Tunisian financier Selim Bouafsoun shares how he overcame his fear of collecting and his fantastic helicopter heist

ByDavid M. Conte

Dec 20, 2021

Born in a coastal town in Tunisia and raised between Riyadh and Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, art collector Selim Bouafsoun attributes to his discerning eye the deeply rooted cultures of abstraction, geometry and architecture in the Islamic milieu. in which he grew up.

Living today between London and Dubai, Bouafsoun’s growing collection is influenced by the multiplicity and cosmopolitanism of the two cities, with a particular emphasis on mid-career and established artists working in abstraction, and an affinity for them. artists from Africa and Latin America.

Bouafsoun, who maintains his collector’s habits through a career in finance, is also a patron of the Delfina Foundation and co-founder of Nafas Tunis, a charity dedicated to supporting the relief efforts in the event of a pandemic in Tunisia through the sale of works of art.

We caught up with the collector to discuss his very first purchase, how he finally got his hands on a coveted velvet painting of Issy Wood, and his ultimate fantasy art theft.

works by Kylie Manning, Stevie Dix, Claudia Wiese. Photo by Yulia Lebedeva courtesy of Selim Bouafsoun.

What was your first purchase?

Lorenz by Bernhard Buhmann in November 2015 from the Carbon 12 Gallery in Dubai. I have always had a keen interest in art – painting, Islamic art and abstraction, in particular, as I grew up in contexts and traditions that are incredibly rich in it – between Saudi Arabia and Tunisia, but I found myself intimidated by collecting. I met Nadine for the first time [Knotzer] and Kourosh [Nouri] from Carbon 12 to Vienna Contemporary through a dear collector friend, and when I subsequently moved to Dubai I visited the gallery and made this purchase. The rest is history. We are still close friends and they have been an integral part of the development of my eye and my collection.

works by Sarah Cunningham, George Rees, Amir Khojasteh and Zanele Muholi.  Courtesy of Selim Bouafsoun.

works by Sarah Cunningham, George Rees, Amir Khojasteh and Zanele Muholi. Photo by Yulia Lebedeva courtesy of Selim Bouafsoun.

What was your most recent purchase?

During Frieze week this year I did some shopping including an oil painting on velvet, Nero oh, by Issy Wood from Carlos / Ishikawa. I’ve been trying to buy one for a long time and I’m really excited to have this part in my orbit. I think Issy is one of the most talented and innovative painters of our time.

I also recently bought a journal book from Rirkrit Tiravanija. Also a model of Sumayya Vally’s 20th Serpentine Pavilion, and part of his social sculpture, Sunday rice ritual, where we are part of a gathering with the owners of 19 complementary pieces to make a table, and a large canvas called Camouflage by Anthony Akinbola from his solo show in Dubai, in electric blue, my favorite color.

What works or artists do you hope to add to your collection this year?

I am deeply invested in the works of art that I collect and I always consider new works of artists already in my collection, so I will of course look at them carefully. I also have an eye out for works by Caroline Kent, Nikita Gale, Joseph Yaeger, Suki Seokyeong Kang, and Jose Davila, all of which would add something special to the collection.

What is the most expensive work of art you own?

I prefer not to attach monetary value to my passion for art.

works by Oren Pinhassi, Michael Sailstorfer, Monika Grabuschnigg, Gabriella Giroletti, Philip Mueller, Antonio Tarsis.  Courtesy of Selim Bouafsoun.

works by Oren Pinhassi, Michael Sailstorfer, Monika Grabuschnigg, Gabriella Giroletti, Philip Mueller, Antonio Tarsis. Photo by Yulia Lebedeva courtesy of Selim Bouafsoun.

Where do you buy art most often?

As a passionate young art lover, I visit and keep in touch with the work of younger galleries and am fortunate to have good relationships with several of these gallery owners who often become friends. I am also fortunate to work with some incredibly knowledgeable and astute artistic advisers, Ana Sokoloff and Jacqueline Nowikovsky.

I’m more interested in galleries that have around five to 20 years of experience, who often do the job of nurturing and growing younger and mid-career artists. I spend a lot of time visiting artist studios across London and every time I travel. This year my attention has opened to include many emerging and recently graduated artists, often with guidance from [curator] Louis Blanc-Francard.

Is there a work that you regret purchasing?

No. Everything I bought I was and still love. I think back to moments in my collection and they embody moments of interest in my life, almost like songs transporting us to memories. Of course, my interests grow and evolve, but I view each piece as an important part of the story, like pieces of an ever-changing puzzle of a growing artistic eye.

Works by Olaf Breuning, Issy Wood, Amir Khojasteh, Malek Gnaoui.  Courtesy of Selim Bouafsoun.

Works by Olaf Breuning, Issy Wood, Amir Khojasteh, Malek Gnaoui. Photo by Yulia Lebedeva courtesy of Selim Bouafsoun.

What work have you hung over your sofa? And in your bathroom?

Sofa 1: Olaf Breuning, Amir Khojasteh and Issy Wood

Sofa 2: Zanele Muholi, George Wilson and Sarah Cunningham

Sofa 3: Philip Mueller, Ishamel Randal Weeks, Bernhard Bhumann and Philip Mentzingen

Sofa 4: Yulia Iosilzon and Sola Olulode

Bathroom: A series of drawings of the female form of the late Tunisian artist by Yehia Turki.

What’s the least practical piece of art you own?

One of my favorite pieces, a large canvas measuring almost 10 feet by 6.5 feet by Austrian artist Philip Mueller. I have to find ways to move gently up my stairs every time I hang up.

In London I live in a terraced house with a very different layout than the open plan apartment I had in Dubai. My collection must evolve with the conditions of my new accommodation. Getting used to it is still a challenge.

works by André Butzer and Bernhard Buhmann.  Courtesy of Selim Bouafsoun.

works by André Butzer and Bernhard Buhmann. Photo by Yulia Lebedeva courtesy of Selim Bouafsoun.

What work would you have liked to buy when you had the chance?

A “Girl Painting” by André Butzer.

If you could steal a work of art without getting caught, what would it be?

the Man walking and woman standing by Giacometti in the courtyards of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art. A friend in Iran, Kourosh, and I often jokingly plan a fictitious flight of this pair, all the way to a helicopter escape. If I had to choose a more practical book to steal, I am in love with Composition VII by Kandinsky at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.

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