Dear Fondation Louis Vuitton: Where Are The African People?

On a recent trip to Paris, I had the good fortune to visit the Fondation Louis Vuitton (FLV), which describes itself as “a private cultural initiative”. In essence, it is a private museum housed in a dynamic and formidable Frank Gehry construction apparently inspired by an ice glacier. (Mission accomplished!)

Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris, France

FLV is currently hosting an awe-inspiring exhibition of contemporary African art titled Art/Afrique, Le Nouvel Atelier or Art/Africa, The New Atelier. This exhibit is a destination point affair; in other words, it is reason enough to plan a trip to Paris.

Upon entering the first gallery, one is greeted with a sense of fun and ingenuity via the works of Romuald Hazoumé — a series of masks made mostly of plastic jugs and other found materials, which circumvent the traditional African mask by exploring a whole new playing field.

Atiboetote — L’arbre de Vie by Romuald Hazoumé

But there would be another display of masks by artist Calixte Dakpogan, which would thrill me even more! Here, nail clippers, colored pencils, windshield wipers and other unexpected bric-à-brac invite you into the buzzing and disciplined brainpower of a master eyewitness to the culture and day-to-day life of his Porto-Novo community in Benin.

Mask by Calixte Dakpogan

And there was more, much more. In fact, after two and a half hours spent marveling at the dizzying array of works ranging from masks to paintings, to sculpture and video, and photography and installations, still, we had not taken it all in. This exciting exhibition — an up-to-the-minute foray into Africa now — requires two visits, for sure.

However. There’s always a however, isn’t there? Where were the black visitors? I counted three, including me. How could this be? Paris 2011 census figures show some 1 million blacks in a city of roundabout 2.2 million. People of African descent would so appreciate this exhibition, which includes acerbic political points of view, and serves as a perfect reflection of modern Africans — those living in Africa and abroad — along with the most pressing issues of the day: identity, community, family, economic viability, assimilation, creative expression, racial prejudice, trauma and healing, to mention only the most obvious.

According to the Fondation Louis Vuitton website, the museum is “A new space that opens up a dialogue with a wider public and provides artists an intellectuals with a platform for debate and reflection,” per Bernard Arnault, Chairman and CEO of LVMH (Louis Vuitton/Moet Hennessy), and at whose behest the space was created.

Did they even bother to promote the exhibition to the communities whose very lives are echoed in the works on view? At a nearby café afterwards, we asked our waiter, who was brown-skinned and probably Moroccan or Tunisian, if he had ever been to the museum. He seemed taken aback and said no. When we told him how fabulous was the exhibit, he responded that he did not feel welcome in “a place like that.” That’s not for us, he seemed to be saying. But my husband and I persisted, suggesting that he would most likely love the work, that he should go take a look, and then tell his friends about it. Attendance is free! He said he would, but somehow I didn’t believe him.

A day later, sitting around the dinner table with some artist friends, all of them white, I asked if anyone knew whether the FLV ever promoted its exhibits — especially this one — to neighborhoods appropriate to their exhibitions. All I got was blank stares. “Why wouldn’t they advertise this exhibit to those communities,” I insisted? I wasn’t trying to be dense, I was truly mystified. I couldn’t help envisioning streets lined with banners trumpeting the event. But the answer that finally came to light was, essentially, those communities are not FLV’s audience.

How utterly, utterly sad. Reminds me of Beverly Hills denizens fighting tooth and nail for nearly a decade against public transportation bringing undesirable subway-dependent riffraf into their manicured streets.

Once back in Los Angeles, I sent the FLV an email, lavishing praise upon them for their superb exhibition, and then posing the same question:

As I looked around, I did not see any black guests in the museum. Are you promoting or advertising the exhibition at all to the communities in Paris whom, I have no doubt, would be thrilled to view this work? The exhibit reflects the lives of Africans in so many fabulous ways, it would be a shame if a special effort was not made to get the information out to them. A question and a suggestion.

Unfortunately, one week later, I’ve yet to receive an answer.

* UPDATE (6/27/17): Today I received an email response from FLV. Here it is in its entirety:

Dear Mrs Fabius,

Fondation Louis Vuitton would like to thank you for your email. We are glad to hear that you have enjoyed Art/Afrique, Le Nouvel Atelier. The exhibition is a showcase of dynamic and inspiring art, which Fondation Louis Vuitton is proud to have exhibited the beauty of African art. We regret to hear that you have had this impression. Please be assured that our communication for Art/Afrique, Le Nouvel Atelier, both in print and digital media, have specifically been focused on the African community in France as well as all the general public. We would be glad if you would join us for another visit.

Kind regards,

Carine is the author of six fiction and nonfiction books, and a longtime contributor to Huffpost, writing on issues of lifestyle, the arts, politics, and more.