Text Jean-Marie Gallais
English / French
24 x 29 cm
104 color illustrations
When artist Jeremy Demester traveled to Ouidah in the West African country of Benin in 2015, he unexpectedly found a resonant new space for his art to grow in. In his engagement with voodoo lore and local culture he found many connections and parallels to his own tzygane roots, giving him new figures and signs that manifested themselves in his paintings and sculptures ever more articulately. The book documents four exhibitions at Galerie Max Hetzler in Berlin and London and the Musée de la Fondation Zinsou in Ouidah, which follow Demester’s process in engaging with unfamiliar motifs in order to discover an individual artistic language that speaks to greater human concerns: we see mask-like ghosts whose faces completely fill the canvases, natural forces that manifest themselves in surprising color contrasts, elements of collaboration with local artists, and abstractions of totemic power. The very basic questions these works ask—where do we come from? where are we? who are we?—are illuminated in an essay by Jean-Marie Gallais, who shows us what this artistic encounter of cultures means from both sides, and how the artist first regarded as “he who enacts his thoughts” became “he who sets his paintings in motion.”
When Demester arrived for the first time on the red earth of Ouidah, he did not know what to expect and had brought nothing with him. He followed his intuition, allowing himself to be guided by his encounters, by the burden of history attaching to the places he discovered, and by the orality so universally present in Benin. His outlook was that of a Western artist, but also of a Romani particularly open to other ways of perceiving the world and of producing images. He very soon felt the need to paint. But what? And how? In the local market, he found pigments amidst the oils, substances and powders sold for ritual use. Looking for large-format canvases, all he could find was the shrouds used by the Islamic community of the city. He explored the full significance of the sacred, in this case Western African beliefs and rituals such as they are manifested in Benin in general and at Ouidah in particular. This occurred at a time when Demester was, like many before him, seeking to purge himself of some of the pictorial influences imparted by his artistic education in order to allow a new language to emerge. In order to “relearn how to paint,” Demester had, in earlier works before his departure for Africa, begun what one might perhaps describe as exercises, notably taking on fundamental subjects that run through the entire history of art, painting the elements sky, fire and liquid, and molding earth in his hands. Rather than in the heavily codified field of the Fine Arts, he learned innovation and expertise from other kinds of painters: decorators, industrial painters and experts in military camouflage and technical pigments. Artists must, he feels, free themselves from their own specialism. The African context seemed from the outset to favor this step.
The primary indicator of this new language expressed in what the artist calls his “African paintings” is visible at first glance: the flamboyant color used by Demester to divide the picture spatially. He is, paradoxically, color blind and often speaks of the moment when, as a schoolchild, he became aware of this difference. For him, colors are words as much as tints or shades and he approaches them through their denomination. In this way, he quickly came to understand that parallel worlds could coexist: the visible world and an abstract one, the world of words—and literature became a faithful ally in his creative process. Consequently, “painting without seeing” has formed the central principle of his self-reinvention. This has meant asking scientists to determine the color of the blood in our veins, asking children to wave canvases coated with living matter and to dance with them, letting pictures be struck by lightning, or letting nature have its way with canvases rolled around trees, hung up in the wind, or left to the tender mercies of the rainy season. “Painting without seeing” means opening doors, leaving his work to be re-touched by the invisible and impregnated with the non-material. As a rule, this procedure goes hand-in-hand with the effort to transcend reason and advance into the spiritual …