african masksArman African Art
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A fine Eastern Pende Panya-Gombe African mask. Coll.: David Norden

African Art books I like | Genuine African Masks

Arman African Art

French-born sculptor Arman dies in New York at 76

October 23, 2005, 3:54 PM EDT
PARIS (AP) _ Armand Pierre Fernandez, the French-born sculptor known internationally as Arman who was a leading figure of the New Realism movement,and important African art collector, has died in New York, his family said Sunday. He was 76.

Arman died Saturday at his home in Manhattan after a battle with cancer, his daughter, Marion Moreau, said.

Best-known for his large "assemblages" that turned everyday objects into sculpture, Arman helped found the New Realism movement with sculptor Yves Klein in the early 1960s. He often used African art in them, like Mende masks accumulations or Dan masquettes moulded in plexi.

from the book on Arman's collection: African Faces, African Figures

ALAIN NICOLAS: In 1993 we had a long interview in Marseille concerning the exhibition Batcham, sculptures du Cameroun, during which you talked mainly about Bamileke sculpture. I would like to center this interview more on 
your collection and your manner of collecting. My first question is very simple: how many objects do you have  today?

ARMAN: I don't know exactly, I haven't counted the objects-300, 400?... It depends if one also counts the small objects. Because my collection is composed of several parts: those I just fell for, that's to say the pieces that interested me aesthetically, ones I desired; but also the sorts of systematic gestures, of accumulations. With the idea of putting things of the same type together, always following this design, which is mine in many of my works, that of the accumulation. What's more, because I'm a little bit... ambitious by nature, I've always tried to do things which aren't easy, to collect objects that are difficult to acquire, or of high quality. Not possessing the fortune that I merit—that's a phrase I like, because no one ever has the fortune he deserves—I find a way, I retrade things, I resell, I rebuy, wheeling and dealing until I get the piece that I want. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.

ALAIN NICOLAS: Can you envision that one day your collection will be finished?

ARMAN: No, not really. I will always have longings, like to buy back an object that I used to have and now miss, or something like that. I can't really say. I've the impression that this sort of collection and this sort of collector, will 
only be finished when I'm finished.

ALAIN NICOLAS: Don't you think that if you could answer this question about the end of your collection, you would be able to answer the question of why you collect?

ARMAN: I collect because collecting is a part of my make-up. I've always done it. I've always accumulated, much more than I've collected. And by accumulating, I've always been surrounded by objects. I've collected African art for such a long time now, at a really heavy tempo, and with such study, that I've become my own expert advisor!
In general, I rarely consult someone when buying an object. But for this collection, I had my encounter with African art at a time when there were few collectors around. Gradually, in a few years, we'll perhaps come to see fewer and fewer masterpieces on the market. Everything always ends up in museums. And that's all right.

ALAIN NICOLAS: You started your collection in the 1950s?

ARMAN: Yes. I'd seen an exhibition in Paris (I think it was in a large hotel), and then two or three years later, another one in Cannes. These two exhibitions made a big impression on me: I didn't know anything, I had no notion of the quality to be seen in African art or Oceanic art-the so-called primitive arts. And it reinforced a very 
important idea in me: the realization that every culture, that every ethnic group can produce masterpieces. This reinforced the idea, that I already held, that man is the same all over. And the discovery of this idea was a great source of pleasure to be, while I was still quite young.

ALAIN NICOLAS: So, in the 1950s you went and saw these two exhibitions. You were already starting to buy your first objects around this time?

ARMAN: At the flea market in Nice, I think in '55. A Dan mask.

ALAIN NICOLAS: Do you recall the exact circumstances of this purchase?

ARMAN: I'd often go to the flea market, on the Paillon. There were a lot of boutiques there, with objects from all over. One of these was the shop of Bertrand Bottet, himself a collector. Primarily, he was the buyer in the South of France for Charles Ratton. He kept him informed about everything that was going on. One day, walking 
around the market, I saw this Dan mask that I thought was quite beautiful. I bought it. At that time, we're talking about really ridiculous amounts. Small sums—minuscule!

ALAIN NICOLAS: Have you kept all the objects you've bought in this period?

ARMAN: Only from after 1959. I hadn't come across, or couldn't acquire, quality objects before then.

ALAIN NICOLAS: What is the oldest object in your collection today? ARMAN: The oldest object?

ALAIN NICOLAS: I mean the one you've had longest.

ARMAN: There are three or four: the small Fang byeri, on the very long baton; the large komo elephant mask; the small Kongo mirrored fetish; and the grand Dan mask, with tarboosh felt. All these objects date from that period.

ALAIN NICOLAS: You've never let them go?


ALAIN NICOLAS: Why have you kept them?

ARMAN: I don't know. For that matter these objects are reproduced, except for the komo mask, in Arts primitifs dans les ateliers d'artistes, an exhibition that was at the Musee de 1'Homme. I've always considered these four objects a bit like fetish objects, I've always loved them. They are still of a quite fine quality: they've never varied, not in their attractiveness, not in the appreciation I have of them.

ALAIN NICOLAS: There is the problem of fakes, from which very few people escape... One might say that no one escapes from it.

ARMAN: No one escapes, no.

ALAIN NICOLAS: Have you ever bought a fake?

ARMAN: Yes, it's happened. It's quite humbling, because I'm usually very sure of myself. It's happened two or three times, when I really wanted something, and didn't listen to that little voice inside. I let myself be taken by 
objects that were not genuine.

I especially remember a Kota. This Kota was curious. It was very domed, and very old. But there was something that bothered me. Consulting a friend, who also knows the Kota quite well, we discovered that it was a very old Kota, but very simple, to which one had artificially domed the forehead to give it more interest. Naturally, I'd 
found that the wood on the back side was very fine, with the ancient "lozenge," etc. I had a good look at it. It had a very interesting price, but I was had, because it had been "improved."

Also, when there are things that I know less well—Africa is so immense, that to say "I know African art" is a bit much: I know parts of African art. Sometimes, for certain ethnic groups or for certain regions, I've been obliged to 
take advice. I'm not such a connoisseur when it comes to the art of East or South Africa. I've had a false ivory, for example, because it's not my habit to collect ivory. In the profession of dealers of African art you have all types. There are some very honest individuals who take extreme care to sell perfect objects, objects to which 
there's no problem attached, but there are others who don't give a damn, who would sell you simply anything, and they're usually excellent salesmen. It often happens that I'm left certain objects "on approval." I've been tempted by several of these. I remember a sort of helmet mask, the top of a bete box. The broker hadn't been 
gone five minutes, and I was already dissatisfied. Well, I started by sniffing it all over, holding it, picking it up, measuring it, breathing it, searching my references for corresponding objects and, of course, I became more and more dissatisfied. The next day I call this guy and tell him: "Come pick up your object—I don't want to hear about it." That's happened to me two or three times. So, it just might be—I humbly admit it—that there are still a few fakes in my collection, but then not to my knowledge. Certainly not a large proportion, because I know these objects as well as any other specialist or dealer, but one can always be mistaken. There is a certain consensus. 
There are several levels of false objects. There is the replacement object, which I don't want in my collection, that's to say an object which has been rapidly made to stand in for another that's been hidden away. There is also the more commercial object, made for sale or as a gift: the "ambassadorial" object... Next, there are the 
downright fakes, expressly made to fool. In general, the best fakes, very sophisticated in the working of the wood, the patina, the aesthetic details, are made by restorers. And it's very disturbing, because one sees more and more fakes, mostly in the "rare" ethnic groups, or "expensive" ones like the Fang, the Chokwe, etc. The 
worse thing about the whole affair, is that there are writers, specialists in African art who are conversant with African ethnology and the history of African art, but who have no sense of Antiquities and who endorse these fakes. There are fakes in some widely reputed books. One day maybe they'll end up in museums, all the more so 
because they have certificates signed by these so-called "experts." Everyone's in agreement nonetheless: all those who have some knowledge, be they collectors or dealers, never had any desire to acquire these pieces. 
And today these pieces very nearly have authentic status! It's very disturbing. So, does this mean that every writer or museum expert should have an antiques dealer at his elbow? It's an important question, no?

ALAIN NICOLAS: Precisely. When one is named Arman and one collects, many eyes must be on you when you set out to buy.


ALAIN NICOLAS: There's a sort of pressure brought to bear, led by the journalists, the specialists, other collectors, dealers, museums... When an important piece is presented at public sale, and when one says that Arman is interested in it, then this pressure mounts.

ARMAN: That can happen. But quite often I don't attend the auction myself. I buy through another person. For several reasons. First, out of fear that sometimes the price will be padded, if you'll forgive the expression. There are auctioneers very good at that: they can feel more or less were you're prepared to go. But I am very strict, I give a price for a piece and I don't go beyond it.

ALAIN NICOLAS: Do you maintain good relations with other collectors? Are there any, for example, that you count as friends?

ARMAN: Yes, I have many friends in this milieu. For a while, I saw only them. Before 1980, my wife would complain: we only see these African art people, collectors, museum people, writers... We frequented no other circles, even to do with my professional activities. Rather strange... 

ALAIN NICOLAS: There had to come a moment when you said: "Enough! I'm stopping."

ARMAN: Yes. At a given moment, I stopped. For four years I didn't buy a single object, and I didn't go to any exhibition of African art. I had the feeling that it was taking precedence over my life as an artist, eating up too much of my time and energy. I've even had the offer of writing the encyclopedia of African art. So I had to ask myself: "Who am I? What do I want to do in life? Become a big specialist in African art, or remain a sculptor?" I made the choice.

ALAIN NICOLAS: Because it's the one or the other?

ARMAN: Yes, and seeing the evolution of this collection, it would not have been good for my work as a sculptor. 
It would have even been quite a nuisance. I made the right choice.

ALAIN NICOLAS: But many of your fellow artists also collect. You're not the sole example!

ARMAN: Not like that. Many artists collect, yes. But even those who have fine collections—take an artist like Baselitz—collect pieces that have something to do with their own work. These are not objective collections. 
Traditionally, artists have always had objects. From the time of the Cubists, the Fauvists and others. That confirms a sort of exotic taste... I've always known artists, often a bit older than myself, with objects around them, even if they didn't really collect. It was part of the artist's bric-a-brac. The same as there have always been artists who have had objects in their studios, but these weren't fantastic objects. 

I remember some of mv dealer-friends who made trades with artists. One thus arrives at the "artist's objects," which may be rather spectacular, but aren't always the best.

ALAIN NICOLAS: But what's special about these objects?

ARMAN: They're a bit spectacular, a bit large. This goes well in an artist's atelier. It even became a generic term: 
"objet d'artiste."

ALAIN NICOLAS: Do you trade with your collector-friends?

ARMAN: Sometimes, yes. Particularly with Jacques Kerchache, and with just about all the dealers.

ALAIN NICOLAS: I've tried to get a global view of your collection, and to see if there's some constant running through it, ethnically or formally. And I must admit, I haven't really jound it yet.

ARMAN: There is a preference in my collection: it's for Gabon. I am very easily attracted by certain objects from Gabon, like those of the Fang, the Kota, the Punu, and even up to the region of Cabinda, that's to say objects of the Kongo, Yombe... This has been a preference. Next, there have been objects that I've simply fallen for: certain objects that I've desired, or others considered as extremely rare, like the Mbole. I've always dreamed of having an Mbole. When I was younger, objects circulated less. There have been mythic objects like, for instance, the Mbole in the Schindler Collection. Me, I have a small one.

ALAIN NICOLAS: But this region of Africa, around Gabon, must correspond to something more or less conscious inside you?

ARMAN: Yes. There's something of the need to dominate in me, to have better pieces than the others. That's a trait often seen among collectors.

ALAIN NICOLAS: No, I mean in this formal constancy, around Gabon.

ARMAN: First of all, in this region you have the Fang, with their objects of interiority. They are so charged, so strong, so concentrated as sculptures! One also finds more "aesthetic" objects there, like those of the Punu, the Lumbo, or the Yombe. These objects have an aesthetic that for me is near immutable, universal. In Gabon one 
finds many of these heart-shaped faces.

ALAIN NICOLAS: Also among the Lega of Zaire, for example?

ARMAN: Yes, one finds them among the Lega, among the Mbole, etc. I've always been very attracted visually and instinctively by these heart-shaped faces, these heavy domed foreheads. And indeed, that's what I often encountered in Gabon.

ALAIN NICOLAS: It's a form that somewhat reminds one of the curves of a violin, for instance...

ARMAN: ... No, not at all. For the curves of a violin one would sooner have to TO to the Cyclades. A violin, that's an object so modern and sophisticated, so technical an object!

ALAIN NICOLAS: And also so finished?

ARMAN: Finished, yes, termine. An object that undergoes no further change. While for the human figure, and traditional renderings... In all these "basic" arts, instead of granting pride of place to naturalism, the artists opted 
to give the symbol precedence. The fact that they found sculptural solutions between the symbol and the representation is fascinating. There are some perfect successes.

ALAIN NICOLAS: Do you know how many Fang objects you possess?

ARMAN: I must have a dozen of them.

ALAIN NICOLAS: A dozen: what exactly does that number mean? And why don't you have more?

ARMAN: At one time I had more, but as other objects caught my interest, I traded the Fang in order to get them. 

Just recently, for example, I've exchanged two Fang for important Nok objects.

ALAIN NICOLAS: If you like, let's talk a little about Nok sculpture and African archeology—an always current topic. What do you think of these objects that come to leave African soil, in an inevitably "artificial" manner, to quickly arrive...

ARMAN: Clandestinely, you mean.

ALAIN NICOLAS: ... Yes, clandestinely.

ARMAN: I have an opinion about that. All of the geographic and cultural areas do not have the same problems. 
The conditions in which these clandestine exits occur are not all alike, nor are the intents. There's one thing about which I'm pretty clear: if there was not this interest on the part of collectors, of Western museology, of the dealers—then a large segment of the history of African art would have disappeared. Because, in the lands 
where one finds these objects, there hasn't been and there never will be a very deep interest for certain archeological objects, neither for their conservation and protection, nor for the exploration of these sites. From time to time they wake up. One has the impression that this matter of clandestine removals is in large measure 
driven by institutions and international entities, sometimes out of purely financial motives. For example, some objects, which have been unearthed in certain countries accompanied by much publicity, find themselves on the market a year later. They did not wind up in the museums of the countries in question. They ended up in the 
hands of ministers, or other important locals, who hurried to sell them on.

As for archeology, I'll make a distinction between the object from the surface and those found in excavations. It's clear that where excavations have been carried out -with care—like in Mali, for instance—there should be no competition between the official excavations and the clandestine. I am in favor of official excavations. But we 
found ourselves, in Nigeria, face to face with a pretty curious case, concerning the Nok, the Sokoto. Objects were found on large industrial mining-sites, and there wasn't much feeling to alert the Department of Antiquities. 
For around a dozen years it was preferred to just smash them up. There were cubic meters of Nok sculpture and cubic meters more of Sekoto that were crushed. It was only with the realization that they were worth money that these Nok objects were able to leave clandestinely. If not, they'd continue to be destroyed. So I feel, up to a point, that these pieces have been saved. They've made it this far and will one dav wind up in a museum. The day when there will be serious institutions in these lands, we will see... But at the same time, one mustn't blindly indict these countries, only having emerged some forty years ago from long periods of colonization, for lack of management when it comes to these relics. Forty years is young! 

The feeling, the current climate, is against this evolution towards having serious museums. This is clear for Africa. I'm not speaking of South America, about 
which there could be much to say, nor about southeast Asia. But in Africa there's been a strong degree of Islamization, which more corresponds to the intrinsic character and the mode of life of these people. I am not denigrating Islam, but Islam is not for in favor of a barbaric, savage iconography. It favors the destruction of this iconography. 

During the Biafran War, in 1961, to take a recent example, the village of the Oron clan was taken by the Muslim Assouan, and was burned to the ground. It was one of the rare intact villages.

So, you'll understand that with all these considerations, I do not think-though I could be wrong—that compensation has been made available to farmers who find something in their fields. This would be more of a curse for them. If it wasn't for the interest shown by collectors and dealers, a large percentage of the history of 
African art would have been destroyed by the natural elements, but more so by man. Well, I'm proud enough that some examples have been able to be saved and that we can show them; they'll finish in museums and thus be enjoyed by everyone.

I strongly hope that one day they will figure in the collections of African museums. You know, all collectors, even those who are the most miserly with their objects, say: "If you have a serious museum in Africa, we'll contribute, and we'll contribute masterpieces."

ALAIN NICOLAS: I believe that you have given several objects to an African museum.

ARMAN: Yes, that was in Senegal. President Senghor wanted to create a Museum of African Arts in Dakar, not only Senegalese arts. He hoped to turn Dakar into the cultural capital of central Africa, its Athens, and thus, to show the arts of Africa from the south of the continent to the west. He had the project for the museum designed 
by Oscar Niemeyer. The plans were already made. I asked him, "What are you going to put in this museum?"

"The collection of the I.F.A.N. (the Institut francais de 1'Afrique noire, later to become the Institut fondamental de l'Afrique noire)."

I know this collection very well. I've been through it in detail. It is not sufficient for your project. It contains some very important ethnological objects, but you don't have enough masterpieces, and a museum worthy of this name must base itself around masterpieces. The non-specialist leaves a museum and recalls only four or five objects, always the same ones. So, for your museum of African art, you have need of the Venus from Milo of African art, the Victory from Samothrace, the Mona Lisa. You need a dozen major objects, big-guns, from the different ethnic groups, which will serve as focal points. 

Then you'll need some fifty or a hundred very beautiful objects to support them, and then ethnological objects of fine quality, etc. But you cannot have a museum with only the I.F.A.N. collection. You have to go further if want to make a museum of world quality." He agreed with me. We started to do the research, and he told me: "Thinking along these lines, don't you think that the Musee de la Porte dorée and the Musée de l'Homme will give me some very beautiful objects?" I answered him, 
"They'll never give you their masterpieces. Maybe a few objects, but not the chef-d'oeuvre. Don't count on it." 
Then he said, " We will find them in Africa."

So, I told him, "It's very difficult, because the few objects still to be found in Africa pass through a network, runners in the bush who know the dealers. Right now—at that time-there is no African expert in African art. There are ethnologists, there are anthropologists, and certainly, in Senegal, there are excellent specialists, but no experts in African art." He answered me, "But that's terrible!"

Well, we took a tour of the horizon to see who could take charge of the museum project. After having mentioned various specialists and experts, we finished by agreeing on one name: Jacques Kerchache. He accepted to become the "sheriff," that's to say, to preside over the purchases and the organization of the collection, traveling two or three times a year to Senegal. Then came the problem of the budget. The museum was going to cost something like ten million dollars.

ALAIN NICOLAS: Ten million dollars.

ARMAN: It takes money to make a nice museum! We were working over the figures for obligatory purchases. Just then, Jacky said, "Me, I'll give such-and-such a masterpiece.”
"Me too," I responded, "I will give such-and-such a masterpiece. For this, we'll create an association for the Dakar Museum in New York and Paris, and people will contribute to it. But nonetheless, you have to buy; Senegal had to take the first step by buying a few masterpieces on the art market."

We drew up a budget of around two million dollars at the time, to buy five or six major pieces. Everyone was in agreement, and the museum project passed to the Council of Ministers. The ministers-only Senghor was not Muslim-told us, "This is abominable... you want us to spend all this money on these ignoble and barbarous 
objects? We accept, but only if there is also a museum for Islamic art. The project got lost in all the talk. In the end, Senghor did not stand for re-election, and the project was totally abandoned." So that's the story of my near collaboration with an African museum.

ALAIN NICOLAS: Are you especially sensitive to the materials used by African sculptors, particularly their use of wood. I've recently seen on Arte television, a program with Jacques Kerchache expounding on the Mumuye sculptors. His whole presentation attempted to explain the work of these Mumuye sculptors who, in practicing their incredible virtuosity, must have smashed an enormous number of working models before arriving at the final realization of a piece which is a chef-d'oeuvre. Is there not, in your way of collecting, a measure of nostalgia for a 
certain practice of sculpture and wood carving? I know that you haven't worked in wood for quite some time now.

ARMAN: Yes, it's been awhile. But I'm not particularly bothered. If I was going to carve directly, then I'd use stone or marble, much more than wood. It's not my temperament. But you're right, in the materials of my collection, you 
can see that I don't have many bronzes and practically no ivories. As for the terracotta, those are fairly recent additions. I am interested in statuary in wood—mask or statue. Certain of the objects are indeed works of virtuosity. What's the most interesting, is that this virtuosity is not apparent at first glance; it's not "lacework" like seen in Oriental virtuosity, for instance. It's virtuosity related to the grain of the wood, related to the cut. Risks are indeed taken, and one wonders if there's not a certain percentage of abortive attempts. I agree with Jacky 
about this.

ALAIN NICOLAS: So, my question is the following: don't you have a certain nostalgia for this way of working, and the inevitable wastage it produces?

ARMAN: No, no nostalgia for sculpting in wood. I've done some, but it's not my work.

ALAIN NICOLAS: But my question applies equally to stone, or for another material.

ARMAN: Yes, if you're talking about direct carving. There's always a kind of physical struggle between the direct attack upon a material and the result. And thanks to the systems I use in my work, I've been able to attain this pleasure of the direct clash. Especially in the "para-paintings" that I do with objects and brushes, because from 
the point of view of sculpture and statuary, aside from cutting, rewelding, remixing and remaking certain things, I have no further very direct impact on the material itself. But, in my manner of collecting, in my choice between two pieces, I don't especially favor one over the other just on grounds of virtuosity. To me, the expressivity of the piece is more important. So, perhaps certain Mumuye sculptors have more virtuosity than the Senufo sculptor who made the Deble statue in my collection, but I am much more taken by the result of the Deble, which is a 
perfect piece of sculpture. Perfect according to my canons, of course, but perfect.

ALAIN NICOLAS: And what are your canons?

ARMAN: I think they are those of a modern art education by way of classical art. I start modern art from the Quattrocento: from then on, there was no more traditional art. Traditional art is that which is embedded in social, cultural or religious principles, with obligatory objects, observing defined form and with preferential subjects followed over generations.

ALAIN NICOLAS: And you find this in Africa?

ARMAN: Modern art? Sometimes, but not always... that often remains traditional art. That which is interesting, I find among today's young African artists, and some of them are wonderful. The transition has been made, without slavishly copying what's done in the West, without being prisoner to tradition. Certain artists have been 
able to undergo this transmutation and are modern artists of today.

ALAIN NICOLAS: Do you have a special eye for contemporary African artists? ARMAN: Of course. I watch what they're doing.

ALAIN NICOLAS: But you don't collect what they make? ARMAN: I have. I have done so and I'm still on the lookout. In fact, right now I'd like to have a sculpture of Mustafa Dene, a quite interesting artist. I have two Ouatara and three of four other African artists.

ALAIN NICOLAS: You've bought them because they are artists, because they are African, or because you find something of African art in their paintings?

ARMAN: No, I don't buy these works for their folkloric side. I buy them because they are good works, the same as I'd do for a Basquiat, a Warhol or a Toni Grand.

ALAIN NICOLAS: Has it happened that you've had missed chances on the market in acquiring one piece or the other? When you've said to yourself: "How could I have let that one slip by?"

ARMAN: Yes, but that really doesn't matter so much. I've had enough experience to tell myself that one day or another there will be a comparable piece on the market. But I've had quite a few misses, yes. For a time, I was so strapped that I couldn't acquire an important object without having to sell another important piece that 
belonged to me. That's how it is. You could make another collection from what's slipped through my fingers...

ALAIN NICOLAS: Can you give me an example of these "misses"? One of those objects that you regret not having been able to acquire.

ARMAN: Well, there have been many, but usually it was a question of means. Sometimes, I wasn't fast enough... 

Missed objects? The missed ones are the very beautiful objects that I've had and then let go of.

ALAIN NICOLAS: In your collection of radios, you've told me that you're only one piece away from completing it?

ARMAN: One model, yes. I don't have all the various colors, but as for the model, I'm missing only one.

ALAIN NICOLAS: What price are you willing to put on finishing this collection of radios? If you were able to 
acquire the model you need, your collection would be complete.

ARMAN: No, because then there are all the colors for each model.

ALAIN NICOLAS: So there is no end?

ARMAN: No end, only in the number of models. In fact, this is a question of price: the person who possesses this model wants a ridiculously high price, so I won't buy it. Sometimes, something in my character just stops me.

ALAIN NICOLAS: Is there one object for which you'd be ready to sell your whole collection for, or a part of it?

ARMAN: No, let's be serious. The whole collection—that includes a lot of things! I have sold certain entire collections to obtain an object of African art. But, all my African art collection, my God, why? For another object of African art? No. There's not an object of African art in the world that's worth my entire collection. To my mind, at any rate. Perhaps an object from another culture. But that object is already in a museum. Why have it leave there? It's quite fine as it is. It belongs as much to me as to everyone else. No, the question doesn't arise.

ALAIN NICOLAS: Isn't there one work that awakens a strong desire in you to obtain it?

ARMAN: There are some objects I know can't have: a beautiful caryatid from the Master of Boli, I don't think will ever come my way; a sublime Fang head like that in the Metropolitan Museum, or some from the former Monzino 
Collection that are now in the Musee Dapper, I would always like to have. But even for a head like that, or even for a caryatid, I wouldn't give my entire collection. I would perhaps be capable of sacrificing certain pieces, but not my collection.

ALAIN NICOLAS: Yesterday I went to the Metropolitan Museum. I've gone there 1 don't know how many times before, but I still managed to see some pieces for the first time: they bring out objects from their reserves fairly often.

ARMAN: To begin with, there's the Rockefeller Collection.

ALAIN NICOLAS: Yes, there are many objects in that collection, some of them only recently put on exhibition. 

Still, when one goes into this large museum, one of the largest in the world, one passes from Persia to Medieval Europe, and one arrives at Africa and Oceania. While today in France the question again arises of allowing so- called "primitive" or "primordial" arts into the Louvre—where do you stand in this debate?

ARMAN: You have to draw a distinction. The aim of the Louvre, like that of the Metropolitan Museum, must be to show the excellence that humanity has produced. For, in its creations, humanity is one whole, with all its variety. 
Unfortunately, the Louvre, by virtue of its collections, by its structure, has excluded three fourths of humanity. I 
don't think this can be a pood thin?. There is a certain arrogance in the favoring of a "royal route" that leads to French art. I think that this approach is arrogant. Heaps of excuses are wheeled out. For instance, I've been told: 
"Yes, but there's the Musee de la Porte doree, there's the Musee Guimet..." That's not what we asked them. 
When I go to the Louvre, it doesn't interest me to visit a side hall with Roman heads of indifferent quality, nor to see the 50 square meters of painting turned out by the atelier of Rubens. I don't get anything out of this from an artistic point of view. The Louvre is so large in itself!... I would like them to present some chefs-d'oeuvre from other artistic traditions. And, of course, we can leave out many useless things from the Louvre, which are repetitions, redundancies. Then, they tell me that we have the Musee de Cluny for the medieval, Versailles for tapestries, etc. No. When someone comes to Paris for three or four days, if there's one museum to see, then it's the Louvre. The same way that one would visit the Metropolitan Museum in New York or the British Museum in London. People who aren't specialists don't have the time to visit all the museums. I think it's important that we 
abandon Some of this arrogance, not to be afraid of showing some masterpieces from pre-Colombian to African to southeast Asian. This wouldn't cost the Louvre so much; they would get many donations. We would all be only too proud to do something like that. I admit that I don't understand it, or only too well. And it bothers me. 
When I analyze the fundamental reason for this rejection on the part of the current team at the Louvre, I feel embarrassed. It seems to me that this fundamental reason runs in the same vein as Catholic fundamentalism. 
The Louvre shows only one route, the "royal route": the Mediterranean basin, Egypt included, Arabia, then the plains, the steppes, the North a bit, then Europe and France. The rest of the world doesn't exist—they're savages. And so this division, which I don't accept. I find it arrogant and racist.

ALAIN NICOLAS: Would it be indiscrete to ask you what future awaits your collection? Have you decided, or will you one day decide, to make a gift of a part of it to a French or American museum?

ARMAN: Before anything else, I want to give a structure to my collection: together with my wife I'm creating a foundation. It won't manage the complete collection, only the best pieces: maybe thirty or forty exceptional pieces. Perhaps later we might distribute them to museums, but it's clear that I'm going to give my collection a legal framework, one with a future. Because the best way of possessing something is by giving it. That way we have it for always.

ALAIN NICOLAS: But if you create a foundation, the collection will remain private...

ARMAN: It will stay private to begin with, but that's just a first step. It won't be American, for there is simply no fiscal advantage in establishing a foundation in the United States. I have many children, a family, and I have to take them into account. In France, in the eventuality that, on my death, I would be considered famous, perhaps something could be negotiated in the way of a bequest. Perhaps the African collection would go this way, so freeing the rest for my children.

ALAIN NICOLAS: What has been, and what is the role of your wife in the story of your collection of African art? 
Does she herself collect. Do you encourage her to buy?

ARMAN: No, she possesses her own collection of Cycladic art, as well as Chinese antiques. She is extremely fond of African objects. She knows them a bit, but doesn't choose them. She has attachments to objects, but doesn't take part in their acquisition, nor in their "de-acquisition." She has the tendency of wanting to keep every thing.

ALAIN NICOLAS: Bowing to tradition: is there a question that I should still ask you?

ARMAN: It's evident that I see the differences in all the arts, from all cultures, and I love them deeply. I've collected Oceanic art, with many objects from Easter Island, which I once visited. I've had exquisite Polynesian 
objects. I have some knowledge of Asian art, because my thesis at the Ecole du Louvre was on the birth of the sign of Tao Tse in China. I know art history, and I'm fascinated to see just how important it is to learn all of art's facets, all these expressions that at once translate adaptation to environments, ways of life, difficulties, visions of the world, cosmogonies—and that we can hear their echoes inside us.

from the book on Arman's collection: African Faces, African Figures

read also in French Arman

The first CD-ROM dedicated to African art has been produced in conjunction with "African Faces, African Figures: The Arman Collection," an exhibition of more than 180 objects at the Museum for African Art in New York, Oct. 9, 1997-Apr. 19, 1998. The CD-ROM features all 300 works from the collection of the famed Nouveaux Realiste sculptor, which is especially strong in art from West and Central Africa. It's available at the museum for $49.95.

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In this section:
Charles Benenson
Arman African Art
Barnes foundation
Gary Schulze
Paolo Morigi
Owen Mort
Tomkins collection
Goldet auction
William Rubin
Guido Poppe African Weapons
Picasso back to Africa
Private collection
Felix Feneon
Jean-Pierre Hallet
Leo Frobenius
Frank Willett
Brill collection
Vicente Huidobro
Hans Witte
Collins Diboll
Richard Faletti
Lester Saffier
Genevieve McMillan
Marc Ginzberg
Horstmann Collection
Warren Robbins 

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The Tribal Arts of Africa
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read also : Start ] Frederick-Scott-Boston ] Charles Benenson ] [ Arman African Art ] Baselitz ] Barnes foundation ] Gary Schulze ] Paolo Morigi ] Bareiss ] Owen Mort ] Tomkins collection ] lavuun ] Goldet auction ] Tishman ] Metha-Montgomey ] William Rubin ] Bregger ] Guido Poppe African Weapons ] Picasso back to Africa ] Private collection ] Felix Feneon ] Jean-Pierre Hallet ] Leo Frobenius ] Olbrechts ] Frank Willett ] Kerchache ] Brill collection ] Vicente Huidobro ] Hans Witte ] Collins Diboll ] Richard Faletti ] Lester Saffier ] Genevieve McMillan ] Stanoff ] Marc Ginzberg ] Horstmann Collection ] Warren Robbins ]

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