What I Buy and Why: Dubai-Based Collector Gaelle Alexis on Disrupting Social Mores Through Art, and Her Freshest Acquisition

We caught up with the Belgian collector as she hosted an exhibition of "misbehaving" women.

Gaelle Alexis at home with a painting by Jess Valice. Courtesy of Gaelle Alexis.

Lots of misbehaving women. That’s what you’ll find on the walls in the home of Belgian art collector and advisor Gaelle Alexis.

While “misbehaving” might feel like a rigid epithet to some, the works—by artists from Genesis Belanger to Jenna Gribbon—takes on a transgressive cast in their Dubai setting, where female artists are underrepresented in collections in the region, especially women who make conceptual art or work that otherwise deviates from the norm in the UAE.

Intent on disrupting this reality, the collector recently opened up her home to a group show devoted to 35 of these “Bad Girls,” including works from her own private collection—her own tastes are informed by experience living in Hong Kong, New York, and London—as well as works by in-demand female painters consigned by various galleries keen to get a foot in the door with collectors in the region. The exhibition includes work by artists Deana Lawson, Donna Huanca, Issy Wood, Jess Valice, and Lucy Bull, among others, and is part of Alexis’s broader initiative, WALLSPACEPLEASE, which designs events aimed at harnessing “art’s capacity to be a strong soft power” in the Gulf region, “for the sake of cultural progress and expansion.”

We caught up with Alexis to speak about her broader art collection, what works she has hanging above her many sofas, and her unlikely ambition to stealthily smuggle a Louise Bourgeois spider out of a museum.

Work by Zandile Tshabalala. Image courtesy Gaelle Alexis.

Work by Zandile Tshabalala. Courtesy of Gaelle Alexis.

What was your first purchase (and how much did you pay for it)?

A photograph by Japanese photographer Nobuyoshi Araki, from his “Kinbaku” (Bondage) series. I paid the equivalent of $1,000 many years ago now.

What was your most recent purchase?

There are quite a lot of names to list here, as I look at art all the time. I can get extremely excited, sometimes obsessed, when I discover an artist whose work and ideas move me in one way or another. In order to want to acquire a work, I always need to understand the artist’s motivation and intention. Artists tend to think and dream about life considerably more than the average person. They study and challenge the reality we live in. I like to be able to dive into their concepts and to own a piece of it.

The absolute most recent work I have acquired—today actually!—is a painting by the Los Angeles-based artist Jess Valice. I like how her moody individuals seem to be struggling to fit into their setting. There is always something unsettling and at the same time detached about them. I can relate to that. I am myself sometimes unable to decipher my current place and sentiment in an ever-changing society and reality.

work by Solange Pessoa and Jessie Makinson. Image courtesy Gaelle Alexis.

Works by Solange Pessoa and Jessie Makinson. Courtesy of Gaelle Alexis.

Which works or artists are you hoping to add to your collection this year?

Another “rock” sculpture by Ugo Rondinone. Ugo’s practice explores the relationships between opposing forces—real and artificial, euphoria and depression. I find this very interesting. I am also hoping to add a beautiful sunset painting by the Lebanese painter and poet Etel Adnan, who recently passed away.

What is the most expensive work of art that you own?

This a very private matter.

Where do you buy art most frequently?

Mostly from galleries: I am lucky to have strong relationships with many of them, and some gallerists or directors have even become close friends. I acquire less-recent works through private dealers. And sometimes I’ll buy at auction, when a specific work comes up and the timing is right. “Chase the work, not the artist” is a mantra I try to live by.

Is there a work you regret purchasing?

I can regret buying a work when an artist starts going into a totally different direction afterwards. I usually find that rather disappointing, to be perfectly honest—unless I adhere to that new direction as much as I did to the previous one, or if it’s an extension of the universe that I connected with previously.

Gaelle Alexis in her living room. Photo courtesy the collector.

Gaelle Alexis in her living room. Courtesy of Gaelle Alexis.

What work do you have hanging above your sofa? What about in your bathroom?

Depends on the sofa and at what point in time! I like to change the overall hanging every few months so as to enjoy living with as many works as possible. For all sofas combined, at this very moment: Ed Ruscha, Lily Wong, Miriam Cahn, Jess Valice, Alvaro Barrington, Gustavo Nazareno, Pope.L, Cindy Sherman, and Dominique Fung. No works in any of my bathrooms—ever!

What is the most impractical work of art you own?

A pendulum work by Kelly Akashi that I absolutely love, which was exhibited at ARCH Athens in 2019 following her residency there. The work represents a hand that sits on a marble surface suspended by ropes; it is basically a swing. I wouldn’t call the work “impractical,” though, but rather fragile, which is characteristic of the ideas that Kelly builds her practice upon. It is just a matter of installing the artwork in the right spot in order to give it the exposure it deserves, and to maximize its impact.

Work by Deana Lawson. Image courtesy Gaelle Alexis.

A photographic work by Deana Lawson. Courtesy of Gaelle Alexis.

What work do you wish you had bought when you had the chance?

A stunning painting by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye that I was offered a few years ago. Since I am a very passionate person, there are phases when I can look at art without a break for weeks in a row. These periods involve a lot of travel and are usually followed by shorter moments during which I need a break. Lynette’s painting was offered to me at such a moment. I still regret not giving it the attention it deserved.

If you could steal one work of art without getting caught, what would it be?

Thérèse Dreaming (1938) by Balthus. Or a giant “Maman” sculpture by Louise Bourgeois. Not sure about the not-getting-caught part on that one, though!

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