Revisiting Magiciens de la Terre

Annie Cohen-Solal

“The common statement that artistic production can only exist in the Western world can be blamed on the arrogance of our culture,”[1] wrote Jean-Hubert Martin, chief curator of the Magiciens de la Terre exhibition, in the catalogue. This unusual catalogue, formatted akin to an atlas, appeared to be a radical manifesto against the iniquities of the Western world, offering a body of political texts, photos, illustrations, and collages. It also included references to the 104 exhibited artists, presented in an unusual manner: the two pages allocated to each artist offered biographies and reproductions of works, as well a small planisphere indicating their geographical location. Interestingly, in each case, the planisphere was reoriented in such a way that the referent dot remained at the center. Among other contributors to the catalogue, Pierre Gaudibert also condemned “the symbolic violence of the Western world”[2] and Mark Francis ironically stigmatized the “condescending position” of those who had excluded non-Western artists from their museums for so long.[3]

Today, a quarter of century after it took place, the exhibition still appears both as a landmark and a controversial event, provoking endless debates about the alleged divide between Western and non-Western, as originally defined by the curators, as well as with regard to the position of curator as author. “Magiciens de la Terre cannot be reduced to a simple confrontation between ‘Western’ and ‘non-Western artists,’ which remain problematic terms anyhow,” commented Hou Hanru (now director of the Maxxi in Rome) in an interview.

Jean-Hubert Martin’s research and the questions that he raised have inspired me greatly. How to define an artist? How to describe his role as a social agent? For me, an artist is someone who works against his own context in order to offer other options and to analyse differently the link between an individual and his own society.[4]

In the past, several shows happened to epitomize a historical period; such was the case of the Armory Show (1913), the first dada show (1920), the Ninth Street Show (1951), and China/Avant-Garde (1989), similarly to Magiciens de la Terre (1989). Such events, which, according to philosopher Bruce Altschuler, play the role of “central node of the confrontation,”[5] might allow us to signal the advent of a new era as well. In this respect, how can both the position and the function of Magiciens de la Terre be assessed? How can its “enduring influence,” which provoked so many debates and arguments in the art world, at large as well as in academia, be explained? How, above all, can Jean-Marc Poinsot’s assertion, when he describes it not so much as a show, but rather as “a springboard, and a forum for debate in the history of those last twenty five years” be understood?[6] It is from this position that I wish to consider Magiciens de la Terre by revisiting the social and geopolitical context of the exhibition, while reflecting on the self-aware subjectivity Martin employed in its construction. In this sense, this text intends itself less as an academic reconsideration of the content of the acclaimed exhibition, nor the critical debates that surrounded it, but rather as an almost anthropological framing of Martin’s curatorial premises – ones which launched international debates that are still ongoing today.

The Historical Context

As early as June 1989, in a special issue of the Cahiers du Mnam,[7] Benjamin Buchloh mentioned the major traps inscribed at the heart of Magiciens de la Terre’s project, thereby listing the multiple questions it raised, as well as the many contradictions embedded in it. How to represent the Other? How to elaborate selection criteria? How to avoid the inevitable ethnocentrism of the choices? Some others indicated their “reservations in the name of an absent scientific perspective.”[8] Fully conscious of those various problems, Jean-Hubert Martin actively tried to determine “a ‘correct’ perspective”[9] and consulted various academics – anthropologists, philosophers, ethnologists, art historians – to acquire their expertise. The opening of the exhibition contributed to establishing a visual dialogue thanks to the installations of various artists who had come from the five continents; this juxtaposition between artists from the “non-Western world” (for lack of a better term) and artists from the Western world provoked numerous (and often negative) criticisms. But Martin explained that he had conceived the project as a delicate balance between his own “artistic intuition” and “the critical light shed by contemporary anthropology on cultural relativity and on intercultural relationships.”[10]

Nevertheless, the fact that the original catalogue had not been translated into English and was never really available, as well as the relatively poor number of visitors in 1989 (a total of less than 300,000 for the Centre Pompidou and La Villette) created another phenomenon: for the audience at large around the world, Magiciens de la Terre became a legendary show – a great many were discussing it without having actually seen it. Therefore, for the public at large, through innumerable rumors, misunderstandings, and misinterpretations,[11] it became legendary, to the point that it was sometimes stigmatized into a “Franco-French,” and thus irrevocable, affair.[12] In the academic world, especially, professors and students engaged in classes, seminars, and conferences, and organized research groups, dissertations, and theses focusing on Magiciens de la Terre from the point of view of the history of exhibitions. Progressively, year after year, Magiciens de la Terre started to become a windfall and an interdisciplinary research object that energized interdisciplinary practices as referred to by Poinsot. The questions raised by the exhibition interrogated the new debates within the sociology of art, museum studies, history of globalization, and postcolonial studies. More recently, in 2013, a British team published a very well-documented and critical project with a series of analyses, interviews, eyewitness accounts, documents, and photographs, suddenly providing Magiciens de la Terre with a definitive heuristic legitimacy.[13]

Today, despite the numerous criticisms it induced, many scholars still consider Magiciens de la Terre as a major and unusual exhibition that “asked questions which have still not been solved and might well never be.”[14] The coincidence between this new geopolitical order and the Magiciens de la Terre exhibition produced such a clash of synchronic events that, for a while, it became impossible to establish the array of causes, which made possible the new ecology that was establishing itself in the art world during the two decades following. Furthermore, the world of art fairs and biennials, and of museums and galleries, changed drastically and took an inexorable turn in 1989 with the emergence of new types of artists,[15] new territories, new routes, and new types of curators. During the same year, the political transformations that took place in Berlin, Beijing, Kabul, New Delhi, and Johannesburg shuffled the geopolitical order and allowed exchanges and interactions with other territories, which until then had been impossible or difficult.

Twenty-five years later, with so many institutions engaged in new projects concerned with the globalization of the art world – for instance, Collecting Geographies at the Stedelijk Museum – how does one assess the impact of Magiciens de la Terre? How do we determine its role in the “geographical extension of the contemporary artistic offer”[16] and in the exponential development of fairs and biennials that occurred thereafter? Or did Magiciens de la Terre hold another function in the art world at large, by acknowledging the hidden dimension of a new era? The analysis of some elements about the genesis of the show and its historical context might help us answer these numerous inquiries, particularly as they are contextualized by the centering of Martin’s subjectivity as a curator. He recently highlighted this point in his interview with Raymonde Moulin:

My own selection criteria never remained rigid. They evolved and it is quite hard for me to refer to them. I was in adequacy with the art of my generation, for example, with the truth of the media; therefore, in the case of the Australian aboriginal artists, I privileged bark paintings rather than canvas paintings. I did the same in the case of Esther Mahlangu, who was invited to paint a house but not canvases. But after Magiciens de la Terre, with my other shows, I did not stick with this approach.[17]

At that, Martin’s sociopolitical break from the French academy and tradition, however radical to the history of exhibition-making, was notably conflated with a narrative centered in the curator: his personal context, history, and privilege.

The Geographical Twist

Very early on, in the 1960s and the 1970s, Jean-Hubert Martin embarked on long expeditions around the world and expressed his interest for multiculturality. First, he clearly endorsed Robert Filliou’s tradition, his interest in the Dogon people, and applauded at all his presentations in the 1980s, including the Popoïdrome show at the Centre Pompidou. But he expressed his reservations about William Rubin’s “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern exhibition, which took place at MoMA in 1984. Those two events in turn prompted Martin to organize a “true international exhibition.” He considered that, if Rubin’s Primitivism was “fantastic, regarding the historical period,” it became “catastrophic when it dealt with contemporary artists”; Martin also denounced the fact that Rubin “had never set foot in Africa,”[18] thus displaying a lack of interest for that continent. All these elements are well-known, and the curator of Magiciens de le Terre repeatedly took the opportunity to recall them.[19]

But Martin also owes much to another type of genealogy that he never fully disclosed. “Maps are a natural support for magic,” he wrote. “As images of the world, they allow us to understand and possess it.” This text, published in 1980, appeared in the catalogue of Cartes et Figures de la Terre, an exhibition presented at the Centre Pompidou under Giulio Macchi’s curatorship. “Starting points for our dreams, challenges for our imaginations, maps may be used for magical practices,” Martin wrote further. “The artists of the twentieth century did not fail to refer to them, especially in the case of the surrealists. They epitomized a new type of perception, in which the magical and the irrational play a major role, thus managing to develop the dimension of mystery that maps encompass.”[20] It is therefore particularly striking that, in the mind of Magiciens de la Terre’s future curator, as early as 1980, the notions of  “dream,” “magic,” and “mystery” were already revolving around the idea of geographical maps.

When I recently interviewed him about the function of this text in the genetic process of Magiciens de la Terre, Martin answered, “Honestly, I never really linked the two exhibitions consciously. The project of Cartes et Figures de la Terre fascinated me because it aimed at decompartmentalizing, already. And I always had a passion for maps, as I did for all kinds of formal representations, which did not belong to the category of ART.”[21] At a time when atlases were not as trendy as they are today, Cartes et Figures de la Terre introduced historical examples of cartography into a contemporary art museum. And in the France of the 1980s, a country still struggling with its own ethnocentrism, such a presentation could not fail to mark the beginning of a new turn.

Indeed, it is during the decade of the eighties, some twenty years after the decolonization of most African countries, that a new perception emerged in France. According to geographer Christian Grataloup, France then “enjoyed an editorial trend around the theme ‘The Pacific, new world centre.’ At that time, the word ‘mondialisation’ … also found its way into most dictionaries and a map, drawn in Australia by a young man, Stuart McArthur … became the rage. It simply put Australia at the centre-top of the world atlas, at the very spot where Europe used to be located. South was on top and the frontier line was designed through the Atlantic and not the Pacific Ocean.”[22]

In 1987, when Martin launched the first scouting for his new “international exhibition,” which did not yet have a name, he decided to pin this McArthur map on the wall of his office at the Ministry of Culture, avenue de l’Opéra, Paris. Later, when deciding the format of the exhibition catalogue, he selected that of an atlas – a very unusual choice for a museum show. On the top right corner of each artist’s page, he used little planispheres to signal the artist’s residence with a dot at the very center of the planisphere. Thus, the curator was clearly admitting the central impact of a new geography in his representation of the art world.

Two decades later, at the end of the twentieth century, geography would be raised to a new status in the French academia, becoming a cardinal discipline for most social sciences, offering new tools and suggesting new directions such as geo-history, global history or connected history, to begin with. [23] Maps, which stand for political statements and force new representations of the world upon us, impose much deeper statements than we imagine; they translate our representations, even the most unconscious of them, as a whole. Therefore, the atlas trend reveals a crucial moment in history, a crisis of civilization – a puzzlement. In this context, undeniably, the team of Magiciens de la Terre attempted to cross the boundaries of the Western world and to reach out to a world that would cease to be monopolistic in order to question the geopolitical hierarchies, to challenge the enduring colonial power games and to finally unveil the traditional Western compartmentalizations.

The Political Dimension

I visited Magiciens de la Terre at the Centre Pompidou in 1989, just before travelling to the United States to take my position at the French Embassy. I read its catalogue as a clear political statement. Less than ten years after Sartre’s death, it seemed to echo some of the French philosopher’s most violent accusations, such as his preface to Frantz Fanon’s essay Les Damnés de la Terre – which has been, more often than not, neither forgotten nor forgiven.[24] Was it pure chance that, on page 64 of the catalogue, one could find an entire text entitled “Debout les damnés de la terre”? Was it by accident that Martin borrowed Sartrean metaphors in his analysis of the “invisible” artists? “It sometimes happens that the system of signs” carried by a work of art, Jean-Hubert Martin wrote, “does not match anything we know, or else that its stylistic features largely fail to address the Western taste, however elastic its frame might be. Those works of art are invisible.”[25] How could a reference to Lévi-Strauss or a parallel with Sartre be avoided? I imagined that Martin had addressed the French colonial past through the lens of the most radical French intellectuals. I expected Magiciens de la Terre to recast the Sartrean metaphor of power through the opposition invisible/visible in a political attitude.

“What would you expect to find, when the muzzle that had silenced the voices of black men is removed? That they would thunder your praise? When these heads that our fathers had forced to the very ground are risen, do you expect to read adoration in their eyes? Here in this anthology, black men are standing, black men who examine us; and I want you to feel, as I do, the sensation of being seen. For the white man has enjoyed for three thousand years the privilege of seeing without being seen.”[26] As early as 1948, Sartre had enthusiastically supported the voices of young poets such as Leopold Sedar Senghor and Aimé Cesaire, and denounced the privilege of “seeing without being seen.”[27] With his metaphor of the all-powerful gaze as a colonial representation, Sartre was sending an early warning signal about the intolerable situation of the all-powerful French empire. The recurrence of colonized people who appear as invisible – therefore, ignored, non-existent – to their colonizers runs as a permanent theme in his oeuvre at large, followed by Césaire, Fanon, Memmi, and Glissant. Clearly, Sartre’s texts tell us about globalization, according to the definition used by geographers: it is the advent of the World, it is a new perception of the planet earth that we inhabit, in which the geopolitical balance – and, more specifically, the spatial dimension – has collapsed.

Such were the assumptions that came to mind when I first discovered Jean-Hubert Martin’s project. It took me some time to understand that, in fact, Martin’s system of references was not a political one, but of another type. “The thinkers who influenced me the most,” he would answer mercilessly, “were Lévi-Strauss, Breton, and Leiris.”[28] If, by reading some of Magiciens de la Terre’s main commentators (Homi Bhabha, for instance), you stayed within Edward Saïd and Frantz Fanon’s traditions, as soon as you tried to pin Martin down to the postcolonial line, you would find yourself somewhere else, in a territory closer to that of the surrealists and of André Breton. Therefore, I slowly understood that Martin was shuffling the data, transforming the deciphering of his own theoretical tools into a true treasure hunt. Thus, as much as Sartre made use of his numerous travels to cast his critical lens on the increasing “decentering” of the world, Martin’s travels came to shape his own curatorial position through responding to these particular geopolitical concerns as they emerged in his proximity. Notably, Martin’s travels, beginning with annual trips to Berlin between 1958-63, ended up spanning the globe, including trips to Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal (1965), Kassel (1968), Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador (1975), Nigeria, Benin, and Togo and Ghana (1987), as well as countless other destinations.

When the political dimension of Magiciens de la Terre is considered, it seems that most of the criticisms it provoked revolved around the selection criteria of works and artists elaborated by the curators, and mainly around a discrepancy between an inclusive project in the selection of the “invisible artists” and a final strategy of selection that remained largely “intuitive.” How the fact be justified that, in the case of Africa, the curators never requested the advice of those local “dynamic actors,”[29] as they did in China? How can it be understood that they rejected the artists trained in the local academies in favor of others, less urban, whom they invited to Paris? Could one detect in this an attitude the Western arrogance, described by Roland Barthes, which “expresses itself as an authoritarian religion”? Such was the meaning of the Turkish critic Bedri Baykam’s text when he wrote that “one should have tried to prove that to ‘make a gesture’ and favour the art of the third world was nothing but a generous idea coming from the West.”[30]

Finally, thanks to a conversation with Hou Hanru, I was able to sort out the different levels of influence displayed by Martin in his selection criteria. In the China of the 1980s, the fight against academism was not fed by the rural artists, as was the case in Africa, but by an avant-garde movement, organized around the Beijing Beaux-Arts school. Martin was introduced to this milieu by critic Fei Dawei, who, as did his colleague Hou Hanru, warmly praised his curatorial methods: “An artist cannot represent a culture without falling into exoticism, which becomes really dangerous. In order to avoid this dilemma, one must consider the artist as a free individual who travels the world and who commits himself in a specific space, in a specific context, each time anew. … For me, this attitude is also a way of fighting certain fates, which would be imposed by the official power or by the gaze of the other one. The question of individual freedom is an essential one. … I am trying to explore how such travelling artists play a crucial role in contemporary culture. They are not only refugees, but they are the true providers of essential changes and of contemporary social transformations.”[31]


In fact, the progressive transformation of Magiciens de la Terre – from an exhibition that, in 1989, only claimed to be “international,” into a global forum of debates – forces us to examine it through a much more complex lens than at first appeared, because it addresses the symbolic production, the geopolitical order and the intellectual comprehension of our world altogether. Such a cultural situation has been very aptly described by anthropologist Serge Gruzinski. “Our task is to break into the body of complex phenomena represented by hybridization,” he wrote, “and to identify its mechanisms, its agents, which I call passeurs. That forces the analyst (historian, anthropologist, literary critic) to take a closer look into documents, images, texts, signs, in order to analyse how the different shifts from one complex ensemble to another operate. On the planetary scale, the colonial and missionary experience represents an important step in this research, as a crux where the effects of duplications and gaps, mediations and metamorphoses would be felt more acutely, in the New World and the Old […] More recently, individual or collective passeurs continue, in the clash of cultures, to produce mixtures and recompositions, as showed by the studies of historians and geopoliticians involved in it.”[32]

What if one considered Magiciens de la Terre as the epitome of the “cultural clash” that accompanied the historical transition of those last twenty-five years? And what if one considered that its curators behaved as the necessary transforming agents and as the very whistle-blowers who alerted us to the process of globalization that was about to happen? Magiciens de la Terre took place in France at the very moment when some historians, such as Patrick Boucheron, expressed the “necessity of decentering the point of view” and the emergency to “address world history by alternating points of view.”[33] Yet, we should refer to another historical period in order to find the useful comparisons. Recently, certain Renaissance experts recalled the way in which the increase of knowledge at that time stimulated the “ingeniousness of the literati,” who were in turn required to elaborate very sophisticated strategies in order to “find a way of collecting the mass of information, classify it and share it.”[34]

One could name some of the ingenious literati who contributed to formulating the new configuration of artistic globalization initiated by Magiciens de la Terre. There were the sociologists, such as Saskia Sassen with her visionary research denouncing the masked preconceptions of the globalization process.[35] There were the anthropologists, such as James Clifford with his definition of the museum as “privileged contact zone,”[36] or Arjun Appadurai with his proposal of the exhibition as a “transnational order of cultural forms.”[37] There were the historians, such as Sanjay Subrahmanyam, who describes Vasco de Gama’s travels as perceived from India[38] with his concept of connected history, or Dipesh Chakrabarty, who sends his reinvigorating alert to Provincializing Europe.[39] There were the geographers who, with their maps, atlases, and planispheres allowed us to perceive the new representation of the art world. Therefore, seventy-five years after the Armory Show and twenty-five years after Magiciens de la Terre, one cannot help admitting that it is, indeed, the art world – with the exponential development of its biennials around the world; with the increase of its nomadic curators; and with its hyper-connected artists – that, more than ever, reports on the transnational flux and carries our duty to define the new intercultural identity that, in this new transition phase, is definitely at stake from now on.