It was uncanny, for us who are not collectors, to participate in an event essentially created for and by the tribal art market. For us, who have always considered African art only from an anthropological and historical perspective (never forgetting to focus our attention on the formal qualities of the artifacts—we are still art historians after all, even if our field of study has shifted from classical Western art to a completely different subject), the whole experience has been definitely stimulating.
Having just recently graduated in African Art History, we can safely confess that we are new to this world. In the past years we have travelled across Europe, jumping from museum to museum and from one collection to another, taking pictures and confronting catalogues, all with the aim of putting together a personal database of images and iconographies. Now, a couple of days after the end of Parcours des Mondes (PdM), we are finally realising the importance of the week we have just spent in Paris.
We arrived in Paris following the advice of our professors and mentors—using our own eyes, looking at things again and again. We went to PdM with the intention of seeing as many pieces as we could. For the first time we had the possibility to look at an incredible amount of African art pieces intended for the private market. We felt like we were totally leaving our comfort zone—one of academical research—to enter a completely new place, a place where the approach towards non-European art expressions was less ‘museal’ and more immediate.
We spent our week in Paris not only strolling around PdM (and asking gallerists questions and being generally very nosy), but also visiting (quite compulsively, at a certain point) a series of public collections—some of them already very well known to us, like the Musée du Quai Branly – Jacques Chirac and the Pavillon des Sessions inside the Musée du Louvre, and some of them not. The question we were constantly asking ourselves was “what makes an artwork so different from its peers to the point that it deserves a place inside a public collection?”. An insidious question, we are aware of that, to which we are still looking for the right answer.
We trained our eyes and put our knowledge to test, confronting pieces, focusing on details, trying to understand how forms evolve and relate according to the gaze of those who experience them. We asked ourselves questions about quality and about the issue of originality—about what makes a piece a masterpiece to our Western eyes and what doesn’t make it so. We’ve been positively surprised by the fact that all the people we met were happy to answer our questions and to give us a wider perspective over the issues of the African art market. The fact that we weren’t interested in collecting, nor official members of the press, didn’t prevent us from having stimulating and constructive conversations with many experts of this peculiar field of art, quite the contrary.
As for the pieces exhibited, we particularly enjoyed their variety: bigger and smaller galleries side by side on the same road, some of them already following by us on our social networks and some of them not. The sensation was like having a small area of the city transformed into a place of never-ending discoveries, both pleasant and unpleasant—like galleries that didn’t meet our expectations (not many of them, luckily), or objects that left us puzzled, so different as they were from the ones we’ve studied inside the museum setting.
When you say “..woah, it’s a masterpiece!”. From catalogue to reality. Wé mask | A. And V. M. Carini collection. #wémask #masque #daltonsomare #catalogue #gallery #milan #paris #bois #kaoiln #teeth #fibres #poils #white #westafrica #costadavorio #ivorycoast #cotedivoire #masterpiece #beauty #draw #face #primitiveart #artpremiere #artprimitif #tribal #culture #collector #collection #italiancollection
A wide range of gallery experiences meant also a great variety of artworks, different from each other in quality, material, and provenance—pieces with a huge literary history were exhibited alongside those that have appeared on the collecting scene only in recent times. Very well known pieces close to unknown ones: everything was a great opportunity for learning about forms, for training our eyes, and for identifying formal and aesthetic differences and similarities.
The variety of exhibitors has, in addition, given us a brief view of what is now trending on the market, what are the more requested cultures, and what are instead, those which are rarer to find. It was stimulating to see the objects we usually study from an anthropological and historical perspective put, for once, under a different light.
What was interesting to notice, moreover, was how the galleries were set up. They generally did a great job of exalting the pieces—often freeing them from the obstacle of display cases, making them completely accessible to potential buyers or even to the merely curious. The illumination, in most cases perfectly designed, was a helpful instrument to put into focus meaningful details such as scarifications, playing a fundamental role in helping people read an artifact in the most correct way possible. Used to the typical museum setting as we were, we definitely enjoyed reflecting on the different strategies the galleries adopted to attract people, for instance positioning the finest pieces closer to the main entrance, to make them visible even from the street.
Parcours are over, and with them an intense week of study and encounters also comes to an end. Right now I am feeling a strange mixture of tiredness and enthusiasm. I have things to write, books to read, and a new job in a new city – small steps towards my ultimate goal and towards the professional figure I aim to become one day. This Hemba masterpiece is somehow related to all the things I have written above – and somehow it isn’t, but she’s a total beauty, so. #hemba #cariatides #carved #wood #pdm #pdm2017 #parcoursdesmondes #parcoursdesmondes2015 #bernarddegrunne #africanart #africa #tribal #tribalart #primitiveart
We left Paris tired and enthusiast, glad that we decided for once to leave our books and enter this new environment, grateful towards all those who have decided to give us part of their precious time to answer our questions and let us take hundred of pictures. The whole Parcours des Mondes experience reinforced the passion we already felt towards the study of traditional African art forms, gave us a wider view over the many different ways people appreciate and work with tribal art, and left us definitely richer—in knowledge, acquaintances and social relations—and more happy than ever about the professional path we have decided to follow.
Ilaria Pol Bodetto got her master's degree in Art History at Università Degli Studi di Padova in 2017. The focus of her interests are in West African traditional art forms and productions, especially those concerning secret societies and initiation rites. She is currently working at the MUDEC museum in Milan. Deborah Dainese got her master's degree in Art History at Università Degli Studi di Padova in 2017. She started studying African art in 2014, analysing the Venice Biennale of 1922. After that, she focused her interests on the syncretism between Christian religion and West African art. She is currently working at the ethnographic collection of the Museo Diocesano G. P. Nonis is Vicenza.