Harry and Lana David Champion a Community of African and Diaspora Artists

The Athens, Nicosia and Lagos-based collectors discuss their collection, recently exhibited in ‘Ubuntu’ at EMST, Athens

BY Harry David, Lana de Beer David AND Electra Soutzoglou in Interviews | 03 NOV 21

Electra Soutzoglou: Harry, I believe you started collecting around 20 years ago?

Harry David: Even longer ago than that, actually. In fact, the first disposable income I had after university went towards buying art: I bought a piece from a friend who had just graduated from Rhode Island School of Design. I continued buying contemporary art for another ten years or so, then, about eight or nine years ago, something shifted, and I decided to focus exclusively on collecting contemporary art from Africa and the diaspora. This shift coincided with when I met my wife, Lana. We’re both children of Africa, born and bred.

ES: A large selection of works from your collection was recently on view at the National Museum of Contemporary Art [EMST] here in Athens in an exhibition titled ‘Ubuntu’. Why did you choose Athens to host this show?

Lana David: It wasn’t so much that we chose Athens as Athens chose us. We were approached by EMST to do a show from our collection and, while I think they were a little surprised to discover that it was entirely African and diaspora artists, they were very open-minded and gave us a lot of leeway to exhibit our works in an honest way. For us, it was very exciting to collaborate with EMST and to be able to share our collection with the public: the feedback has been extraordinarily positive. The contemporary art scene here in Greece at the moment is wonderful: I’m constantly recommending people to come and see it for themselves. We’ve been meeting a lot of African artists here, as well as galleries representing African or African American artists.

harry and lana david
Harry and Lana David with work by Ifeoma Anyaeji, Umu Ada (The Children of the First Daughter), 2016. Photo: Angelica Ender

HD: EMST wanted to host a show that would address a number of socio-political issues – migration, racism, LGBTQ+ inclusion – and our collection has a lot of works that explore these concerns. Neither of us imagined that the first public display of our collection would be in Athens rather than in one of the major capitals for contemporary art, like New York or London, or perhaps somewhere in Africa itself. But we’re delighted with how things worked out.

ES: Before the show opened, Emily Tsingou, who acts as art advisor to your collection, told me about the concept for ‘Ubuntu’, which was to have five rooms, each selected by a different guest curator. This works brilliantly, enabling visitors to see various aspects of the collection from different perspectives. What inspired you to take this approach?

LD: Harry, Emily and I knew from the outset that we didn’t want to curate the show ourselves because we would struggle to choose between the works – they’re like our babies! Then we found it hard to decide on a single curator, as we had several in mind, so we asked ourselves: why do we have to choose just one?

HD: We also had a relatively short timeframe – four months – in which to install the show. The fact that we already owned all the works and that we had the resources to put up the show ourselves made it easier, but it would have taken an individual curator six to eight months to oversee a project of this scale. It’s a lot simpler for somebody to curate a single room than a whole show. Collectively, these five rooms, each of which tells its own story, formed a sort of village. So, the exhibition developed from our initial concept, which was rooted in collectiveness and sharing, to becoming like an African village.

LD: It was all in the spirit of Ubuntu.

ES: What does Ubuntu mean?

LDUbuntu is a South African Xhosa word referring to the notion that we only exist as individuals because the village, the community, exists. It’s also about celebrating the achievements of individuals – in this case, the artists and curators – by raising them up and bringing them into the bosom of the community. So, it’s about the recognition and enrichment of the individual but always within the context of community.

Works in background from left: Toyin Ojih Odutola, Selective Histories, 2016; Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Invasions, 2013; Wangechi Mutu, Cactus Green Nips, 2009; Work in foreground: detail of Shinique Smith, Bale Variant, No. 0023 (totem), 2014.  Photo: Angelica Ender
Works in background from left: Toyin Ojih Odutola, Selective Histories, 2016; Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Invasions, 2013; Wangechi Mutu, Cactus Green Nips, 2009;

Work in foreground: detail of Shinique Smith, Bale Variant, No. 0023 (totem), 2014. 

Photo: Angelica Ender

ES: Do you have any plans to tour the exhibition, locally or overseas?

HD: Well, we are certainly open to it touring and we’re currently in discussions with various spaces, although nothing is concrete yet. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 lockdowns have made it harder because institutional programmes are all a bit of a shambles as a result. But we’re certainly very open to the idea.

ES: The lockdowns have undoubtedly caused programming complications, but the ensuing restructures have also created some windows of opportunity. I think it would be amazing for more people to see works from your collection.

HD: For us, lending pieces from the collection is the one way we can share our work, since we don’t have a gallery or a foundation.

LD: Although we do also share through our home.

HD: Yes, if a group wants to come and see the collection, we always welcome them. And whenever we’re asked by institutions to lend work, we’re very happy to do so. Clearly, shows such as ‘Ubuntu’ are another a great way to maximize public access to the work.

LD: For instance, we currently have loaned two pieces by Billie Zangewa and two by Joana Choumali in ‘Portals’, an exhibition at the former Public Tobacco Factory in Athens, organized by NEON. We also have loaned another two works by Zangewa in ‘Thread for a Web Begun’, her first US solo museum show, at MoAD in San Francisco, which is curated by Dexter Wimberly. And, following a year-long loan to Johannesburg, we’re very excited to have just been reunited with Wangechi Mutu’s Water Woman (2017).

Hank Willis Thomas, Amandla, 2014. Photo: Angelica Ender
Hank Willis Thomas, Amandla, 2014. Photo: Angelica Ender

ES: What does collecting mean for each of you?

HD: For me, it’s such a natural, instinctive process that I’m not sure I can really put it into words.

LD: I think, for Harry, it’s innate. It’s with him every single day. He wakes up thinking about art, and goes to sleep thinking about art. In the first year after we met, we spent so much of our time travelling and going to galleries. This was a totally new experience for me: my children are all science nerds, so I used to spend my free time on vacation in science museums or at natural-history museums. Then, one day, contemporary art just clicked for me – in particular, how it addresses all the important political issues that are going on in this moment around the globe. Also, for me, since I come from a literature background, it’s an intellectual journey.

HD: In many cases, Lana takes a different, more academic, approach to me: she’ll do more research; she’ll look things up; she’ll read the stories. And my approach is probably a little bit more …

ES: More a gut feeling, maybe?

HD: A visual feeling.

ES: And, together, you’ve found the perfect combination.

HD: Yes. We don’t analyse it in great detail – it’s very organic – but I feel that’s what happens. And we tend to see similar things. Or maybe it’s that we’ve evolved together. So, the collection has a certain direction. Without putting words to it, without ascribing specific parameters, I think we know what we’re building towards.

Hank Willis Thomas, Amandla, 2014. Photo: Angelica Ender
Ifeoma Anyaeji, Umu Ada (The Children of the First Daughter), 2016. Photo: Angelica Ender

ES: Do you mostly find artists and collect art through studio visits?

LD: I think it’s a combination of things. Mainly, it’s about exploration – whether in person or online. Instagram has become an incredible resource, for instance.

ES: Has the pandemic changed your approach to how you collect art?

LD: Yes, the pandemic has changed things a lot, and will continue to do so, I think. I was in Accra earlier this year, at Gallery 1957, where they were launching Ghana’s first award for women artists, the Yaa Asantewaa Art Prize. I discovered that three of the judges had been contacted via Instagram. I mean, that’s incredible.

HD: You can definitely get snippets of information from social media, and you can discover artists whose work you would never have seen otherwise. Most probably, you will discard 95 percent of it and just scroll past it. But, occasionally, you’ll come across something that you would ordinarily only have seen two or three years down the line.

LD: That’s also the nature of the art that we are looking at. It’s all young and new. It’s exciting for us to be part of the creation of its bibliography. And now there’s also this wonderful explosion of interest in African art that’s finally receiving the recognition it deserves.

Theaster Gates, Covered Vessel, 2015, detail from Ibrahim El Salahi, Untitled, 2007. Photo: Angelica Ender
Detail by Theaster Gates, Covered Vessel, 2015, detail from Ibrahim El Salahi, Untitled, 2007. Photo: Angelica Ender

ES: Can you name any artists that you’ve seen recently that you’re excited about?

HD: During lockdown, it was easier for us to commit to buying work by artists we knew already, who we have collected for a number of years: Choumali, Rashid Johnson, Mutu, Meleko Mokgosi or Mickalene Thomas, for example, whose work we could view online and easily decide whether we wanted to buy it for our collection or not. But, on Emily’s advice, we have also added some pieces by younger artists, including Kwesi Botchway, Alicia Henry and Sabelo Mlangeni, whose work we haven’t yet seen ourselves. On our part, these were very small commitments – just one or two pieces – until we can meet the artists and see their work in person.

LD: We were looking at a lot of interesting new artists during lockdown, people we are keeping an eye on. But, for us, a big part of the whole experience of collecting is walking into an artist’s studio for the very first time and finding ourselves standing in front of an exceptionally beautiful artwork that completely blows us away.

ES: We can definitely sense that feeling of excitement and awe in your collection. Thank you very much for sharing your experience with us.

Harry David is a collector based between Athens, Greece, Nicosia, Cyprus and Lagos, Nigeria. Having grown up in Nigeria, he has been collecting contemporary art for the past 25 years, with a sharp focus on the art of Africa and its diaspora. 

Lana de Beer David is a collector based between Athens, Greece, Nicosia, Cyprus and Lagos, Nigeria. Born and raised in South Africa, she and her partner Harry David are patrons of Tate Modern, London, through its African Acquisitions Committee; the Studio Museum, New York by way of its Global Council; and London’s The Showroom.

Electra Soutzoglou is a VIP Consultant for Frieze Fairs. She is the founder of Art Rug Projects, which focuses on  interactive collaboration with Greek and international contemporary artists, whose works are transformed into handmade rugs and tapestries as original works of art. She lives in Athens, Greece.