2018.03.18 Sun, by Translated by: 房小然
Nathalie Obadia — interview

by Chris Moore

Nathalie Obadia is one of the most influential gallerists in France. A strong advocate for the internationalisation of art, Obadia has been instrumental in introducing Chinese artists such as MadeIn, Ni Youyu and Wang Keping to the Paris art scene. Her gallery is particularly notable for its very strong contemporary art photography program, including representing the sometimes-controversial artist, Andres Serrano. Here Ran Dian speaks with Nathalie about her upbringing, how she became a gallerist, art photography and the Chinese art market.

Nathalie Obadia will show at Art Basel Hong Kong, Booth 1D32

Chris Moore: Nathalie, can you tell us about your early life? Also, what was your introduction to art? 

Nathalie Obadia: Two academics from the “Post-68” generation, my parents were in their thirties when they discovered contemporary art. Their curiosity led them to develop an interest for French artists from Narrative Figuration, like Erró (b.1932) and Jacques Monory (b.1924). Then, they started buying American pop art – Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Tom Wesselmann – from Ileana Sonnabend (1914-2007), who had a gallery in Paris in the 70s. They had understood that American art was breathing new life into Europe.

Nathalie Obadia

Nathalie Obadia

So as a young teen, I would follow my parents through the galleries and museums of Paris and elsewhere, like the Stedelijk Museum of Amsterdam or the Ludwig Collection of Aix-la-Chapelle that featured works by American artists you could see nowhere else. I keep wonderful memories of “The Beanery” (1965) by Edward Kienholz at the Stedelijk Museum of Amsterdam, as well as of Robert Rauschenberg’s paintings at the Ludwig Collection. I saw my parents gain intellectual freedom thanks to contemporary art and the friendships they developed with artists. In 1974, my mother organized a pop art exhibition assisted by Sonnabend at the city hall of La Baule, a famous seaside resort on the Atlantic coast. Featuring Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008), Roy Lichtenstein (1923-97) and a series of Mao portraits, it caused havoc among the local upper class and the mayor had it removed. At the beginning of the 70s, showing Mao in a conservative city hall was unconceivable.

Jonas Stampe (curator), Nathalie Obadia, Mister and Madam Yan (director and wife), Wenjie Sun (assistant curator) at Andres Serrano’s opening at Red Brick Art Museum in Beijing, 2017 (image courtesy Galerie Nathalie Obadia)

Jonas Stampe (curator), Nathalie Obadia, Mister and Madam Yan (director and wife), Wenjie Sun (assistant curator) at Andres Serrano’s opening at Red Brick Art Museum in Beijing, 2017 (image courtesy Galerie Nathalie Obadia)

This is how, at the age of 15, I decided to become an art dealer. Back then, people did not say “gallerist” when they represented contemporary artists, in order to differentiate themselves from those who sold the work of deceased artists. I thought it was an incredible job, which, through artists, would allow me to be in the very heart of creation. I would meet intellectuals and art critics as well as museum directors and collectors, fascinating people looking to better understand their time. Being an art dealer, I could rub shoulders with them and be the link between these different categories.

CM: How did you come to Paris? 

NO:  I spent my childhood and adolescence in the province, first in the North, then in Nantes [Brittany]. Instead of having a countryside house, my parents had an apartment in Paris where we would come during school holidays. This is how, from the mid-70s, I frequently went to museums. I saw the beginning of the Pompidou Center, the amazing exhibitions held at the American Center on boulevard Raspail and I visited galleries like Yvon Lambert, Maeght and Daniel Templon.

Aline Wang, Wang Keping, Nathalie Obadia during a studio visit, 2017 (image courtesy Galerie Nathalie Obadia)

Aline Wang, Wang Keping, Nathalie Obadia during a studio visit, 2017 (image courtesy Galerie Nathalie Obadia)

I moved to Paris in 1980 for my post-graduate studies: I got a masters in international law and studied at Sciences Po while I continued to go to galleries. [Nathalie now gives a course at Sciences Po on the contemporary art market] I also read a lot of literature and political and philosophical essays, and I spent a lot of time at the cinema. I’m convinced that to understand contemporary art, you need to have a global awareness of the world that art helps you grasp in even more depth. It’s a virtuous circle.

CM: What is it like being a gallerist now? 

NO: 25 years later, I am still as passionate about my job. Every day is a new challenge because it’s never over. You can never think: “I have 25 years of experience, a good reputation, faithful collectors and talented artists, I’m out of the woods”. Today you either go forward or backward. There’s no standing still. What’s difficult in my job is to combine my artistic convictions with the strategy of the gallery, which is to grow bigger and bigger on the international scene. You have to manage sales with highly influential collectors on a daily basis, find institutional opportunities for your artists, and assist them for they can produce without financial concerns.

CM: What makes the Chinese art market different from traditional Western markets?


China is the second biggest economy. In the Chinese and Asian market, that is still very young though it is developing quickly, there is an important number of potential collectors with a lot of money who are looking to buy and invest in Contemporary Art. But we can see than over to 1 million dollars (in the Contemporary Art Market) the Chinese market prefers to invest in well known western values. Finally, we can note while looking at the auctions results than the Chinese market is more confident with Western artists than with the Chinese ones. This is the main difference with America from 1945 which was used to trust and invest in artists from their own country.

CM: One of the specialisations of your gallery is photography. Why is that? 

NO: All the photographers – or rather all the artists who practice photography – that I represent came into the gallery because their questioning of painting caught my attention: Andres Serrano (b.1950), Valérie Belin (b.1964), Youssef Nabil (b.1972), Luc Delahaye (b.1962) and Patrick Faigenbaum (b.1954) have a direct and complex dialogue with painting and the contemporary world. We just saw it with Andres Serrano exhibiting his works in the middle of the 18th and 20th century paintings and sculptures of the Petit Palais in Paris. I fall in love with artists, not their medium.

CM: When did you first come to China?

NO: It was 8 years ago now. I knew I had to go because, since the 60s, New York is no longer the only art center in the world. In Asia, Japan, India, Korea and China have become very dynamic creative centers. This mix of artistic tradition and great contemporary installations immediately fascinated me. Chinese literature also helped me discover a universe that was unfamiliar to me and to better understand the art I saw. I started with classic literature, Dream of the red chamber by Hóng Lóu Mèng, then Lu Xun, Lao She and Mo Yan from the 20th century. Chinese cinema, like Jia Zhangke (b.1970), also sparked my desire to visit China and discover its contemporary culture. The 2010 Shanghai World Exposition was a great turnaround for me. I saw China becoming a great world power while also trying to impose its “soft power”. The Chinese Pavilion was stunning and showed an amazing capacity to reinvent Chinese tradition while opening up to the world. All the great world powers had understood the importance of the event – the United Kingdom, France, the United States and India had great Pavilions too. Competition was at its highest.

CM: And how does the China art scene fit into the program of Galerie Nathalie Obadia? 

NO: Since I have always been interested in foreign art scenes, it was only natural that I exhibit Chinese artists. In 2012 I curated Madeln’s first French exhibition, with XU Zhen (b.1977) and I showed Ni Youyu (b.1984) for the first time in France – one of the best artists of the emerging Chinese scene. What I like in his art is the blend of traditional and contemporary. In 2015, I exhibited him next to another very gifted young painter, Lu Chao (b.1988), along with two great masters of Ink Art, Gu Wenda (b.1955) and Shang Yang (b.1942), who were also showed in France for the first time.

And since 2017, I have been representing the great sculptor Wang Keping (b.1949)from The Stars group. His works express an incredible strength and serenity. I can’t work without one of his sculptures in front of me. It exudes a great spiritual power and soothes me.

CM: You run galleries in both Paris and Brussels. What is the essential difference between the art scenes of these two cities?

NO: Belgium is a more “baroque” country, in the sense that collectors interests are less limited by the aesthetic standards of “good taste” like in France. I opened my Brussels gallery in 2008 and I continue to be surprised by the curiosity of Belgians. They take more risks. They buy young artists more easily without waiting for market or institutional recognition. There are few public museums in Belgium but hundreds of big private collections. It was important to have a gallery in Brussels to be close to the collectors and institutions that tend to go more often to London and Berlin than Paris.

CM: What are you planning for Hong Kong? 

NO: For the upcoming Hong Kong Art Basel show, we’ll focus on Asian or Asian-related artists who had exhibitions in the course of last year, like Rina Banerjee (b.1963), of Indian origins, who took part in the Venice Biennale; Ni Youyu, who exhibited at the Kunstverein Museum of Konstanz in Germany, as well as for the first time in France, in our gallery; Australian Brook Andrew (b.1970), who had a great show at the National Gallery of Victoria (Australia) in 2017; and Manuel Ocampo (b.1965), who represented the Philippines at the 2017 Venice Biennale. We’ll present two of his works along with a Kabinett and a series of portraits done in China by Andres Serrano, who just finished a major exhibition at the Red Brick Art Museum of Beijing. It was the very first retrospective show in China of one of the greatest American contemporary photographers, besides, have undergone hard censorship in America. The Beijing exhibition was a great success. Ran Dian 燃点