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Art Collecting 101 Chat With Gaelle Alexis
We let you in on the secrets of collecting
Feature 09 Jul 2020

In this new series put together by art advisor and curator Daria Borisova we are speaking to knowledgeable collectors in the art world. Through personal anecdotes and in-depth interviews, we’ll be educating women about the cryptic art of collecting. In this chat we speak to Gaelle Alexis, who is based between London and Dubai. Gaelle travels around the world to discover, acquire and promote art. Born and raised in Antwerp, Belgium, she grew up in an environment with strong exposure to top level art, fashion and architecture. Gaelle’s aspirations and need for freedom have been quite unconventional since a very young age, which led her to start working and traveling extensively right after graduating from high school. She has lived in Hong Kong, New York, Dubai and London over the past fifteen years. After having held jobs in the modeling, fashion, and design industries, Gaelle felt the need to finally dedicate her life to her passion for art, and attended the Sotheby’s Institute of Art to deepen her knowledge and understanding. Today, Gaelle shares her passion for art with prominent collections, corporations and institutions, advising and guiding them in their collection management endeavors. 

What was your first introduction to art?

Keith Haring spent quite some time in Antwerp in the late 1980s. I was just learning to speak when I was put on his lap one day, and apparently I asked him whether he was a “Dummy” (Haring’s typical figures) and why there were no girl Dummies (all Dummies looked like boys to me). Keith had to laugh and answered that this was a secret. I was obviously too young to make anything of his answer—  it was only many years later that I learned about the artist’s powerfully symbolic language and that his figures were genderless on purpose. But I like to think that this spontaneous little encounter with Haring, at the age of three, was probably the very first time I felt curious about understanding an artist and his practice. Which until today is one of the most important aspects of looking at art for me.

What’s in your collection?

So if all would be placed in one space, I’m pretty sure people would think that I am batshit crazy, haha. It’s quite dark. 

On a more serious and personal note, I identify with the way Sam Wagstaff (American art curator, collector, and Robert Mapplethorpe’s longtime lover and patron) once described it: “My collecting is a private affair, somewhat like a game of Idiot’s Delight. You play it by yourself.” I collect all kinds of artists and across all mediums, including video and masks. What matters is what an artwork represents to me, the emotion that it triggers. It has to fit in this very personal universe that I have created through the collection. Each artwork represents a story, which contributes to that universe. I like to play with that notion. It is a very individual and intimate, but sophisticated game. Generally speaking, I have a penchant for works that have a melancholic or dark side to them, as this triggers and moves me deeply. But that’s very personal.

In order to want to acquire a work, I need to understand the artist’s motivation and intention. What is also important to me, is whether an artwork reflects the society and time in which it was created. I love to meet artists and to visit their studios. To understand what they do, and why they do what they do. 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. Lately, I have been acquiring more works by female artists, but I don’t think that was deliberate. I am probably just more drawn to the concepts that these women are invoking through their work. Something I should meditate about!

What was the first work you bought?

A photograph by Japanese photographer Nobuyoshi Araki, of his Kinbaku (bondage) series, along with a Sarah Lucas chair piece titled Oral Gratification. I bought both works on the same day as they complement each other beautifully. Both works happen to have been executed in the year 2000, and both works investigate sexuality in its representation. Yet, it’s the work of two completely different artists: they are of a different gender, speak different artistic languages, engage with their audience on a different level, have different social, geographical and ethnic backgrounds. Putting both artworks together created a story on its own, and I have been trying to juxtapose art in such a way ever since. For me, collecting is about creating a very intimate and personal universe, a story-filled world of beauty and experiences. Imagination can take you anywhere and whatever happens, no one can ever take that away from you.

Who are the five artists people should have on their radar?

I am extremely lucky to be able to travel across the world to look at art. I often tell people, half-jokingly, that I travel so they don’t have to. This enables me to discover and meet a large number of inspiring artists, often at a seminal stage of their practice. Some artists have become friends, and I feel truly blessed to have them in my life. Given the large number of female talent out there, it is hard for me to pick only five names. Female contemporary artists who I truly admire and who I have been supporting for a while, to give some examples, are: Katja Seib, Kelly Akashi, Janiva Ellis, Shara Hughes, Louise Bonnet, Tschabalala Self, Donna Huanca, Alexandra Noel, Jesse Mockrin, GaHee Park, Farah Atassi, Kathleen Ryan, Hilary Harkness, Ivy Haldeman, Emily Mae Smith and Jesse Darling (Jesse currently identifies as transmasculine). But most of these artists are already on many art lovers’ radars. Other female artists who I have been acquiring and looking into very thoroughly over the past months are Lucy Bull, Arghavan Khosravi, Diane Severin Nguyen, Jenna Gribbon, Olivia Erlanger, Marley Freeman, Nora Turato, Sarah Slappey, Thao Nguyen Phan, Stefanie Heinze, Jill Mulleady, Shona McAndrew, Tanya Noel and Stefanie Heinze. Here you go, that’s way more than five universes I recommend people to discover, if they haven’t travelled there yet!

How would you compare the art scene in Brussels with the art scene in Dubai?

Belgium has a long and important history of art making, exhibiting and collecting. This is still the case, and if you ask me, Belgium’s art scene is undoubtedly one of the most sophisticated scenes that exist today. Tastes are very refined and people have a good eye for talent. I believe this is the result of long time exposure and interest in art. Gallery programs are insanely strong and collectors are genuinely interested in looking beyond the obvious, from an early age on. 

With regards to the art scene in the Gulf region, I find it a very exciting place to be in now. Although it is still labeled as ’emerging,’ the region is maturing and becoming firmly established in the international art market, both commercially and culturally. Collectors here actually have similar tastes and collecting patterns. Yes, they are still more focused towards local artists as that is what they relate to most, but as the scene continues to mature, they are expanding more into international contemporary art. I would say that there is still a lack of corporate collections, and we should see more regional artists represented by international galleries. But there have been great developments. There is an increasing number of universities teaching the arts in the region. Examples are the NYUAD and Sharjah’s Fine Arts and Design College. UAE governments have shown strong commitment to the cultural ecosystem in the past years, with the opening of the Sharjah Art Foundation, Louvre Abu Dhabi and the Jameel Arts Centre. Earlier this year, the Californian Desert X biennial collaborated with Saudi Arabia on an outpost in the AlUla desert. For Saudi artists, this initiative represented an opportunity for them to create a formal link with the outside world and for visitors to connect with them as individuals. They have an incredible thirst to be seen and heard on a larger international stage. Desert X AlUla represented an opening up of the country to them. The impending openings in the Saudi scene of the nonprofit Misk Art Institute, King Abdulaziz and Hayy art centers are exciting too. Art is becoming a strong soft power in the region, and that is a great thing to witness.

What advice would you give first time collectors?

You want to acquire your art in a conscious, detailed and sophisticated way. Surround yourself with people who understand and have an eye for identifying interesting art. Do not immediately lose interest in a work if, at first glance, it seems ordinary, unaesthetic, or pointless to you. In many cases, an artwork is the result of a very serious thought process. Investigating it can lead to a hugely stimulating experience. Be curious, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. People who are passionate about art love to share and to discuss. If possible, visit as many museums, biennales and galleries as you can. Taste always gets refined over time and through experience. 

What advice would you give to women in business?

Work hard in silence and let success make the noise. But this applies to both women and men. My advice to women in particular, since I sense that there is still some kind of stigma and over-communication about it, is to let go of the assumption that preconceived notions about women should and will limit you. Whatever your (business) dreams and goals are, on any level— the only person who eventually will have the most power to get you there, is yourself. There are many things you can’t control, but you can control your choices. And if that results in going against the current, that’s perfectly fine. It’s about finding the balance that works for you, and committing to it. We live in a society that values confidence and integrity. Surround yourself with people who inspire you. Always keep your “why” in mind. 

What are you planning for the future?

I’m planning to produce an exhibition that would travel between Abu Dhabi and Dubai. It will be a curated selection of personally owned and and consigned works, showcasing established and more emerging artists. The idea is to introduce certain works and artists to the local scene, in an organized and intelligible way by taking market sensitivities into account and creating a made-to-measure experience. On a more international level, I am also working on creating a ‘society’ that would bring together people with shared interests through curated events, experiences and a dedicated communication platform. A bit like the old school word of mouth book clubs, but with a more international and contemporary feel to it.

In a more distant future, my ultimate objective would be to exhibit the works I will have collected over many years in a beautiful dedicated private space. Meanwhile, I feel privileged to have the opportunity to advise wonderful collectors (many of whom have become close friends) on their acquisitions. I am passionate doing this in a profound and curated way. The more chances I get to work on curating art collections, the happier I am.

About:

Interview conducted by Daria Borisova, a Russian-born, London-based, curator and art advisor. Her work focuses on young and emerging, as well as established artists who inspire progressive understanding and promote lasting change. With an emphasis on transparency and education, Borisova has built collections for prominent private and corporate clients. She maintains relationships with philanthropists, organizations and art industry luminaries.

In her curatorial work, Borisova seeks to utilize non-traditional spaces to create immersive exhibitions and present emerging artists that often work in new media. Her most recent curatorial work includes: Global Call for Artists in partnership with W1 Curates x Amplifier – a digital public art installation in London, Winter Show at Harlesden High Street Gallery in London, House of Togetherness in London and Alla Gorka: Heroine presented by White Ribbon in Ukrainian Parliament and America House Kyiv.

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