‘I could never find the right place in Paris’: Jean Pigozzi on why he’s opening a museum for his African art collection in Cannes

Jean Pigozzi’s extensive collection of contemporary African art will have its own museum in Cannes in the south of France.

Although the museum is not scheduled to open before 2026, a preliminary exhibition of works from the collection is open until August 21 at Cannes Gare Maritime, showing more than 100 paintings, sculptures and photographs created from the 1960s onwards are.

“Cannes is a small city, but it has three million visitors a year because of the Cannes Film Festival and tourism,” Pigozzi, who owns a villa in nearby Antibes, told Artnet News.

Pigozzi will donate several thousand contemporary African artworks to the Cannes Municipality. In return, the desecrated Saint-Roch chapel, which has approximately 64,000 square meters of space, is being renovated to accommodate its collection.

“David Lisnard, the mayor, showed me some places and I liked the challenge of this charming church in the old town of Cannes,” said the collector. “I didn’t want a place that was too big. It will not be static, there will be a different exhibition every year and I have told the mayor that I will be artistic director for the first five years.”

Pigozzi wants the museum, which doesn’t yet have a name, to be flexible and not just show contemporary African art.

“I don’t want to be handcuffed,” he said. “I collect too [the American street photographer of crime scenes] Weegee, and one day I might do an exhibition of African photos along with some of Weegee.”

Pigozzi originally intended to find a space in Paris and met with several French politicians a decade ago to discuss the possibility. “I could never find the right place in Paris,” he said. “I didn’t need anything ostentatious or incredible, but close to a tube station so it would be easily accessible to the public.” The idea of ​​Cannes came to him after a meeting with the mayor.

Born in Paris in 1952, the son of car manufacturer Henri Pigozzi, Pigozzi is a photographer and entrepreneur with a fortune of 350 million euros, according to the French financial magazine challenges.

What piqued Pigozzi’s interest in contemporary African art was the ‘Magiciens de la Terre’ exhibition, held at the Center Pompidou in 1989, which brought together artists from all over the continent several times.

“I had a coup de foudre [love at first sight] when I visited the exhibition,” Pigozzi recalls. “Back then, if you asked someone what African art was, they would say wooden masks and sculptures. Thirty years ago nobody knew that there was a contemporary art scene in Africa. The pieces on display looked like they could have been made in Brooklyn or Paris, so I was very excited.”

Pigozzi asked the Center Pompidou for Magnin’s contact details the day after the exhibition.

“A woman called me and asked me to meet someone, but she didn’t tell me who it was,” said Magnin, now the owner of the Magnin-A gallery. “I saw a big guy in front of me saying, ‘Congratulations, what are you going to do next?’ I said I wanted to continue what I was doing [working with African artists] and he asked me to set up a collection of African art for him. I built his collection from 1989 to 2009 by exploring the continent and meeting many artists and making extraordinary discoveries everywhere. In the beginning there was neither the internet nor Instagram. I have organized more than 30 exhibitions of works from his collection around the world.”

For over two decades, Pigozzi productively collected works by African artists long before they were recognized by the global art scene. “I said to André, ‘Let’s create a very important collection of contemporary African art,'” said Pigozzi. “For 20 years we’ve been pacing up and down sub-Saharan Africa picking pieces together. Now my collection has hundreds of artists, more than 10,000 pieces, of which about 2,000 pieces are great. I hope it will be recognized as the best African art collection.”

Renowned artists in Pigozzi’s Contemporary African Art Collection (CAAC) include Chéri Samba, Frédéric Bruly Bouabré (whose work is currently the subject of a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York), Bodys Isek Kingelez, Moké, Romuald Hazoumè and photographers Seydou Keïta, Malick Sidibé and JD ‘Okhai Ojeikere, as well as emerging talent such as Aboudia.

Pigozzi donated 45 works from the collection to MoMA in 2019 in a gift the museum dubbed “transformative.”

Magnin alluded to how cheap some of the artworks were before the contemporary African art market took off: “When I met Romuald Hazoumè 30 years ago, he suggested I sell his masks for the equivalent of 150 euros. I said no and increased the price. And we hugged like brothers.”

While Pigozzi is best known for collecting contemporary African art, he also collects Japanese contemporary art. “I started collecting Japanese contemporary art 15 years ago after meeting Takashi Murakami and going to Geisai,” Pigozzi said, referring to the fair Murakami organizes in Tokyo for young self-exhibiting artists.

“It’s a completely different sensitivity. Eventually more people will discover it [my Japanese contemporary art collection] and I will look for another venue [to exhibit it]. I keep my eyes and ears open.”

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