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7 Ambitious Collectors Dish on What They Loved—and Are Trying to Buy—From the Venice Biennale
From a Nigerian lawyer to a Bangladeshi textile entrepreneur, these collectors were on the hunt at the art world’s biggest show.
Officially, nothing is for sale at the Venice Biennale. But of course, anything is for sale at the right price—and the art on view at the Biennale is no different. Galleries from around the globe dispatch teams to the biannual event, not only to promote work by artists on view in collateral exhibitions but also to share PDFs and price lists for art in official pavilions and the central show. Days after the VIP opening, the Moderna Museet acquired a rollicking triptych by Louise Bonnet on view in Cecilia Alemani’s “The Milk of Dreams.”
Up until 1968, the Biennale had an official sales office to process deals. But after a string of protests and political shifts in Italy during the 1960s, organizers decided to do away with official commerce. This year, in order to further distance itself from any perceived transactional ties, it removed all art dealers’ names from the wall labels in the main show.
More than anything, as these art collectors tell us, the Biennale is a place to become inspired and dream about new acquisitions—though some collectors couldn’t wait and ended up inquiring directly with galleries about their favorite works on view.
See what caught the eyes of a few major figures below.
Day Job: Economist, investor, and chairman of Aorist, a climate-forward NFT marketplace for artists
Distinguishing Factor: Rodriguez-Fraile owns more than 500 digital artworks that he presents in an online gallery designed by his wife, Desiree Casoni. He is one of the few collectors who says they buy from the metaverse as often as from traditional auctions or art fairs. But he almost never purchases digital art for his collection if he doesn’t know the artist well.
What’s in His Collection: Works by digital artists Beeple, Pak, Refik Anadol, Davide Quayola, Daniel Arsham, and Andres Reisinger. Rodriguez-Fraile says his collecting habits lie between the “traditional” art world and the digital sphere.
Venice Biennale Finds: This year marked the first time digital art and NFTs had a strong presence in Venice, which Rodriguez-Fraile describes as “an important validation for the medium in a traditional space.” During the vernissage, Aorist presented a sold-out nightly drone performance by Drift—its first ever to take place indoors. Rodriguez-Fraile purchased one of Drift’s editions from Aorist as well as an NFT from a project Jonas Lund created to coincide with the Biennale. His personal highlights included the work of Simone Leigh, Stan Douglas’s Canadian Pavilion, and Muhannad Shono at the Saudi Pavilion.
Nassib, Sara, and Hala Abou Khalil
Nationality: Lebanese-born, Dubai-based
Age: Sara is in her early 30s; Nassib, 50; Hala declined to answer
Day Jobs: Nassib is the chief legal officer of Nokia Group; Sara is a private equity professional; Hala is a consultant in the banking sector.
Distinguishing Factor: The siblings’ holdings span the 16th century to the present, with an emphasis on the contemporary.
What’s in the Collection: They own work by Japanese artist Chiharu Shiota, whom they first saw at the Venice Biennale in 2016; Emirati artist Farah Al-Qasimi; Egyptian artist Youssef Nabil; Iranian-born American artist Tala Madani; the late Emirati artist Hassan Sharif; and Tibetan Nepalese artist Tsherin Sherpa, who they began collecting before he showed at this year’s Nepal Pavilion. Their latest acquisitions include works by Joël Andrianomearisoa, who represented Madagascar in Venice in 2019, and Nazgol Ansarinia, an Iranian artist who showed in the Biennale’s main exhibition in 2015.
Venice Biennale Finds: The siblings were intrigued by the small-scale paintings of body parts by Italian painter Chiara Enzo; the work of Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim, who represented the UAE; photographs by Lebohang Kagny, who showed at the South African Pavilion; and the dirt sculptures and films of Beirut-born Ali Cherri, who won the Silver Lion for a promising young artist in the central exhibition. They are also keen on the work of Oliver Beer after watching him play music for 23 consecutive hours as part of the collateral group show “Uncombed, Unforeseen, Unconstrained.”
Nationality: American-born Lebanese
Day Jobs: Chairman and CEO of Noor Group and founder of the Dalloul Art Foundation. Dalloul was also one of the main sponsors of the Lebanon Pavilion this year.
Distinguishing Factor: Dalloul presides over this family’s art collection, established by his father, Ramzi, who died in March 2021. With more than 4,000 works from the Arab world, it represents one of the largest and most important private holdings of Arab art.
What’s in His Collection: Works by Lebanese masters Paul Guiragossian and Etel Adnan; Iraqi artists Dia Azzawi and Jewad Selim; and contemporary artists such as Mounir Fatmi, Ayman Baalbaki, and eL Seed.
Venice Biennale Finds: Dalloul left Venice coveting an Anish Kapoor work for the Dalloul Art Foundation after seeing the artist’s solo exhibition at the Gallerie dell’Accademia. (DAF artists need to have some Arab heritage and Kapoor’s Indian-born mother is an Iraqi Jew.) For his personal collection, he’s keen on works by Venetian artist and entrepreneur Adriano Berengo, which he saw at the Fondazione Berengo on the island of Murano.
Day Job: A lawyer and wealth management advisor, Nkontchou is the managing principal at W8 Advisory LLP. She’s also a trustee of the Yinka Shonibare Foundation, which has recently opened an artists’ residency in Nigeria.
Distinguishing Factor: Nkontchou considers herself an “activist collector” for her work championing African artists and the art ecosystem on the continent. Her interest in African art intensified when she relocated to London; art became an anchor of identity for her and her children. “While there is a lot of art being created in Africa, it goes immediately into the commercial space,” she says. “For artists to get validation for their work, they must leave the continent. What we are doing is to try and bring them back to Africa.”
What’s in Her Collection: Her holdings include works by such African and African Diasporic artists as Ben Enwonwu, Ndidi Dike, Peju Alatise, Boris Nzebo, and Soly Cissé.
Venice Biennale Finds: Nkontchou wanted to see how Africa was being represented at the Biennale this year. She toured all the African pavilions—Zimbabwe, South Africa, Namibia, Cameroon, Kenya, Ghana, the Ivory Coast, and Uganda (a minority, she notes, of the 54 nations that make up Africa). Nkontchou is keen to acquire work by Lebohang Kganye, who showed at the South African Pavilion, and British painter Jadé Fadojutimi, whose bright abstract paintings were featured in “The Milk of Dreams.”
Day Job: Textile and garment-sourcing entrepreneur who runs Winner Creations Ltd
Distinguishing Factor: Durjoy, as he likes to be called, defines himself as an art activist and philanthropist. His aim, particularly through his Durjoy Bangladesh Foundation (DBF), is to help artists who have been displaced and are working from a diasporic experience.
What’s in His Collection: More than 1,500 Old Masters and contemporary works with a focus on South Asia, particularly Bangladesh. He also has work by Western figures, including David Hockney, Kour Pour, and Gina Beavers, as well as African artists like Serge Attukwei Clottey. Other artists represented include Atul Dodiya, Shilpa Gupta, Mithu Sen, Joydeb Roaza, Rafiqun Nabi, and Shahabuddin Ahmed.
Venice Biennale Finds: Of particular interest to Rahman this year was the Nepal Pavilion featuring the work of Tibetan Nepalese artist Tsherin Sherpa, as well as the work of Saudi artist Muhannad Shono, on view in Saudi Arabia’s Pavilion. He’s very keen on adding work by Sherpa to his collection as well as that of Anish Kapoor, whose exhibition he saw at the Gallerie dell’Accademia.
Day Job: Investment banker
Distinguishing Factor: Servais’s collection features all media except painting or drawing. It is open to the public in his old loft in Brussels, which doubles as an artist and curators’ residency. Because he respects the thorough research and selection efforts by curators and the necessary numerous studio visits he cannot do himself, he loves to acquire works filtered by museums and biennials; the frequent absence of public funding forces galleries and the private sector to step in and sell works there.
What’s in His Collection: Works by emerging and established artists that some might deem “difficult,” including Nan Goldin, Andres Serrano, Wim Delvoye, Broomberg and Chanarin, Athena Papadopoulos, and Adrian Melis.
Venice Biennale Finds: He is in the process of acquiring work by Ali Cherri, who won the Silver Lion for his video and mud sculptures in “The Milk of Dreams,” and by Skuja Bradan from the Latvian Pavilion. “I am still negotiating four to five works,” Servais says. “It is still very difficult to acquire video works through galleries as they still don’t know exactly what they are selling and how to sell it.”
Day Jobs: Film producer and the owner and publisher of the French publishing house Cahiers d’art, which he acquired in 2011.
Distinguishing Factor: The second child of collecting couple Theodor and Ulla Ahrenberg, art appreciation is in his blood. His parents’ collection includes works by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Marc Chagall, Sam Francis, and Lucio Fontana, among others. As for his own tastes, he says, “I love all genres, from large-scale outdoor works to poetic small domestic objects. As a publisher, I am also taken with works on paper and special books.”
What’s in His Collection: Ahrenberg owns examples by Cildo Meireles, Wassily Kandinsky, Hélio Oiticica, Wolfgang Tillmans, Arthur Jafa, and Rodney Graham. He also bought a work by Adrian Villar Rojas from a past edition of documenta.
Venice Biennale Finds: Ahrenberg made sure to see Precious Okoyomon’s garden installation Ushers Dirt, Blood, and Butterflies in “The Milk of Dreams” as Cahiers d’art is working with the artist and Hans Ulrich Obrist on a future book. He was also delighted to discover the work of Sudanese painter Ibrahim El Salahi and Ali Cherri in the main exhibition, and the Spanish Surrealist Remedios Varo at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection.
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