“Veilleurs du Monde”

Musée National des Arts d’Afrique et d’Océanie

Veilleurs du Monde” (Worldwatchers) came about through the efforts of Marion Laval-Jeantet and Benoît Mangin, two artists who work together under the name Art Orienté objet (AOo). Disappointed by the wave of recent exhibitions that drew supposed comparisons between contemporary European and African art and motivated by the desire to see a real collaboration established between artists of both continents, they organized a residency in the summer of 1997 in Cotonou, Benin, which brought together a small group of representatives from Europe and Africa, with the idea of pairing them off and giving each duo about a month to create a joint work of art. The three pieces born of these partnerships (first shown that summer at Cotonou’s French Cultural Center) formed the crux of the recent exhibition in Paris.

The starting point for this elaborate project (including its title) was an interview with Lester R Brown, founder of the Worldwatch Institute in Washington, which appeared in Le Monde in 1996. In the article, he warned against overpopulation and the overexploitation of the planet’s natural resources. The artists were asked to use as the basis of their process their differing opinions on the global ecological emergency, the status of the artist in society, or simply their cultural differences. Although not all the artists agreed on the nature of these problems or even on the way in which to incorporate those kinds of issues into a work of art, the differing opinion of each became a topic of reflection for all.

Indeed, of the three works undertaken, only the one produced by German artist Andreas Siekmann and Congolese artist Pume seems to form a coherent whole: Abstract figures constructed out of painted wood appear to hold up a sphere (the earth). Encircling the figures is a round, tablelike surface covered by a “photonovel.” In the photographs, the two artists walk around town and exchange views, shown in bubble quotes, on capitalism, the status of women, consumer society, and so on. By contrast, in the two-part work of AOo and Georges Adéagbo, the contributions of the respective participants remain distinct. The installation by the French artists, an assemblage of sixteen suspended metallic cages, hangs over that of the Beninese artist, a trail of objects, clothes, and books on the ground, gleaned at random from his life. The collaboration between Bodys Isek Kingelez of the Congo and Moscow artist Konstantin Zvezdotchetov resulted in two completely separate works: one an installation featuring a ping-pong table covered with potatoes and invoking Russia’s tumultuous past through a legendary general of the Red Army, the other a multilayered construction in the shape of a large star, a symbol of humanity, the divine, and the spiritual.

Reading the catalogue, which included interviews with each of the artists as well as journal entries by art critic Anaïd Demir charting the daily progress of the residency, one is not surprised to learn that Kingelez and Zvezdotchetov encountered problems in the process of creating a homogeneous work. In some sense the core of the project, the catalogue attests to the difficulties of bringing together two different cultural, artistic, and social conceptions in a harmonious fashion. The book puts into context the discussions, exchanges, and various tensions at the origin of each of the works, made up of two simultaneous contributions elaborated in conjunction with and defined in reaction to the other.

Valérie Breuvart

Translated from French by Jeanine Herman.