What led you to start your artistic career and become – as you once said – a “ferryman”, acting as a vehicle for the work and lines of thought of the artists you admire and present?
I think with anything – whether it’s poetry, literature, cinema or art – I’ve sought out works which, in their own way, stop you in your tracks. I’ve actively sought out those moments of emotion where it feels like you are completely powerless before the art, such is the hold it has over you. I’ve spent my whole life seeking out these individuals, these creators, who fill me with such a sense of wonder and who have created works of great meaning and beauty, such that they make me want everyone in the world to see what they have done. I think this is what I have enjoyed the most about my career. It’s why more than focusing on being a dealer I’ve run exhibitions in museums all over the world, taking on the role of curator or critic. Really, I’m just an admirer. I admire the art, I admire the artists, I enjoy getting to meet them and find out about the lives they lead, developing relationships with them, understanding them so I can then pass on these pieces their great sense of knowledge, deep meaning and beauty to a broader audience. It would be criminal to let these artists go overlooked.
I can safely say that my entire life has been a journey of seeking out and meeting with the “other”. In all of my travels – particularly in Africa – I’ve had extraordinary encounters. I’ve met people who’ve made art their entire lives, completely removed from any sort of market. But the fact these creations exist means that deep down inside of these artists there is a need to produce meaning, to produce knowledge, to produce beauty, to produce these objects which are not – strictly speaking – meant to be great, grandiose “works of art”. Although that’s certainly the case now! These are definitely artists but at the time they were creating their works they were not necessarily viewed as such. I have had the privilege of meeting and working with truly extraordinary individuals who have spent their entire lives searching for and transmitting the knowledge of their community – of their people – and who have created out of a need to create. And I have received so much from these encounters with others, and these others have received so much from myself in exactly the same way. With creators I make it a point to ask them about their background for the purposes of understanding their work, to get to know them better, to do a better job of supporting them and defending them and their work, to derive a deeper meaning from the work and to better share it with others. Bouabré would create works by observing the world around him: these are people full of knowledge and full of love who urgently wish to communicate something but have all the patience in the world and from all of this these supremely exceptional pieces have been created. Meeting these people led me to wanting to show their work because I felt it necessary. “Diversity” has become such a buzzword these days, but the African continent is home to 54 different countries and someone from the Congo will not have the same cultural touchstones as someone from Tanzania: these are completely different people, the nature and sounds they are enveloped in are not the same. The plurality and diversity within African cultures is simply staggering. And that’s something people appreciate now, obviously!
“I have had the privilege of meeting and working with truly extraordinary individuals who have spent their entire lives searching for and transmitting the knowledge of their community – of their people – and who have created out of a need to create.”
You’ve been with us since the start of 1-54, presenting at the first edition in London and then again in Marrakesh in 2018. What is your relationship with the fair? How has 1-54 helped you with your own vision?
I became an art dealer not out of financial necessity but because you’ve got to follow your own vision wherever it may lead you and in my case that meant providing greater visibility to these amazing artists with their meanings, knowledge and depth. The 1-54 art fair has got the same core ethos so when Touria El Glaoui was making the initial plans for it naturally I was one of the first people she came to see. I knew straight away it was something I wanted to be involved with and we became fast friends. I was at 1-54 London, then 1-54 New York and then 1-54 Marrakesh so I’ve followed all of the individual fairs and its growth in these three cities. Honestly 1-54 has helped create a greater awareness and visibility of the sheer scope of diversity in contemporary art because at the start there were only 15 or so galleries in the whole world dedicated to this particular sphere.
“All of the artists I have shown are artists I have met in their own homes, against the normal backdrop of their daily life, and this gives me considerable insight into the work itself, the content, the message (or messages) contained therein and the artist.”
You’ve had a long tenure on the African art scene, from pioneering exhibitions such as Magicians of the Earth at the Centre Pompidou in 1989 and Congo Beauty at the Fondation Cartier pour l’Art Contemporain in 2015, to supervising the Jean Pigozzi Collection. Do you think Western attitudes towards African art have changed over the last 20 years?
Oh yes, undeniably so. From 2005 onwards most of the major institutions have started organising exhibitions dedicated to contemporary African art, such as Africa Remix and Congo Beauty at the Fondation Cartier. Africa Remix was a roving exhibition taking in eight institutions around the world where we were completely stunned by the relevance of the works being presented, from people who we’d never heard of before. I think at the time there was also perhaps an oversaturation of Western art productions and people felt a bit fed up with it, their passion was starting to wane. But then all of the sudden you get African art, which tends to be more minimal, and these pieces speaking to us about life, providing us with other forms of knowledge, other forms of beauty, the depiction of scenes of everyday life, and then some truly heart-rending images – all of this taking in the fields of sculpture, installations and photography. And then, little by little, the focus came to be more and more on the diversity of creative methods in Africa. These days African-American art has started to play a major role in the art work but African art is there as well: almost all of the galleries in Paris and around the world are now presenting African artists. All of this started happening over 30 years ago, where certain players on the scene began showing these extraordinary artists with their meanings, knowledge, depth and beauty… So of course, any individual who is thirsty for knowledge and can appreciate beauty could not ignore what these artists were offering: it was something different, and that leaves an impact on people! Nowadays every institution out there has opened its doors to contemporary African art but equally there have also been a large number of foundations dedicated to the subject created around the world – in Africa as well. Numerous of museums have been created, there’s the Dak’Art Biennale in Dakar, the Bamako Encounters – none of these things existed 20 years ago. And actually, over the past 20 years things have been completely turned on their head, with looted works being returned to Africa. It’s all moving at a greater scale these days: in the art, fashion and luxury product worlds Africa is everywhere.
“I was at 1-54 London, then 1-54 New York and then 1-54 Marrakesh so I’ve followed all of the individual fairs and its growth in these three cities. Honestly 1-54 has helped create a greater awareness and visibility of the sheer scope of diversity in contemporary art because at the start there were only 15 or so galleries in the whole world dedicated to this particular sphere.”
What led you to opening your own gallery in Paris?
In 1989, following the Magicians of the Earth exhibition a gentleman [Jean Pigozzi] approached me saying he wanted to meet with me. He told me “André that was amazing, I’ve never seen anything like that before – not at any international art fair anywhere, not at any biennial”. He then asked me what my dream was. I told him I wanted to carry on with my journeys across the entire width and breadth of Africa and he told me he would finance that on the condition that I curate a private collection for him. So from 1989 to 2009 Jean would fund my research into the art of the African continent – with a specific focus on Sub-Saharan African cultures – and over those two decades I built up a collection of 12,000 pieces which we have shown in 100, 200 museums around the world, with the biggest exhibitions having taken place at the Fondation Cartier, with the Fondation Louis Vuitton at the Guggenheim and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo etc. And for 20 years we were the only people showing pieces produced exclusively by living African artists working in Africa. Little by little we came to notice that we had a pool of artists who were outstanding but there wasn’t necessarily a contemporary African art market out there. Up until 2009, when I was at the Basel Fair with Jean and he commented that “André we’ve been working on this collection for 20 years, supporting these artists and showing their pieces in the greatest museums, but they have got precisely zero presentation in the international exhibitions”. And I responded saying that no-one else out there was doing the work we were doing, no-one was travelling to Africa to seek out these artists where – if we found someone we liked – we’d buy up all their work. I told Jean that he already had around 12,000 pieces in his collection, and we’d done 200 exhibitions together so I should probably strike out on my own so he’d be able to see these artists represented in the international art fairs. Carrying on along that chain of thought I decided to open my own gallery.
My gallery is my own private little place and I do group and solo exhibitions. Honestly my “gallery” – that word’s a bit much for what it is – is little more than an art centre. I love coming up with ideas for exhibitions, I like coming up with designs for the space alongside Cyril Martin. It’s only a very small place but the way we set everything up and design everything helps amplify the power of the pieces shown. It also helps establish my place a bit in history (even if at present I’m starting to be viewed as a bit old hat). I’ve got my aesthetic and the decisions I make aren’t made with the market in mind. They’re my own and they’re focused squarely on what I love and what I want to support and share with others. All of the artists I have shown are artists I have met in their own homes, against the normal backdrop of their daily life, and this gives me considerable insight into the work itself, the content, the message (or messages) contained therein and the artist. The artist is a friend, we’re a duo. These are life stories, these are love stories, and these are struggles we undertake together.