Championing Contemporary African & Diaspora Art With Freda Isingoma (Part 2)

James Ardis
Published on
The distance between what we have and what we want by Titus Kaphar. Image from the artist.
The distance between what we have and what we want by Titus Kaphar. Image from the artist.

Freda Isingoma is the founder and CEO of KIISA, an art advisory and investment company with a focus on Contemporary African & Diaspora art. In part one of Auction Daily’s interview with Isingoma, she described how KIISA builds long-lasting connections between collectors and African and Diaspora artists

In part two, Isingoma discusses her personal art collection and the state of repatriating the Benin Bronzes and other artworks looted from the African continent. 

Auction Daily: You’ve been an avid art collector for about two decades. Tell us a bit about your personal collection and how it influences your professional life. 

Freda Isingoma: My love affair with art started as a young child, as I wanted to be an artist. I couldn’t pursue that avenue, so I decided to start collecting in my 20s. In the earlier days, I collected anything I loved aesthetically, but over time, I developed more of an eye for different types of works that I related to in distinct ways, whether it be emotionally, culturally, aesthetically, or a combination of them all. I have mostly paintings (both abstract and figurative), but I also have installation pieces, sculptures, prints, and photography. It’s through collecting that I learned more about the art industry, which then led me to mentoring artists, as well as introducing friends to the world of collecting. 

I lived in South Africa for 10 years, which is one of the largest art markets in Africa. It is through being immersed in the South African art world that I was able to really understand the gap in the Contemporary African & Diaspora art market. With the huge discrepancy in the way African & Diaspora art was narrated, acknowledged, and collected, it made sense for me to create a business that focused on art investments and infrastructure, using my background in investment banking, economics, and collecting.

Many artists still see the art world in a very pure way, despite all the commercial distractions. There are many African & Diaspora artists that are part of the greater growth of the art ecosystem through building residencies and arts organizations – including Michael Armitage, Mark Bradford, Titus Kaphar, Ibrahim Mahama, Derrick Adams, Kehinde Wiley, and Yinka Shonibare. One of them was Benon Lutaaya, a Ugandan artist and dear friend. Through my determination to collect his works, I learned about his vision to build a residency in Johannesburg that focused on African women artists – The Project Space. We also talked regularly about the underrepresentation of artists and what was needed to build a strong foundation around them in order for them to thrive. I learned so much from him.

Broken by Benon Lutaaya. Image from Art Africa Magazine.
Broken by Benon Lutaaya. Image from Art Africa Magazine.

He passed away suddenly a couple of years ago, which was devastating. The most important thing that he taught me was how critical it is to be open to trying something new and stretching the boundaries of the existing walls. Artists are constantly learning about new ways to articulate the world around them through their works, and as a custodian of their works, I am always inspired by that. The visual art world is very dynamic and expressive, and although KIISA is focused on a niche part of it that straddles two very traditional sectors (fine art and finance), we have developed a voice that advocates for an evolving and diverse art world, which includes the open support of women artists. I think Benon would be proud!

Auction Daily: You’re a vocal advocate on LinkedIn and elsewhere for the return of artworks looted across the African continent, including the Benin Bronzes. Are you optimistic about the current groundswell of support behind repatriation? Do you think it can sustain itself long enough to create lasting, systemic change?

Freda Isingoma: If you look at the global art history canon, the contribution of African art is in the main not recognized or acknowledged. It is not lost on me that this has largely been deliberate, but it is time for that to change. Although our focus at KIISA is primarily on modern and contemporary art, it is impossible to divorce the influence of classic African art on modern art forms and narratives. Modern culture is deeply rooted in heritage for everyone of African descent globally. As much as we know that culture evolves, we also understand that heritage remains static and just builds over time. Today’s culture is our future heritage. If that is understood as a basic principle, then the fact that over 90% of Sub-Saharan artifacts sit outside of the continent (according to recent studies), and their significance and meaning is not adequately understood and interpreted within the spaces they reside, this should be a deep concern for everyone. Art narrates culture, heritage, and the numerous contemporary stories that need to be told, documented, and remembered in order to fully understand who we are today and tomorrow.

Bronze Head from Ife. Image from the British Museum.
Bronze Head from Ife. Image from the British Museum.

I am very much a believer in the fact that the community in which the art originates should be respected as the bedrock and foundation of their artistic production. This, in turn, informs and empowers future production. Imagine if all the artistic production from the European Art Renaissance period were looted, and their historical context was largely miscommunicated, misinterpreted, and in many cases not recorded, while simultaneously being sold into multiple private hands for profit. There would be a global uproar! Cross-cultural sharing and understanding are important, but they should not be at the expense of the community for which the works were produced and intended. A large part of African history, which includes notable stories of African kingdoms, is “missing” because of this. This means that a large part of who we are is missing too.

Classic African art pieces are held up within Western art institutions as foremost relics and reminders of great civilizations and artistic mastery of the past. Yet when we examine it from a purely artistic lens, against a backdrop where African art is barely acknowledged in global art history, and artists of African descent are rarely celebrated for their contribution to art history, it doesn’t make sense. There’s a gaping hole in the art canon that needs to be addressed.

We are moving beyond the debate and towards a more cohesive plan that leads to the repatriation of works across Africa. As well as the Benin Bronzes, there are significant works from across the rest of Africa sitting in the UK, Europe, and the US. The ideal situation would be a concerted and collaborative effort in order to find a solution that works. The burden of proof of ownership, and the implementation of an ethical cultural exchange strategy should not fall on the shoulders of the indigenous communities, but to date it has. 

Moreover, there needs to be a collective involvement from a greater part of the art ecosystem and not just museums and private collectors, but also auction houses, insurance companies, art education institutions, art dealers, lawyers, valuation specialists, provenance experts, and banks. Many have been complicit over the years, turning a blind eye to the movement and trading of works that should have been recorded, flagged, and returned. The repatriation efforts are very much a part of the art ecosystem initiatives that KIISA is currently working on. We have finally turned a corner, and change is on the way.

Photo from Freda Isingoma.
Photo from Freda Isingoma.

Auction Daily: Where should our readers go to learn more about you and KIISA? 

Freda Isingoma: I am more active on LinkedIn than any other social media platform. I try and share some of the interesting stories, interviews, and ideas in the art world that are relevant and also the ones that I get excited about.

KIISA has a website that details our specialism and focus. We are looking forward to the launch of our new website this summer, which will include a series of informative articles and interviews that showcase different parts of the African & Diaspora art ecosystem and discuss some of the most current issues in the wider art world. For more information about our Art Investment Fund, which launched at the end of last year, please contact us directly.

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