Ask the Curator: Jeanne Mercier

Ask the Curator: Jeanne Mercier, Founder, Afrique in visu - Omenka Online

Jeanne Mercier is co-founder and editor-in-chief of Afrique in visu platform (which has published more than 1,000 articles, staged several exhibitions in Europe and Africa, and organised photography workshops with over 100 contributors around the world). With a background in the history of art and photography, she completed her Masters in 2005 with a thesis focused on the Bamako Biennale and new practices and forms of dissemination of photography in North and West Africa.

In 2018, Mercier was one of five curators invited to Kerkennah#01, the international festival of visual art in Tunisia. She also co-curated Africa is not an island / Africa is no island exhibition, which was shown in MACAAL in Marrakech, and the Zinsou Foundation, Cotonou. Today she divides her time between ‘Afrique in visu’, contributing to photographic journals, and art consulting activities for institutions and artists.

Well over a decade ago, you co-founded Afrique in visu, an online platform to document the practice of photography in Africa and her diaspora while contributing to its narrative and accounts of history. How would you evaluate your success since then?

This question is interesting because I don’t think that neither our collaborators nor ourselves—Baptiste de Ville d’Avray and I, thought of Afrique in visu as a success. This project for us was initially a work of research and understanding when we founded Afrique in visu in 2006 in Mali. You have to put it in context. At the time in Europe, it was quite difficult to find on the Internet, in libraries or exhibitions, content on Africa produced by authors from the continent and its diaspora.

Instagram didn’t exist and only a few photographers had websites. Presently, there are a few existing projects such as ‘Revue Noire’ and ‘Africa Remix’ exhibition, but we are still far from cases where museums or festivals dedicate shows to the likes of Malick Sidibé and Zanele Muholi.

We wanted to see more images, understand the changing photographic practices, and not just stop at studio photography. This led us to start interviewing people and 14 years later, it became successful. Afrique in visu is a living archive and a documentation platform around the changes in photographic practices in Africa and the continent’s diaspora. It is a resource of 1,200 published articles for researchers, artists, curators and the general public whose value increases over time through numerous exhibitions and training photography workshops in Europe and Africa.

Eleven years later, you published the book ‘The Profession of the Photographer in Africa, 10 Years of Afrique in visu’. How are artists adapting to dwindling grants and corporate funding both occasioned by the Coronavirus pandemic and what advice do you have for them, as well as for cultural organisations seeking corporate funding?

This book returns above all to our archives showing the evolution of the practice and the sector. For example, the explosion of festivals, such as the meetings of Lubumbashi, Picha, ‘Yango Biennale’ and ‘Addis Foto Fest’. I don’t think I am the best person to answer this question. Afrique in visu is not a subsidised or lucrative project. There is a paradox today because there are more photographers and projects that highlight them, between publications like ‘Oath Magazine’, and web platforms like the photographic collection of ‘Everyday Africa’. However, few countries have developed cultural policy projects. There are private grants or foundations such as AFAC for example, which finances photographic projects. Also, today, many institutions or magazines prefer working with local photographers rather than international ones.

International Festival of Photographs and Visual Arts in Kerkennah, Tunisia, June 2018 ©Baptiste de Ville d’Avray

Following the pandemic, what stylistic developments and trends may be emerging?

I think there are several elements. There are already major trends that were emerging before the pandemic due to an extended practice ranging from photography and collage to video and installation, leading to experimentations with several image media (mediums), as can be seen internationally. Regarding the future, I believe that there will be more collaborative projects between photographers from all over the world, thus avoiding the issue of circulation as we have seen with the ‘Congo in Conversation’ project

How eager are African artists to embrace such technological advances as VR and AI, and what impact could they have on art production and dissemination?

I think we can see this in another sense, as I said in the previous question; today the African continent and its authors are like artists all over the world, experimenting with new forms of storytelling like video games, installation and virtual reality. We can also see it with contemporary artists like Said Afifi or Emo de Medeiros. It is a generation of artists who employ the tools that exist around them.

Today, art philanthropy and social impact investment are gaining momentum. What models are favourable to collectors of African art?

No idea, I don’t know much about this art market issue.

Considering the fallout of the Coronavirus pandemic, what is your perspective on the future trajectory of modern and contemporary African art and what measures can be emplaced to ensure its sustainable growth?

There are several layers of answers to your question. We will have to be extremely vigilant in future because the pandemic will be a good excuse to reduce budgets but also to further accentuate virtual events. It is important to insist as much as possible that African artists are present to speak and defend their work in person. I, therefore, hope that the commitments of spaces, funders and collectors will not stop allowing authors from the continent to continue to integrate the global art market like other artists around the world. Regarding the perspective, I cannot tell you, because Africa in visu has always been moving forward step by step, following the evolution of the authors we collaborate with. For example, the question of the archive and its use in contemporary work that we have observed over the past three years or the idea of ​​mixing different forms of narratives and symbols of the younger generation.

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Oliver Enwonwu is founder and Editor-in-Chief of Omenka magazine, Director, Omenka Gallery and Chief Executive, Revilo. He holds a first degree in Biochemistry, advanced diploma in Exploration Geophysics (distinction), Post Graduate Diplomas in Applied Geophysics and Visual Art (distinction) and a Masters in Art History, all from the University of Lagos. He is the founder, Executive Director, and trustee of The Ben Enwonwu Foundation. He also sits on the board of several organizations including the National Gallery of Art, Nigeria and the Reproduction Rights Society of Nigeria. Enwonwu is also president of both the Society of Nigerian Artists and the Alliance of Nigerian Art Galleries.

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