Out of Africa, a Collection and a Dedication to Giving Back

LONDON — As a philanthropist and as a collector, Mercedes Vilardell has distinguished herself by her focus. In the former arena, there is a consistent mission; in the latter, a tight aesthetic.

To carry out that mission, Ms. Vilardell travels several times a year — to places including Mali, Nigeria, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Senegal and South Africa — working to boost the fortunes of artists there by underwriting biennials and other projects. She also sponsors a residency for midcareer African artists at Gasworks, a London nonprofit.

“Wherever I go, I try to support young artists,” she said, sitting in the cozy living room of her rowhouse, in the southwest corner of London.

As co-chairperson of the African acquisitions committee of the Tate Modern, she also assists the museum in collecting from the field.

At the same time, for her personal collection, she searches galleries around the world for modern and contemporary African works, and pieces by artists of the African diaspora. Most of her choices are in black and white or a very spare palette, with a graphic punch.

“Much of the art I see in Africa is very colorful,” Ms. Vilardell, 60, said. “But I tend to go the other way. You won’t find anything flashy here.”

A lawyer who no longer practices, Ms. Vilardell comes from Majorca, where she still has a family home. A large portion of her collection of hundreds of photographs, paintings, works on paper and sculptures resides there, with a few dozen pieces displayed in her London place.

Her collecting started 20 years ago, with a concentration on Latin American art. “Speaking Spanish, I was better able to understand what I was looking at,” she said.

But the lure of Africa has proved strong for the last decade — in her living room is work by the South African photographer David Goldblatt and by Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum, an artist born in Botswana — but she also has chosen to live with pieces by the Mexican artist Gabriel Orozco, the American painter Kerry James Marshall and the British painter Lynette Yiadom-Boakye.

Ms. Vilardell seemed energized by having thrown herself into the unknown. “I’m learning all the time,” she said of her travels. “It’s a totally new world for me.” She spoke about her process and her passion in an interview. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

How did you get started with an African focus?

It came from visiting Mali. I knew a painter who had a house there. He told me to go. He said, “You’re going to fall in love with the place.” And I did. That was nine years ago.

Who were the first artists you met?

I had met Malick Sidibé [1936-2016] for the first time in Geneva. Together with Moshekwa Langa, he was my introduction to Africa. So on my first trip to Bamako [Mali’s capital] I went straight to his [Sidibé’s] studio — lots of people queuing to have their portraits taken. For me his images are a way of trying to understand Africa in a visual way. The happiness in the faces of the people in his portraits, the beautiful outfits, it always makes me smile.

A lot of what you have is midcentury, in addition to work being made now.

There were all these artists’ studios in the ’60s and ’70s, including the Nigerian photographer J.D. ’Okhai Ojeikere, two of whose works are over my mantel. He only photographed hairdos. The art scene was really modern back then. That time in Africa was incredible, but no one outside Africa got to see it.

With the Tate’s acquisitions and other developments, are you hopeful about the future of contemporary African art?

Africa is boiling right now; everyone wants to go there. I just hope that it keeps on, that it’s not just a fashion, because I’ve seen it happen in Mexico. Everything was about Mexico and then it’s not anymore.

So the trendiness can be a problem?

The art world now is not like when I started. There are lots of fashions now, so you get an artists’ market, with prices doubling, — and then no one thinks of them anymore, and that makes me very sad. It’s happened in Latin America; it’s a problem in China.

Do you have a plan for your collection for when you’re no longer around?

I don’t want to open a private museum. Lots of ego trips, and I’m not that type. For a really good museum in Africa, I would donate the works.

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