Iconoclast or iconophile? Innovative, or the product of an era? This year, Parcours des Mondes has invited Berlin gallerist Javier Peres to exhibit a few pieces from his personal contemporary-art collection alongside a selection of dealers’ works.
The recent years have demonstrated a step-up in boldness amongst exhibition curators. Events such as “Bord des Mondes” (Palais de Tokyo, 2015), “Une Brève Histoire de l’Avenir” (Louvre, 2015) and “Carambolages” (Grand Palais, 2016), have brought together works without any immediate or flagrant historical ties, but other less obvious links. History has not been cast aside, but played down in relation to anthropological or formal connections. In this way, these exhibitions can be compared to essays or protocols rather than demonstrations, their intention less being to highlight a moment in art history than to speak about Man, to investigate the great history of human representations, or to operate formal matches that convey meaning.
This same audacity is behind the appealing display of classic African art next to contemporary art. In this way, in May this year, Bernard de Grunne and Almine Rech joined forces to organise an exhibition that was highly publicised: “Imaginary Ancestors”, unveiled at Almine Rech’s New York gallery. The latter restaged a Paul Guillaume exhibition shown at the Durand-Ruel gallery in 1933 (displaying Fang sculptures next to contemporary works of the time, proof that this curatorial gesture has been around for a while), and in parallel, matched “modern primitivists” with artists such as Joe Bradley, Mark Grotjahn, Ana Mendieta, James Turrell and Erika Verzutti.
Javier Peres is familiar with this game of mix-and-match. The gallerist (Peres Projects, Berlin) has already played it on three occasions. First of all, in 2014, in his Karl Marx Allee gallery, with the exhibition “Group Spirit”, at which he showed Bundu helmet-masks from his personal collection and works by Mark Flood, David Ostrowski or Will Boone. In 2016, he struck again, similarly with works from his own collection: “Wild Style” explored representations of the human figure, with classic African works next to artists like Donna Huanca — whom he showed this year at Art Basel’s “Unlimited” —, Dorothy Iannone, Melike Kara, Mark Flood, and Art Brut exponent Dwight Mackintosh. The African ethnicities on display were diverse, from Malian to Congolese or Nigerian, with Igbo, Kaka, Bamana, Dan, Mumuye and Teke objects. Then, more recently, at Independent Brussels 2017, Peres presented two Gabonese Fang sculptures alongside works by Austin Lee and Donna Huanca.
On this strength, Parcours des Mondes has now invited the gallerist, honorary president of the 2017 edition, to organise an exhibition. A project that inverts his habits because this time, he is showing works from his contemporary-art collection next to objects selected from those of the fair’s dealers. In this way, “Le Lion et le Joyau” (The Lion and the Jewel), with a title citing Wole Soyinka, features Nigerian works alongside others by Donna Huanca, Melike Kara and Beth Letain.
You’ve been collecting classic African art for seventeen years. You’ve recently chosen to show your pieces without selling them, to create a dialogue between contemporary art and classic African art. How did this passion develop?
I come from Cuba, which I left at the age of nine years. I grew up in quite a remote region – I say this with a great deal of affection. This is where I developed a tendency towards dreaming and a desire for other places. Above all, I was fascinated by ancient worlds: Greek and Roman antiquity, Egypt… In Cuba, there was also a strong African presence. My nanny was Yoruba, and I was touched by the stories she’d tell me. Later, as a teenager, I became interested in Art Brut, then Picasso, Twombly… In the 1980s, everything led me to Basquiat. I liked him less for the political aspect of his work, than his way of fulfilling himself in his culture, his history. Quite logically, I drifted towards African art. I was a lawyer at the time, and my work took me to Paris and Brussels, the epicentres of tribal art, even if I wasn’t collecting it at the time. I paid regular visits to the Sablons and Saint-Germain-des-Prés art districts.
What nourishes this interest in you?
First, the way in which classic African art entered the bosom of Western art at the start of the 20th century thanks to the avant-gardes. But above all, the history of the objects and that of the cultures that accompany them. I take a humanist approach to art, a more global one than the very closed one from which Western vision derives. In the African context, art was a reality, not an end. Rites were a way to honour the ancestors and to keep a trace of knowledge, for even if African civilisations were based on orality, certain objects were used for communication. By observing these objects, I feel capable of sinking into this world.
The pieces for the “Le Lion et le Joyau” exhibition that you’ve chosen from exhibitors all come from Nigeria.
When we were discussing what we could do in the Espace Tribal, we decided that it would be a good idea to start off from the dealers’ pieces to create a dialogue with pieces from my collection. In other words, the opposite of what I’ve done until now. It’s quite a subjective exhibition, with connections springing up from my interests: art from Nigeria comprising a few ethnicities going as far as Cameroon — I reject the lines of Africa’s current borders. Mumuye, Igbo, Urhobo, Jukun pieces… This region holds many ethnicities, which have mixed and developed rich relationships. Collectively and individually, they have created a language that is very representative of African art as I love it, highly expressionist. In no way does it resemble Western art with the idealising forms that I fell for when I was young. It’s fascinating how these ethnicities represent the human body. The boldness of their treatment recalls Miro, Picasso. They express rather than representing…
How did you curate this particular show?
There are no direct links between the works. But I think that there’s an imaginary line that connects the artists — certain groups at least — outside of temporal or geographical dimensions. I can sense this line between the exhibition’s pieces. The work of Melike Kara, in my opinion, is close to a documentation of ritual. Donna Huanca is Bolivian, and grew up with the rituals of her father. Her work is infused with this culture of magic. All the artists reflect what they are, where they come from. Only the greatest artists manage to transcend this singularity into something collective, even universal. It’s important to bear this in mind when considering classic African art. All the pieces come from a singular region, a culture whose trace has been lost as it is based on orality, but they also transcend it.
You support the demuseification of classic African art…
It’s long been confined to ethnography. I’m very saddened by the closure of the Musée Dapper, but I think that these museums, along with the Quai Branly, and their dimmed lighting, don’t always do justice to the objects. I prefer to present them in dialogue with other forms of art, to shed light on them in a new way, to refresh our gaze, to change our perspective, and above all, to restore them with a form of life. Ethnography is a primordial field of knowledge, but it has monopolized the study of these objects. I want to open up the field, to show classic African art alongside performance, video art, everything.
Don’t we run the risk of excessive formalisation in this case?
The fact that these objects have been used in rituals doesn’t mean that the people who used them paid no heed to their artistic dimension. Certain objects were sculpted for kings, and are highly worked pieces. What distinction is there between ornamentation and art? We often view classic African art as a static reality, as forms that haven’t evolved. Which is false. African artists influenced one another as much as European artists did, and they also incorporated other cultures that they had access to. I’m convinced that there’s a history of their forms. There are still many regions that are worth researching — even if we come across a big barrier, the orality of African culture. Why do we put the Venus de Milo in an art museum, and an African mask or statue in an ethnographic museum? The Venus de Milo had a religious function, it was also used in a ritual context… Instead of being so critical, so analytical, I think that we should let things be. These objects should be shown, and shown with respect. Next, it’s necessary to let the public come to its own conclusions. I’m a lawyer by training, I’ve never studied art history or worked in a museum, I’ve never worked in any gallery except my own. I take responsibility for the subjectivity of my viewpoint and try to initiate something different. Today, we tie ourselves in knots to create polished, intricate exhibition routes. But at the start of the 20th century — Paul Guillaume is an example —, they’d place the objects on pedestals, and that was it… And it worked.
Do you have other projects in this vein?
I’d like to explore movement in classic African art, with an exhibition that combines performance and video… but I still have to find the pieces. It’s a challenge!
“The Lion and the Jewel”
From Tuesday 12 to Sunday 17 September 2017. Espace Tribal.
22 rue Visconti. Paris 75006. www.parcours-des-mondes.com