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Monaco, Africa
by Carlo McCormick
Geography is both irrelevant and undeniably important when it comes to culture. No, the "Monaco" of our title is not some embattled island off the coast of Africa -- it is, of course, Europe’s smallest and quite possibly richest nation (next to the Vatican, which doesn’t open its books), lying in the splendor of the French Riviera. For its grand fifth anniversary celebration as Monaco’s single institution dedicated to contemporary art, the Grimaldi Forum unveiled a monumental tribute to the "Arts of Africa," July 16-Sept. 4, 2005. For anyone interested in taking the measure of globalism in the arts, understanding the vast power of cultural tourism, examining the ongoing convergence of museum and corporate space, or investigating the ways in which the "foreign" continues to operate as spectacle, "Arts of Africa" is a lexicon of everything brilliant and bothersome about these contemporary issues.

The implicit and inescapable irony of showcasing the treasures of the world’s poorest continent in its most mannered and moneyed municipality is counterbalanced by the historic internationality of Monaco (around 112 different nationalities in a place less than half the size of Central Park, and an annual tourist influx that is more than three times the size of its own population), and the fact that, like almost every exhibition the Grimaldi has mounted, "Arts of Africa" is by any measure a most remarkable achievement.

With an economy totaling around €63 billion -- some of it certainly from its most famous industry, gambling (which dates to 1863, when Prince Charles III made Lord Grimaldi into a full Prince), but most of it found in the banking industry of this preeminent tax haven -- the Grimaldi Forum is able to employ the most expedient curatorial tactic: get the very best that money can buy. No wonder Guggenheim director Thomas Krens has been sniffing around this joint since before it was built.

"Arts of Africa" is, in fact, two shows rolled into one: a massive and important show of ancient African art held in large part in a (square) ring of galleries around the outside of the forum, and a wide-ranging selection of contemporary work from throughout the continent in a maze of galleries in the center. The spectacle of the unknown "other" worked quite differently in the two shows. Certainly the more important of the two was in the exterior square where one of the most riveting collections of ancient African art ever assembled held spellbinding court. But, at the same time, the diverse and dynamic array of contemporary art, with its pluralist eclecticism, was maybe more interesting for generalist art-world tastes. The absolute authority of the historical component of "Arts of Africa" is very hard to argue with, while the far more subjective selection of contemporary art is precisely the kind of thing that one cannot help but to argue with.

Curiously, the agendas of these two shows seemed to express opposite attitudes towards the inherent misunderstanding of the Western viewer -- the scholarship surrounding the antiquities comes at the expense of immediacy, foregrounding how we can only experience this work through a kind of Eurocentric myopia, while the uneven selectivity of the contemporary art bordered on unmitigated vanity. On the one hand, the restraint of academia. On the other, the utter lack of restraint of the professional art collector.

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Defending the glory of the academic side at the Grimaldi Forum was the august sage Ezio Bassani, one of the first scholars on the traditional arts of Africa, and still one of the foremost. Bassani, now in his 80s, entered this once neglected field through the most modest of scholarly pursuits -- trying to catalogue how centuries of African art had made it into the private and museum collections of Europe.

As a curator for "Arts of Africa," Bassani’s decision to forego all ethnographic mandates, mixing centuries and geographies in pursuit of esthetics, is radical. Focusing on figurative work rather than utilitarian objects, and giving each section hackneyed titles like "Surrealism" or "Expressionism," Ezio was willing to admit that "this is a history that is 7,000 years old, and as much as I may know, I really have no idea -- we simply do not know the reason for this work."

If Bassani’s imposed categories make one cringe in light of the great "Primitivism" debate, he is also happy to enter incisively into that dispute. "The artists in Europe were not particularly inspired by African art," Bassani explains (offering by way of example a brutal critique of Picasso’s collection as trivial junk). "What they found was the same solution for the problems they had -- but it was for an entirely different reason, not at all as a direct influence."

This argument can be left to more knowledgeable and opinionated minds. Make no mistake, however –- the focus that Bassani brings to this show is based on over 35 years of pure research without a taint of commercial interest. Bassani knows exactly where every major work of African art is stashed and he has the resources to pry the very best of them loose for the brief duration of a show that will not travel.

Wearied by his efforts, Ezio sighed. "This is the last show I will do," he told us -- then moved on with the determined gait of a perfectionist to attend to the final details.

On its opening night, Stephan Martin, a man who may well be Bassani’s intellectual heir, kindly took a moment to walk through the show with me. Currently assembling what will be an unrivaled collection of African art opening in late May ("around my birthday I hope"), Martin’s position at the Musee du Quai Branley (what most Parisians simply call the "Chirac Museum") might give him cause to dispute Bassani’s curatorial decisions.

But quite the contrary, his admiration was evident. When we asked Martin if Bassani’s emphasis on esthetics over ethnography is not a breach in historical practice, Stephan patiently reiterated the dilemma that Bassani himself had already tried to lodge in my thick head. "If you put it in a museum, it is art," Martin shrugged. "I could take your jacket and display it as art -- in the end everything is both ethnographic and esthetic." (In fairness to Martin, I must confess that I was dressed pretty damn swelligant that night.)

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At Grimaldi, contemporary African art -- a hybrid of European-inspired fine art vernaculars emerging out of post-colonialism and mixing with the styles of multinational globalism -- proved to be not so very different from the machinations of the more familiar world of contemporary art from Europe and America. For this glimpse of African art today, we can thank the uber-collector Jean Pigozzi, whose preeminent collection of African art dates back to his first visit to the seminal "Magicians of the Earth" exhibition at the George Pompidou Center in 1989.

An eclectic array of some of the very best -- and arguably among the worst -- art ever produced, the Pigozzi Collection is in every way a testament to the eccentricities of a visionary collector who follows a singular passion rather than the passing whims of public opinion. Nevertheless, for all his grand holdings, Jean Pigozzi has never stepped foot on the Dark Continent himself. For this task, there is Andre Magnin, an assistant curator of the 1989 "Magicians" show and the perfect person to fulfill Pigozzi’s extravagant desire to establish himself as a collector of the unique.

For Magnin, Pigozzi’s offer was "an opportunity to continue my work, a matter of trust, offering total freedom. He told me, I will pay for your research and you will make me a collection."

It is a true marriage of convenience, with Jean a thuggish, egocentric heir of the Simca Fiat automotive fortunes, and Andre a disarmingly charming, articulate and erudite front man. Witnessing Pigozzi’s behavior would make one sorely tempted to shorten his name by two syllables, and Magnin’s rote apologies for his boss -- "he’s just very timid and reserved, he’s dyslexic and afraid of making mistakes" –- only wind up making it all seem like some abusive pimp/whore dynamic.

I’m sure there’s a fascinating story in all this. Even as Magnin expressed his regrets that Jean was unable to join any of the international media assembled for the opening, Pigozzi himself was spending his time between yacht and villa in the exclusive company of those honored hacks from his old pal Graydon Carter’s little zine Vanity Fair.

Magnin is fine, with plenty to argue and much more to admire in his tastes, but when I asked him if the other three curators who worked on "Magicians of the Earth" have also continued in this field, he said quite sadly no. Which made it all the more interesting when, a few hours later, I enjoyed two French journalists debating the relative merits of Pigozzi’s Grimaldi show in comparison to a major exhibition of contemporary African art also currently on view -- organized by two of Magnin’s "Magician" cohorts, apparently not quite so out of the game as Andre had told me.

Monaco’s a small place, almost as small as the art world.

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Sniping aside, the Grimaldi Forum has presented in the finest fashion an exhibition that is more than worth the visit and substantial in ways that other institutions would have a hard time matching. The living artists, such wonders when you meet them in person, were marvels to spend time with, and one regrets the rather curious decision not to credit their names or the titles of their works in the exhibition.

Most interesting of all, perhaps, is that beautiful little jewel, the Grimaldi Forum itself. It’s not really a museum at all: it’s a "cultural center" in the broad civic sense of the term, functionally a convention center. Ever practical, a city that has made itself a sovereign state and a place that may be happy to take your money at the tables but forbids its own citizens from gambling, Monaco understands the true nature of tourism as a cultural and business practice, using the Grimaldi as host to endless corporate congregations.

But gripe all we may about how museums in the States have become corporate shills, or deride Japan’s cultural institutions as overblown shopping malls, the Grimaldi Forum is as solid as its towering walls, far less compromised than most of those other revered shrines of fine arts and, as "Arts of Africa" showed, bold in its mission.

CARLO MCCORMICK is senior editor of Paper Magazine.