An essay about the intoxications of love, lust and sentimentality,
inspired by the works of Joël Andrianomearisoa, and art magazine Revue Noire
La Maison Sentimentale: The House of Feelings
I went to an exhibition with an old lover of mine. It was Sunday in Dakar: bright with a breeze that blew my sundress in rivulets around my ankles. We drank wine at lunch in a restaurant jutting over the sapphire blue sea. At the show we took so many pictures the security guard told us we had to stop, admonishing us for our vanity, our unseriousness, “Are you here to look at the art or take pictures?” he asked. He didn’t recognise the gravity of our flirtation; the profundity of touching an old love; the intensity of holding at once its velvety depths and its brutal impossibility. Incongruent in an exhibition called La Maison Sentimentale - The House of Feelings.
It was a solo show by Joël Andrianomearisoa, an artist on fire. Born in 1977 in Madagascar and also a trained architect, he works with text, textiles, space, performance, installations, photography, and collage. Much of his work is sparse, monochromatic, with splashes of colour as outliers. Thematically he often centres on the concept of sentimentality, which, he said, “means everything and it means nothing.” So far this year he has shown at India Art Fair, Cape Town Art Fair and ARCOmadrid fair with Sabrina Amrani gallery, and has a solo show at Primo Marella Gallery in Milan plus current and upcoming exhibitions in Paris, Lille and Marrakech. His ongoing exhibition at Les Abattoirs art museum in Toulouse is on view until May. There he has built a boutique for Sentimental Products, a concept he has worked on for years. Small containers filled with mundane or fantastical objects are labelled with titles that evoke all range of emotions. A spool of thread is titled Infinite Sadness; a perforated paper bulls eye, Romance Tumultueuse.
Performance artist Tito Aderemi-Ibitola once described art as a mirror. I see “truth” in work—fictional or factual—that is reflective, that activates recognition of the human complexity we live but struggle to communicate or understand. Andrianomearisoa’s work is potent because it points to many things, but it is also blank space. “People say my work is very dry,” he said, “it's dry because when you enter the space it's black and it’s white and the light and everything, but actually you are a part of the work, especially your feelings are a part of the work which is very important for me.”
The exhibition I visited last May in Dakar was an ode to Revue Noire, the groundbreaking magazine, publishing house and “spiritual family,” as Andrianomearisoa called it. It was co-founded in the early 1990s by, among others, Simon Njami, the writer and curator of the Dak’art Biennale, of which the show was part. The sleek, historic Galerie la Manege was divided into three. At the centre, a line of lights reflected on the tiled floor, like a rainy Parisian sidewalk. “The light is actually the road where you have to walk,” Andrianomearisoa said. On the left were 132 pieces: collages, sliced and layered; found objects; blank spaces; words and images; crumpled paper. It was a “strict framing of a disheveled memory,” according to an introductory text by Jean Loup Pivin, another co-founder of the magazine. Together the works formed a meditation on Andrianomearisoa’s relationship to Revue Noire, a jaggedly rearranged retrospective of his own work, much of it entwined with the publishing house, as well as key issues, collaborators, scenes and themes. This, he said, represented history, though in the nonlinear sense typical of memory, of sentimentality.
Zen tells us to bring awareness to the now, but at times the present moment feels layered, jagged like a collage: full of references to what has come before, thick with potential. Is this what is meant by chemistry? By intimacy? The collision of all the shared experiences in a single, palpable moment? This is perhaps why spaces are sentimental: as repositories of memories, traumas, ghosts, feelings, relationships, eras. The peripatetic global creative, as Andrianomearisoa is—splitting his time between Antananarivo and Paris, traipsing through other cities for work or pleasure—lives through spaces. Time is marked by location and by association. When I see friends for the first time in a long time I am confused that they ask when we last saw each other. Who cares? Isn’t that moment also here, now? It makes internalising breakups brutal.
Opposite from the boxy historic section were hung nine massive clouds of silk paper, installations Andrianomearisoa said represented the future of Revue Noire. My old lover stuck his hands deep inside the paper folds of the billowing installations. “You might have to feel it to get it,” he said. I buried my face inside the pages unwritten, a soft, ephemeral physicalisation of the void that is the unknown, all that is coming. “Well it's forbidden,” Andrianomearisoa told me after, when I told him about our tactile attraction, “but I think it’s very interesting when people want to touch. To create the desire to touch in front of a forbidden piece… crossing the line… and how you create the limits of your own desire. When you are talking about sentimentality this is very important too.”
This was fitting; the affair had been secret. My old lover had related me to “heroine” once, and I thought he meant the drug. It was how I experienced him: elating, but toxic. He made my heart race so fast for so many days that I went to the doctor. They sent for blood tests and were planning an echocardiogram, but found absolutely nothing wrong. He though, was likening me not to the substance, but to a saviour. When he explained, I was comforted. But I still left him, twice. “This is the contradiction of the work,” Andrianomearisoa said, “that passion can be super heavy, super hard and intense and the other side it's something extremely fragile. If you blow on it, it's moving, if you put water, it's finished.”
Une Feuille de Vie: A Page of Life
When I returned from Dakar I spent golden afternoons at the Centre for Contemporary Art library in Lagos poring over old copies of Revue Noire. I hadn’t heard of it before the Biennale, but at art parties by the sea I heard the shimmery reverence those in the know granted to the publication. Art writing can be painfully dull, but not in Revue Noire. Editorials were poetry. “Revue Noire should be savoured on a shady terrace like a glass of ginger,” began the first edition. “It is an artwork too. A magazine can be an artwork,” Andrianomearisoa said. The magazine was neither journalistic, nor criticism; it was fully imbued with the personality and taste of the founders, the writers, and their favourite artists. The way that Revue Noire approached and “narrated” African art was, in the words of Njami, “not with the interest of the comprehensiveness of an entomologist, but with the profound lightness of one in love.” It seemed initiated by intuition and feeling, then completed and actualised through specificity and depth. “But the emotion of seeing our deliriums—at times drunken—transform into an object, which would, and I weigh my words, change the face of what one calls African art was unique,” Njami wrote.
Decades before Africa was “trending,” when the major exhibitions of African art happened off the continent and were diluted by the conflation of artisans and artists; when art enthusiasts, as Njami pointed out in a vitriolic critique, visited cemeteries looking to document contemporary African art; the magazine, in its reverence and its seriousness, in its simple way of being, changed the conversation on art from the continent. “They decided to fix actually on paper that there is art somewhere and not only in Europe,” explained Andrianomearisoa. “Showing some sophisticated thing in Africa, I think this is very important... There is just some energy from Africa and some beautiful energy.”
“Revue Noire is… a wave of emotion riding back from the shores of Africa,” Pivin wrote in an editorial cut out and framed by Andrianomearisoa. “It is an unguarded act of love proving that we live for beauty, a thirst that all men seek to quench.”
A Perfect Kind of Love
I was reticent to talk to Njami because he reminded me so strongly of another old lover. I was shy in the face of the memory, it was so potent. His face, the way he pursed his lips, something brought back this lover and I was afraid to approach. (“Memories can be physical too, memories can be material,” Andrianomearisoa said, “I'm not only talking about art, I think taste can be very important for memory, a fragrance can be very important, an object can be very important, people can be very important.”)
He was a novelist. I couldn’t stop staring from the moment I saw him, across the veranda of the Hotel Oloffson in Port-au-Prince, where I often sat smoking Haitian Comme-il-Faut cigarettes, drinking pots of local cafe kreyol and writing news briefs. An alcoholic poet introduced us. I told my boyfriend of three years that I needed a break, and handed my heart to the novelist, to crumple or rip or crop and layer and frame.
He lived one steep hill over from me in the neighbourhoods framing downtown. We alternated sleeping in our respective tiny rooms; mine windowless, with a table so squat I had to sit on the floor; his with a slim mattress, stacks of books and postcards on the wall. I did phone interviews with CNN from his dingy balcony. We ran away at midnight to the beach north of the city. Squeezed onto a motorcycle taxi, we befuddled the police manning a checkpoint with our satchel full of nothing but tiny bottles of rum. It was a furious love affair. He was cheating on me the whole time.
I saw him again years later in New York. I was again dating a different beautiful man, who I abruptly dropped. We both had rented small rooms again, three blocks apart. I taught him the English word “serendipity.” We planned a joint writing retreat in the mountains; he was lost in his second novel, I had dozens of stories from Nigeria, Senegal and Ethiopia to finish. He started drinking again and his eyes turned glassy, his thoughts more fluid and reactive, like choppy surf. We fought one night. I dreamt of him leaving on a boat in the snow and woke with all his things gone and the key hanging on the door.
Andrianomearisoa framed a stack of postcards, black with white lettering: “A Perfect Kind of Love”. They were haphazardly stuck in the frame, upside down and sideways, as if mocking the very idea of a perfect love. Despite, or perhaps because of its chaos, that mountainous love was “perfect”: a perfect case of cracking, interweaving, a sort of alchemy where both melt and are reformed. If spaces hold history and every moment that has happened within them, perhaps so too do our hearts.
Le Temps d’une Rencontre ou pour Toujours: The Time of one Encounter or Forever
I finally spoke to Njami my last evening in Dakar. The light was golden, we sat at one of the benches in the open-air courtyard of the Palais de Justice, the central exhibition of the Biennale. He rolled a cigarette butt between his fingers, finally dropping it into the empty carton—never sullying the floor of the exhibition space—and we talked about love. Njami said that Andrianomearisoa’s show was “a journey…made out of love with all that it supposes. Love is not always smiling and dadada, you cry, you fight, you know it is that very inner journey.”
“You know love is not always loveable,” Andrianomearisoa said, “it’s not Valentine's Day… it’s the gravity of feelings, it’s the power of emotions and it’s the power of each person who is working, who is reading.” Both Njami and Andrianomearisoa were quick to qualify their discussions about love: it’s nothing light or flippant or easy. It is something shattering; it is an exercise in profound vulnerability. “L’incertitude es belle avec toi, mais rassure moi parfois,” the uncertainty is beautiful with you, but reassure me sometimes, Andrianomearisoa cut and framed.
“I think love is one of the most general and common things that you can share but not in a stupid way,” Andrianomearisoa said, “not just like bullshit, like peace and love, this is not the idea. I think you can build a lot of things with love. It's why I prefer to talk about passion too you can kill people with passion, you can destroy a country with passion, you can build something with passion too.”
In the days leading up to the show opening in Toulouse, the debate over the new American Muslim immigration ban raged around the world. On the Sentimental Products Instagram page Andrianomearisoa posted a plain black square with his standard white lettering: “We Are All…” In the caption he wrote: we are all human; we are all immigrants; we are all sentimental.
Chanson de ma Terre Lointaine by Joël Andrianomearisoa is on show until 24 March 2017 at Primo Marella Gallery, Milan
Sentimental Products by Joël Andrianomearisoa is on show until 28 May 2017 at Les Abattoirs, Toulouse