Gérard Quenum – Dolls Never Die
Baby dolls are divisive toys. Some children (and adults) find them adorable, others – and we have to include Beautiful Crime in this demographic – think they’re a bit creepy. Beninese sculptor Gérard Quenum manages to transcend both adjectives; in his exquisite hands dolls become moving, politicised, funny and, on occasion, downright disturbing. Quenum’s solo show ‘Dolls Never Die’ is at London’s October Gallery until 27th October 2012, and we recommend you take a look.
The exhibition consists of sculptures created mostly from wood, with a doll’s head as the focal point of each one. If that sounds odd, well, it is, but we’ve all anthropomorphised a toy – Quenum just takes it to the next level. His dolls are all detritus, broken and discarded; he feels compassion for them, he brings them to life. He says the dolls themselves determine what their stories are, and therefore what the sculptures look like. We can only guess how he decided that one poor doll should become The Grim Reaper (Le Vendangeuse), and another a grinning monk in a huge wooden habit, but these toys clearly speak to him.
The show’s centrepiece, ‘Mort au dictateur. Vive la dictature!’, is an installation comprising wooden drums, soldiers’ helmets and a single doll’s head wedged into a tank-like structure. It’s a commentary on how western governments maintain the cycle of dictatorship by installing dictators and then rabidly pursuing them when their methods no longer suit, only for doppelganger dictators to emerge. Quenum uses the idea of children playing at soldiers to emphasise that it’s the innocent who get caught up in these power games. It’s undoubtedly hard-hitting, and illustrates a thread running through the exhibition – western attitudes towards Benin and, in particular, towards West African art.
The dolls are symptomatic of those attitudes. They are all obviously European toys, rejected and then sent to West Africa in aid parcels for people perceived as in need of help. Quenum seems a little disparaging of the west’s apparent condescension, and dismissive of approval within the contemporary art world. As far as he is concerned, much of his work “isn’t as powerful as anything you might find if you entered the inner courtyard of some elder where [he’s] from”, and he isn’t doing anything new.
“It always makes me chuckle to hear that we’ve now been elevated, in Africa, from doing primitive art to being truly contemporary artists!…Even if the west finds it surprising that we now do ‘installations’, it’s something we’ve always done.”
He is understandably proud of the traditions that enable him to produce such rich, multi-layered work. One piece references a Babaláwo – a Yoruba elder – and in ‘Nomade aux abords du désert’ a doll is transformed into a desert tribesman. He mocks West African adulation of western culture in Nouveau cosmonaute, a sly poke at Beninese people who insist on wearing European fashions that are totally unsuited to Benin’s climate.
Quenum recognises that his sculptures touch on tough themes, so he tries to imbue them with humour.
We have to confess we didn’t share his opinion that ‘Le Vendangeuse’ is funny, but then this reviewer is a bit of a softy and there’s something heart-breaking about a sad-eyed doll weighed down by manky cloth toys and a rather wretched cuddly Tigger… We definitely agree though that ‘jeu d’esprit’ helps ease Quenum’s powerful messages about war and suffering, and En jouant les gros-bras, a tiny head with an absurdly oversized arm, made us chuckle.
‘Dolls Never Die’ by Gérard Quenum
October Gallery, 24 Old Gloucester Street, London, WC1N 3AL
Opening times: Tues-Sat: 12.30 – 5.30pm
Le Vendangeuse, 2012, wood cloth, metal and plastic doll, 155 x 80 x 44 cm, photo by Jonathan
Greet, Courtesy October Gallery , London
En jouant les gros-Bras (He-Man Showing Off), 2012.
Wood, metal and plastic doll, 178 x 91 x 6 cm, photo by Jonathan Greet, Courtesy October Gallery London
by Jennie Gillions