Purple Magazine
— The Paris Issue #31 S/S 2019

kamel mennour

kamel mennour

interview by OLIVIER ZAHM
portrait by KATJA RAHLWES

the gallery that put the city on the
map by not trying to be everywhere
and by focusing on what paris can
offer the art world

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, tell me the story of this gallery you set up in the heart of Saint-Germain-des-Prés.
KAMEL MENNOUR — I’ve been here for 10 years. In the Hôtel de la Vieuville, a 17th-century townhouse that I fell in love with the moment I saw it. Before I came along, it was the home of a very old bibliophile, and in the more distant past, there were literary salons. He was a man who collected and sold fine old French books with leather covers, treasures for lovers of antique tomes. There was wood paneling and old bookcases all wedged together and filled with books everywhere. Everything was falling apart, water leaking in. He wanted to sell. I thought to myself, “This is where I want to finish up.” I waited a year for the old man to sell me the place. He was very attached to it. In the end, he named a price, and I didn’t haggle.

OLIVIER ZAHM — The townhouse has an inner courtyard.
KAMEL MENNOUR — And that little turret you can see, which is extraordinary. I invited the artist François Morellet to make a work on the wall. At night, it’s lit up. It’s sublime, like a claw mark.

OLIVIER ZAHM — I can see how carefully you’ve gone about preserving this space while restoring its beauty, its simplicity — because the 17th century really is very simple. For you, a gallery also means the experience of the city, doesn’t it?
KAMEL MENNOUR — Yes. You walk into this magnificent paved courtyard, but you are also entering a historical dimension that, somehow, also connects with life. It’s a free place, open: you can be an art student or a waiter in the nearby café. So many things have happened in this quarter.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And today your gallery is 20 years old?
KAMEL MENNOUR — Yes. We’re just starting out! [Laughs]

OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s quite a story. In fact, you are one of the only contemporary galleries to have kept faith with Saint-Germain.
KAMEL MENNOUR — I think I’m one of the only ones. It’s a bit pretentious, but that’s the reality. All the others are grouped together in the Marais.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Contemporary art surrounded by antiquarians and galleries selling furniture or African masks… What does Saint-Germain mean to you?
KAMEL MENNOUR — If we walk along the Rue des Grands-Augustins together later, on our way to the gallery’s other space in the Rue du Pont-de-Lodi, we will walk past the townhouse where Picasso painted Guernica. For me, being in Saint-Germain-des-Prés was like reliving, in a different time frame, all the important things that happened here: Picasso, the Surrealists, existentialism… I try to be a witness to my time and to support artists of my generation, or even younger ones, or even much older ones like Morellet, and to put all that in a historical context. I have to be worthy of this incredible history. For me, it’s a blessing! I thought, shit, I have to be on my game if I’m inviting Daniel Buren, Martial Raysse, Anish Kapoor, Camille Henrot, and others. You’ve got to be on their level.

OLIVIER ZAHM — For you, is a gallerist also an artist?
KAMEL MENNOUR — It’s being an ear, knowing how to listen to artists, and maybe, too, it’s being an eye, a bit of a vision, knowing how to direct them. But me,
an artist? No way. You either are, or you aren’t.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Yes, but in a way you co-create the exhibitions. Even if, I suppose, you give your artists a lot of freedom. It’s a dialogue, right?
KAMEL MENNOUR — A real dialogue, but I do leave the artists a lot of freedom. Not that I just indulge them. I give my opinion.

OLIVIER ZAHM — How do you start your day as a gallerist?
KAMEL MENNOUR — In the morning, I try to start out with a studio visit, meeting an artist, young or not young. In Paris or anywhere else in the world. That’s very important — no, it’s vital! If you stop doing that, you become corporate — you become a dealer, an industrialist.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Why have you stayed in Paris?
KAMEL MENNOUR — I must have been invited 25 times to open in New York, in Los Angeles, or elsewhere. Not once, but 25 times! They offer you spaces next to this or that gallery. But there you are — I don’t go.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, you’re still a Parisian?
KAMEL MENNOUR — Yup. On Monday, I’m off to Shanghai for a week for a contemporary art fair. I think that’s enough. I’m going there to meet collectors, artists, press people, to feel the spirit of that new city. As it is, I have to be at all the big international art fairs. Maybe I’m wrong about this, but it seemed to me that I couldn’t be everywhere, and, most of all, I couldn’t be good everywhere. I have my standards, which I share with my artists and who, in any case, must share that because they’re with me — they haven’t left my gallery in Paris. And it’s not just for my pretty face! You expect artists to come and go.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Tell me a bit about yourself. You’re not French?
KAMEL MENNOUR — I am now! I was born in Algeria in 1965, so I’m not a beur [second-generation French person of North African descent], but a real immigrant. [Laughs] I came here with my mother under the family reunification scheme. She joined my father, who was a house painter. And then I became French. I became like all the other guys! Like you, who was born in France but who could have been born somewhere else and who could have acquired the local culture! I could have been called Olivier! I have the same culture as you do. I’m talking about my origins now, but usually I don’t really like to talk about that too much because, in the end, I believe that you choose your nationality.

OLIVIER ZAHM — But you are proud of being Algerian, even so?
KAMEL MENNOUR — Of course. I’m very proud to be called Kamel — you can’t imagine. I’m no nationalist, but I know how lucky I am to have my mother, who speaks to me in Arabic. I don’t talk about it too much because I’ve never wanted to be a standard-bearer of immigration. I don’t want to be “the Algerian emigrant who made it.” I don’t want to be the gallery of multiculturalism or anticolonialism, or whatever. That would put me in a box. I want to be a gallerist who chooses freely. I don’t want to be a political flag. Gagosian, for example — no one talks to him about the fact he’s of Armenian descent.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Still, your programming shows a real sensitivity to deracination, to other places. There is a variety and a great openness in your choice of artists — artists you wouldn’t expect.
KAMEL MENNOUR — Petrit Halilaj, for example. He’s a young Kosovar whose story really fascinates me! He was born in a country at war. He lived in the camps, he’s gay, he’s a Muslim, and he’s the finest artist of his generation. I mean, the guy is just 30, and he’s everywhere. His work is incredibly powerful.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Still, there is one country that is missing on the map, for French people, and that’s Algeria.
KAMEL MENNOUR — Yes, what’s going on over there is terrible. It’s a catastrophe. There are no words for that. I don’t even want to get into that because…

OLIVIER ZAHM — Because of all the emotions?
KAMEL MENNOUR — Emotions, but not just that. Deep sadness. I think they’ve wrecked the country. Well, is it still a country, even? They’re going to elect a president whom nobody has seen for five years! Who’s in a wheelchair. But the youth over there is explosive, and that’s extraordinary. But this young generation is stifled.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Maybe something can be done there, don’t you think? Shouldn’t we go there? I’ve thought about it several times, of going there and taking photos, getting permission… And the landscapes are so beautiful.
KAMEL MENNOUR — Don’t do that, man! It’s too painful.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Hang on to the dream?
KAMEL MENNOUR — Bravo. What I tell all my pied-noir friends is: don’t go. [A pied noir refers to an non-indigenous inhabitant of French North Africa, of European origin.] I was lucky to get away as a kid, thanks to my mother, who came to France to be with my father.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Tell me, how did contemporary art come into your life? When you started out, you were more interested in photography. In fact, we had the same tastes in photography. For example, I was delighted to see those Nobuyoshi Araki shows you did, and the Larry Clark.
KAMEL MENNOUR — That was in the very early days. For me, that was already a leap into the void. I bought a lot of photography books, really a lot. I used to comb the flea market at Vanves. I bought books at La Chambre Claire [a specialist photography bookstore]. I built up a tremendous photographic culture in that way, through books, on my own.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And now, you’re also a publisher?
KAMEL MENNOUR — Yes, that’s very important for me. Books are what enabled me to get into the art world. Today, I publish lots of them because I think it’s very important. We publish about 10 a year, with Daniel Buren, Claude Lévêque, Martial Raysse… I’ve always thought one should leave a trace. And memory means books. Besides, I love it! I think that in some way, somehow, you have to leave something. An exhibition is a limited moment, then it’s over. It’s fleeting.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, a book is memory, transmission. It’s also pleasure.
KAMEL MENNOUR — Oh yes, pleasure!

OLIVIER ZAHM — People are constantly telling us that this is the end of books, the end of magazines, that we’ll have to burn books because people are reading less and less. Are you pessimistic or not about the direction the world is heading in?
KAMEL MENNOUR — We’re living through a period of great upheaval. But you know, I come from nowhere. I mean it. You have no idea! That’s why I don’t talk about my Algerian origins — because it’s been such a journey for me that I view the world with more optimism than pessimism. It takes guts. You have to give it all you’ve got. Never lose hope — that’s the thing. In the end, you’re lucky, and it’s up to you to make something of it.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You have been very clear about this, and I’m with you on this point: contemporary art is not a political message. But does it represent a hope? For you, is contemporary art a zone of visibility, of reflection, that you think is essential to us today?
KAMEL MENNOUR — It’s a hope. Art is what enables us all to raise ourselves up. In my case, I soon realized that it was vital for me, that it was my oxygen. It allows me to see things differently, to grasp notions that are not innate — like tolerance, for example. You can learn about others. I have 25 to 30 artists around me, which means 25 to 30 ways of seeing the world. Every day, I learn something new by talking with the artists at my gallery and meeting other artists.

OLIVIER ZAHM — But you need to know how to sell, which isn’t easy.
KAMEL MENNOUR — Yes, you’ve got to sell, but for that, I need to be in total agreement with the artists I show. And I ask a lot of them, as I do of myself. If I don’t feel right about an exhibition, I cancel, even if I’ve lost money preparing it. I ask my artists to match that perfectionism. I read an article recently about Paul Rosenberg, Picasso’s dealer in the 1930s, which says the same thing. For Picasso’s first exhibition in the United States, Rosenberg opened the crates, and he sent the works back to Picasso, telling him, “Look, you can do better than this!”

OLIVIER ZAHM — Have you already had the courage to refuse works?
KAMEL MENNOUR — Well, to give warnings, anyway. I have to be perfectly honest, even if that means upsetting people, even if the artist gets angry with me. You have to have the courage to say, “Look, I think you’re making a mistake.”

OLIVIER ZAHM — Because you’re not just selling products.
KAMEL MENNOUR — No, I need to be in agreement with the perception I have of the artist’s work. And maybe sometimes I get it wrong. In fact, I often get it wrong!

OLIVIER ZAHM — In any case, in 20 years, you have created one of the galleries at the forefront of contemporary art in France. It’s a financial responsibility, too. How do you live with that risk? You have three children.
KAMEL MENNOUR — I have five. You have to think of everything. With maximum precision. To the nearest commas. Every detail!

OLIVIER ZAHM — What’s your view of the Parisian scene today? You started out in 2000. You and I are from the same generation, and it’s true, we suffered in Paris back then. We had the impression Paris was lagging behind.
KAMEL MENNOUR — It wasn’t an impression — it was the reality! That’s for sure. I used to think, Paris is a village! Paris is exceptional, in terms of history, of heritage, etc, but we had lost the contemporary pulse. We were trailing. I think that you and I are part of the generation that got Paris to wake up. We had to put Paris back up there with other capitals. On the same level as New York, for a start. That’s what you did with Purple in terms of the intellectual press. It had to be done in terms of galleries — to shift the balance of power that was always favorable to American or German galleries.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Your own experience as a gallerist aside, do you feel that Paris is waking up again?
KAMEL MENNOUR — Yes, really, it’s not an impression. It’s a fact. When you see what the FIAC [International Contemporary Art Fair] has become, Parisian institutions — well! Before, people didn’t even stop. And of course, this goes beyond the world of contemporary art.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And Paris is also very multidisciplinary. There’s great variety. Not simply contemporary art — there are lots of things. Architecture, cinema, dance, theater…
KAMEL MENNOUR — Lots of things. We lived through a terrible period, an arid period, and now I think we’ve opened the floodgates. You know, I used to walk around and explore. I saw the other galleries, and I thought that in Paris, we were nobodies in the art world. So, I said to myself, “Shut your mouth and work.” And then, we slowly started to come out with these artists: Camille Henrot, Kader Attia, Latifa Echakhch, Mohamed Bourouissa, Hicham Berrada, Zineb Sedira.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You have also worked with more historical artists.
KAMEL MENNOUR — Yes, Buren, Morellet, Huang Yong Ping, Tadashi Kawamata — all these artists who were already very well known but weren’t always properly represented.

OLIVIER ZAHM — How did you manage to persuade someone like Buren?
KAMEL MENNOUR — Well, Buren is vital for my gallery. It was in 2005. I was still in the Rue Mazarine, a gallery of 25 square meters, and someone came in and said: “Buren has just left Marian Goodman. Would you like to meet him?” And I said: “Buren? I dream of meeting him!” I invited him to dinner, guess where, at the Marco Polo, the little restaurant nearby in the Rue Saint-Sulpice. Buren had never heard of me. We had dinner, but you know, when you talk with Buren, all he talks about is himself. [Laughs] At the end of the evening, he’d forgotten whom he’d eaten with! Six months later, we just happened to find ourselves on the same plane for Korea. I was going to the Gwangju Biennale, and he was going to Seoul to do an exhibition in the Hermès store. I said, “Ah, Buren, do you remember me?” He hesitated, tried to remember. I was in coach, and he was in business. [Laughs] I said to him, “Buren, let’s talk.” He came down to coach to see me, and I thought, “You’d better be good because this time he can’t go back up!” We were together for seven hours! I explained that he was my absolute hero, that I’d read all his writings, and I said: “At your level, you don’t need a gallery. If I were you, I wouldn’t go back to Yvon Lambert, I’d never go to Daniel Templon. You need a young gallerist.” I came straight out with it. Two weeks later, he called me: “Hello, Mennour? Are you still interested in me?” On my mother’s head: Buren calling me! [Laughs] And I thought, “But this guy is nuts!” He did set one condition: not to exhibit as long as I had only the little gallery. But he had the guts to go from Marian Goodman to Kamel Mennour! What other artist at his level would have done that? He left the Marian Goodman gallery because he wasn’t getting on with her any more. He wrote her a letter that I got to read — extremely detailed, very intellectual, with a nice “fuck you” at the end!
He called me two weeks later to say, “Mennour, are you still interested in me?” [Laughs]

OLIVIER ZAHM — And Buren has never been so busy in all his life.
KAMEL MENNOUR — He’s everywhere! You can’t pin the guy down.

OLIVIER ZAHM — I managed to pin him down thanks to Jérôme Sans for an interview in this issue.
KAMEL MENNOUR — That’s incredible because the guy never stops. Today he was getting back from Australia, and tomorrow he’s off to Greenland! [Laughs] I think that if he stopped now, he’d die, just like that! It’s what keeps him in that state of creativity and intellectual lucidity. I think that when he was in that big gallery, it was on his level, but after a while…

OLIVIER ZAHM — It became routine!
KAMEL MENNOUR — That’s it. So, he took the risk of going with a kid. Because, quite honestly, I hadn’t done very much. And now it’s been 10 years with him, and he still says nice things about my gallery. Anyway, when an artist like Buren says, “Mennour, are you still interested?” Oh, right! I said, “Shit, man, go for it!”



[Table of contents]

The Paris Issue #31 S/S 2019

Table of contents

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