To Have & To Hold: Collecting Bahia

When invited to an end-of-the-summer party involving caipirinha and good company, who could resist? My first meeting with Brazilian-Art collectors Simon Wilkes and Nola Senna began at such an event held at their Chicago downtown home. The concoction of people, drinks, music and art created a buzz, unfolding a unique collection of stories. 

Conversation Starter

Immediately, I was drawn to a xylograph print that featured two figures intertwined in the process of their liberation. I murmured out loud, “This one, this is the first one for me…” Suddenly, from behind, I heard Nola’s voice, narrating her personal connection to the piece. Her father had been a doctor in Bahia that often made alternative payment options for the community, and did not always charge them at all for medical services. As a gesture of gratitude, an artist gave him this art piece. One day, Nola's father asked her if there was anything she wanted of him—she immediately replied with her desire to keep Edson da Luz’s Ridual de Liberdade (Ritual of Liberty). It now forms part of a unique collection of Bahian art in her Chicago home.

Painting from their personal collection: "The Three Marias" by Fatima Tosca. Photo: Silvia Inés Gonzalez

While Simon prepared caipirinhas, Nola gave me a tour around her home, pointing out the art pieces they collected as well as some background knowledge of each one. I noticed a trend in her collection: voluptuous, bold, colorful and unapologetic female figures were the centerpiece of each visual narrative. 

Concocting A Collection

During a more private interview, Simon iterated the importance of historical developments attached to the context of Bahian art.  Bahian art essentially serves to represent the people of Brazil, a mixture of Native Indians, Portuguese, and Africans brought as slaves. The melting pot of those entities yields a rich history on the emergence of representation of Brazil in Bahian art. In uncovering what representation of Brazil means, Nola points out, “The cultural unity and synchronicity in the mixing of peoples, religions, beliefs and stories, speaks to the African roots and vitality in Bahia; an exciting mixture to preserve and celebrate.”

Dynamic duo Simon and Nola in front of "The Sails at Salvador" by Sergio Rabinovitz. Photo: Silvia Inés Gonzalez

Nola and Simon have several criteria in how they collect. They take preference in the unconventional, far from copies that fulfill expectations, but instead pieces that uniquely represent Bahia and Brazilian people through the unfolding of stories. They allow Bahia to remain a source of inspiration: the keen sensuality, the historically rich architecture, and the bay culture. 

The duo collects art that represents the past, present and future of Bahia from a historical and emotional connection to individual artists and art pieces. Simon thoughtfully considers academic and historical narratives while Nola seeks to converse with the soul, a delicate balance between technique and honesty. Their mission as collectors is to put off- beat artists on the map, educate others on the richness of Bahian art and to offer talented, leading artists from Bahia an opportunity to be recognized internationally.

Featured paintings by artist Carmen Penido in Simon’s home office space. Photo: Silvia Inés Gonzalez

Nola identifies the off-beat and unconventional when she states, “What allows us to do this work is that it is not our bread and butter, but it is our passion; unconventional passion makes you stand up for what you believe in, and this is what we do. We are interested in the unconventional.” Simon’s bread comes from practicing accountancy for 30 years. Born and raised in England, he has a past of collecting porcelain and silver antiques. His interest in Bahian art emerged when he met Nola and his aptitude for learning quickly became a strong suit in his approach to collecting Brazilian art. Nola is currently the director of the Portuguese and Brazilian studies program at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. A native of Salvador, Bahia, she continues to regard art as an important cultural tool to educate those interested in learning more about Brazil. 

This mixture of backgrounds creates a unique collection of artworks that is evident on​ their website. All the artists featured there have distinctive professional narratives that intersect with Bahia as an essential piece to their development. The narrative between artists and art pieces is an energetic one: bold strokes, layering of textures and blending of colors speak to the evidence of the intentional process of collecting.

Unconventional Ingredients Make Good Stories

As I recall the events at the end of the summer party, I think of a moment where Nola and I had an intimate conversation on this very thing, the “unconventional.”  She gazed around the room and said, “Look at us, we are unconventional; people that would otherwise not speak to one another or have that opportunity are now engaged with one another! This is all about bringing different people together.” As I savored some of Simon’s caipirinha, I appreciated the truth behind that statement; every guest at her party became a centerpiece of a new  story. By sharing personal stories and connecting with one another, we had managed to form part of a new unconventional collection of people. Our interview wrapped up as Nola asked me, “Did I tell you how Simon and I married? We got married in Vegas.” Simon chimes in, “Yes, yes we did, and Elvis Presley married us.” Four years later, saúde and cheers to the unconventional. 

Article by Silvia Inés Gonzalez