André Magnin

Interview & Photography by: Mart Engelen


André Magnin was born in 1952 and works as an independent curator since 1980. In 1986 he began his research into contemporary art in non-Western cultures, especially throughout Africa for the exhibition Black Magicians of the Earth at the Centre Georges Pompidou and the Grande halle de la Villette. Since 1989 he has established the emblematic Pigozzi Collection which he directed for twenty years. He has held numerous solo exhibitions and group in museums, art centers and foundations around the world. In 2009, he founded MAGNIN-A, whose mission is to promote contemporary African art on the international art market.

Mart Engelen: For more than twenty years you were curator of Jean Pigozzi’s contemporary African art collection and now you have your own art gallery/enterprise which represents more than twenty African artists. Is this a big change?
André Magnin: For about twenty years, contemporary African art was almost unknown. Thanks to Pigozzi we could do serious research and create a collection by African artists who were living in Afrique Noire which we could show to the whole world. We had a kind of exclusivity because we were almost the only ones. At the time, it was a political and aesthetic project which aimed to present a good image of Africa. The only images of Africa we saw were war, poverty, conflict and so on. But there was also richness. A tremendous richness in theatre, dance, music and photography. I was always convinced that we could show a different Africa through these artists, and by creating this unique collection, they became visible to a wider audience through international museums. But after twenty years of many exhibitions and extensive travel with these artists all over the world, Jean Pigozzi said, “But we still don’t see these artists on the international art market, at fairs like FIAC PARIS, Art Basel”. It’s natural that after we spent twenty years building up this collection we are now starting to hear about Chéri Samba, Seydou Keïta, Romuald Hazoumé, Malick Sidibé, etc on the market. We bought almost everything they produced. Not only to support them but also with the idea of organising major group and solo exhibitions. After twenty years and all those exhibitions, I noticed I was repeating myself. So I regained my freedom and it was a logical step to show and sell their work to other collectors in the art market and create a market for contemporary African art. That’s what I have been doing since 2009. Another important point is that by creating this market for African art in the west we can also raise the profile of the Pigozzi collection and African artists, so everybody benefits.
ME: Throughout those years, did you feel a certain responsibility towards these artists? You are now selling their work and in the end the artist also wants to make money from his work.
AM: Of course, although over twenty years, thanks to Pigozzi, we bought many works by these artists and they lived quite well from their art. Samba, Bouabré, Hazoumé and many more, who were only known in their own country at the time, would sell single works for $300 or $400. Now you can easily pay $20,000 for a piece. For example, a big installation by Hazoumé can cost €300,000. So the artists live very well nowadays.
ME: Why did it take so long before people got interested in contemporary African art?
AM: There are various reasons. The first and, I think, most important one is the fact that the artists who live and work in Africa don’t have an ‘official’ structure, by which I mean there are no museums of contemporary art and almost no art galleries or collectors. So the artists are not supported in their own countries. This is a big contrast for instance with China, where they have museums, art foundations, collectors and so on.
ME: You represent a variety of artists in different disciplines, such as the photography of Malick Sidibé or the paintings of Chéri Samba. Do you have a preference?
AM: Of course. I work with thirty or forty artists but there are thousands of others. But like everybody I make my own choices, aesthetically and human. I have my reasons for liking the work of Chéri Samba. Apart from the aesthetic quality of his work, he is also somebody who has his own struggle; his paintings tell a very powerful story, he creates an awareness with his paintings. All my life I have loved artists who invent, create, a world. Great artists can always create a certain world, awareness and meaning.
ME: When do you consider photography as art?
AM: Let’s take Malick Sidibé as an example. When he started out with his reportage photography in Bamako just after Mali’s independence in 1960, he was fascinated by the enthusiasm and hope of the young people at the time. They discovered rock ’n roll, the twist, jerk, rock. They imported western music. They listened to The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles and so on just like we did. They also started to dress in a western way. They created nightclubs in Bamako with the names of their idols: The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Vespa, Dandy. Every Saturday night they organised surprise parties. They sent invitations all over and these parties were in competition with each other. The most successful was the club where the guys and girls were best dressed and that had the latest records and girls who could dance very well and were beautiful. At the time, three people were very important in this scene: photographer Malick Sidibé, DJ Garrincha and designer Ballo. They influenced style and fashion in Bamako. Malick Sidibé observed this scene with his camera very subtly. He wanted to share and document the joy, elegance and beauty with
all these people. You can feel this beauty and enthusiasm in all his photography even though it was reportage. He always said he loved photography so much that he wanted to give these young people the most beautiful image. So finally to answer your question: when a picture has a certain beauty and sense it becomes art. Not just because it is a historical document. When you look at the work of Robert Frank you can say it’s reportage photography. But the man has such a special vision that his work becomes art. It is the same with the work of Richard Avedon, it becomes art. When you look at his portraits you can find everything in them: pain, happiness, etc.
ME: Avedon always said that a photograph is a subjective interpretation and when it’s very strong it becomes art.
AM: Exactly, you can also find that in the work of Seydou Keïta. Look at the positioning of the hands, the clothes the women wear, etc. He also said he loved photography so much that he wanted to give his most beautiful image to his client. But apart from the beauty we learn so much more from his pictures.
ME: How do you explain the fact that that collectors have so much more interest in contemporary African art than museums?
AM: Well, I think we have to redefine this. After we put on the Magicians of the Earth exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 1989, the director, Jean Hubert Martin acquired works by Chéri Samba, Kingelez and Bouabré for its collection. Unfortunately they have acquired very few in the more than twenty years since then. On the other hand, every year for the last few years, Jean Pigozzi and I have organised an exhibition of contemporary African art in Tate Modern in London.
ME: Yes, but I read an article just yesterday which said that museums don’t have enough confidence in contemporary African art.
AM: I don’t think they know contemporary African art well enough. You mustn’t forget that apart from the artists we have shown in the museums there are still many who have not been introduced to the art market and so you can’t buy their work yet. That was one of the reasons I have created Magnin-A: tomake it possible to show the work of other artists and make their work accessible to private collectors and museums. It’s true I admit that the first buyers of artworks are private collectors. Because they are aware that there are very important artists in Africa and they can still acquire incredible works for reasonable prices. If you take Chinese artists for example, these days you can easily pay €500,000 or €1 million for a painting. Look at the Chéri Samba painting on the wall behind you, a very special work that costs €50k. There are collectors
who love the work of Chéri Samba, the price is very reasonable and you can expect it to increase rapidly in value. They have discovered Chinese art, Indian art, Latin American art, so it is just a matter of time before they discover African art. We are in the 21st century and we cannot continue to ignore African art.
ME: So the only reason that things are slow with African art is that people do not really know it?
AM: Correct. Because nobody goes to Africa. They have no really important art events. For a long time western curators did not go to Africa. If you arrive at Kinshasa airport, you have no idea where to go unless you are with someone who knows his way around. They don’t have galleries or museums. You have to know where the artists live. There are 10 million people living there. It’s chaos. You really have to go there.
ME: How do you discover new artists in Africa?
AM: We have worked with African artists for more than twenty years. Those artists have assistants who little by little they build up their freedom and develop their own work. They all know André Magnin because I have been there at least forty times. They all have my number on their mobile phones. They are now able to send their work by e-mail. Their e-mails start ‘Cher Maréchal’ because in Kinshasa they call me ‘Maréchal’ (laughs). It is also very important for them that I succeed in promoting artists from the Congo around the world.
ME: Is there something specific you like in African art?
AM: First of all, what does African art mean? There are many good artists. But you can’t compare a painting by Chéri Samba with the work of Romuald Hazoumé of Benin. It is a big continent with a great variety of art. But what interests me most are artists who have an engagement towards their community on a social, economic and political level. What I really love about Africa is that people are always in a good mood, are positive and try to make the best of things even when they live in poor conditions. They have a very good sense of humour. You can see that in their art.
ME: Where will contemporary African art be ten years from now?
AM: I hope that Africans will start to understand the importance of looking after their culture. The importance of creating museums in order to preserve their art. One of the problems with the exposure of African art is that the Africans themselves do not preserve their own art. They have just started this process and hopefully in ten years they will have an infrastructure with galleries, museums, private collectors, etc.
ME: Where will you be in ten years?
AM: (laughs) When you work in art, you’ll do it until you drop. By the way, an exhibition we have created called Histoires de voir: Show and Tell will open at the Fondation Cartier in Paris in a couple of weeks. It presents the work and narratives of over forty painters, sculptors and film-makers from around the world: Brazilian, Indian, Mexican, Danish, Japanese, and American and artists from the Congo including Bela, Djilatendo, Ilunga, Kalela, Kayembe, Albert Lubaki, Mbuya, Mwenze Kibwanga, Pili Pili, Yumba, P. Gréga and Lukanga. They emerged as artists and developed their talents in unusual circumstances; they have often been considered as naïve artists but are not and they have rarely been invited to exhibit their work in contemporary art institutions. The story of the African artists who are shown in this exhibition at the Fondation Cartier is extraordinary. They always said that there was nothing between traditional art and contemporary art in Africa. That is wrong. I knew that there was a form of art in the Congo in the 1920s and 1930s. We have found early paintings from those days thanks to two passionate art collectors from Belgium who, from 1926, actually started to show works by these Congolese artists in Europe, including at the opening of the Palais des Beaux Arts in Brussels in 1929. These artists had an incredible talent. Two important artists whose work was shown were Albert Lubaki and Djilatendo. Afterwards, the work was shown in Geneva in 1930 and then in the Galerie Charles Auguste-Girard in Paris. The show in Paris was an immediate success but did not last long. It was rumoured that the Lubaki works had been made by a European, possibly even Carlo Rim. This was disastrous for the exhibition, which flopped commercially. We did not hear about this early contemporary African art for a long time. At the end of the eighties, I found a book about ‘60 years of painting in Zaire’. I was immediately fascinated by the works of Djilatendo and Lubaki in it. By coincidence, years later I visited the art collector Pierre Loos in Brussels and he showed me his collection of 120 works, put together over the previous thirty years covering the beginning of l’art moderne in the Congo. You can see some of these wonderful works in this exhibition.