BY Sean O'Toole in Features | 01 OCT 17
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The context and legacy of Jean-Hubert Martin’s contentious 1989 exhibition, ‘Magiciens de la terre’

BY Sean O'Toole in Features | 01 OCT 17

Few artists have painted their critics but, then, why should they? Of those artists who have – I think of Gustave Courbet’s portrait of Charles Baudelaire (1848), Édouard Manet’s likeness of his biographer Théodore Duret (1868) and Beauford Delaney’s many studies of his close friend James Baldwin in the mid-20th century – none of the subjects really counts as a flighty hack. To realize the paucity of this minor sub-genre, one simply need look to the many and varied portraits of dealers by, among others, Otto Dix, Amedeo Modigliani, Pablo Picasso, Man Ray, Vincent van Gogh and Andy Warhol. The emergence of photography and performance as dominant media in the latter part of the 20th century did little to dent this time-honoured ritual, as Maurizio Cattelan’s dealer-centred works involving Emmanuel Perrotin (1995) and Massimo De Carlo (1999) suggest. Tracey Rose’s whacky 2007 public pantomime involving Johannesburg dealer Linda Givon offers breadth in a practice dominated by white, northern men.

This summer, at the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris, I found myself thinking about this sidebar to the history of art while looking at Kinshasa-born artist Chéri Samba’s large autobiographical painting, L’Espoir fait vivre no. 2 (Hope Springs Eternal No.2, 1997). Flatly painted in Samba’s sign-writing style, with glitter, sequins and a sampling of photos pasted onto the surface of his acrylic composition, the work troubles the pat narrative of how the artist came to international notice. In abbreviated biographies of Samba, curator Jean-Hubert Martin’s mega-show ‘Magiciens de la terre’ (Magicians of the Earth, 1989) is repeatedly credited with launching the career of this wickedly self-absorbed painter with a worldly outlook. The exhibition, which addressed what art historian Benjamin Buchloh described at the time as ‘the question of cultural decentralization’, hardly registers in L’Espoir fait vivre no. 2

An update of an earlier work titled L’Espoir fait vivre no. 1 (1989), which is similarly dominated by Samba’s self-portrait, the later painting includes numerous photographs: of the artist, his Kinshasa studio and individuals linked to his career. Among the 19 figures catalogued in L’Espoir fait vivre no. 2 are the  Congolese filmmaker Mwezé Ngangura, who, in 1980, produced the documentary Chéri Samba. There is also a photograph of the journalist Jean-François Bizot, whose reportage in the pop culture magazine Actuel encouraged Parisian dealer André Magnin (also pictured) to visit Kinshasa in 1987 on a scouting trip for Martin’s exhibition. Martin, too, features in Samba’s constellation of influential cohorts, along with historian J.P. Jacquemin, Paris dealer Jean-Marc Patras, Congolese filmmaker Simon Mbaki Mazakala and, of course, collector Jean Pigozzi.


Mike Chukwukelu, Ijele (Prison), 1989 and Barbara Kruger, On n’a plus besoin de héros (We Don’t Need another Hero), 1989, installation view, ‘Magiciens de la terre’, Pompidou Centre, Paris, 1989. Courtesy: the artists and RMN, Paris

L’Espoir fait vivre no. 2 forms part of Pigozzi’s extensive collection of African art, which Suzanne Pagé, artistic director of the Louis Vuitton Foundation, judiciously mined for her exhibition ‘The Insiders’ earlier this year. A showcase of 15 key artists from Pigozzi’s 10,000-piece Contemporary African Art Collection (CAAC), the exhibition was staged alongside two other Africa-themed shows:‘Being There’, a deferential if stodgy showcase of 16 South African artists, and an untitled selection from the foundation’s African holdings. When I travelled to Paris to see ‘Art/Afrique, le nouvel atelier’ (Art/Africa, The New Workshop), as the trio of shows was jointly marketed, I had anticipated disliking Pigozzi’s exhibition. (I’ll explain why in a moment.) However, the vivid tones, joyful eccentricity and singular vision of Samba and fellow exhibiting artists Frédéric Bruly Bouabré and Bodys Isek Kingelez, all of whom appeared in ‘Magiciens de la terre’, won me over.

‘The Insiders’ was not a tribute show in any shape or form, but it was also impossible to view Pagé’s exhibition and not think of the consequences of ‘Magiciens de la terre’. ‘For me, at the time, African art was what you saw in The Metropolitan Museum in New York: magnificent African statues, gold jewellery, masks, etc.,’ Pigozzi told Pagé in an interview distributed with promotional material for ‘The Insiders’. ‘I had no idea that contemporary African art was so alive and so diverse.’ After seeing the show, he immediately called Martin, who put Pigozzi in contact with Magnin: the two have been associates ever since, Magnin serving as Pigozzi’s go-to dealer and CAAC’s tastemaker. 

Pigozzi, who inherited the Simca automobile fortune at a young age, is a controversial collector. Some of the criticisms levelled against him (his wealth, bargaining skills, promotional nous) are tendentious. Others, like the fact that Pigozzi has never personally visited Africa and speaks of his collection as a form of philanthropy, are harder to square. His collection, which focuses on sub-Saharan artists, has only been exhibited on the continent once, in Marrakech (sans Pigozzi), which is odd given CAAC’s proscription against North African (and diaspora) artists. In fairness, all collections are biased, nor is a thoughtful collector required to travel. Isaac Kaplan, a South African industrialist who collected Japanese netsuke (ornate, button-like toggles used by kimono wearers, which date back to the emer-gence of the mercantile class in the 17th century) never visited Japan during his lifetime. But it is Pigozzi’s strong preference for untrained artists that poses a difficulty, one that summons the enduring legacy of ‘Magiciens de la terre’.

‘I am interested in artists whose creativity is not “polluted” by the teaching given at art school, or by going to museums where you can see Renoirs, Klimts or Picassos,’ Pigozzi told Pagé. ‘In fact, the artists in the collection [are] nearly all autodidacts whose inspiration came […] from their culture, from their every day life.’ Pigozzi has had to revise his proscription. CAAC now includes work by the Swaziland-born sculptor Nandipha Mntambo, Zimbabwean multi-media artist Kudzanai Chiurai and Zimbabwean-Swiss sculptor Daniel Halter. But none of these artists, who all attended South African art schools, featured in ‘The Insiders’. Also absent from Pagé’s elegant foray into Pigozzi’s collection was the painter and muralist Esther Mahlangu, who, in 1989 – a time of great social strife and artistic innovation in her homeland – was the only South African artist invited to participate in ‘Magiciens de la terre’. She did a two-month residency, re-creating a model of her rural home decorated with De Stijl-like abstract murals; it was shown near a work by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen.

Nera Jambruk, Papouasie Nouvelle Guinée (Papua New Guinea), 1988, installation view, ‘Magiciens de la terre’, Pompidou Centre, Paris, 1989. Courtesy: the artist and RMN, Paris

Martin’s exhibition presented mostly new work by 100 artists, an equal number chosen from Euro-American and non-Western countries. Martin, who began planning the show in 1985, shortly after leaving his post as director of Kunsthalle Bern, presented his selection across two venues: the grand hall at Parc de la Villette and a floor of the Pompidou Centre. The exhibition was non-hierarchical in the sense that it juxtaposed established artists such as Marina Abramovic, John Baldessari, Louise Bourgeois and Sigmar Polke with a broad constit-uency of non-Western folk artists, crafters, shamans, priests and hard-to-classify vision-aries like Kingelez. Martin’s curatorial strategy drew on varied, often antithetical, influences. Some were particular to a French lineage of exhibition-making. He admired André Breton, whose collaborative method and orchestration of works by contemporary artists with objects of culture for the ‘Exposition internationale du Surréalisme’ (1938) proposed a relational strategy that endures in Martin’s practice.

As important, though, were the cultural tremors and political realignments shaping artistic and curatorial practice in 1980s New York. Martin, who in 1987 took over as director of the Musée national d’art moderne at the Pompidou, was especially primed by the critical backlash to William Rubin and Kirk Varnedoe’s 1984 exhibition ‘“Primitivism” in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern’ at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. He read Thomas McEvilley’s influential Artforum review in the November 1984 issue. Entitled ‘Doctor Lawyer Indian Chief’, the piece argued that the exhibition’s cavalier search for affinities between unequally assembled objects showed ‘Western egotism still as unbridled as in the centuries of coloni-alism and souvenirism’. McEvilley added: ‘The Museum pretends to confront the Third World while really co-opting it and using it to consolidate Western notions of quality and feelings of superiority.’ 

In his 2013 obituary in the New York Times for McEvilley, art critic Holland Cotter described his review as one of the ‘opening salvos in an argument about multiculturalism’. ‘Magiciens de la terre’ plunged viewers headlong into this multicultural moment, which was as conflicted and ripe as the present. The exhibition opened  in May. A month later, Chinese student protestors occupying Tiananmen Square were violently suppressed. Along with the fall of the Berlin wall, the failed student protest in Beijing was one of the year’s defining events. But 1989 is not that easily summarized. Chileans voted in the first free election in 16 years. The Simpsons premiered on Fox. A decades-old war between South Africa and Angola rumbled on in Namibia. Iran placed a sizeable bounty on author Salman Rushdie’s head in protest of his novel The Satanic Verses (1988). Zaire’s dictatorial ruler, Mobutu Sese Seko, charted a Concorde flight from a purpose-built airport near Gbadolite to New York. Taylor Swift was born. 

Amid all of this, a press communiqué in January 1989 from the Pompidou Centre prom-ised an exhibition whose reach would exceed
‘new developments in Sydney, São Paolo, Havana  and New Delhi, as well as in Venice, Kassel or Pittsburgh’. Geographical reach aside, the exhibition would also deliver a new optic: ‘The time has come to look again at the categories, as well as the geographical and cultural boundaries, which have divided and prejudiced opinions on the relations between different cultures in the world.’ Martin expanded on this promise in the preface to his 272-page cata-logue (which strategically included an essay by McEvilley, among others). ‘Magiciens de la terre’, he argued, was the ‘first truly international exhi-bition, bringing together artists from all over the world’. Its wide reach was crucial: Martin described as cultural arrogance ‘the commonly accepted ideas that there is only any creation in the visual arts in the Western or markedly Westernized world’. What mattered most, he told Buchloh in a preemptive polemic appearing in Art in America in May 1989, is the ‘relation-ship between the maker of the object and the community which relates to that object’.


Chéri Samba, L’Espoir fait vivre n°2 (Hope Springs Eternal No. 2), 1997, acrylic, glitter, sequins and mixed media on canvas, 1.3 × 1.9 m. Courtesy: the artist, CAAC – The Pigozzi Collection and Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris

‘Magiciens de la terre’ split opinion. Pigozzi  was deeply moved; its influence on Belgian antiquarian Axel Vervoordt, who asked Martin to curate the mesmerizing exhibition ‘Artempo: Where Time Becomes Art’ (2007) at the Palazzo Fortuny in Venice, is obvious. But history also records that The New York Times art critic Michael Brenson thought Martin’s exhibition a ‘failed show’ in his round-up of 1989. Brenson, however, revisited the exhibition in his hand-wringing review of ‘The Decade Show: Frameworks of Identity in the 1980s’ (1990), a showcase of 200 works by 94 artists of Hispanic, Asian, African-American, Native American and European heritage jointly staged in New York by The Museum of Contemporary Hispanic Art, the New Museum and The Studio Museum. As is now an entrenched habit for anyone discussing ‘Magiciens de la terre’, Brenson referred to Buchloh’s Art in America dialogue with Martin, which was based on two conversations in 1986 and 1988.

‘The term “quality” has been eliminated from my vocabulary, since there is simply no convincing system to establish relative and binding criteria of quality for such a project,’ stated Martin. ‘We know very well that even the directors of the great Western museums do not have any reliable criteria to establish a consensus on this issue.’ Brenson had some thoughts in response to Martin, mostly to do with the political Left’s ‘tendency to see Western culture as mono-lithic’. But I am more interested in parsing Martin’s statement about the pleasures and biases – what he calls ‘reliable criteria’ – that motivate powerful men and women in museums. In 2013, French publishing house Flammarion released L’Art au large (Off-Shore Art), a collec-tion of Martin’s writings that include his travel notes. His bedside reading in Africa, he reveals, was L’Afrique fantôme (Phantom Africa, 1934), a travel diary and proto-ethnographic text by early Surrealist Michel Leiris, who, later in life, became an established ethnographer. But it is Martin’s notes from his 1987 visit to Benin, Nigeria and Togo that are most telling. In Benin City, he met with Aghama Omoruyi, an influential museum director and French-trained artist who is related to Benin’s royal family. Martin asked Omoruyi about the shrines of the Olokun cult: ‘He is an artist himself and explains to us that they are statues made by uneducated people, which, as a result, have no artistic value,’ noted Martin.

In a methodical review of L’Art au large for the journal Critique d’art in 2013, Paris-based art historian Maureen Murphy writes, ‘Martin was happier choosing objects coming from the popular and the religious spheres, preferring the idea of otherness and differ-ence so dear to the West, keen to conserve an “elsewhere” and a share of regenerative other-ness.’ But this is the present clarifying the past by interpolation. Simon Njami, an influential Swiss-born Cameroonian curator who lives in Paris, is one of the few people I know who saw Martin’s exhibition. Njami once told me how seeing Mahlangu attending to her ‘hut’ had deeply affected him. It clarified the focus and heft of his future curatorial activism. ‘Africa has always been subject or object,’ remarked Njami in a March 2017 interview with the French weekly Le Point. ‘Everyone has their opinion on this continent that has long been defined from outside.’ Far from being a corrective, ‘Magiciens de la terre’ was simply another example of this trend.

Martin’s exhibition is not without its defenders. In the opening passage to his book, The Radicant (2009), curator Nicolas Bourriaud proposes ‘Magiciens de la terre’ as a kind of year zero, when art entered ‘into a globalized world shorn of master narratives’. The show is also listed in curator Jens Hoffmann’s book Show Time: The 50 Most Influential Exhibitions of Contemporary Art (2014). Hoffmann is an admirer of Martin’s thinking, ‘the relationship  he fosters between art and non-art, between the contemporary and the historical’, as he explained in a 2014 interview for MutualArt. I share his admiration. But I am also mindful of Lagos-based curator Bisi Silva’s laughter when I asked her if she saw Martin’s big show: ‘I missed it!’ Silva had just finished studying languages at university in Dijon and was well placed to see ‘Magiciens de la terre’. Instead, she made a beeline for London to see artist and writer Rasheed Araeen’s exhibition, ‘The Other Story: Afro-Asian Artists in Post-War Britain’ (1989), at the Hayward Gallery. Looking back at the show, which profiled 24 artists, participating artist Eddie Chambers writes in Black Artists in British Art: A History since the 1950s (2014) of how Araeen (who had work in ‘Magiciens’) was ‘able to excavate and narrate histories that were, astonishingly, relatively unknown to even some of the exhibitors themselves’. 

Esther Mahlangu, Maison (House) 1989, installation view, ‘Magiciens de la terre’, Pompidou Centre, Paris, 1989. Courtesy: the artist and RMN, Paris

There is something about Chambers’s empathetic remark that holds me: the way he directs us to think about history as a plural thing, often in need of retrieval, and vested with the potential to astonish. Martin was certainly aiming for that with ‘Magiciens de la terre’ and in large part achieved it – but at what expense? The meta-phorical foot traffic still enjoyed by his exhibition has, I would venture, been at the expense of an entire constellation of activist-orientated exhibi-tions made with a post-colonial, globalized world in mind. Some of the better-known examples include the 1973 São Paulo Biennial, a broadly international showcase of new, post-painterly approaches; the 1993 edition of the Whitney Biennial, an inclusive showcase of diverse iden-tities that highlighted new lens-based practices; and Okwui Enwezor’s socially engaged and geographically diffuse documenta 11 (2002). But there are as many worthy exhibitions that have been overlooked.

They include South African curator Ricky Burnett’s BMW-sponsored ‘Tributaries: A View of Contemporary South African Art’ (1985) in an annexe of the Market Theatre in Johannesburg, which anticipated Martin’s off-the-map prospecting and determined negotiation of the borders between art and ethnography. Described in 1994 by partici-pating artist William Kentridge as ‘our Armory show’, Burnett’s exhibition only delivered regional acupuncture – which doesn’t disqualify it from wider appraisal. Of course, Burnett was a white man exercising judgment in late-apartheid South Africa, a situation which is not without complications and contradictions. The independence movements, notably in Africa and the Indian subcontinent, were among the defining historical events of the 20th century. Martin understood this. He offered ‘Magiciens de la terre’ as a counterpoint to ‘L’Exposition coloniale’ (1931), which showcased the bounty of France’s colonial imperium in Paris.

British curator Frank McEwen’s entanglement  in the British Empire may account for why his first (and only) ‘International Congress of African Culture’ (ICAC, 1962) at the Rhodes National Gallery in Salisbury, Rhodesia (now Harare, Zimbabwe), is also overlooked. A pan- African exhibition and symposium, ICAC showcased an astonishing selection of pre- modern African sculpture, albeit quarantined from modern paintings by, among others, Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso, Nigerian painter and sculptor Ben Enwonwu and Mozambican painter and poet Malangatana Ngwenya. In the accompanying catalogue, McEwen offered Africa as ‘that welcome other extreme to our unrelaxed inquietude [sic] and the robot welfare state’. Never mind his essay. In a 2014 study of McEwen’s project in The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, Yaëlle Biro, a curator of African arts at the Met, notes that ICAC was ‘subversive, almost anticolonial in tone’.

An important precursor event to the two global festivals of black arts held in post-independence Dakar (1966) and Lagos (1977), ICAC also cast a spotlight on new talent. The British artist, historian, poet and co-founder of London’s Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), Roland Penrose – who attended ICAC with Alfred H. Barr Jr. of MoMA and Dadaist poet Tristan Tzara – invited Ngwenya to show with Sudanese artist Ibrahim El-Salahi at the ICA in 1963. Tate Modern missed this detail when it gave El-Salahi a retrospective in 2013. History often involves forgetting, until we are reminded, in this instance, that ‘Magiciens de la terre’ was not without precedent – that it was, in fact, consistent with a number of ambi-tious exhibitions engaged by the socially messy, interpenetrating and transactional nature of globalism and its relationship to older and other forms of artistic practice. The outsized reputation of Martin’s exhibition is just that: an exaggeration – as Samba’s 1997 painting reminds us. Rather than tether our thinking to ‘Magiciens de le terre’ alone, Martin’s exhibition better serves as a jumping-off point: into the future, but also back into a forgotten past that deserves further excavation and remembering.

Main image: Installation view of ‘International Congress of African Culture’, 1962, a pan-African exhibition at the Rhodes National Gallery, Salisbury, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), which set a precedent for ‘Magiciens de la terre’, the Pompidou Centre, Paris, 1989. Courtesy: National Gallery of Zimbabwe, Harare

Sean O’Toole is a contributing editor of frieze, based in Cape Town, South Africa.