saatchi bought the entire show! I had one of his paintings, before that show, in my grasp but I was umming and ahhing then the next day it was all gone!
So I always recommend going with your gut, don’t over intellectualize your purchase. Make sure there is an emotional connection. I also always want to know the artist making the work. Beatrice is an example of that. Had I looked at her work, without talking to her, I think I’d have felt torment and unease. But understanding her rationale behind her work makes it much more empowering. I see it as a unifying painting, we should all be tearing off our straightjackets.
Who are your favourite artists now and why?
I think my top favourite artist—this is a very hard question and I’m getting muddled in this because he’s a friend of mine—is Peterson Kamwathi. He creates works with very anonymous humans, everyday people, and they are usually standing in protest. I think his work is incredibly conceptual. It's of the times and incredibly political. He’s also such a treat to talk to. When you sit and talk to him about his work, he could go on for hours about the current political landscape and what that means to his work.
Peterson started out as a woodcarver and created early large charcoal pieces, I think he got a bit of notoriety from that early work. These works were in response to the 2007 elections in Kenya. Then he moved away from the animal form to the human form but kept things very anonymous. He had a famous series at Stevenson in South Africa—larger than life charcoal depictions of people, waiting their turn in line—the British Museum ended up buying a few pieces. The works were commenting on the political process in Kenya and beyond. There's a lot of tribalism that goes into it, you have certain tribes voting for certain candidates. A candidate gets in and they basically go to the coffers and take what they can, what then follows is trickle-down economics. It trickles down to the beneficiaries who voted for that candidate—hence the people just waiting in line, the practice of rituals, religion, and politics. It's his commentary on how we do silly things as a society and investigating what’s driving these behaviours. Why do we all gather in prayer in such a way? Why do we all gather for mass elections?
On top of it all, I think his execution is beautiful. I have several pieces from him. I just traded my car to him for a couple of pieces! And he also gave me a wedding gift for Sas and I which I will cherish forever. So Petersen is definitely out there in my tops from Kenya.
Paul Onditi I really love. Beatrice Wanjiku. Dave Thuku is also brilliant. He does collage work, paperwork that I have never seen before. Gor Soudan, he doesn’t put out a lot of work but he’s done a couple of pieces in the past that were just mind-bogglingly good! He did this beautiful bird’s nest made of the metal that comes in tires. During the 2007 protests, he had gathered the remnants of burnt tires from mass riots and he made this beautiful bird’s nest… it’s really powerful. So I think those guys are really great. Ato Malinda, I really like a lot too. Richard Kamathi is another too.
What steps do you take before a purchase?
I still find myself doing a lot of research but increasingly asking the artists I like, who they like. It’s an interesting way to find artists that are not well known. I think there are two key ways I go about research. First, for artists that don't have a presence yet, I go to group shows that take place in Nairobi. Circle Art Gallery, which I really like for emerging artists, and Kuona Trust, they have lots of group shows and encourage young artists to come in to showcase their work. In addition, there are a couple of galleries that I follow. Kristin Hjellegjerde in London is one. She’s a newer gallery but she has two artists I really love, Dawit Abebe and Ephrem Solomon. Ed Cross, also in London, has Petersen’s stuff.
I also follow people I like and admire such as Bob Collymore, the CEO of Safaricom in Kenya. He and his wife, Wambui Kamiru, are big proponents of the arts. So they follow certain artists and I learn from them and get insight into who they’re interested in.
Second, I read a lot. 1-54 is a great resource with a ton of information on artists and people to follow.
Montague Art Advisors, tell us all about that. What are you trying to do?
It’s really more of a passion project. It started with friends of mine coming to my house and being fascinating by the collection, they didn’t know this world existed. They'd go on their safaris, come back and they'd end up going to these chachki shops and picking up stuff. I refuse to let my guests go to that. You’re not going to buy this ‘airport art’ from some tourist stall. Let’s go to a gallery and let's do this properly.
I always convinced people to get at least two or three pieces because they're not so expensive and it's also really amazing art. Then my friends started asking me to show around their friends so I thought maybe I should formalise this is some way. My intent was that when people to come I was going to start partnering with tour operators and offer gallery tours as an option. When you come to Kenya, or anywhere in East or Southern Africa, we can create a bespoke artist studio and gallery tour for you. Artists want people to come to their studio but they’re far-flung and you need to know the artists and know their attitudes towards all of this. It's a bit of hand-holding and connecting the dots to bring interested collectors right to the source.
I also wanted to share globally, the world of contemporary African art. That’s why I started to do show reviews and artist interviews. If someone wants help with this, I’m happy to set this up.
Montague Art Advisors is intended for two purposes, to spread the word globally and also to catch some flies in the net and bring them to the Continent so that they can actually see the art first hand.
What advice would you have for collectors starting out in contemporary African art?
In the simplest form I’d say come to Africa. I think there’s nothing like it. You have to see this art with the artist. For me that’s number one, to hear the artist talk about their work.
The second best thing would be to go to the art shows 1-54, AKAA, all the different shows where the artists are actually coming to speak on behalf of their art. And you get critical mass too so you can spread around and safely get a sampling of what’s out there. Fairs are hotly debated on whether they’re good or bad in what they’ve done to the industry just because it’s like this shopping frenzy. Like with Basel, people complain because you can’t actually buy anything. People smash through the doors and it’s like going to Walmart on Black Friday! That creates pandemonium and its not necessarily healthy but the idea of even if you’re not going to buy for the first time, just go to a fair and check it out, see rows and rows of interesting pieces.
And finally, follow the auctions. I’m a little bit dismayed that Bonhams and Phillips are still focused so heavily just on West Africa. I’d like to see some other artists from other regions of Africa in there too.