‘Collecting Art is Like Writing a Biography, Finding a Way to Tell the Story of Our Lives’

León Amitai speaks about his collecting journey and interest in textile art and geometric abstraction

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BY Kristina McLean AND León Amitai in Profiles | 03 MAR 21

Kristina McLean:    I’m very excited to talk to you today. This is a new format that we’re experimenting with at Frieze to create content for our collecting community because, as you know, people love reading about other collectors and what they’re looking at. So, I’m really thrilled that you’ve agreed to participate. Firstly, you work with textiles in your business life, and you also collect art involving fabrics and textiles. Did you focus on textile from the beginning of your collecting journey? Where did it begin?

León Amitai:    My day-to-day life is related to textiles and fabrics, and we are always looking for the latest trends in fashion and so on. And that’s basically the way I fell in love with art. For work, I was often in the fashion neighbourhoods in Paris around Rue Saint-Honoré, and there I discovered Denise René’s gallery. I knew nothing about the art inside, but I was attracted by a beautiful piece in the window and so I went in and started asking about the different artists. The piece in the window turned out to be by Jesús Rafael Soto, and at the time they had works by Carlos Cruz-Diez and Josef Albers too: geometric and kinetic art and things like that. The prices that they were asking for those pieces were out of my reach at the time, so when I went back home I tried to identify which artists in Colombia would, in a way, belong to the same dialogue or movement. So, I started my journey which led me to of course, Édgar Negret, Omar Rayo, Pica Massard, and Carlos Rojas. It took me a while to assemble a group of their pieces. I really wanted to find the best piece that I could at that time, so it took me a while, but I was really into geometric art. Geometry and the love for Albers led me to understand more about The Bauhaus. And when I started learning more about the Bauhaus, then I discovered Anni Albers, and of course fell in love with her work, with Gunta Stölzl's, and of other women practicing textile art at Bauhaus, as well those taught by Albers at Black Mountain College. That’s how I discovered Ruth Asawa, who is one of my favourite artists.

León Amitai
León Amitai in his Miami residence with a work by William Kentridge in the background
Photo: Juan Pablo Castro

KM:            Wonderful! So, given this trajectory – this line running through the collection from geometric abstraction, through to Bauhaus, through to fabric – are you today exclusively focussed on textile and fibre art? Or would you say you’re not constrained by a certain medium or a certain theme?

LA:             That’s basically it. Textile art has a very important meaning for me. Whenever I see an interesting piece by an artist with textiles, or with weaving, or with clothing – anything relating to the industry I am in – I get really attracted to it. Though I like to explore, and that includes being curious about all different kinds of media. I still have a deep interest in the geometric, but even this extends to photography and video installations, and art that reflects social issues, or is influenced by architecture. A little bit of everything! I think it’s the best way for me to keep on learning. 

In fact, I recently took a course on electronic art, which is something that I haven’t been much involved with. And it was very, very interesting, because I also understood electronic art from a different perspective. For so many people it’s important to concentrate on a single medium or work from one region, for me, it’s the opposite.

KM:            Which is a bit like the way you talk about your work, scouring the world for different developments and trends. And you’ve been able to bring your professional life and your passion for the arts in other ways, isn’t that right?

León Amitai
Leon Amitai’s residence in Miami with a work by Matt Bass
Photo: Juan Pablo Castro

 

LA:             Yes, for me, not concentrating solely on the medium of textile or the region of Colombia means the possibility to learn and discover, and also to understand the dialogue among different regions with certain kinds of different practices and yes, in a way that’s a reflection of what I do in my day-to-day business: looking for fashion trends and researching fabric factories all over the world, from Brazil to India, or Thailand, and then to assemble the results and present them in a curated way to our customers.

For the latest collaboration we just did during the pandemic we thought of the difficult situation that museums and artists all over the world were facing, so we decided to think about a way in which we could help a little bit. We teamed up with OndadeMar, a very well know and recognised swimwear brand in Colombia, to manufacture face masks with work by 40 different artists in Colombia. Each artist came up with their own design and a percentage of the sale of those face masks will go to the artists and museums.

KM:            Your taste spans historical figures, like Ruth Asawa to contemporary practices like Kevin Beasley and Kapwani Kiwanga – and Pruitt. So what I’m wondering is can you describe what it is about a work that draws you to it, specifically?

LA:             Even though I’m not concentrated just on textile, whenever I see a textile work, it means a lot because of the personal meaning it has for me – and basically, I think, collecting art is like writing a biography, finding a way to tell the story of our lives.

León Amitai
A work by Zoë Paul on the left and a painting by Chen Ching-Yuan (Card Stunt VIII – Pink, Blue and Deep Blue, 2018) on the right
Photo: Juan Pablo Castro

There can also be a social meaning that draws me in. For example, we have a tapestry by William Kentridge – and that’s interesting, because it’s not a medium he is necessarily known for or a big part of his practice – but part of what got me really attracted to this was the involvement of the weaving studio in Johannesburg that was founded to make curtains and carpets, and how the work of the women there is part of the whole process. Their involvement was not only in the fabrication but they also received a percentage of the sale of the tapestries.  

In a similar way, when I see a piece by Kevin Beasley using cotton, there is for him a connection with his identity, with roots in the cotton fields and the history of slavery. Sometimes, of course, it’s just the sheer beauty or complexity of the textile that attracts me: the artistry of the weaving, let’s say.

KM:            What conservation issues are there to consider for people who wish to add textile and fabric into their collection?

LA:             That is a very interesting question, because many collectors that I know tend to collect only painting: probably because it’s more commercial for future investment purposes but also because the conservation may seem easier.

Definitely, we have some pieces that are very delicate, but others that are not so much. We’ve seen textiles for thousands of years and pieces that have been conserved for hundreds of years still exist today. In fact, I am attracted to old tapestries sometimes because of their age: whenever I travel to Morocco, Turkey or Mexico and here in Colombia, I am looking for antique weavings. Often, you find behind each one of those tapestries, there is a whole family story. I think textile art has a much deeper connection with some of these traditions, in a way, than other mediums.

So, yes, it can be a difficult medium, let’s say, more difficult than a painting, to keep and live with. But it’s not necessarily the most delicate medium. All kinds of pieces can be fragile: for example, this piece by Kelly Akashi is glass. So it’s much more fragile than textile! To be honest with you, I don’t really think too much about conservation when I acquire a piece. Some people may consider it a mistake, but it’s what I really love, and I would encourage other collectors to drop that mentality where fear of conservation stops them from engaging and to allow themselves to connect with whatever gives joy and pleasure.  

 

León Amitai
Paper Drop (2001) by Wolfgang Tillmans on the left and a sculpture by Haegue Yang on the right
Photo: Juan Pablo Castro

    

KM:            I’m very interested in what you say about textile and these deep traditions. I don’t know if you saw recently, probably online, that exhibition at Alison Jacques Gallery of the Gee’s Bend Quiltmakers?  These were works made by three generations of women living in a remote black community situated on a U-turn in the Alabama River, yet they appear very radical and current right now. Several pieces were acquired by Tate Modern recently. It reflects this idea that ‘craftspeople’ are artists. That’s something that the world is wrapping their head around only now.

LA:             You know what is fascinating to me? That women at the Bauhaus were not allowed to practice painting. An avant garde institution, like the Bauhaus, modern in so many ways, did not allow women to practice painting. That’s why Anni Albers and others had to practice weaving. I think that deserves a lot of investigation, attention, dialogue.

KM:            For sure. I just wanted to round off asking you which artists you are most excited about right now, and that can be in any medium.

LA:             Definitely. If we’re talking about textiles of course we know Ruth Asawa, Anni Albers, Sheila Hicks, and Olga de Amaral, whom you know I love – but one of the artists that I like the most is Leonor Antunes from Portugal. I love her work. It has an inspiration in Anni Albers and a constant dialogue with that work and era, but also because of the material, at least for me, with Ruth Asawa: by using metal Antunes is also weaving with a difficult material.

A very interesting artist from Brazil is Paloma Bosquê, I find her work really quite unique. She works a lot with textiles but not only. Igshaan Adams, a South African artist, who also practises weaving. Kevin Beasley, is not so emerging anymore, but I think his practice has been super interesting for me and his last exhibition at Casey Kaplan  was amazing. N. Dash is another great artist from that gallery, and I love her work. Diedrick Brackens is an amazing artist as well: he did an exhibition at the New Museum in 2019. I bought a textile piece that I love by Haegue Yang, she’s one of these artists that keep on surprising me all the time.

 

León Amitai
León Amitai's residence in Miami with a work by Kevin Beasley
Photo: Juan Pablo Castro

 

KM:            This is a very global list, León. Very global and a lot of connections in terms of south, and the ‘global south’…  

LA:             South Africa, South America...

KM:            South Korea. Southern United States...

LA:             Yes, the Southern United States. Nice, I like that. You’re brilliant, Kristina. You curated my selection in five seconds!

KM:            Time for a show! León, this has been great. I’m sure people are going to love hearing about your insights into this field of your collecting. We’ve focussed so much on fabric, but I also know that I cannot put you in this category only. You defy categorisation. Finally, what are your future goals?

LA:             My near term goals is definitely to set up an artist studio for women. Most probably in Colombia and probably inviting artists who work with textiles to have dialogue with Colombian artists or Latin American artists more broadly. You know that I involve my teammates a lot in this, so I really want them to be part of this kind of dialogue too.

KM:            That’s a really exciting idea. I remember you went to visit the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation – you know when you’re a resident there, you can weave on Anni Albers’ loom? So, contemporary artists have created works from that loom...

LA:             Oh, my God. Fantastic! Well, keep me in mind for interesting names you come across in textile art, Kristina.

KM:            I will, I promise!

 

Main image: León Amitai's portrait with works by Analia Saban, Woven Grid As Warp And Weft, 2019 (left) and Latifa Echakhch, All over (164.21), 2017 (right). Photo: Juan Pablo Castro

Kristina McLean is a development consultant specializing in art and philanthropy, based in Budapest, Hungary. She consults for Frieze and Aspen Art Museum, among others. Until recently based in Colombia, she is the editor of the book Soy Bogota (2018).

León Amitai is an art collector and CEO of Sutex, based in Bogota, Colombia and Miami, USA.

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