Inside ‘Africa Supernova’: An Exclusive Interview with Carla and Pieter Schulting

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Over the past five years, Carla and Pieter Schulting have meticulously crafted a captivating collection of 170 artworks by 154 artists from 33 African countries and the African diaspora. This collection serves as a testament to the richness and complexity of contemporary African artistry.

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Now, at the ‘Africa Supernova’ exhibition, currently on display at Kunsthal KAdE, Amersfoort, the Netherlands from September 24, 2023, to January 7, 2024, this remarkable collection takes center stage, showcasing the diverse talents that have been gaining prominence within the international art scene. The exhibition spans regions from South Africa to North Africa, with a particular focus on young artists in their twenties and thirties. It’s a powerful anthology that captures the burgeoning impact of African painters, sculptors, and photographers.

Omofemi Print Oluwole Omofemi Fearless 2021 Courtesy of the artist and OOA GALLERY
O. Omofemi: courtesy the artist and OOA gallery

In an exclusive interview with Carla and Pieter Schulting, we gain insight into the minds behind this extraordinary collection, their inspirations, and the artists who are redefining the art world. Join us on a journey through contemporary African artistry, from the collection’s inception to the spotlight of the ‘Africa Supernova’ exhibition at Kunsthal KAdE, and the revelations shared in our interview with Carla and Pieter.

Africans Column: Can you tell us about the journey of assembling the extensive collection of African art featured in the ‘Africa Supernova’ exhibition? What inspired you and Pieter to embark on this collection?

Carla and Pieter: We have been collecting art for over 30 years now, but about 5 years ago, we were inspired by the novelty, freshness, intense colours, and creativity of the works we came across from the African continent. We also love figuration, so the fact that the early wave of art from the continent was predominantly of a figurative nature, appealed to us. 

Our journey started on the Internet. We were glued to our computers searching for new artists. We also had a lot of conversations with the gallery owners about their artists, which in some cases led us to make different choices than we would initially have done. At the end of the day, it’s all about looking, listening, and learning.

Africans Column: With such a vast array of talented artists across the continent, how do you go about selecting specific pieces or artists for your collection? 

Carla and Pieter: As said before, our journey started on the Internet; we spent days, weeks, and months, to find as much art as possible (for instance we would search for: “galleries Kampala, Uganda” or “contemporary artists Uganda”) and from all the output we compiled a list of the artists we liked the most. We would then send an email asking which works were available and if they could supply additional information about the artist. All this work obviously took a lot of time as we did not have any assistants or art advisors to help us, but that was not a problem, it was an exciting art hunt which is what collecting is all about.

Since we embarked upon this journey, art from the continent has taken the international art world by storm. Obviously, there were already established artists such as El Anatsui, Kentridge, and Mehretu, and there were also excellent participants at the diverse Biennales, but it had not yet happened before that African contemporary art became immensely popular in the art world. 

The – mostly – young artists that we have collected did do just that – they have firmly put Africa on the international art map. 

In the past few years, many Western (top) galleries realised they would have to diversify their artist roster in order to keep up with the changing art market, so they took on artists from Africa for the first time. Now it has become a lot easier for (Western) collectors, as there are many galleries in the West that sell art from Africa, and there are high-quality art fairs selling African art such as 1-54 (in several cities), AKAA in Paris, the Investec Cape Town Art fair, LagosPhoto Festival and ArtX Lagos, to name a few. 

Annor HR CANN017 001
C. Annor: courtesy the artist and Venus over Manhattan

Africans Column: The choice of the exhibition’s title, “Africa Supernova,” seems to imply a significant and explosive impact. Can you provide more insight into the symbolism and significance of this title and its reflection of the collection?

Carla: The title Africa Supernova reflects on how in recent years the art of the African continent has taken the global art world by storm, much like an explosion. We are only just beginning to discover what the African continent has in store for us. The title was invented by the Nigerian curator Azu Nwagbogu, who will be curating the Benin pavilion for next year’s Venice Biennale. This title sums up very well that our collection cannot easily be categorized, it is so varied and diverse. We only show works that we love, and that have touched our hearts. It is an explosion of creativity, and that is exactly what we want to show. We want this exhibition to provide an overview of the young artists who are now putting Africa on the global art map. We think that when in the future you look back, this period will be a part of art history.           

Africans Column: The exhibition highlights the representation of the black body and its historical treatment. How do the artists in the collection address this complex theme, and what significance does it hold in contemporary African art?

Carla and Pieter: The artists in our collection have so many diverse ways of approaching this theme. Some use an unusual skin colour (Abe) or high-contrast palette (Mlengeya), or heightened textural qualities (Affotey) to emphasise the Black skin, others use purple marks, a colour which is associated with royalty, thereby representing the Black figure as a majestic being (Botchway). Another artist uses asymmetry in the eyes as a symbol of enlightenment (Elangwe).  Yet another, paints grotesquely accentuated faces in vivid colourful impasto, employing a studied and conceptually rich form of childish abandon, thereby aiming to subvert and interrogate canonical ideas of beauty (Ismail).

Many artists explore socio-political topics and cultural issues, sometimes working with collages of traditional African wax fabrics (e.g. Annor).

This holds significance on contemporary African art because nowadays black artists have a far greater opportunity to make themselves seen and heard on a broader platform.  

The introduction of social media has proven to be an important game-changer for the visibility of artists from Africa on the international platform. Suddenly they could demonstrate their skills and insights to a huge audience. Notably Instagram, but also Artsy is an important platform for (young) artists.

Previously there were no Black protagonists in the paintings within the Western art canon, but now Black artists can step into the spotlight and redress that previous omission. As a young girl, artist Essiri Essi remembered never seeing any people of colour in the  paintings in the Western museum exhibitions she visited with her mother and always wondered about it.  Now, she herself has the possibility and power to change that fact by exhibiting her own art in such institutions. 

Botchway 2021 Loyal to Self
K. Botchway: copyright the artist, courtesy Maruani Mercier

Africans Column: Africa Supernova” focuses on emerging artists who are making a mark on the global art scene. What do you believe sets these artists apart, and how do they contribute to the evolving narrative of African art history?

Pieter: The – mostly – young artists that we have collected have firmly put Africa on the international art map which is something their illustrious predecessors had only managed to do for a select group of art enthusiasts and curators. Therefore, we think that this period of the emergence of popular art from the African continent will prove to be a part of art history. 

Africans Column: The exhibition features a wide range of artists from different African countries and the diaspora. Were there any specific artists or pieces that had a profound impact on you during the collection process? Could you shed light on the narratives or experiences tied to them? 

Carla and Pieter: We will highlight a few.

The work “Antelope” by Samson Kambalu, winner of the Fourth Plinth Commission on Trafalgar Square, London. The 6-foot-high sculpture restages a 1914 photograph, showing preacher and pan-Africanist John Chilembwe alongside his white friend, missionary John Chorley. Chilembwe’s figure wears a hat — something he did in a direct challenge to the British colonial rule, which forbade this in the presence of white people. Chilembwe — today a hero of independence in Malawi

— is also depicted in the sculpture as larger than life; in doing so Kambalu reveals the hidden narratives of underrepresented peoples in the history of the British Empire in Africa. We had the pleasure of meeting Samson at the opening of the exhibition “A World in Common: Contemporary African Photography” at the TATE Modern in London this July.

A work by Wonderbuhle Mbambo features two spiritually charged figures covered in his signature motif of a flower-shaped pattern. This recurring symbol references a native flower used in Mbambo’s rural village and serves as a reminder of his strong ties to his community. We met Wonder for the first time at the AkaA fair in Paris, after which he and his gallerist came to our home in the Netherlands for lunch and a couple of drinks. 

Another example is the work by feminist Laetitia Ky from Ivory Coast, whom we first met at the Venice Biennale of 2022 where her works were exhibited in the Ivory Coast pavilion.

Laetitia makes arresting sculptures on top of her own head, by using her own hair and wire and thread. Live art, so to speak. She posts the photographs of her creations on social media, thereby sparking debate on the beauty and importance of black hair. 

We were thrilled that Laetitia was present at the opening of the exhibition Africa Supernova, along with many other artists. It is so rewarding to meet the creators of all these wonderful artworks!

Elangwe Seeing my Thoughts
S. Elangwe: courtesy Sesse Elangwe and Mitochobdria Gallery

Africans Column: In your interview for the catalog, you mentioned that your perspective on the African continent has evolved since you started collecting African art. Can you elaborate on how this journey has enriched your understanding of Africa and its art?

Carla and Pieter: We were very happily surprised to see that there was so much beautiful contemporary art coming from Africa, something that we had not known before…it really opened our eyes to new horizons. This art journey has brought us into contact with many interesting people from many African countries, forging new friendships and acquaintances.

And because we are not from the continent, we asked Azu Nwagbogu and Raphael Dapaah to write an essay in our catalogue; we wanted them to write from the inside and not from the outside as we might have done.

Africans Column: As an art collector, do you believe there’s a certain responsibility or role you play in influencing the art scene, especially for emerging artists? 

Carla and Pieter: We have often lent individual artworks to museums because we think it is important to support museums and artists alike, and we do that whenever we can. Hosting such an extensive exhibition at Kunsthal KAdE however, was something of a quite different magnitude, something we had never done before, but it underscores our aim to share our art with as many people as possible. We have had many enthusiastic responses to the show and positive reviews in newspapers and magazines, and we are happy to be able to show the public that Africa has so much to offer in the art scene.

Being featured in an institutional exhibition signifies an important milestone in an artist’s career, representing an opportunity that we feel should be maximized to its fullest potential. Extending a platform to these (emerging) artists is a privilege coveted by many, and thus, our forthcoming responsibility lies in offering guidance and motivation to encourage them to vigorously promote this achievement. It is not only in their personal interest but also contributes to the broader landscape of African art. Therefore, we will recommend that they diligently share this accomplishment on their websites, social media channels, and through newsletters.

Regarding Instagram we advise them to make a regular post within the feed, so people can see it time and again; rather than posting a socalled Story which will provide short-lived fame only.

In the end, an artist’s success is measured by the degree of museum or institutional representations. 

Africans Column: For individuals who are inspired by your journey and are looking to start their own art collections, especially focused on African art, what advice or guidance would you offer? 

Carla: We would suggest reading a lot on the internet. Go to gallery websites and read the stories behind the artist’s works. Look at all the images and see which appeals to you the most. You can join gallery newsletters to receive updates on events. You can follow artists on Artsy by creating an alert. Look the artist up on Instagram.

 There are a number of interesting books on African art: 

  • African Artists from 1882 to now (Phaidon).
  • When we see us (Thames&Hudson/Zeitz MOCAA).
  • African Art Now (TATE).
  • The New African Portraiture, Shariat Collections (Kunsthalle Krems).
  • Kubatana (Vestfossen Kunstlaboratorium).
  • And of course, last but not least: Africa Supernova which can be ordered at www.IDEAbooks.nl

And of course, last but not least: Africa Supernova which can be ordered at www.IDEAbooks.nl

Furthermore, we advise going to galleries and museum exhibitions as much as you can and ask many questions and if possible, also visit art fairs, and auction houses. It’s all about familiarising yourself with art and after time you will develop more of an “eye”. Do not buy anything that you do not really like or that is above your budget. 

Toguo Barthelemy Bilongue Blue Universe I 2020
B. Toguo: copyright the artist, courtesy Stevenson gallery, photo credit: Mario Todeschini

Africans Column:  What’s next for you and Pieter in terms of art collecting or any forthcoming exhibitions?

Carla and Pieter: We’re not quite sure yet. This exhibition is taking up a lot of our time (interviews, tours, talks, etc.) so for the moment we will lie low and take it all in.

It would be nice though if this exhibition could travel to another museum in another country. We will see what the future brings…

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For more updates on the Schulting Collection and Kunsthal KAdE’s ‘Africa Supernova’ exhibition, you can follow them on social media:

– Schulting Collection Instagram: @schultingartcollection

– Kunsthal KAdE Instagram: @kunsthal_kade_amersfoort

– Read the press release: https://www.kunsthalkade.nl/en/exhibitions/africa-supernova/

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