December 14, 2018

What Makes Art, Art is a series that delves into some of art’s biggest questions and picks the minds of various individuals from the art industry to uncover diverse perspectives that stimulate, inspire, confront and even clash.

There are two sides to Lionel Sabatté. There’s the side that exudes a primal sense of masculinity. Then, there’s the softer, more sensitive side that isn’t as apparent. At Mazel Galerie Singapore, a burly figure sits in a quiet corner with a scraggly beard and dirt under his nails. He has the appearance of a hardened judo trainer (a role he’s previously held), but when you look into his eyes, you’ll see an immediate gentleness and goodness about him.

Lionel smiles with his eyes. Within a few minutes of giving me a private tour of his exhibition, Mind Over Matter, the mild-mannered French multi-disciplinary artist has already apologised for his broken English more times than he needs to. Even a jet lag, the devil that threatens cranky outbursts, did not stop him from entertaining me patiently and kindly.

These contrasting qualities of ruggedness and tenderness are reflected in his art as well—some of which are feminine, ethereal paintings, while others are raw, jagged sculptures. Consider the unicorn—a symbol of purity, femininity and innocence. In Lionel’s re-imagination of the mystical creature, however, it becomes a corpse-like sculpture with a coarse body that unexpectedly comprises Pu’Er tea leaves. Capturing this essence of duality is what Lionel aims to do in his body of work. His oil canvases also demonstrate both vibrant and delicate splashes of colour, that intermingle with abstract motifs of birds—his favourite animal to draw.

“I like their strangeness. They are very special animals that can look very different when still and flying,” says Lionel, who once rescued a pigeon. “They have a simple and pure form, almost like a water drop… but when they fly, they are explosive.”

No matter the style of his art, the themes of humanity, life, death, evolution, and rebirth shine through. It may seem odd to collect dust from the trains of Paris and even strips of his own nails to create sculptures. But in doing so, he’s given a new form to such forsaken matter, making us take a closer look at what we normally ignore and discard on a day-to-day basis. Making art is his way of learning to love the world, even the ugliest parts of it—and as Lionel aptly puts it, “Art helps us to live.”

High Net Worth: How did you start creating art?

Lionel Sabatté: I started drawing at a very young age, like every child really. I would say that drawing gave me a very intense sense of joy, as compared to other things you can do as a child. I always found it difficult to control my gestures and lines when drawing, but was always surprised with the forms I managed to create. I understood that one could “be an artist” much later at the age of 20, when I arrived in France (I grew up in the Reunion Island) and discovered the world of museums and art in general.

You mentioned your favourite animal to draw is the bird. Why is that? And what do you like about birds in particular?


I like their strangeness. They are very special animals that can look very different when still and flying. I also like the fact that they are the descendants of dinosaurs. I lived several years with a Parisian pigeon that I rescued. The relationship that can be developed with a bird is very strong, very special. They have a simple and pure form—almost like a waterdrop or a land seen from the sky when they are still. But when they fly, they are explosive.

Do you think there is such a thing as “bad art”?

Yes definitely. When art is pretentious, made without passion or when it is copied from something that already exists or is a cheat or a manipulation. It can also be bad when it is contemptuous.

To you, what makes a piece of art a good one?

Its effectiveness in impacting the person who looks at it both emotionally and intellectually.

Some people love the intellectual aspects of art. Others enjoy art as long as is pretty. What sort of art are you attracted to?

I can be attracted to any kind of art. It very much depends on my mood and how I feel at a particular time. Like for music, some days I fancy listening to Ennio Morricone and other days Daft Punk instead. 

How much of your art is based on technique, and how much is based on your instincts and emotions as an artist?


The two go hand in hand, as instinct strengthens the technique and vice versa. It is the pleasure of producing and creating that is at the heart of my art.

What’s the weirdest request you’ve ever gotten from a buyer?

He wanted me to use his blood to make art. And he felt very strongly about it, but there’s something about blood that scares me deeply. I don’t know if it’s the colour, texture, or smell… I just couldn’t do it and had to reject him politely.

What other mediums of art are you interested to try?

Classic mediums such as bronze and ceramic. 

What other passions do you have besides art?

I practise meditation. I love walking, running, swimming. Sports in general. Before becoming an artist, I was a judo teacher. I also love reading. I have phases in which I spend most of my time reading – mainly essays of psycho-sociology. I am also very interested in prehistory and the history of life in general, biology.

How do you feel about people who don’t understand art in general, or your art?

Sometimes people have plenty of things to say and share, which makes an impact on their ability of receiving or learning new things. 


Why do you make art?

To have a magic wand to help accept and love the world.

What do you think is the purpose of art?

Art helps us to live. It broadens our horizon.

What does it mean to be human, to you?

To be human for me is to work on one’s ability to believe and imagine.

What do you think about death and dying?

These are the two ends of the spokes of an all-road bike wheel.

Do you spend a lot of time thinking about the meaning of life?

Yes, mainly in the morning.

What do you personally live for?