I missed the launch of Gérard Quenum’s Dolls Never Die Exhibition at the October Gallery last Wednesday evening, being double-booked in south London. However, I was set to attend the artist’s talk on Saturday 22. Having strategically slotted the event neatly into my London Open House itinerary, I arrived at the gallery at setting up time, allowing me the space to appreciate the Beninese artist’s current show. The sculptures reinforced his clearly distinctive imaginings with subject matters, featuring mainly cherub-like discarded dolls with wooden stelae - characters, within their various stage sets. Quenum’s work appears cloaked in a mantel of spirit forces. Why does he apply an innocuous toy to evoke such striking representations? Why this choice of materials to construct his visual language?
Gérard Quenum with The Good Shepherdess (photo. J Joseph)
To a question on his art practice direction, Quenum responded that for the time being, he would not be deviating from the use of dolls and objet trouvé. He could not relate to new objects as he coud to old, as recyclia has a previous life, an antiquity and a story. He spoke of his chance encounter with the main ingredient in his work. One day he came across the head of a doll in a puddle caked in mud and dirt and took it back to his studio. He did not incorporate the notion of the toy, or what that might represent into his sculptures for some time - nailing it to his studio wall. Strangely, my mind wandered to an image of the tar baby in the Uncle Remus stories - of Brer Fox, Brer Rabbit and the briar bush. After receiving various comments and reactions to this object on his studio wall, Quenum began to explore the artistic potential of the doll in his work. In my opinion, when I view his art, these devices are very effective, at times unsettling symbolic statements.
Quenum’s installation Death to the Dictator, Long Live Dictatorship!, reinforced the effect of an ‘island’ on the gallery floor. It became both land mass and boundary, within a sea of artist-to-audience discourse on his practice. The installation comprises, recycled kitchen mortars, (used to pound staples such as yams, throughout West Africa) placed sideways on a bed of sand. He explains that they were damaged from domestic use. I visualised their fluted and sculpted appearance to be formed by natural organisms, as they would in their original state on a forest floor. Some are mere tubes and others solid, revealing rings of wear and tear. The wood is arranged along the sand in a loose military tank manoeuvre. Topping this caravan of destruction and, to seal the symbolism, is the human element; rusty tin hats of war and the presence of a doll, it’s head above the parapet surveying the scene in autocratic stance. A recycling of dictators, so to speak. As he explained, dictators such as Saddam Hussein et al collapsed, the Arab Spring occurred; yet new dictators continue to emerge.
The artist mentioned the subject of vodun (which I expect might be topical in most conversations with an audience familiar with his work). This is not particularly the reference he draws upon in his sculptures, he says – although he believes that its source lay in Benin. However, he also believes that it is natural in Benin - in Africa, to sense or have a feeling for objects and everyday things.
One of the other pieces discussed was Nomad on the edge of the desert, a tribute to those living in the harsh environment of the desert, away from modern technology. However, they are experts in shepherding and herding, finding food, water and honey. Their natural way of life touches him, as he doesn’t believe he would survive in their place. The other was New Cosmonaut which assumes the appearance of a figure swathed in thickly padded attire, decorated in a raised cluster of patterns. Quenum relates that in Benin, there are women who display the designs of scarification on their bare upper bodies. Then there are those [assume men] in the city who insist on being fully clothed in jackets, despite it being very hot. He exclaims “They’re on another planet!”
Gerard Quenum’s ‘Dolls Never Die’ 20 September to 27 October 2012 at the October Gallery, 24 Old Gloucester Street, WC1N 3AL. Nearest tube: Holborn. www.octobergallery.co.uk