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Collector Benedicta Badia de Nordenstahl Is Drawn to the Art That Appalls Her

Portrait of Benedicta M. Badia de Nordenstahl with her collection. Courtesy of Benedicta M. Badia de Nordenstahl.

Portrait of Benedicta M. Badia de Nordenstahl with her collection. Courtesy of Benedicta M. Badia de Nordenstahl.

The 49-year-old Argentinian art collector Benedicta M. Badia de Nordenstahl is not afraid of discomfiting art. In fact, she actively seeks it out through her collecting practice. “I buy art that takes me out of my comfort zone,” she said recently.
Often, Nordenstahl relies on gut instinct. “In a fair, more than a year ago, I saw the work of , and I didn’t even know what it was about, or who he was, but I thought, ‘This guy is a genius,’ and I made the decision on the spot,” she recalled. “When I recognize the trace of ingenuity, I act quickly.”
She recalled another such instance, which took place while washing her hands in the restroom of a collector’s home in São Paulo. “I saw this hideous mass of suspiciously deformed ceramic and left the bathroom, outrageously demanding to know, ‘Who is the artist who had the guts to embrace ugliness with such relish and passion?’” The artist in question was , and Nordenstahl immediately got to work to find out how to acquire a piece of her own.
Interior view of Benedicta M. Badia de Nordenstahl’s home in Singapore. Courtesy of Benedicta M. Badia de Nordenstahl.

Interior view of Benedicta M. Badia de Nordenstahl’s home in Singapore. Courtesy of Benedicta M. Badia de Nordenstahl.

Currently based in Singapore, Nordenstahl lived in South America and the United States for decades, and worked in the art world for over 20 years in cities including Chicago and Miami. Most recently, she was appointed the collector in residence at Delfina Foundation in the U.K. (The residency is currently on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic.)
Since Nordenstahl moved to Singapore in July 2017, after her husband got a new job in the city, their home has become a go-to venue for the city’s art community, hosting more than a few local museum after-parties and informal gatherings. And the collector’s affinity for provocative art is apparent from the moment you step into her multi-story bungalow on Holland Road, an upmarket residential area.
Experimental installations and artworks by Latin American and international artists hang off walls and ceilings and fill various nooks and crannies of the house. Taking center stage in her living room is a striking black-and-white nude self-portrait by , Untitled (1998). Around the corner, affixed to the wall, is a vivid collage by , a melange of historical scenes and old towns on perpendicular canvases. A few steps away, near the stairs, there are ’s fragile paper cutouts, dark illustrations of human and animal forms, hanging from ceiling to floor.
Portrait of Benedicta M. Badia de Nordenstahl with her collection. Courtesy of Benedicta M. Badia de Nordenstahl.

Portrait of Benedicta M. Badia de Nordenstahl with her collection. Courtesy of Benedicta M. Badia de Nordenstahl.

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Nordenstahl’s collection, which she started five years ago, primarily consists of works from major Latin American artists such as Sosa, Motta, and . She sees vulnerability and authenticity as the twin engines behind her collecting. “Art is a source of extreme joy and pleasure for me,” she said, “but I take very seriously my role of giving back as much joy as possible, and sharing my pleasure with others.”
As a member of the Guggenheim Museum’s Latin America Circle Acquisitions Committee, Nordenstahl prides herself on “seeking other voices”—the voices of artists, collectors, curators, critics, and other art-world peers. “I want to hear what they say, and I argue back if I don’t agree, but I still engage,” she explained. It’s important to her that these conversations don’t only focus on criticism. “Everybody can sit down at a table and say what is wrong, but I expect artists or projects to go beyond that, to push boundaries.”
Nordenstahl’s background working in the art world—witnessing the machinations and nuances of galleries, museums, art fairs, and more—has certainly helped her as a collector. With degrees in art history and museum studies from Northwestern University in Chicago, she has worked with Brazilian gallerist Thomas Cohn (who also mentored her), assisted the Latin American art magazine ArtNexus with translations, and managed guided tour operations for Art Basel in Miami Beach.
Portrait of Benedicta M. Badia de Nordenstahl with her collection. Courtesy of Benedicta M. Badia de Nordenstahl.

Portrait of Benedicta M. Badia de Nordenstahl with her collection. Courtesy of Benedicta M. Badia de Nordenstahl.

She noted that as her understanding of the art world had grown, she’s also become disillusioned by some of its ways, particularly “the complexities of soft censorships, financial commitments, and strains of political correctness under public scrutiny in the museum realm.” In light of this, Nordenstahl began to focus her collecting and patronage on artists and projects she wants to empower.
One of the works in her collection that she is most proud of is Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa’s Linnaeus in Tenebris (2017). The installation and performance work features half-human, half-plant sculptures and explores the suffering of the land in an industrial farm-like atmosphere. The first time she saw the artist’s work, she knew she would be completely enthralled by it. “Once I decided to bite the bullet, I spent a lot of time obsessing about his work; I was in constant conversations with his gallerist,” Nordenstahl said.
She believes that Ramírez-Figueroa has a unique ability to harness concepts of beauty. “I don’t know what he does, but suddenly all of what we have been trained to believe in, in terms of canonical beauty, disintegrates,” she said. “You find a very raw, elemental beauty in unexpected but simple gestures, like a smile, a movement, a gesture, a poem; he melts you completely to his will and decides what you are going to perceive and like.”
Portrait of Benedicta M. Badia de Nordenstahl with her collection. Courtesy of Benedicta M. Badia de Nordenstahl.

Portrait of Benedicta M. Badia de Nordenstahl with her collection. Courtesy of Benedicta M. Badia de Nordenstahl.

When asked about the challenges of collecting, Nordenstahl pointed to the sheer quantity of talented artists out there. “There are too many artists, and there is only me!” she quipped. She noted that she doesn’t work with advisers and does all of her own homework. At the moment, she has a wish list of coveted artists that could last her three years.
“Once an artist goes on the wish list, I start working with the gallery to choose the piece that will work well with the narrative of the collection,” she said. “I am really a high-maintenance collector; I understand some galleries prefer a quick buck, but I am up front always. They know what to expect from me.”
Nordenstahl’s advice for new collectors is simple: Never trust what you like immediately or like too much. “Anything that makes you afraid, enrages you, disgusts you, appals you, you want to reject, you don’t understand, go for that—look inside yourself to see why you are feeling like that,” she said. “Look for getting schooled by art, getting slapped.”
Most importantly, she said, be humble: “Approach artists with respect. Without them, there is no art.”
Reena Devi