<strong>Gérard Quenum</strong>, <em>Femmes Peul</em>, 2007.<br>Wood, doll, wire, hardware, 203 x 37 x 16 cm.<strong>Gérard Quenum</strong>, <em>Clandestins (Stowaways)</em>, 2009.<br>
Wood, metal and plastic dolls, 151 x 405cm<strong>Gérard Quenum</strong>, <em>Mère du Secret (Mother of Secrets)</em>, 2008.<br>
Wood, doll, plastic and metal, 200 x 30cm.


21 May - 27 June 2009
Gérard QuenumL’Ange (Angel), 2008.
Wood, clay, metal, twine and plastic doll, 229 x 28 cm.
Gérard QuenumModéliste (The Model), 2008.
Wood, metal and plastic doll, 228 x 30 x 30 cm.

Gérard Quenum was born in the coastal town of Porto Novo, the official capital of the Republic of Benin, in 1971. He is part of the latest generation of sophisticated young francophone artists now breaking out of Africa and demanding wider recognition for their art on the international stage. Benin has long been blessed with a wealth of outstanding contemporary artists, with Cyprien Tokoudagba and Georges Adeagbo coming early to the attention of western collectors in the late 80’s and early 90’s. Hot on their heels came ever more celebrated artists such as Romuald Hazoumè, Dominique Kouas, the Dakpogan brothers et al. More recently, a rising generation of “street artists” has been developing around Porto Novo and Cotonou, This tightly-knit group, marshalled by the eccentric creativity of Dominique Zinkpé, arranged spontaneous exhibitions of their work not in the fine art galleries (of which Benin boasts precious few!) but outside on the city streets. They called this succession of guerrilla exhibitions - “Boulev’art” (Art on the Boulevard). Gerard Quenum stands out amongst these younger tyros, as the original creator of a distinct sculptural style, and, with growing maturity, his work is now to be found in galleries on the grand Boulevards of Paris as well as the finer streets of London.

Like that of many contemporary African artists, Quenum’s work is composed of recycled objects whose diverse histories contribute much to the overall significance of the pieces themselves. But what gives his art its unique twist is his signature use of discarded dolls added to the mix of objets trouvés – that elevates the pieces into witty and whimsical ‘portraits’ of individuals or types observed in his local environment. These ‘portraits’ serve as a lens through which we see (or imagine we see) Africa itself. It is important to understand the pre-existent story with which these dolls – none of which are indigenous African dolls – are invested.

The dolls are the remains of overseas aid parcels sent to Africa by well-meaning organisations that imagine that the discarded toys of first-world children are something that might aid an African child’s development. With his models secured he begins the process of transformation that most commonly begins with a blow-torch to blacken the white skin and singe the hair into a better approximation of a frizzy “Afro” hair-style than was ever possessed by the original. Before they take their place upon the stages he devises, his actors have at least been ‘Africanised’. Now all that remains for Quenum is the weaving of a story around each doll to complete their transformation into players that strut their parts upon his innovative stages. The invention lies in the subtle complexities of the tale as re-told. In the compelling “African Barbie” we are asked to reconsider the elegant world of white women and girls re-modelled and reinterpreted under a new African light.

Writing of the intensity of Quenum’s work, Jackie Wullschlager in the Financial Times, has no hesitation in dropping the names of a few prominent western artists into the same sentence. The pair of cattle-herders in Gérard Quénum's "Femmes Peul" bring to mind street life, shattered childhoods, broken bodies, man and beast, junk art, consumer culture, voodoo, masks, Picasso, Warhol, Giacometti... and she does so in the full consciousness that in a decade from now the names of African artists of this quality will be just as widely known to us as their western counterparts and forebears. This wonderful piece is currently being shown at the entrance to The Sainsburys African Galleries at The British Museum.