Born in Porto Novo, Benin in 1971, Gerard Quenum is a unique sculptural artist who creates his hauntingly beautiful pieces using recycled, found objects. His work grabs and holds the attention and it is as thought provoking as it is beautiful and mysterious. The objects he creates serve as portraits of people and things he observes in his surroundings. Each comes with its own embedded history and serve as a “lens through which we view Africa.”  His latest works, to be exhibited at the October Gallery, London in September 2012 are entitled “Dolls never Die.” The works include various parts of dolls which have been recycled twice… As donated hand me downs from European children to African children and again to be used to play their unique part in the installations Quenum cleverly constructed. Quenum kindly took time out of his busy schedule to answer some questions via translator Gerard Houghton about art, success, life and dolls.

Je suis le messager (I’m the Messenger), 2012,Wood, metal, shells and plastic doll, 178 x 37 x 13 cm. Photo Courtesy October Gallery

AD: Did you study fine art or sculpture to degree level?
GQ: No, not at all! In Benin where I was growing up there aren’t even schools, never mind such a thing as an ‘art college’ where you could study something like fine arts. There’s nothing at all like that. There aren’t any museums and very, very few places where you’d be able to exhibit what westerners call ‘art’ – let alone sell it to someone. The very concept doesn’t even begin to have much meaning.

AD: At what stage did you decide that you wanted to be an artist?
GQ: It’s not as though there was ever a particular time when I thought that I would become an ‘artist’. When I was younger I worked as an apprentice doing odd jobs, which also included working as a decorator, and you pick things up. How to design, how to draw particular shapes, a bit of calligraphy and so on, doing a wide range of different things in different media – drawing little sketches even portraits of people. There were a bunch of us young guys together and we would talk about what we were doing all the time, passing on little tips or suggesting other ways of creating a particular effect. People would ask us to do different things – special effects that they wanted, which would set us off in new directions. Sometimes it would require that we got together a small studio to work on a special project, people would come by – see what we were doing, like it and maybe a new job would develop out of that. It was all quite ad hoc, but it was a very valuable experience all round. You learned to use everything, wood, metal, paint, plaster, clay – if you like, all those disciplines that other people might go to art school to learn. We became our own artistic movement and taught ourselves; a group of friends who stimulated each other and pushed each other forward – and that’s something of incredible value because you know that it’s based on something you developed within yourself. Amongst this group I was able to maintain my own particular sensibility for material things – for objects – and that’s what I ended up working with the most – and the results you can see today.

AD: What inspired you to use dolls and other “urban detritus” in your work?

GQ: Well, in fact at the beginning I didn’t really use dolls at all – but I would work on old objects that I’d come across, bits of bone, old pieces of wood, things like that – whose shapes would often attract me. One day I came across an old doll’s head that had been thrown away. It was dripping wet, so to dry it out I attached it to a piece of wood with a big nail to stop it falling off. Almost everyone who visited me would comment upon it, and that alerted me to the various possibilities which I then started to explore – and to really cultivate the dolls as an avenue of expression. In fact, any doll I find still inspires me in exactly the same way today – when I see an old puppet or doll, that’s been played with for so long and suffered at the hands of so many others – it still stirs feelings of pity and compassion – and I have to rescue that doll and create for it a safe place from which to recount the stories of the many things it has experienced and seen.

AD: When I look at the work, I feel a mixture of emotions, but most of all, I see pain and a deep, mysterious history. Is there a particular message you are trying to convey in this series?

GQ: Those emotions do exist in my work, but there are also some very positive pieces, and some works are intended to be quite humorous also. Life may be difficult and hard, but it’s never just that alone, and there are moments of illumination that pierce the darkest gloom, and provide humans with the force to carry on regardless.

Carnaval-mystère, 2012, wood cloth rope and plastic doll, 87 x 62 x 40cm, photo courtesy October Gallery London

AD: Could you tell me about your artistic process?
GQ: I have always worked with found and recovered materials. The dolls I find are all old and much-used. They have already served several generations of children as hand-me-down playthings, and have been used to tell the imaginative stories of each child who’s owned them, and by extension of the families amongst which the dolls have found themselves. Little by little, they have been transformed by this process, perhaps by losing eyes or limbs, or by having their hair cut, or pulled out, etc. The wood which I use likewise contains its own ‘stories’ – actually the wood is literally impregnated with history; since all these woods have served – sometimes for many decades – as drums, or mortars to grind food, or as pilings that supported the houses of people living in the marshy regions around the lagoons close to Porto Novo. These woods, too, have been active witnesses to the lives of numerous generations of families. In essence, I juxtapose these two kinds of objects, each with their separate histories and use them to tell the tales of whatever the combination produces. The dolls seem to tell us about the world in which we live, today. They become the focal point for these outpourings of feeling, and I let them try to tell their own tales – tales they have already told me in private – to wider audiences and on a grander stage. Perhaps this mixing of these two contrasting streams is a means of putting together objects coming from uniquely African traditions with something that’s much more contemporary and of the present.

AD: When was your first solo exhibition?
GQ: In Cotonou, in Benin, in 1998. I’d been working with dolls for a while and was asked by a local restaurant in the main city of Cotonou – a place called Maquis Dunya – whether I wanted a space to hang some of my works – just to get them out of the atelier and let more people see them. Although it wasn’t a proper exhibition space and the lighting was not particularly great or anything, it seemed like a good idea and it was a start. I gave the overall title of Interior Voices (Voix Interieurs, 1998) to that first outing – and the clientele who would eat there became the first actual audience for my work. Over the course of a few weeks they were seen by many people, one of whom was André Jolly, the Director of the French Culturel Centre in Cotonou, and he liked them so much that we began to talk about an exhibition in a dedicated gallery space. The following year marks the date of my first real exhibition at the Centre Culturel Français in Cotonou, and from there it all begins, after Cotonou I had a couple of shows in Paris, then London, Brazil and so on.

AD: Did you sell any work?
GQ: I think people went to Maquis Dunya to have a bite to eat more than to appreciate art, so there wasn’t very much happening in that direction at first. But with the subsequent show at the Centre Culturel Français, there were indeed a few sales and after that I’d sell one here and another one there, from time to time. But, as you can see when you look at the work – it’s not necessarily the sort of work that everyone might want to have in their living-rooms! The works can be somewhat intense. You would need to have a particular reason… Maybe you are an Africanist or have spent time in Africa and understand African things, before you would want to provide a vantage point for some of these pieces in the home. This means that, apart from specialist collectors, it’s museums rather than individuals who most often collect my work, although there are some people who find them irresistible and have purchased several.

AD: What has been your biggest challenge to date as an artist?
GQ: That’s a bit of a difficult question to answer because in some sense, the artist is a person who is always encountering challenges of one sort or another. It goes with the territory. If anything, you’re always combating something, overcoming one challenge after another if you are on the right track with an idea. Sometimes it’s the tiny details that can be the hardest to resolve and for seemingly minor reasons, I might leave a work aside for a long time because I haven’t yet managed to solve some issue. Sometimes I can end up feeling dissatisfied with the whole piece and leaving it aside entirely.

AD: How do you overcome that?
GQ: Well, to continue with this last example, sometimes you solve a problem by leaving it alone and not thinking about it. Or again it might be something else that you are working on that gives you an idea. You might try to use another thing you have just solved in a different context and that unblocks the thought process allowing you to surmount the challenge in a different way to what you had imagined. Sometimes quite extraordinary things happen that you never could have predicted. For example, I had been working for about three months on a large piece – The Angel (L’Ange, 2008) – the head of a doll with empty eye-sockets affixed to a large wooden cylinder to which I had attached some ritual metal pieces that, in Benin, suggest the world of the sacred. Although nearly finished, the piece still lacked that vital spark, so somewhat dissatisfied I relegated it to the patio outside my studio. Weeks later, passing by the piece, I was astonished to see that the hitherto empty eye-sockets had been miraculously transformed with bright new eyes! As I examined the statue, I saw a wasp land lightly on the doll’s head and move around on the shining white surface of ‘the eyes.’ This gave me a clue as to what had happened. This wasp had built its nest within the doll’s hollow head, before sealing off the eye-socket access-points using a brilliant white kaolin clay that she could find all around the lagoon close to my studio. Without question the work was now complete. The wasp had deftly added the necessary finishing touches to something that I’d been struggling to achieve. Maybe it’s a collaborative work and the wasp should be credited as an artist too…

Moine (Monk), 2012, Wood and plastic doll, 97 x 36 x 33 cm. Photo G. Quenum. Courtesy October Gallery.

AD: What is your proudest achievement as an artist to date?
GQ: I’m not really somebody who is proud of myself or who likes to talk too much about what I’ve done. I’m quite a simple person, really. Perhaps, having one of my works permanently displayed in the British Museum’s African Galleries is something that gave me a real sense of achievement, because, even in Benin the BM is known to be one of the most important archival resources of cultural heritage. To have one of my contemporary works recognised in this way was, for me, a mark of real distinction.

AD: There is a perception that the public has of the “starving artist.” Has this ever been your experience? If so, how did you overcome it?
GQ: We do have lots of starving people – and that’s not something limited just to one particular class of people – and that reality is anything but romantic. My work is about the reality of what I see in the world around me, and encompasses the difficult sides of life as well, including poverty and starvation. Everybody has to work hard to avoid starving, using whatever skills, energies, creativity, chance or good fortune they can muster. In this respect artists are no different to others – we raise our families and feed our children using our wits to survive – just like everyone else does.

AD: There is an almost palpable shift in consciousness towards African art today. You along with artists like El Anatsui and Romuald Hazoumè seem to be leading. What effect do you think this shift will have on African artists going forward?
GQ: (Laughs) Well you’ve put me into a bracket with two major artists from Africa, and it’s a category to which I’m not sure I really belong, yet. I have been in shows together with El and Romuald, but maybe all that demonstrates is that we’ve all been represented by the October Gallery, which has always played a critical role in bringing contemporary African artists to the attention of international audiences.

I would say that El Anatsui has been most important in the sense that here was an artist from Africa who is a recognised master of contemporary art and he still lives and works from his home in Africa. Once the western art world awoke to this shift in consciousness, it was only a matter of time before they found other contemporary artists from Africa whose work displayed the same qualities. Qualities that have always been present in African art but which until very recently the west had been unable to see – or recognise. Everyone talks about Picasso and African masks, but no one mentions the unpaid debt that Picasso and western contemporary art owes to African art, as though it was all to do with his genius and there was no genius in what he found. So, the real answer might be that just because there’s been a palpable shift in consciousness towards African contemporary art, that might not necessarily mean all that much to African artists, who hopefully will continue working as they always have done, and perhaps again show the way forward to western artists as they’ve done in the past.

Rodeo, 2012, Wood, cloth and plastic doll, 73 x 45 x 27 cm. Photo G. Quenum. Courtesy October Gallery.

AD: How is this shift affecting your career?
GQ: Well, it gives me the opportunity to travel to many places and to observe more of the world. That’s all information that feeds into my work once I return to Benin. I learn that there’s poverty in Brazil and lots of crime in London. I realise that the problems my work depicts are to be encountered everywhere – that we share a single planet and we’re all in this together.

AD: What advice would you give to any young artists wishing to follow in your footsteps?
GQ: I only have my own experience that’s guided me to the present and it seems to have been such an individual series of things unfolding that I’m not sure that anything I have to say would be of much use to any other artist. We’re all quite different people, we’re all following something that’s very personal. But, I would say that you first have to believe in what you are doing and then trust yourself to be able to do it over and over again – and always be searching for ways to improve it.

AD: The October Gallery show is starting in September, do you have any other projects or shows coming up in the near future where people can see your work? This can be here or abroad.
GQ: Recently I’ve been preparing an exhibition in Paris for this coming September, and was up in Manchester, in July, for the opening of a new show at the National Museum of Football, Moving Into Space:Football and Art from West Africa. A major exhibition Dolls Never Die, at London’s October Gallery, begins September 19th, and I’ll also have a major piece on the theme of Aido-Ouedo – The Rainbow Serpent –showing at the Afro-Brazilian Museum in Sao Paolo this Autumn. I’ve got quite a lot going on in a few different places, which all keeps me focused and very busy!

AD: Where can people find your work online?
GQ: I have my own quite simple web-site which gives some idea of what I’ve done before and where and what I’m up to and my future plans, but it’s in French and that might put some English speaking people off. Have a look at the October Gallery web-site, where you can see a historical set of images of my sculptures going back over ten years or more. That’s the best place, they know my work well.

Gerard Quenum. Photo by Romould Hazoume. Courtesy October Gallery London

Translated with thanks by Gerard Houghton 2012 Director of Special Projects, October Gallery, was born in England.  After graduating from Churchill College, Cambridge, he travelled extensively throughout West Africa working as an interpreter for a researcher into African History, before taking his linguistic skills to the Far East. He is currently a free-lance writer, translator with interests in a wide range of subjects both artistic and scientific.

Gerard Quenum Website (French):
Gerard Quenum at the October Gallery,London: