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Masks from the Ivory Coast and Congo take centre stage in entrepreneur Leinuo Zhang's apartment in Milan. He talks to Apollo about doing his homework and introducing African art to a new generation

It is tempting to describe Leinuo Zhang as a walking work of art. The 31-year-old, Beijing-born, Milan-based collector has a penchant for fabulous custom-made pictorial silk robes, which he wears out and about during the day, as well as in the evening. He is also known to wear sculpture--an ivory fertility figure the size of a chess piece, carved by the Attie people of the Ivory Coast, and hung as a pendant. Few who see it realise that this royal ivory is probably the finest known example of its type. Its quality and rarity is characteristic of an African art collection remarkable for being so recently assembled. Yet it would be to misunderstand this collector to take his enthusiasm for fad, or his flamboyance for frivolity. For Zhang is as serious as he is impassioned about the works --predominantly masks from the Ivory Coast and Congo --that he has chosen to gather around him.

We meet in the apartment he lives in when not entertaining (he has a second, larger apartment). Playing in the background is Bach's first cello suite. Zhang himself is dressed, for the record, in a robe decorated with musical notes and images from the original score of Verdi's opera I Lombardi, mined from the composer's archive by Dolce & Gabbana for their Alta Sartoria line, and unveiled at La Scala in 2017. Its baroque opulence could hardly be in greater contrast to the starkness of the apartment itself. This is not the residence one would expect from an entrepreneur who runs international sportswear and interior design companies. This is an ascetic's retreat from the world, a place of calm and, it seems, sustenance.

Presiding over the whole space is a sequence of eight masks, each one a distinctive and powerful presence. Their aura is almost palpable. The white walls behind them remain bare, and the reception rooms contain a minimum of furniture--a library chair for reading and a hard, upright side chair, two bookcases and a few side tables. Most are plain, 19th-century English pieces. For Zhang, nothing else is necessary: 'I wanted an environment that would not compete with the art. I like the linearity of the apartment's wooden panelling, and the simplicity and functionalism of the English furniture, and the way both allow the masks to speak for themselves.'

On one of the side tables is a Cremonese violin (Fig. 2). Zhang has been too busy in the last couple of years to play very much, he admits regretfully, but he still sings and claims a fine bass-baritone voice. Music is another necessity of life, and he studied it at university (in Dusseldorf and Edinburgh). He majored, however, in mathematics. 'No one believes it when I tell them I studied mathematics' he laughs at my surprised reaction--'but it is just another kind of beauty, the beauty of logic and of numbers. Mathematics may seem useless but it is a discipline that trains your brain and helps you understand the world. It enables you to make logical decisions in all areas of your life.'

What most intrigues me, however, is how and why Zhang came to be beguiled by African art. There is no tradition of collecting this material in China. It transpires that he was introduced to it at an early age. 'My parents, who collect antique Chinese art, took me to the Louvre and I saw African art there for the first time and felt a connection. Apparently, I was six.' Later they took him to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. 'African art was something I always felt I would have one day. Chinese art is not my cup of tea.'

Mathematics led at first to a career in banking in London. 'It felt so empty,' Zhang says. 'It was just not what I wanted to do, and I realised I would prefer to work in fashion and interior design. Given my favourite brands in both were Italian, I decided to move to Milan and worked in client relations at Valentino for three years, gaining an understanding of how the fashion business worked.'

The opera house and the Milanese museums must have been another incentive, I suggest. Indeeed, it turns out that it was while walking back from the Pinacoteca di Brera to his apartment one day that he passed the Dalton Somare Gallery, long-time specialists in African art, and decided to go in. This chance encounter was the impetus for Zhang's re-engagement with African art. 'My companies had started making money, and I decided to plunge in,' he says.

That did not mean buying immediately, but working out what it was that he liked, immersing himself in the literature to determine which pieces were the best of their types, and then getting a grip on the market to understand what kind of prices he would need to pay. 'Dalton Somare helped me and taught me a lot. We talk often--and the masks in my collection express how we share the same vision of African art. They also brought me into the international circle of tribal art dealers and collectors,' he says. Their access to important private collections also explains how Zhang, like a racing car, has gone from 0-60mph not quite in two and half seconds but in as many years. Most collectors start tentatively and begin with modest purchases and then work their way upwards. Not Leinuo Zhang.

His first piece was a Kwele antelope mask (Fig. 1) acquired at some time after 1901 in what was then the French Congo by Alexandre Petit-Renaud, most of whose collection is now in the Museum d'Histoire Naturelle de La Rochelle. Needless to say, his dramatic entry on to the scene has caused quite a stir among the tribal art trade. 'I think people are curious to see what I am buying because I represent the taste of the Chinese and of a new generation,' he says.

The Kwele mask is the piece that beckons as I enter the apartment, situated as it is at the end of the hall corridor on an exotic hardwood plinth and silhouetted in half profile against the lush green of the balcony and trees beyond. It is an appropriate backdrop given that the zoomorphic masks of the Kwele are thought to represent benevolent bush spirits. European artists and collectors have long admired such masks for the purity of their forms. Here, the mask and its vertically projecting horns are executed along a single sweeping elegant plane, the animal's long stylised snout reduced to pure geometry and articulated by the slightest of inclinations and the dramatic contrast of charcoal black against the kaolin white. The piece is striking for both its formal rigour and its refinement. While most of these masks were not intended to be worn, the wooden pegs surrounding the snout here are testimony to ritual use--something that is important to Zhang.

'It is considered one of the most beautiful Kwele masks, and I am fortunate to have it. It is of museum quality,' Zhang explains, marvelling at the fluidity of the aquiline profile and the smoothness of the carving. When he was offered the piece, he researched the entire group. 'There are less than ten good Kwele antelope masks in the world--most of them in museums, and I went to see them all. My motto is: "Read before you buy, and see all the comparisons." If the piece you are interested in buying is of the same quality or better than one in a museum, then there is no reason not to buy. The quality must be completely guaranteed. If you start at this point, you can never buy anything of lesser quality.' He adds: 'Although I have been asked to lend this piece to museum shows, I have never agreed. I will always keep this--and in fact all of the pieces you see here--with me at home.'

As we move towards the next mask, he continues: 'When you look at my collection, you will see that there is a harmony between each piece. African art is very various. Some pieces are very aggressive, sometimes brutal, sometimes pretty, sweet or elegant. So before you start collecting you have to understand what it is you like. I am told that your taste can change over the years but for the moment I have, apparently, a very Italian taste, as I am drawn to pieces which have not only a purity, simplicity and elegance but also a certain sweetness and prettiness. Most of the black masks here are from the Ivory Coast Guro, Dan/Mano, Baule--and have that sweetness. You feel a softness and gentleness. The white masks from the Congo represent another kind of beauty, which I also appreciate. The Kwele region is both Gabon and Congo.'

His most beloved piece, however, is the widely published and exhibited Congolese mask of a Kongo-Yombe diviner-healer (nganga diphomba-, Fig. 3), known since its acquisition by those intrepid dealers of sub-Saharan art, Henri Kamer and Helene Leloup. 'I feel lucky to have it,' Zhang says, echoing his earlier sentiment. 'I would say that it is not one of the best, but the very best Yombe mask.' Such masks are generally regarded as idealised representations of the diviners who wore them but the extraordinary naturalism of this carving suggests the particularity of an individual--one can sense his concentration and almost feel the soft fleshiness of the mouth and lip. 'The white of the kaolin represents the moon--and at night it absorbs its energy which allows the mask to speak,' Zhang says. 'I sometimes sit here almost in the dark and look at it, and it is even more amazing then.'

The oldest of the group is the Guro mask from the Ivory Coast, whose richly patinated surface--a mottling of shiny dark red and black--suggests prolonged use and a 19th-century date (Fig. 2). Its glass case is removed so that we may see--and photograph--it. Believed to have been made in the workshop of the Yasua master, this dance mask embodies the ideal of feminine grace for the Guro. Its elongated head offers a high and protruding forehead whose curve then reverses into a short and delicately turned-up pointed nose. The wide eyes are narrow and highlighted with kaolin, the face framed by scarifications, small ears and braided hair drawn from a prettily scalloped hairline. It has, says Zhang, strong power.

It is the subtly modulated late-19th or early-20th-century Dan/Mano mask, however, which Zhang sees as possessing the most beautiful nose and mouth in this group (Fig. 4). The Mano people live along the border of Liberia and the Ivory Coast, and the guardian mask of their secret initiation ceremonies traditionally represents a female face and was honoured as the mother of all other masks. Perhaps it is the downturned cast of the eyes that gives it its sense of suffering and intensity. 'The carving skills are perfect. You feel its peacefulness. When I was shown this mask, I immediately thought "this is mine". I did not even ask the price.'

Opposite sits an infinitely more abstracted--and aggressive--Dan-Kran Icaogle mask with the features of a baboon, remarkable for its sharp lines and jagged geometries (Fig. s). 'It is a masterpiece, and shows how power is created with simple line and no unnecessary details,' Zhang says enthusiastically. 'It is a perfect exemplar of cubism invented in the forest, and these masks inspired artists from Braque, Matisse and Picasso to Julio Gonzalez.' The eyelets for fastening the mask costume along its outer edge are made with a rectangular rather than circular tool, indicating an early date.

The small lukwakongo mask of the Lega people, with a nose bisecting almost the entire length of the face, is rare in still bearing its original raffia fringe (Fig. 6). Lega masks are rarely worn over the face but instead fixed to different parts of the body, or piled or hung or dragged during Bwami initiation ceremonies. They acted as markers of rank. Zhang displays his alongside a fringed light and custom-made fringe wall by Missoni. When their fringes are agitated by a passer-by, the entrance hall is brought to life by dancing dappled light.

'I am not afraid to say this,' Zhang explains, 'but African art is the most difficult art in the world to collect because there are so many confusions. Even experts sometimes have difficulty understanding the age of a piece or its use, or whether its provenance is authentic. It is important to be able to differentiate between what is by a master hand and what is not, and whether a piece has the authentic patina of use.' He continues: 'I would like a younger generation to realise that we are in a much better position to collect than anyone of our father's and grandfather's generation because there is now so much more knowledge and published material available. Earlier collectors had no way of knowing which pieces were middling and which were the best.'

He is sad that most people underestimate African art. 'This art needs to be known by more people. If people do not look at it, they cannot discover its beauty,' he contends, which is why he is doing what he can to proselytise--agreeing to this article, for one, but also exhibiting his collection in unorthodox places. Last November, he exhibited his pieces, along with those of his friend Anna Demina, at a VIP dinner for Fendi Casa. Pieces were shown 'face to face' and not behind glass. 'People said they had never thought that African art could be so beautiful.' He is currently working on an exhibition with Dolce & Gabbana.

'Tribal art is the only art in the world which is absolutely essential to people,' Zhang argues. 'It was only created because people needed to exercise power over their environment--to predict the future, celebrate the harvest or scare off others. It has to convince people that it has power, that it represents ancestors.

'Each mask has its special meaning, its special beauty and its special energy, and each one gives me a different sensation. That is why it is necessary to see them all every day. A mask might cheer me up, or prompt me to reflect on how I should start my day, how I should approach the world.' At the end of an evening, he will often sit in the library chair placed at the angle where he can see almost every piece in the apartment and listen to music, read, his six dogs around him. (Through yet another company, Zhang is trying to introduce micro chihuahuas to China. 'I want to help people realise that animals can be our friends, that we should be able to take them with us everywhere.')

'It is important in my life to find an equilibrium with the necessary. I may feel the beauty of paintings, but are they necessary to my life? I don't think so.' He warms to his theme. 'With African art, every time you see a piece you also touch it and feel why it was necessary to create it. There is a mental connection. It is like the connection you have when practising yoga. You feel the inner power of the piece leaving and outer power entering. It is a communication of energies and sensations.' Rather surprised by his own vehemence, he continues in a calmer vein: 'In every aspect of your life you should experience different kinds of beauty.' He smiles as he adds: 'If I die in 10 minutes, there will be no regrets.'

Portrait by Andrea Vailetti

Susan Moore is associate editor of Apollo.

Caption: 1. Lelnuo Zhang photographed in his home in Milan in May 2019. He is standing next to a Kwele antelope mask

Caption: 2. On the table in the centre sits a 19th-century Guro mask from the Ivory Coast. A violin made in Cremona is on the table to the right

Caption: 3. Mask of a diviner-healer (nganga diphomba), n.d, Kongo-Yombe, Democratic Republic of Congo, wood, pigments, kaolin, studs, ht 26.7cm

Caption: 4. Mask, late 19th/early 20th century, Dan/Mano, Liberia, wood, fibre, bone, ht 26cm

Caption: 5. Kaogle mask, 19th century, Dan-Kran, Ivory Coast, wood, metal, ht 23.5cm

Caption: 6. A lukwakongo mask of the Lega people is mounted to the left of a fringe wall and light by Missoni
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Title Annotation:art collector Leinuo Zhang
Author:Moore, Susan
Geographic Code:4EUIT
Date:Jul 1, 2019
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