Amina Debbiche is a Tunisian art specialist that has become a digital expert through her recent professional endeavor, The Open Crate, a platform made to empower art collectors and protect cultural heritage. With a focus on the Middle East and Africa, The Open Crate is a pioneering platform that has a unique approach to art collection management.
Amina opens up on the path to becoming an entrepreneur and her love for art and technology. She also shares her passions, dreams, and some pieces of advice. Scroll down for the full interview.
Amina, you’re a 33-year-old multi-entrepreneur, world traveler, and digital expert. Based between Paris and Dubai.
How do you manage your time?
Dubai is where I found my path as an entrepreneur. When I moved from London to the UAE in 2014, I instantly felt a shift of energy and I started dreaming bigger than I used to. I was taken by the inspiring atmosphere where ideas are welcomed and where women are empowered to become leaders. A few years later, I met Nora Mansour, my business partner, and our common dream to protect our cultural heritage became a reality when we launched The Open Crate, a digital wallet for the art market. The Open Crate was founded in 2018 and since then we started working with notable figures in the MENA Art landscape, from advising them to launching digital projects with them. It became clear that I needed to travel as much as possible to be exposed to art from all around the world as our clients are international collectors. It made sense for me to split my time between Paris and Dubai, to coincide with art events in Europe/US and the MENA region.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Gammarth, a beautiful town on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea in Tunis. I spent my childhood by the sea surrounded by Tunis’ rich cultural heritage. I went to a French school 10 minutes away from my home. I still visit my family home there as often as possible. For me, it is a sacred getaway where I can recharge and relax whenever I need to embrace slow living.
Was Art central in your childhood?
Not at all. One of the main driving forces that set me and Nora on our mission with The Open Crate stemmed from our frustration with the lack of resources and proper documentation of art history in the MENA region. We are on a quest to preserve art’s history and protect its future in our region in hopes to share it with upcoming generations.
I realized that the only art influence I had while growing up was the art hanging in my house. My grandpa Chedly Ayari was a major figure in Tunisia’s post-independence when Habib Bourguiba was president. He started collecting art created by his friends to support them, his friends happened to be pioneers of L’École de Tunis. He did not know that by doing so, he was considered an art patron. On the walls of my home, I got to learn about major artists such as Ali Bellagha, Safia Farhat, Ali Ben Salem, Mahmoud Shili, Jellal Ben Abdallah, Abdelaziz Gorgi and so on.
From a Master’s in Banking and Finance to a master’s in modern and Contemporary Art from Christie’s London, what pushed you to enter the Art Scene? How was the transition?
When I left Tunisia to study in Paris to fulfill my first master’s degree in Finance, I went from having very little access to art to an overwhelming exposure in a city thriving on art. Paris is an open-air museum, filled with galleries and incredible art institutions.
I also travelled often to London where I discovered artists like Damien Hirst, Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, David Hockney, Tracey Emin along with others. Contemporary art offered me a new perspective on current issues. It prompted me to approach matters like human nature, history, science, and philosophy through an artistic point of view which is accompanied by a layer of depth and complexity that I did not have before. Art broadened my horizons and challenged me to think more critically.
For these reasons, I found myself eager to pursue a career in the art industry, but I did not know where to start. So, I decided to attain a master’s degree in Art and simultaneously enroll in earning a certificate in Art Business to explore how I could combine finance with art.
My first internship was at the Fine Art Fund, which was one the first art fund to launch a Middle Eastern fund. I transitioned to auctions, as I quickly understood that I needed to train my eye. When I joined Christie’s London Post-war and Contemporary department, I knew my true calling was the art market.
Did you always know you’ll become an entrepreneur? They say it’s a mindset, do you agree?
I had that feeling in the pit of my stomach – that I was meant to do something bigger, more meaningful, and all mine. I just needed to be in the right environment to learn to think like an entrepreneur and harness my entrepreneurial mindset.
When I finally found a cause that I was truly passionate about, I was compelled to address it. Our mission was unconventional, not a lot of people cared about documenting art history in our region, so it was up to us to create an archive somehow and we did. I do believe you need to have entrepreneurial spirit to become one. For me, it was the urge to make a change, and the passion drove me to achieve it.
Tell us more about The Open Crate. How did the idea come to life?
Nora and I were both working in the cultural field, in different areas of specialization, and we became aware that while the region’s art and other collectibles looked lovely on walls and in spaces, there were important links missing when it came to archiving and documentation. We founded The Open Crate with the aim of addressing this issue and filling an important vacuum in the market, against a backdrop of rising interest in art and artifacts in the region, fueled, in part, by the opening of new museums and art centers.
Previously, it felt like the region’s art history was held in private hands, unaware of the value being withheld from the public, but there was a sense that this was changing. We could tell this change was in full force as private collections became topics of interest and more requests for loans by institutions that were opening began taking place. The art world was on an overdue reawakening in the MENA region.
We quickly realised that there was a need to embark on a process of documentation to protect the region’s art and cultural legacy at large. We began our project by speaking to collectors on the ground and explaining our mission. We wanted collectors to understand the importance of having their collections cleanly documented, valorised and protected in hopes that they would support us on our quest to create a database that would tell the story of our region’s art and be prepared to embrace the digital evoluion of the art world.
Through The Open Crate we are ushering in a new era of documentation and valorisation for the region’s art and collectibles. It’s easy to lose track of a collection as you add to it, especially when, like many collectors, you buy out of passion and are emotionally invested in the works. Unfortunately, all too often we find that when collectors are attached to their artworks in this way, they can overlook the importance of having their collection cleanly, confidentially, and securely valorised and documented. We wanted to provide a peace of mind to collectors by protecting their legacy.
Art in the Digital Space is new and is probably here to stay. Do you think it is the new ‘status quo’ to modern cultural legacy?
Art in the digital space is not that new. It belongs to the 20th century, artists such as Nam June Paik, the father of video art, explored digital art in the early 1950s. The current Venice Biennale, brilliantly curated by Cecilia Alemani highlights that digital art may be today’s hot topic, but she has hit the rewind button to remind us that it was explored in the 1960’s by Vera Molnár, the 98-year-old Hungarian artist who creates minimalist geometric compositions using algorithms written in the programming language of Fortran and who now sells NFTs; or Lillian Schwartz, an early experimenter of computer-mediated art.
When I think about digital art, Palestinian artist Samia Halaby comes to my mind. Before becoming known for her bright abstracts compositions, Halaby was programming colours on computers. What is new and probably here to stay is the technology that allows us to transfer ownership of a digital work, a process which was tricky prior to this innovation. It also democratized the access to the art market in the sense that digital artists who couldn’t sell their art via traditional galleries can now sell it on various platforms. Digital art is an evolving sector, offering us more than one way to interact with art, and react to it.
Do you have any tips for someone who wishes to start collecting?
My first tip would be to collect what you love. To know what you love, you need to wander in museums and galleries, read about the artists you like, explore different mediums. The more you will see, the closer you’ll get to what inspires you, moves you, disturbs you and makes you question the world we live in. I always say to my friends and clients, your first interaction with an artwork should be similar to one with a new song, you listen to it, and you observe the emotions you feel, you search for a connection. Sometimes you need to listen to a song a few times to fall in love with it. Take your time, don’t rush, discuss it with your friends, the gallery manager – any person who would provide you a new context and further information. Collect art that matters to you.
What are the main ingredients of a valuable collection?
In today’s market, there is so much art accessible that it’s important to identify a focus for your collection. In a great collection, every piece belongs; nothing is random or arbitrary or out of place. The pieces should serve a purpose, strike you, impact you or inspire you. On a technical aspect, what makes a collection valuable depends on various factors: the authenticity of a work, its provenance, its condition, the historical significance, the popularity of the artist, the rarity of the work, if the artwork is instantly recognizable, its story, the medium, the color and the subject. For these reasons and many others, The Open Crate strives to document, archive and preserve this type of information for collectors.
Art in the Middle East is central to The Open Crate’s operations. How would you describe the Art scene in the Arab World?
I believe that the Arab art scene has reached a very healthy stage. Since 2008, the art market saw highs and lows, but it seems to have finally adjusted to an organic home-made rhythm.
Major figures in the cultural scene have emerged, such as HE Noura Al Kaabi, Minister of Culture and Youth to the UAE; Sultan Sooud Al Qasimi, prominent art collector; Basma Al Suleiman, one of the first collectors to acquire contemporary Saudi artists; Prince Badr Al-Farhan, Saudi Arabia’s first Minister of Culture; HH Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan bin Khalifa Al Nahyan, collector and Chairman of UAE Unlimited; HE Dr. Anwar Mohammed Gargash who is recognized as one of the most important collectors in the Arab world to name a few. These leaders inspire the youth, they set-up a new tone, they put art and culture at the forefront of the economy, education, and the well-being of its population.
Artists and the art market as whole are supported locally. The United Arab Emirates has emerged as a pioneering arts and culture hub in the MENA region. Other major players are also developing their cultural landscape, Saudi Arabia has launched multiple art initiatives such as the Riyadh Biennale as well as Qatar whose public art is made by some of the art world’s biggest names.
Newcomers joined Dubai galleries’ hub, Perrotin and Continua Galleria opened new spaces respectively in DIFC and Burj Al Arab as well as Luxembourg-based gallery Zidoun Bossuyt; the 15th edition of the Sharjah Biennale will take place in February 2013, Abu Dhabi Art has announced its largest fair to date and finally The Dubai Collection, Dubai’s first institutional art collection was launched earlier this year. All indicators point to the right direction for our region’s art scene.
What are your dreams made of today?
My dreams are made of today’s hope for a fairer future, where equality is embedded in a more widespread fashion. As a female entrepreneur, I hope my actions empower and enable more women to enter the industry. I aspire for my mission of documenting and digitizing collections to become a crucial source of archives for the Arab world which could then allow for proper Arab art historical kits to be implemented in schools. It would be wonderful to spread art and make it accessible from museums to public spaces for people to wander, learn, celebrate their culture, and rediscover their identity.