Last year I was visiting the National Museum of Scotland on a day out in Edinburgh when I came up against one of Gerard Quenum’s sculptures for the first time. I find that art produces several different types of positive effect in me if I like it. Sometimes it’s a technical appreciation, sometimes it’s a sense of connection with what the artist is representing or trying to say. And sometimes there is something deeper, something where the visual elements of a piece of work combine to create messages, messages which touch our own visual memories which are connected to experience. These are the pieces of work which you can never forget, which can even come to superimpose themselves over your own emotional memories as a kind of synthesis of all the things which that piece connects for you.
For me straight away the sculpture brought vividly memories of my childhood home Nairobi and the city’s copious rubbish dumps, bits of coloured plastic, broken toys, and mangy dogs, but also of the many traditional tribal dolls which as a backdrop were ever present images when I was growing up in one way or another.
L’Ange is a towering wooden structure ( a reclaimed upended drum) with one of Quenum’s trademarks, a dolls head, blackened and damaged. The piece if also unique in that the eyes of the doll are actually made out of a wasp’s nest, which happened by chance in Quenum’s studio whilst he was creating the piece. (You can read about the conservation efforts in relation to this aspect in an interesting article here: http://blog.nms.ac.uk/2013/08/12/for-your-eyes-only-repairing-gerard-quenums-lange/)
I remember staring up at this piece and feeling the sensation of fire burning, charring the wood and the plastic, and knowing that this was a piece of art and an artist that I was not going to forget in a hurry.
Quenum was born in 1971 in Porto Novo, Benin and is part of a movement of francophone African artists now starting to receive international recognition for their work. Quenum’s work has risen from a form of street art springing out of Porto Novo and Cotonou where spontaneous exhibitions are organised in the city streets. This “Boulev’art” (Art on the Boulevard) is beginning to gain international popularity and Quenum now has a considerable list of joint and solo exhibitions on the national scene under his belt. As well as exhibiting in Benin and other African countries such as Senegal and Togo Quenum has also exhibited in London, France and Brazil.
It isn’t hard to see why Quenum’s work has enjoyed some success. Whether you love it or hate it there is no denying that these altered dolls are both striking and memorable. I suppose on some level it saddens me that the first reaction people seem to have to the pieces is “that’s weird” or “freaky” or some such thing. Whilst it is obvious that these pieces are meant to have some unsettling effect, it is a shame to see so many people dismiss the work as an attention grabbing gimmick when there is so much behind this work.
Quenum’s work is produced almost exclusively using reclaimed and repurposed materials, most notably wood and bits of old dolls. The dolls, almost always originally white baby dolls, then undergo a transformation process, usually using fire to blacken their skin and to frizz up their hair. These alien baby dolls, given to African children, are being transformed into something which resembles to a greater extent these children. They are also being transformed into something which many times resembles traditional African dolls or masks, whilst always at the same time retaining something incongruous. It is this incongruity which makes people uncomfortable but it is also what makes Quenum’s work so hauntingly beautiful. There is a disturbing lost innocence about these reworked dolls, something which makes them both comforting and potentially terrifying. I suppose another thing that they brought immediately to my mind were child soldiers, innocent faces, scarred and marked by the histories of war torn countries. Can innocence exist where situations of extreme exploitation of the human being exist? La Vendangeuse (The Reaper) above perfectly illustrates this for me. The doll here is joined by another familiar childhood figure for Europeans, a stuffed Disney Tigger toy, but it is totally out of place. The elongated hooded figure reminds me of the many nomadic herds people who are so common a view in many African countries, and the children who are so often occupied with looking after their livestock, carrying their blankets around with them to sleep with the animals. However there is a darker side to this, The Reaper, is also death. The face of innocence in conjunction with the concept of the Grim Reaper calls to mind again for me child soldiers, agents of death hiding behind unexpected guises.
Quenum’s work is well worth a look at and if you happen to be travelling through Edinburgh go and see the real thing. At the least its something totally different, at the most it might be a new obsession.