Parcours des Mondes is the product of syncopation — displaced elements moving in irregular beats that somehow result in a rhythm. The galleries showing what many still labelled as ‘tribal art’, the international collectors descending on the streets of Paris, the late lunches and early drinks, the discovery of an exhibition that stops you in your tracks, all driven by the lust to find something new, to discover art that you’ve never seen before.
The 2022 edition of Parcours des Mondes — its 21st edition — opened at Saint Germain des Pres, the beating heart of the classic African art market, on Tuesday 06 September. Well, officially that is. News on the street was that many deals were done the weekend before the official opening with local collectors sometimes pressured into making buying decisions “before the Americans arrive.” And arrive they did, with one collector overhearing a dealer proclaim “les Américains arrivent!”
By all accounts, the throngs were back on the streets of Paris, with many reflecting on the return of more international attendees than in the previous two editions when COVID-related restrictions impacted international travel.
“The fair was good for me, with many customers from abroad and especially from the US, and some new customers which are very important to me,” shared the Nimes-based dealer, Olivier Larroque. Serge Schoffel echoed his comments sharing that “Parcours was quite a success, even though we found it less busy than last year. Thanks to our American friends who bought our higher pieces. We sold our superb Haida rattle and Senufo mask, and then several New Guinea and Indonesian pieces.”
The economic backdrop in Europe didn’t seem to dampen sales at the fair and with the US dollar to the euro exchange rate at a record high on opening day (1 USD – 1.0103 EUR) it was little surprise that some dealers reported selling mostly to American collectors.
A reoccurring takeaway was the feeling of reconnecting and in some cases, connecting with new collectors and with new galleries too — Bruno Claessens, the previous European director of the African Art department at Christie’s held his inaugural Parcours des Mondes exhibition, ‘Sweet Dreams’ which highlighted a group of 19th century Southern African headrests in juxtaposition with colourful abstract paintings from three contemporary female Ndebele artists.
Pace African & Oceanic Art returned to the fair after many years away, with a broad selection of works from Africa — two Kaka figures and a Jukun figure from the Barry Hecht collection and a gorgeous Fang éyéma-o-byéri figure from Gabon, unseen since it sold at auction in 2010.
The overall sentiment from some attendees was that there were no big surprises, with lots of the material seen before — the obligatory Kota reliquary figure, Baule spouse figures, an increasing proliferation of Kaka figures, and elegant Dan masks. Collectors in this field like to feel like they’ve ‘discovered’ a new piece or style of artwork. A number of collectors bemoaned the fact that there were few blockbusters, few artworks that made the heart beat, and few discoveries.
That said, there were many gems and knockout gallery ‘booths’ and unusually for Paris, artworks made by Nigerian artists had a strong showing this year.
Brussels-based dealer, Bernard de Grunne showed a royal Yoruba beaded sculpture, quite unlike anything we’ve ever seen before, with removable feet, arms, hat and body — a jigsaw puzzle of beaded attendants, birds, and snakes, all coming together to bow at the feet of a majestic seated figure.
Was it beautiful? Who cares, it’s wild! According to Henry John Drewal, who contributed an essay about the piece, the sculpture is a “beading tour de force… spectacular opulence.” He adds that;
“For Yorùbá, beads are healing medicine (óògun) and “performative power” (àṣẹ). They are equated with one of the most precious of possessions – children – as in the phrase ìlẹ̀kẹ̀ l’ọmọ – “beads are like children” … It is clear that the artist who made this ensemble, possibly from the Ekiti-Yorùbá area renowned for the Adeṣina family’s beading tradition (late 19th, early 20th century), is carrying on the artistic traditions of his ancestors.”
“The complexity and extravagance of the beading are remarkable. The seated figure exudes wealth and power in his presentation, seated on an overturned mortar-like throne, suggestive of an altar for the deified Thundergod Ṣango. While there are no explicit Ṣango motifs in this work, there is a martial theme in the presence of the male guardian figure behind the seated figure who sports/wears a hunter/warrior’s “dog-eared” cap. The seated figure has a conical crowning coiffure reminiscent of those worn by Yorùbá Ṣango priests and shown in carved figures from northeastern Yorubaland, Ekiti and Igbomina areas.”
“Yorùbá beading is generally very symmetrical, contained, and balanced. Such a composition expresses the Yorùbá aesthetic principle of idogba, balance achieved in symmetry, or an asymmetry that sustains a sense of overall balance.”
Entwistle showed a rare Chamba ne-memi (or to-memi) double-figure. Acquired by Philippe Guimiot in Fumban in 1968, sold to J.J. Klejman who then sold it on to a private collector in 1971. It is believed that these figures were used as charms against smallpox and diseases.
According to the galley’s dossier, “Two figures — one male, one female — are joined at a hip-level plinth and share a single pair of doll-like feet. Their bodies rise individually and are distinguished by features such as the larger headdress on the female figure and schematic genitalia on the male. On the basis of other figures sculpted in this volumetric style and sharing many of the same features, the present sculpture can confidently be attributed to the masterhand known as ‘Soompa’, active during the mid-colonial period in the first half of the twentieth century.”
Richard Fardon, Emeritus Professor of West African Anthropology at SOAS, University of London, asserts that “The volumetric statues attributed to Soompa have not only been considered by far the finest of Chamba statues…but also typical of Chamba statuary in some respects… Of these three types [iron-shod single columnar figures inserted into the ground as staves; double figures featuring a male and female standing upon a shared plinth, also intended to be iron-shod; and freestanding, unshod single figures], the double-figure columnar statues are the most distinctive and, in the extant record, are restricted to Chamba; but other than in the doubling of figures, the differ from Soompa’s later conception in most respects. These earlier double-figures are much smaller in scale and designed to be iron-mounted. The figures are clearly related stylistically to single columnar statues from the same areas, and they stand upon their shared plinth, rather than being joined at the hip like Soompa’s.”
We saw a good number of curated thematic shows this year — Galerie Afrique with ‘The Art of Igala, Idoma and Related Peoples,’ Duende Art Projects with ‘Sweet Dreams,’ Galerie Vallois that presented ‘Gelede Masks, Chronicles of Daily Life in Benin,’ and ‘AZÉ Association,’ Adrian Schlag – Tribal Art Classics with ‘Fragments of Time’, Abla & Alain Lecomte Gallery with ‘Sowei Masks’ (and their many red dots), Jo de Buck with ‘Mythic Kuba’, and Lucas Ratton Gallery with ‘Amuin’.
‘Mythic Kuba’ was a highlight. Jo de Buck spent over twenty years amassing a collection that showcases the beauty of Kuba royalty. Scholarly in his approach, de Buck spent hours in deep conversation with visitors, educating them about the minute details in each carved feature — even his labels were mini-essays. Obviously, a labour of love and brave, especially in a city that’s underappreciated art made by Kuba artists.
Adrian Schlag’s ‘Fragments of Time’ was a bold collection of otherworldly fragments, objects changed by the lives they’ve led. If time gives an object soul, Schlag’s temporary gallery space was spiritual. “In general visitors were amazed by my choice of objects in the beginning but the reaction was overall very good to almost enthusiastic. I think it’s very important for us, dealers, to do a bit of an educative job and show exhibitions [and] topics a bit off the beaten track.” said Schlag. “I had a very good show, selling many of the objects of my catalogue.” The gallery sold several works in the price range of €5,000–€60,000 per piece.
Paris-based Lucas Ratton was the centre of attention during Parcours des Mondes week thanks to his eye-catching display of amuin ba anthropomorphic and zoomorphic monkey figures, believed to be physical representations of supernatural spirits. Activated through the mediation of a diviner (amuinfwe), they are used to overcome common fears, pursue guilty spirits and wrongdoers, as well as to unleash spells on foes.
According to scholar Yaelle Biro, “Such objects were so central to the divination practice that aspiring trance diviners would have to either commission or inherit the objects required by their particular spirit before they could begin to practice. Once carved, they were seldom displayed openly and could not be seen by women [opps!]. A diviner, who was also the figure’s caretaker, was then responsible for empowering and invigorating the work through sacrifices of blood and offerings of food, in particular eggs… While the zoomorphic nature of these figures varies greatly and are not standardised, they all do hold a cup, or use their hands as a receptacle.”
So unusual is it to find a gallery full of so many different styles of amuin ba figures. Large, compact, detailed and simplified, the exhibition had it all. These assemblages of wood, and sacrificial libations, mouths bound and hands cupped, filled the three floors of the gallery, beckoning the visitor to come closer, to analyse the differences in patina and form.
According to the press release for the exhibition, ‘Amuin’ “was born from a common passion and fascination of Lucas Ratton and [artist] Stéphane Graff for the arts of Africa and particularly the Baule monkeys of the Ivory Coast. The idea of a collaboration appeared naturally as the patinas echo the material of Stéphane Graff’s paintings. His work, made of earth, sand and limestone pigments remind [one of] the layers of libations found on these sacred monkeys.”
Lucas has indeed stepped out of the ‘Ratton’ shadow, standing on his own as a dealer that is now expected to exhibit incredibly beautiful and rare works of classic African art — his Kongo show last year was also noteworthy.
Quite unusually, most of the figures were not for sale but the internet never forgets. The largest figure, displayed at the entrance to the gallery, was for sale. It was previously in the Michel Perinet collection after which Galerie Bernard Dulon showed it at TEFAF and the Armory for a couple of years before it joined the group at Ratton’s gallery. The figure sold at auction in 1990 for FF700,000 (approximately $292,000 today). Rumour has it that Ratton was asking for well into the hundreds of thousands for the figure at Parcours.
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Let’s now talk about the exhibition that had everyone testing their knees, doing gymnastics to capture the magic and majesty of the incredible and rare nkisi nkonde figures made by unknown Kongo artists from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
‘Résonance: Jean-Michel Basquiat and the Kongo Universe’ is an exhibition at the Gradiva gallery that runs until 19 November 2022. The show’s press release states that the exhibition offers “an unprecedented aesthetic experiment… [it] invites the visitor to be guided by emotion in the face of the formal dialogue established between the drawings of Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) and powerful figures of power nkisi nkonde of the Kongo cultural sphere from the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren… The Kongo component was entrusted to Julien Volper, curator of the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren (Belgium), and [co-curator] Bernard Dulon, expert in ancient African arts.” It goes on to state “that some twenty remarkable ‘nail fetishes,’ anthropomorphic and zoomorphic nkisi nkonde statues have thus been chosen from the museum’s collections. A selection supplemented by a few special loans to meet the needs of the exhibition.”
Resonance — deep, full, reverberating — this show has it in spades.
The press release challenges us with the question; “What will happen when such powerful artworks as Jean-Michel Basquiat’s drawings and the anonymous nkisi of the Kongo are set side by side in an exhibition? Will we witness transfers of aesthetic energy and resonance phenomena? Will we see equilibria emerge or tipping points leading to unfathomable chasms?”
Quite honestly, the Basquiat pieces are almost lost, they disappear behind the majesty and power of the many nkisi figures revealed to the public for the first time after spending many decades hidden away in storage. The Kongo nkisi figures overpower the Basquiat works on paper.
Some may perceive the fact that a museum would exhibit their pieces in a gallery context and with objects from a dealer as a brilliant marketing strategy on the part of Dulon. Others may view it as controversial – raising ethical questions on the role the museum has now played in authenticating the quality and hence value of the dealer’s objects. The nkisi figures could then be valued at a considerably greater level after this exhibition is over, when the items return to the Bernard Dulon gallery. The fact that a portion of his “collection” is on display among artworks from one of the most renowned museums in the world may serve as evidence of the excellent calibre of his figures. Was this approved because the AfricaMuseum’s director, Guido Gryseels retired on 31 August leaving room for others to do as they please with the pieces in the museum’s collection?
On Tuesday 06 September, forty galleries opened their doors to begin showcasing and selling the various classic African artworks on display. Whilst the buzz is back, the 21st edition has rested on its laurels.
There were grumbles that the event organisers did little to entertain returning collectors. Programming was missing, just one party was hosted (dealers only), and the only satellite event of note was the ‘Résonance’ exhibition at the Gradiva gallery. The organisers have become comfortable, safe in the knowledge that for now, Parcours des Mondes remains the only major fair exhibiting classic African art.
The programming at art fairs — the talks, the panels, the interviews and the tours — is a vital component that helps fuel the growth of this art sector. Beyond the sales, the event organisers must remember to engage with the audience if the fair is to remain dynamic and retain its spirit and reputation.
In addition to the lack of programming, many objects were said to have been sold to collectors the weekend before the official opening, where local collectors have the home advantage of being able to walk in and ask to see the works that would be on display during the week of the fair, leaving new collectors uninspired.
The fair organisers should ensure that they attract new crowds and that they maintain the buzz and excitement of the opening throughout the week. They should also ensure that the galleries continue to provide moments of discovery with the visitor at the core or Parcours des Mondes risks losing out to the more established generalist art fairs or newer organisations seeking to eke out a niche in what some view as a fair that’s depending solely on its legacy, and in much need for renewal.