The curator of the upcoming Bamako Photography Encounters retraces her passion for contemporary African art and the belated discovery of the wealth of this creative continent.
Following studies that led her to managerial positions for international groups, Marie-Ann Yemsi made a sea change in 2005 when she set up Agent Créatif(s), an agency that would allow her to combine her appetite for contemporary art and her thirst for entrepreneurship. Her German and Cameroonian origins led her from voyage to voyage, from adventure to adventure. Not merely limiting herself to the task of supervising the African focus of Art Paris Art Fair, she is also curating the exhibition “Le jour qui vient” at the Galerie des Galeries. In December, the public can also discover her selection of video artists and photographers at the 11th Bamako Photography Encounters. Marie-Ann Yemsi explains to us why this is now finally the time of contemporary African art, and why it’s long overdue!
When does your passion for contemporary art date back to?
My early childhood. My parents always took me to museums. We also travelled a great deal, to several continents, which probably helped me to forget a certain openness to looking at things… After I spent a first part of my career in the luxury and communication sectors, I wanted to find an activity which would let me to live out my passion. This is how I set up Agent Créatif(s), a structure at the crossways between a consultancy firm and a project-support agency, specialised in contemporary African art and artistic production.
Tell us about how you met Guillaume Piens and the organisers of Art Paris.
I met him at my “Odyssées africaines” exhibition at the Brass in Brussels, presenting 16 Southeast African artists. These were key pieces by a young generation that hadn’t previously been seen – not by a French public in any case. The exhibition was a shock for Guillaume. It was after that that he suggested that I work with him on this African focus. That was exactly two years ago.
Wasn’t that the right time? Isn’t African contemporary art – to a certain extent – “in fashion”?
I think, most of all, that it was about time! And I’m delighted about it! When we started working with Art Paris, it’s true that we could feel the tremors of this interest. Rather than talking about fashion, I think that it’s more about catching up or getting up to date. We were behind if we compare France with other European countries like Germany, Belgium, Britain… not to mention the United States. Let’s take the example of Kemang Wa Lehulere, a South African artist that I showed at my exhibition at the Brass; French people would ask me how to spell his name even though he was already in all the major collections! He’s been the object of a solo show at the IAC in Chicago; at the end of the month and until June he’ll be presented at the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle in Berlin; and he’ll be part of the “Art Afrique” exhibition at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in April. We can see clearly that other institutions were several years ahead. This is why I talk about catching up.
Wasn’t the delay seen in museums in particular?
I think that it was generalised. A few years ago, the specialist media didn’t show much curiosity in the African scene either. It wasn’t rare that they’d send journalists to the biennales in India, China or South America, while even Dakar – just three hours’ flight away – didn’t get the same interest. To give another example, Simon Njami’s “Divine Comedy” exhibition was presented in 2014 at the MMK (Museum für Moderne Kunst) in Frankfurt, before going to the SCAD Museum, then the Smithsonian. But not a single French journalist was present at the press conference! Despite it being a major exhibition under an hour away from Paris. But not everything’s gloomy. The Fondation Cartier in particular has been very active in this domain, and has put on numerous presentations since its creation.
Getting back to the platform you’re presenting at Art Paris, what do you aim for through this?
The idea isn’t to map out all African artistic production today. Africa is made up of 54 countries representing infinite diversity. When we see how different we are from Germans even though we’re neighbours, we realise the impossibility of trying to show the full variety and wealth of such a large continent. On the other hand, what interested Guillaume and myself was presenting other perspectives, other voices, other artists than the ones traditionally shown in France. This responds to an ambition of discovery. And this discovery can just as easily lead to Paris, London, Germany, Nigeria, or Rwanda. We focused on the players who have managed to detect these new talents, wherever they may be. For example, I’m especially happy about the presence of October Gallery and the Galerie André Magnin, that have both been doing this research work for over 20 years already.
Women seem very active in promoting contemporary African art …
That’s true. Whether it’s Marie-Cécile Zinsou in Benin, who’s opened her foundation, or a number of Cameroonian curators such as Koyo Kouoh, Christine Eyene, Pascale Obolo, Élise Atangana or myself. I think that this corresponds to a contemporary reality: women are in the process of finding their roles and are perhaps more visible today… but it’s still a struggle. Just as in society, there are certain glass ceilings. I see this for example when we want to present exhibitions with more female artists and institutions have a problem with it. But we’ve got character and we’re determined! Perhaps that’s the secret! The important thing is what we’re fighting for: to succeed in giving visibility to artists. This can happen through positive discrimination, but artists should obtain the visibility that they deserve.
Speaking of positive discrimination, are there many examples – like 1:54 – of fairs dedicated to a particular geographical region?
I’m really grateful to Touria El Glaoui for creating 1:54, even if this fair started out by creating much discussion on the “ghettoization” of specifically African contemporary art. It has raised genuine visibility for and knowledge about this production. And beyond the event itself, it’s the whole cultural programme designed around it that has led to its success. It’s been a place for the public to meet, attend talks, get information, see videos, etc. It’s promoted encounters and the acquisition of knowledge. So I’m thrilled with its success and development.
In the long term, should we shift to recognising these artists according to purely artistic considerations?
I don’t think that one should set what Touria is doing against our common objective: recognition of African artists as creators, outside of all geographical, ethnic or other considerations. The two are not at all opposed to one another. Without mentioning the fact that we don’t adequately measure all the updating work that we still need to do. We can continue organising geographically-centred platforms for a long time yet, and in parallel, see more and more artists join the global art market. And thankfully, this is already the case. Every day, new artists join big galleries… that choose them first and foremost because they’re talented artists.
How do you keep informed about what’s happening on such a huge continent?
We work a lot! Above all, we create networks with other curators. We exchange a great deal. We travel. For ten years, everything I’ve earned has been reinvested into travel…
Can we say that we’re witnessing a return to Africa of an artistic diaspora that has previously settled in Europe and the United States?
This isn’t exactly how I see things. We’re in a world of movement. The world’s moving, and artists are as well. In Europe, the United States, Asia, they’re taking part in biennales and events, they’re invited to residencies, they go and get training… Now it’s true – and this goes a lot further than artists alone – that a generation of creators and businesspeople who have lived part of their lives overseas now wish to commit to the continent. We also see some artists who are active in Africa without leaving the West, such as Michael Armitage who organises, in Kenya, a platform called “The Gathering”. What this means is: “We, African artists, whether from the continent or the diaspora, we have to be united and be in contact”. This seems to be the right approach to me. There’s a second issue: artists who find success notice that their works leave the territory as there aren’t institutions on the spot to welcome them. For this, we can count on a new generation of collectors who are aware of the situation and wish to act.
So the idea is to manage to create an ecosystem for all these protagonists…
That’s precisely the issue. And they’re doing quite well. Given that State commitment on the continent is weak – as is increasingly the case in Europe –, we can see the emergence of private foundations. In Ghana for example, several galleries have opened in the space of two years, as well as a fair, art centres… We can see new collectors arriving… Things are happening far more quickly than one might imagine from Paris. And this is really positive.
What’s the next step for you?
I’m working on many things! But my big projects namely include my appointment as curator of the 11th Bamako Encounters, the African photography fair. We’ll be organising it in a genuinely collaborative spirit, taking stock of this highly-evolving artistic landscape. I am also taking part in the next edition of Something Else, Cairo’s off-biennale, established by the artist Moataz Nazr under the curatorship of Simon Njami. Like many Europe-based curators, we’re looking to become more active in Africa. This is why I’m delighted by the ebullience of these new cultural producers – who are often artists themselves.
You seem optimistic about the continent’s artistic future.
Even if the path is still long, even if not everything is simple, it’s true that I remain very optimistic. Most of all, I think that our Western societies have much to learn from the inventiveness of the African continent, its capacity to generate other forms of economies, other forms of exchanges, other aesthetics and other imaginary worlds. The future is African. Our future is African.
“Afrique à l’honneur” focus. From 30 March to 2 April. Art Paris Art Fair. Grand Palais. Avenue Winston Churchill. Paris 75008. www.artparis.com
11th Bamako Encounters. From 2 December 2017 to 31 January 2018. Bamako, Mali. www.rencontres-bamako.com
“Le jour qui vient”. From 28 March to 10 June. Galerie des Galeries. 40 Boulevard Haussmann, Paris 75009. www.galeriedesgaleries.com