Pierre Lombart

Pierre Lombart and the SAFFCA Foundation – Cultural exchange through artists exchange

St. Émilion, Johannesburg. What usually comes to mind when thinking of African art? Carved masks, paintings in intense colours or simply something exotic? For a start, the typical African art and craft markets or stands at the side of the road met my expectations influenced by my European background.

But what a surprise I got when I visited a gallery of contemporary art. I was embarrassed to immediately discover that I had followed a clichéd path. “African art”? Far from it! Here, the field of contemporary art showed completely new impulses. All in all, works that got under the skin and showed references that have since held my fascination.

Pierre Lombart felt exactly the same when – for professional reasons – he turned his back on his home country Belgium and moved to Johannesburg in 1984 – ten years before the historically so significant change of government. As a foreigner in a country, where he could not speak the language, he became aware, more than ever before, of the power of art because it functions on an emotional basis and does not necessarily need words.

It was very fortunate that Rodney Grosskopff, the head of GLH Architects, a company in which Pierre Lombart was to advance as a successful architect and partner, was also a sculptor and painter. The chemistry between the two of them was just right. So, Rodney undertook to promote and introduce Pierre in South Africa. During regular Sunday dinners he was always placed next to one of Rodney’s sculptures with which he developed a special bond. A cast of this sculpture today holds a place of honour at Pierre’s second residence in St. Émilion.

Sculpture Risen by Rodney Grosskopff

In 2004, a serious stroke had caused the “workaholic with an unhealthy lifestyle” [own quote Pierre Lombart] to re-arrange his life. From then on, art took the centre of his engagement. In 2014 he founded SAFFCA (Southern African Foundation For Contemporary Art) – a foundation that aims to promote talented artists and eases access to the local and European art market. Barbara Schroeder and Chris Soal, two artists who were already introduced in this blog, are also in this group.

We meet at St. Émilion, the European Artist-Residency (a venue for artists on an exchange program) of SAFFCA. The building comprises an exhibition venue, studios and artists accommodation.

After a short introduction to the works exhibited here, Pierre Lombart tells me of the difficult beginnings of contemporary art in South Africa.

Examples from the SAFFCA Collection f.l.t.r.: Gerhard Marx Horizontal Figure 2014, Kendell Geers Self-portrait (original destroyed on Flight TW800) 1995, Robin Rhode Classic Bike 1998

Lombart: The Apartheid system suppressed the natural development of the arts. The freedom necessary for it only came once the system ended. So, it was all the more impressive to watch the emergence of a generation of artists who developed new forms of artistic expression with an incredible creativity. However, the big problem was that this young generation for a long period lacked all infrastructure that could have assisted with its education and support. A real change only came about in 2014. Initiators like Jochen Zeitz1 or Wendy Fisher2 must be mentioned here as important role players who addressed the problem. The aim was and continues to be the support of talented artists in their own country and to be able to also present their works locally. In a word: to give a space to contemporary art.

1 see Zeitz MOCAA. The Light House Project: https://www.atelierbesuche.com/zeitz-mocaa/?lang=en see Article A4 Foundation. An innovative art lab: https://www.atelierbesuche.com/a-4-foundation/?lang=en

 

Giving art a space also includes, in the literal sense, making studios available. Could therefore the Johannesburg-based organisations Bag Factory, established in 1991 with sixteen studious or August House, established in 2006 with forty studios be showcased as pioneers of this idea?

Studio visits at August House, Bag Factory and Victoria Yards, f.l.t.r. top row: Chrisèl Attewell, Lazyhound Coka, Themba Khumalo; bottom row: Teresa Kutalo Firmino, Bev Butkow, Yolanda Mazwana

Lombart: Absolutely. I have known both organisations and their initiators since the beginnings. The central idea to use artist residencies to create a place for artists – irrespective of colour, age and social status – ultimately inspired me to found SAFFCA. Such a venue would give them the opportunity to jointly develop new ideas and participate in the most diverse support projects, as, for instance, residency programmes. Both these organisations are among our partners.

Residency on the Entabeni Farm in Knysna, South Africa, in partnership with Axon Investments

How does SAFFCA differ from the other foundations?

Lombart: It was important to me to also establish a spatial link with Europe. That is the reason this venue, which is made possible through the partnership with AFSACSA3, is in France.

Artists like Kendell Geers, whose career, incidentally, also got off the ground in the Bag Factory, have been grappling on an artistic level with the connections of both continents for years. Many people forget that art and culture were an essential component of the colonial system. Anybody who was born in the former colonies had connections to Europe. And this had a decisive influence on the development of the African culture. The forced adaptation demanded to give up the own traditions and to adapt to the system. As a consequence, paintings, objects and ideologies of the European continent were re-contextualised and taken over in the African culture. Africa became something between what it once was in the past and Europe. This, too, obviously had a major influence on the production of art.

AFSACSA (Association Française de Soutien à l’Art Contemporain du Sud de l’Afrique)

 

Are you saying that the development of art was more influenced by the European history of art and the expectations of tourism than by its own traditions?

Lombart: Yes, exactly. And this has only been changing slowly since the end of Apartheid. Yet, this connection is present because of history and the subject of the search of identity continues to be an important part of the socio-political and artistic involvement. To support this involvement, we use SAFFCA to facilitate the exchange of the artists – as a form of physical cultural exchange, so to speak. At the moment it exists exclusively between France and South Africa. However, we are planning further cooperation with more partners in European countries.

Which role does the art market play in the context of the SAFFCA support projects? Looking at the exhibitions, one can see an increasing acceptance of contemporary African art.

Lombart: For a start it is important to us that our artists can show their works at attractive venues. That is the reason we are working together with partners like the Institut Français or Maxwell Baynes in cooperation with Christies Real Estates or organise charity auctions with the renowned auction house Strauss. During events in this context, the artists then also meet gallery owners and collectors, of course, which is aimed at facilitating and supporting the entry into the art market.

Examples from the charity auction Seed (2019), f.l.t.r. top row: Chrisèl Attewell, Learning to dance (2019), Mohau Modisakeng Zion12 (2018), Athi-Patra Ruga, The Whole world loves her (2019), Bottom row: Banele Khoza Kgabo (2019), Chris Soal, All we have and have forgotten to hold (2019), Gerhard Marx, Cave (2010), William Kentdridge, Your turn is not next (2019)

Regarding the acceptance of art at fairs, I consider the fact that the relevant galleries are increasingly showcasing themselves internationally as extremely positive. It was however somewhere sad that the Art from the continent needed its specialised fairs like AKAA in Paris or I:54 in London or New-York, to appear with dignity in the worlds art hubs. I guess it was the entrance price to pay. As you can imagine, this kind of segregation is something that rings truly sad historic bells for most South-Africans.

Many of the artists in your own collection have meanwhile become internationally successful so that the value has gone up. Next to Kendell Geers mentioned before we need to particularly mention William Kentridge. What is your personal motive for buying art?

Lombart: I don’t really like the term collection. I purchase art to support the artists, to give them some kind of economic small support that helps them to carry on; I pay them true respect and admiration before praising their talent to my friends. If an artwork later starts to show a positive trend in the art market, I guess it is a welcome side effect [he smiles].

Benon Lutaaya’s career developed rapidly, but, regrettably, came to a tragic end. He died last year at the age of only 34 of cancer. What was extraordinary about his art?

Lombart: Benon was not only an outstanding artist but a very special person. He came from Uganda, where he grew up with his Gogo ( grand_Mother ) and developed his network with the street kids. A grant by the Bag Factory enabled him to come to Johannesburg. In this environment, the necessary materials like brushes, paint and canvasses were made available to him. But because he painted like a person possessed, he quickly ran out of material. He was too proud to ask for more. So, what did he do? Taking a look at the floor of his studio gave him the ground-breaking idea. To protect the floor from splashed paint, the whole area was covered in newspaper and magazine pages. Why not use this paper to create collages? And so, ultimately from the waste of his own artistic creations, those incredibly intense portraits were created, which were to conquer the art market with lightning speed. But that was not all…. he invested his capital not for his own purposes, but to establish the The Project Space institution for the promotion of women in the area of the Victoria Yard creative centre. He felt compelled to pass on his own, personal experience.

Collages by Benon Lutaaya

A thought that continuously drives you too, looking at the development of SAFFCA. What are your next plans?

Lombart: In order to reach a larger public, the relocation from St. Émilion to Brussels is planned for this year. In addition to the already mentioned search for additional partners in European countries we are also currently planning a Tour d’Europe with a Benon Lutaaya retroperspective. Exhibition venues in Paris and Brussels have already been found. On our wish list is also Berlin …

 

The conversation took place in November last year. In February this year we met again in Johannesburg over dinner at his home. I remember a wonderful evening for which I am very grateful.

f.l.t.r.: Robin Attewell, Chrisél Attewell, Lynn Lombart, Els van Mourik, Candice Berman, Jan Schnocks, Elke Backes, Chris Soal

Further information about SAFFCA