By Crash redaction

Photo – portrait d’André Magnin avec Moke. DR devant l’atelier de celui-ci 1996-97, Kinshasa 

Interview by Armelle Leturcq

Paris, Novembre 2015


Beauté Congo, 1926-2015, Congo Kitoko

From 11 July to 15 November 2015

Extended until 10 January 2016

at the Fondation Cartier pour l’Art Contemporain

261, boulevard Raspail 75014 Paris


When it comes to contemporary African art – and Congolese art in particular – André Magnin is a man of passion. With a deep admiration for Sub-Saharan Africa and its wealth of cultural treasures that remain largely unknown in the self-centered West, André Magnin has spent years traversing the continent in search of rare finds from the past 90 years of modern and contemporary African art. Retracing this vast heritage is Beauté Congo, an exhibition curated by André Magnin at the Fondation Cartier pour l’Art Contemporain and the culmination of years spent tirelessly showing unique and original works at museums around the world. Full of anecdotes and an expert understanding of Africa, André Magnin takes us behind the scenes of a historical exhibition.

Why do you think Beauté Congo has had so much success?

I think there are several explanations. First of all, an arrogant Western attitude has long assumed that nothing interesting happened in Sub-Saharan Africa between “classical” art and post-independence contemporary art. This exhibition shows that the exact opposite is the case with more than 300 inventive, meaningful, and beautiful works. The collection covers nearly 100 years of artists producing works and writing their own history – one that has no need to square itself with our own. Few people knew or would have thought that any nation in Sub-Saharan Africa had a 90-year history of modern and contemporary art. The second explanation is that there is now an audience of professionals, admirers, curious onlookers, and a sizeable contingent of Africans and people of African heritage who are now proud and almost stunned to discover these powerful, colorful, extravagant, abstract, figurative, and inventive works whose existence they never suspected. Our visitors quickly realized that they didn’t need to know everything about the context or read hundreds of books to see, admire, and understand works from another continent, from a culture far from their own. Some people are afraid to go to certain exhibitions because they don’t think will understand the point, or the importance, or the intelligence of works that do not always “speak” to them. Everyone knows this. Thinking that you don’t have the right knowledge can make you feel ignorant. There isn’t that kind of mindset in Africa and especially in Congo. Since 1926, Congo has benefited from a series of small “miracles” that ensured that artists had access to the materials used in the West (paper, watercolors, gouaches, oils, etc.) and which remained unavailable up to that point. At each crucial moment in this history, independent and passionate individuals made the effort to ensure these artists could enjoy complete freedom. All these works were made possible by the encouragement and material support offered by international patrons, as well as their efforts to protect artists from the kind of education that may have thwarted their unique artistic practices. This freedom is plain to see and has generated strong reactions from audiences, who sit in amazement of these works without knowing anything about the artist, context, history, or anything. It’s a rare phenomenon and one that appears to be quite welcome.

The last reason is that the exhibition projects a wonderfully positive image of Africa as creative and innovative. It’s a far cry from our typical image of Africa and has nothing in common with the disorder, tragedy, and sorrow that we are too accustomed to seeing in the media. The art on display shatters and overthrows so many stereotypes, while introducing us to a surprisingly dynamic cultural treasure trove.

Is this not the beginning of a larger process? Do you think there is more to discover in Sub-Saharan Africa?

The Democratic Republic of Congo and South Africa are two of the rare countries that can boast such a long and rich history of modern and contemporary art. And yet, the biggest masterpieces of African art are 5,000 years old… They didn’t expect us at all! During my first trips to the Congo in the 1980s, I became convinced that modern history had already begun back in the 1920s. By traveling I gained a mass of knowledge and then suddenly I felt the need to do something with it, to share this knowledge. I saw that the country had 90 years of art history, and little by little I worked my way back to the 1920s. So after I had collected a wealth of knowledge and information, I started compiling a group of exceptional artworks.

Beauté Congo does not aim to be exhaustive. If I had access to a much larger exhibition space, I would have shown more works by the selected artists, along with works by other artists like Freddy Tsimba, Vitshois Mwilambwe Bondo, Aimé Mpane, Houston Maludi, Moké Fils Amani Bodo, Fred Mutumbo, Mc Toshi, Bodo Fils, Méga, Ange Kumbi, Maitre Sym’s, and many more. We still managed to collect and exhibit nearly 350 artworks that give visitors an idea of the country’s rich artistic heritage, while allowing them to imagine the diversity of arts and cultures across Africa.

You can tell that there is so much more than what is presented in the exhibition. It makes you want to see more, especially from the 1930s. It’s an odd feeling to discover pieces from that time and compare them with what was going on in the European avant-garde at the same time. They are like two parallel worlds that never met.

Certain artists became “precursors” simply because they were the first to have access to paper and watercolors, while the painters who “decorated” huts worked exclusively with natural pigments (earth, ochre, charcoal, etc.). Then they received watercolors and they found a way to use color to produce marvelous works, inventing the dazzling solutions seen in Trois petits poulets bleus (Three Little Blue Chickens), Trois Serpents (Three Snakes), the blue elephant, or the calabash tree whose colors make it one of the first “abstract” paintings. We should remember that the so-called precursor artworks have been exhibited since 1929 and 1931, notably in Brussels at the Galerie du Centaure, alongside works by Magritte, Delvaux, and Permeke, but also at the inauguration of the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels. Works by Lubaki were shown in Paris at the Pierre Auguste Girard Gallery by the Jazz review. Back then the bourgeoisie was stunned by the works, but there were rumors that claiming that the artists were not Congolese. People said they were done by Carlo Rim who organized the exhibition. The result: the exhibition was a catastrophe. Next, the Musée Ethnographique in Geneva showed the works through the efforts of a true friend of the arts, Eugène Pittard. They were shown in Rome, too. But from 1935 on, we start to lose track of these artists because Georges Thiry and Gaston-Denys Périer, two patrons of Congolese art, had a disagreement and stopped supplying paper and paints to the artists. Lubaki, Antoinette, and Djilatendo abruptly ceased their artistic production in 1935. However, Pittard, the director of the Musée Ethnographique in Geneva, made it his mission to track down Albert Lubaki in 1939. And with the help of Gaston-Denys Périer, a high-ranking diplomat in Belgium, he succeeded. So that year Lubaki produced 12 additional watercolors for the Musée Ethnographique, but these would be his last. The works are still housed in the museum, and they represent the only artistic production from the period between 1935 and 1939. Nothing more would happen until the postwar period when another “miracle” occurred. A French naval officer and amateur painter from Brittany, Pierre Romain-Desfossés, left his family and moved to Lubumbashi. In 1947 he created an art studio called the “Atelier du Hangar,” which served as a gathering place for some 15 artists before his death in 1954. During that time, the artists produced works of unimaginable freedom, with each artist inventing and developing a personal style. Romain-Desfossés refused to teach them any of the lessons given in Western academies: “We must speak forthrightly against attempts to abolish the personality in favor of a uniform aesthetic according to the standards of white masters.”[1] After his death, all but four artists disappeared from the scene: Bela, Kalela, Pilipili, and Mwenze, who taught at the Fine Arts Academy that Laurent Moonens had just established in Lubumbashi. In this way, the four artists were able to continue their work throughout their lives, while all the rest disappeared due to a lack of resources. That’s why such a limited amount of art was produced at the Atelier du Hangar. Another anecdote: just before the exhibition, I found an artwork from the Atelier du Hangar in an auction house. On the backside of a work by Pilipili, I saw a label marked “MoMA 1952” and later confirmed with MoMA that all of these artists were shown that year in New York. It’s incredible! Then in 1954, the entire scene disappeared again and nothing new was heard until the early 1970s. That’s when artists like Moke, Chéri Chérin, Bodo, and Chéri Samba, the so-called “popular” artists, came up and hung their works on the walls and facades of their studios, due to a lack of exhibition space in Congo. Through all three period of Congolese modernism, we should note that no previous group of artists influenced the next: neither the “precursors,” nor the Atelier du Hangar or “popular” artists, nor the academic “rebel” artists from the late 90s. Each group invented their own form of art. I think this surprising diversity is also what makes this such a successful exhibition. In fact, we have seen a lot of visitors either from Africa or with African roots. Entire families are proud to come and share in this group of artworks that represents such a vast cultural heritage. I’ve always had three types of goals for this exhibition: aesthetic, historical, and political. I wasn’t on the prowl for merit or success. It turns out that the exhibition has delighted and amazed a large audience and taken them on a fantastic voyage. That’s my biggest reward.

And the exhibition has been extended!

Yes, the Fondation Cartier pour l’Art Contemporain has received over 800 visitors per day. Media from all around the world are talking about it. Word of mouth is huge, especially on social media. With such a massive level of interest, the Fondation Cartier wanted to share the event with an even larger audience and extended its run by two months, until 10 January.

How did you first get involved with African art?

It started when we were working on the Magiciens de la Terre exhibition at the Grande Halle de la Villette and the Centre Pompidou in 1986. There were three chief curators at first, then four. Each of us traveled independently and made our own decisions about where to go. At the time we knew next to nothing about contemporary art in China, India, Australia, the Pacific, the Great North, or Africa. I had a lot of time on my hands, whereas Jean-Hubert Martin had just been appointed Director of the Centre Pompidou and could no longer travel as much. But he went to Papua New Guinea with Lawrence Weiner, to China, and to West Africa with Jacques Soulilou. I went to Papua New Guinea, New Zealand, Australia, British Colombia, the Great North, and Africa, but I focused primarily on Sub-Saharan Africa. There were countries where we had yet to identify any art because of the extreme poverty or restricted access due to conflict. In September 1989 I met Jean Pigozzi, who admitted that he had not seen artists like these in almost any Western gallery, biennial, or art fair before that exhibition. Like his “fortunate” friends, he bought works by Basquiat, Warhol, Clemente, Buren, Twombly, etc. With his legendary humor he told that it “even a successful dentist from Cincinnati” could buy the same artists as he did. He told me the exhibition made him want to put together a collection that would be unique in the world. So I told him about my dream project: to discover art from Sub-Saharan Africa where there were no museums, galleries, or collectors – nothing but exceptional artists. He gave me the green light and for twenty years, from 1989 to 2009, I acquired nearly 10,000 works for his collection, some of which we have exhibited at solo and group exhibitions, and also shared through loans to about 100 museums, art centers, foundations, and biennials around the world. In 2009 we were at Art Basel and there was still no market for African art. African works were notably absent from the international art fairs. Jean Pigozzi owned a large collection that I wanted to show in Africa, but political instability kept that from happening. But I wanted to take on the challenge anyway. So I stopped collecting works exclusively for his collection and began showing works at art fairs, helping to expand collections of art from Africa and around the world. Today those artists have a market that I played a role in creating. Now we are starting to see foundations spring up in Nigeria, Côte d’Ivoire, South Africa, and Benin. Several highly professional galleries have started up, though the market is still in its early stages. More and more galleries now represent African artists: Fabienne Leclerc, Galerie Lelong, Anne de Villepoix, Continua, etc. For a long time I heard people saying that we were boxing these artists into their “Africanness,” but if Jean Pigozzi and I had not started that collection, many of those artists would never have received the visibility they have today. They may never have been discovered if we had amalgamated them into international group exhibitions. For a certain time, we had to group them together in order to give them visibility. Let’s not forget that Africa is a continent with 54 countries! Culture is what brings people together, and Africa needs to invest in culture. When they stop seeking power for personal gain, they will build museums, too. All the cultural institutions in Africa are private; nothing comes from the state…

Do you worry that contemporary African art may become another passing trend?

Africa is rapidly growing and poised to change and surprise the world more than any other continent. Africa is coming into its own, it believes in its own values, and it is forging new relations with others based on progress, creativity, fraternity, and tolerance.

This enthusiasm and dynamism can be felt in every artistic field. The Nollywood phenomenon in Lagos, Lagosfoto Festival, Fespaco in Ouagadougou, the photography events in Bamako, the Dakar and Johannesburg biennials, and the Yango Biennale in Kinshasa all help fuel a dynamic that lets Africans step onto the stage, show who they are, and share their creations with the world. Several foundations and private museums have already opened and new ones are under construction in Benin, Cameroon, Morocco, Côte d’Ivoire, South Africa, and in other countries. African personalities are putting together large collections, including Sindika Dokolo in Luanda, Donwahi in Abidjan, and Alami Lazraq in Marrakesh. Large private galleries, art centers, and artist residences are all emerging and demonstrating Africa’s growing interest in art. Never before have we seen such a diverse environment for art on the continent; it has grown so much and is not limited to its own history. All these elements offer a different image of Africa and ensure greater visibility for contemporary African art, which is far from becoming what you call a “passing trend.”

What impact do you think the exhibition will have?

Certain artists have already helped improve the visibility of African art. In France, the Fondation Cartier has acquired art by African artists for the past 20 years, while the public museums have started at a more timid pace. MoMA and other American museums have long bought works by Chéri Samba, du Sidibe, Seydou Keita, and Ojeikere. More and more American, British, German, Swiss, Belgian, and of course French collectors contact us or discover African artists at fairs like 1:54 in London and now also in Brooklyn.

Beauté Congo is set to travel to other museums around the world. It’s a great way to improve the image of Congo and Africa in general, and to promote the living contemporary artists who are now recognized, collected, and exhibited. I heard that when many of the Congolese artists we featured in Paris returned home, they were greeted with banners made by their proud neighbors. Beauté Congo has launched new artistic events that give Congolese artists the chance to produce and present works to the people of Congo. Several generations of artists since the 1970s have dreamed of one day exhibiting their works in Congo for the Congolese people.

Have you ever wanted to work for an institution?

I’ve organized many different solo and group exhibitions at major institutions in Paris, Washington, D.C., New York, Houston, Tokyo, Bilbao, Monaco, Milan, Rome, London, and other major cities. But I have never wanted to work exclusively and definitively for one institution. I always wanted to be free. All throughout my life I have met extraordinary artists, poets, curators, collectors, personalities, friends who have supported me and whom I have supported, who believed in me, who always encouraged me and always helped me pursue my research and continue my work with exceptional resources and freedom. All the travel I’ve done and the people I’ve met have constructed, deconstructed, and reconstructed me. By reaching out to the Other, I have learned a lot, even about myself. I have lived through so many difficult and extraordinary moments that no official position could have offered. And I’ve had a lot of fun! Since the creation of the Fondation Cartier in 1984 in Jouy-en-Josas, I’ve gotten to know Marie-Claude Beaud, Jean de Loisy, and all the artists in residence since the inauguration of Jean Nouvel’s building on the Boulevard Raspail. The director Hervé Chandès gave me the opportunity to organize some 10 solo exhibitions (Seydou Keïta, Malick Sidibé, J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere, Bodys Isek Kingelez, Chéri Samba) and group exhibitions (Coïncidences, Un art populaire, Histoires de voir, etc.). Fondation Cartier was also the first private institution to acquire works by every artist featured in the exhibition. After more than 20 years of supporting artists, painters, sculptors, and photographers living in Africa, it made sense to present the Beauté Congo exhibition at the Fondation Cartier pour l’Art Contemporain. I was given an extraordinary amount of freedom that I would not have received anywhere else. I worked with such a supportive and committed team, and we enjoyed ourselves so much – a fact that has certainly come across in the exhibition and contributed to its success.

[1] Joseph-Aurélien Cornet, 60 ans de peinture au Zaïre, Les éditeurs d’art associés, Brussels, 1989.


Art/Afrique, le nouvel atelier

From 26 April to 28 August 2017

at the Louis Vuitton Fondation

Bois de Boulogne, 8 Avenue du Mahatma Gandhi, 75116 Paris

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