“When looking at African art, the more you feel aggressed, the more attentive you need to be, don’t be afraid to be shaken up, to be jolted.” – Jacques Kerchache
Born in Rouen in 1942, Jacques Kerchache opened his first art gallery in Paris at age 18 and went on his first trip to West Africa at 21. He soon began displaying traditional West African art alongside artworks by European artists. At the time, African ritual objects and reliquaries were condescendingly referred to as art nègre. Jacques Kerchache recognized and spent four decades fervidly promoting their intrinsic artistic qualities up to his death in 2001.
Today the Cartier foundation in Paris pays homage to the man who coined the term arts premiers and obtained its inclusion in the collections of the Louvre. From April 5th until September 25th, an exhibition devoted to the West African sculptural tradition of the former kingdom of Dahomey (modern-day Benin, western Nigeria and Togo) sheds light onto this heart of darkness. One hundred bocio sculptures and figurines formerly part of the ancient religious cult and philosophical tradition Vodun – the origins of the more popularly known, colonially influenced Voodoo offsprings – are thus displayed in Italian designer Enzo Mari’s highly effective scenography, highlighting extracts of a unique collection and providing insight into a man’s life and passion.
Jacques Kerchache’s aesthete’s eye and intimate knowledge of West African beliefs, customs and ritual ceremonies gained over time through patience, luck and courage, gave him a unique vantage point. Convinced that “masterpieces are very rare because great artists are very rare in all societies” he set out to unearth “the Michelangelo and Giacometti of these (West African) societies.”
Kerchache thus treated his finds with equal respect and was keen to initiate the West to not only the cultural but also the artistic intricacies of his finds in ways and through means that they would understand and be able to connect to. Upon returning from one of his early trips into the heart of the black continent he not only displayed Mahongwe m’bweti reliquary figures (found in a dried-up well in modern-day Gabon, discarded by Christian missionaries in the 1930s) but published an accompanying catalogue with a text by French poet and essayist Claude Roy. The ensuing arrest of Jacques Kerchache in Gabon where he was accused of art smuggling added scandal and notoriety to a singular life trajectory.
Dealing in art, in tribal art objects, acting as advisor and go-between between European collections (both private and institutional) and curating several exhibitions, Jacques Kerchache made numerous trips to Africa and also to Southeast Asia while running his gallery in rue de Seine from 1965 until 1980. (Rue de Seine in Paris’s Saint-Germain district still remains a center for tribal arts with the Parcours des mondes event celebrating tribal art every month of September since 2001)
A fortuitous holiday encounter on the island of Mauritius in 1991 with Jacques Chirac, then mayor of Paris, allows trailblazer Kerchache to take his ambitions to yet another level. His dream of introducing traditional, tribal art into the Louvre – as expressed in a “manifesto” published in French daily Libération a year earlier – becomes reality in the year 2000 with the inauguration of the Pavillon des Sessions at the Louvre and prefigures the inauguration of what became known as the Quai Branly museum in 2006.
What strikes me as being particularly effective about the current exhibition at the Fondation Cartier is of course the forcefulness of the pieces displayed. But then again, I am no specialist and incredibly uncertain as to whether I would be able to tell “mere folk art” or a “standard votive offering” from a “masterpiece” – a distinction which Kerchache keenly made… (Is it safe to presume that at least 95% of the foundation’s visitors share my humble position?)
What really gives me access into the world of Vodun rituals and aesthetics plus precious insight into the efforts of an extraordinary man is in large part a highly effective exhibition layout and presentation. The scenography draws me in immediately as of my first impressions on the ground floor and prepares me for a complete immersion into the full abundance of other-worldly beauty on the basement level.
Italian designer Enzo Mari’s scenography combines understated, minimalist simplicity (untreated wood, uncomplicated structures, spacious presentation) with the refined sophistication that high art presented in such a foundation deserves. It respectfully emphasizes the aesthetic and artistic nature of the objects displayed thanks to devices such as individual glass casing and dramatic lighting. It also provides a certain narrative backdrop that encourages the layman to feel closer to a totally foreign belief-system.
A small selection of elongated, wooden sculptures are displayed in the first part of the exhibition. Presented in a circular layout in front of vertical panels suggesting huts with a particular focus on a sculpture placed in the center, the visitor is included in this “village”. On the other side of the ground floor, boxy wooden seats encourage the onlooker to sit down and watch extracts of interviews with Jacqes Kerchache and documentary snippets of Vaudun rituals. The low-key seating arrangement and its voluntarily makeshift appearance contribute to an impression of immediacy and intimacy. Wooden displays along the edges show black and white photographic material from the 1960s, catalogues, type-written letters and newspaper articles providing archival evidence of Kerchache’s progress from adventurous youth to political advisor, from the original black and white budget catalogues to luxurious coffee table publications. We can thus begin to imagine a man’s impassioned pursuit of beauty in places where few others were sensitive enough to recognize it and begin to feel part of a journey that no one today will be able to make again.
In the basement section, 48 dramatically lit Vaudun statuettes presented on individual plinths offer a dazzling contrast to the first section’s light and airy simplicity. Here the visitor walks as through a forest, free to stop and admire each individual bocio or figuring. Contained within square, glass cases and placed at eye level the visitor can easily study the details of their assembled fabrication (metal, wood, textile and leather straps, padlocks, seashells, beads …) and intimately engage with their foreign force and beauty.
Jacques Kerchache had said, “Artists have always had a privileged relationship with works of art based on their experience of the sensual. I have endeavored to make that unique way of seeing mine, a way of seeing that creates strangely familiar bondes between humans and works of art. It has accompanied me throughout my career.” The current exhibition at Fondation Cartier does his ambition justice.
“Vodun: African Voodoo” is showing at Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain from April 5th to September 25th, 2011.
261, boulevard Raspail
Paris 14th – metro: Denfert-Rochereau (line 6)