Delmar Gallery | African Treasures

17 Jul 2017

Delmar Gallery | African Treasures

A show sampling Ray Hughes’ collection reveals energy and spiritualism.

There is still some dispute about the importance of Jean-Hubert Martin’s 1989 exhibition at the Centre Pompidou, Magiciens de la terre, which laid down an historic challenge to the Eurocentrism of western art museums. For former art dealer, Ray Hughes, there is no dispute whatsoever. It was a game-changer.

Hughes acquired his first African artefacts in Paris in 1974, but began to explore the contemporary field after getting to know Andre Magnin, the entrepreneur who helped organise the African component of the Pompidou show. During the past 30 years, Magnin has become the museum world’s go-to man for African art.

In 1990 Magnin was engaged by businessman, Jean Pignozzi, to put together a collection of contemporary African art. That horde has grown so voluminously it now contains more than 12,000 pieces, and is currently the subject of an exhibition at the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris.

At the same time, Delmar Gallery, at Trinity Grammar School, is showing over 100 African works from the Ray Hughes collection, selected by Catherine Benz and Nick Vickers. I’ll leave it to readers to judge whether the difference in venues says something about the way we value the arts in Australia.

Since he closed his gallery at the end of 2015, Hughes has kept a low profile, but he was in excellent form at the opening of this show. As he spoke enthusiastically about the works it was a reminder of the sheer vitality, the willingness to take risks, that had been the hallmarks of his career.

Hughes is known for his ground-breaking exhibitions of Chinese art, but he was the onlyAustralian dealer to get involved with contemporary art from West Africa. He made his first trip to the region in 1992. Two more were to follow, in which he visited artists in places never frequented by tourists. In a series of shows from the mid-1990s Hughes featured work the most celebrated African painters, sculptors and photographers. In 1996, Kane Kwei: Decorative Coffins from Ghana, was a media sensation that attracted thousands of visitors but failed to make a single sale.

There are two amazing coffins in Ray Hughes: Africa – a car and a Holy Bible, which suggests the broad spectrum of customers serviced by Kane Kwei.

The full selection is a testimony to Hughes’s adventurous tastes. There are tribal masks, carvings and artefacts from Nigeria, Mali, Cote d’Ivoire, Benin, Burkina Faso, Togo, Cameroon, Ghana and the Congo; embroidered Asante flags; hairdressers’ signs; photographs by Seydou Keïta and J.D.Okahi Ojeikere; paintings, sculptures and works on paper. Even two prints by German Expressionist, Karl Schmidt-Rotluff, depicting African masks.

Some artists have built international reputations in the years since Hughes acquired their work. The small drawings of Frédéric Bruly Bouarbré (1923-2014), which are part of a grand cycle called World Knowledge, have been shown in museums all over the world.

The emblematic paintings of Cyprien Tokoudagba (1939-2012), better known as a sculptor, are the kind of works that stay etched in one’s mind. Hughes has two of Tokoudagba’s paintings of voudou deities – the bird-headed Gbinglo, and the more alarming Denou Legba, who sits, goggle-eyed and priapic, holding something that resembles a hockey stick.

Moke (1950-2001) from the Congo, was a true folk painter, whose Mama Benz depicts one of the powerful local matriarchs who have made their fortunes in the street markets.

The vivid colour and infectious energy of Moke’s painting captures one side of African life. To see why Africa was so long referred to as ‘the dark continent’, apart from mere racial stereotyping, one must look at things such as a Boli, a power object specific to the Banama people of Mali. It took Hughes a long time to acquire this piece, but it’s easy to see the appeal. Shaped like an animal, the Boli is made by wrapping cloth around a central armature and building up a dense coating of dung, clay, oil, animal blood, and anything else that might be used in a sacrificial rite.

This mysterious, minimal object has a presence that would be the envy of most sculptors. It speaks of Hughes’s desire to find the Real Thing – the work of art made from the deepest spiritual necessity, not simply as a saleable commodity.

All successful art dealers need an eye for what sells, but there is another side to the trade that has little to do with commerce. Many are also collectors that love the art they sell, and are sorry to part with it. This was the case with legendary dealers such as Ernst Beyler and Heinz Berggruen, whose holdings now form the basis of museums in Basel and Berlin, respectively.

When Chris Dercon, the former director of Tate Modern was in Sydney in 2013, he was so taken by the Hughes collection he told the Art Gallery of NSW that if they didn’t make a show of it, he would. It was a moment of personal vindication for Hughes, but led nowhere because Dercon stepped down two years later. The purchases of Australian art that new Tate Modern director, Frances Morris, is making in collaboration with Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art suggest a very different set of priorities.

Instead it’s been left to Delmar, Sydney’s most remarkable grammar school gallery, to give the public a glimpse of Hughes’s treasures. If any curator or gallery director makes the effort to get out to Ashfield, they will see a body of work that has no parallel in this country.

Over the years Hughes has often been described as “colourful”. One assumes this doesn’t refer exclusively to his dress sense, but also to a difficult, uncompromising personality. In his long career as a dealer, Hughes probably scared away more curators than he attracted. He was never able to play the game by anyone else’s rules.

Seeing these African works, and knowing this is only a fraction of the art that Hughes has accumulated, it may well be time for the institutions to pluck up the courage and go see an old dealer. It’s clear that Hughes bought these works for love, not profit, and would like to see them made available to the widest audience. He’s no longer in business but he might be ready to do a deal.

Ray Hughes: Africa
Delmar Gallery, Trinity Grammar School,
Until July 30, 2017

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald | 15 July 2017
Author John McDonald

Moke, Mama Benz