The Insiders Are Here

Art/Afrique, le nouvel atelier
Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris
April 26th to August 28th, 2017


Within the scope of contemporary art, Africa continues to be the country that has been overlooked. Since the end of Apartheid in 1994, the art communities within the sub-Saharan countries have evolved and flourished in relative obscurity.  Only a handful of artists from South Africa have propelled to international recognition. As a result the works of Jane Alexander, David Goldblatt, William Kentridge, David Koloane and Sue Williams have drawn the attention of the international art world to the historic struggle of this region.  In 1989 Jean Pigozzi collaborated with André Magnin to piece together the largest collection of African art, consisting entirely of non-market contemporary art.  All of the artists in Pigozzi's collection remained marginal and unrecognized on an international scale, but continued to develop new ideas in their studios.  On April 26th, the Fondation Louis Vuitton opened "Art/Afrique, le nouvel atelier," a four-month exhibition that is presented as three complimentary shows "The Insiders," "Being There," and "Africa: A Selection from the Collection of the Fondation Louis Vuitton."

As both an artist and collector, Pigozzi utilized the studio visit to meet artists and purchase art directly. While that might ring ironic to most art collectors the artist's studio, or workshop, remains the site of authenticity, where ideas appear independent of market demand.  Pigozzi and Magnin, moreover, did not rely on internet communication to view works of art from a distance. The experience of the studio visit remained the transformative platform.  Bernard Arnault, President of the Fondation Louis Vuitton, points out that while contemporary art stands for the world of the workshop, or studio, contemporary African art is symbolic of the new studio - a site where artists have engaged both history and politics in their work while the societies in South Africa propel forward, away from a segregated past.  When seen under the transparent glass of Frank Gehry's roof, the Fondation Louis Vuitton continues its dedication to contemporary art and presents "Art/Afrique, le nouvel atelier," as both discovery and introduction to a community of contemporary artists who were once a subtext to the larger discussion of identity politics.

Moké. Skol Primus. 1991. Oil on canvas. 177 x 131 cm. ©Moké. Courtesy CAAC - The Pigozzi Collection. Photo ©Maurice Aeschimann.

"The Insiders," opens on the main floor of the museum, overlooking the Fondation's pond that is set within the Bois de Boulogne and comprises work made by fifteen artists who are from Benin, Cameroon, Congo, the Ivory Coast, Mali, Nigeria, Senegal and Sierra Leone.  Frédéric Bruly Bouabré's "L'endeuillé" from June 23, 1996 is a series of 162 drawings made with color crayon and ball-point pen on cardboard. The drawn panels in this series reflect the style of memento mori as the late artist, who passed away in 2014, reflects upon the era of Apartheid in addition to the years before and after. Calixte Dakpogan and Romuald Hazoumé both feature several masks made from everyday, found objects while the expansive sculptural installation titled, "Congolese Red Star" made in 1990 by Bodys Isek Kingelez captures the spectacle of a bright, colorful urban dream that was put together with ephemeral materials such as plastic, paper and corrugated cardboard.  However Barthélémy Toguo's painting series of red watercolor on paper reflects traces of figures that suffer from different inflictions. The intensity of the red hue varies throughout each composition, resembling the color of trailing blood.

The history of social and political strife appear throughout "Being There," a curated exhibition that creates a contextual panorama and functions as a larger context for the collection seen in "Insiders."  The artists of "Being There," are also shown in two sets of generations, beginning with those born between 1930 and 1970, and those who were born in the 1980s, with the suggestion of a third generation known as "Born Free."  For those who came of age during Apartheid such as Jane Alexander, William Kentridge and Sue Williamson, one could suggest that contemporary South African artists played a role in the development toward an equal, autonomous freedom. However photographer David Goldblatt, who grew up to see the beginning of this long-term event, initially built his career documenting the consequences of oppressive social strife, while currently his work explores the arid, desert landscape inherent to the region.

The before and after shift in Goldblatt's work appears between "Being There," and "Africa: A Selection from the Collection of the Fondation Louis Vuitton." While there is also some overlap between the collection of the Fondation and other art seen in "The Insiders," and "Being There," the "Africa," exhibition is less about the differences within a specific site and more about different perceptions of the African race.  Zanele Muholi, for instance, explores the African body as one covered in black, photographed and reproduced on black and white film.  "I Love Color," (2003) by Chéri Samba utilizes color, figure and motifs of narrative to show the fragmented self that is pink on the inside and brown on the outside.

"Art/Afrique, le nouvel atelier," is a synoptic exhibition that brings the collection of Jean Pigozzi to France for the first time, at this scale, and situates it contextually within the recent turn of events throughout South African society.  Even though the election of Nelson Mandela brought about the end of Apartheid, segregation continues to exist and the achievements of one day had not been made to be forgotten soon after. The role of contemporary artists in the sub-Saharan countries could not be more relevant.  This infuses the large-scale murals and sculptures with significant meanings, relevant today, so that hand gestures, hair styles and clothing can also be experienced as an angle of this new autonomy - one that is embedded in the dialogue of difference. "Art/Afrique, le nouvel atelier," moreover, appears in ten of the Fondation Louis Vuitton's eleven galleries, and breaks past the glass ceiling of Western stereotypes, revealing the fact that creative expression is central to African identity with color being the main premise inherent to each work of art.

Jill Conner, New York