Interview by Kate Matthams-Spencer
Photos by Johanna Jourdain
ALMASIKA was lucky enough to speak with gallerists and publisher Clémentine de la Féronnière a few years back at her namesake gallery space. Galerie Clémentine de la Féronnière artist James Barnor will host a retrospective exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery from May 19 to October 24, 2021.
James Barnor, Accra/London: A Retrospective is the largest survey to date for pioneering Ghanaian-British photographer whose career spans six decades and two continents. The exhibition features intimate images of African and Afro-diasporic lives across time and space, focusing on period 1950-1980. Barnor’s pioneering, resolutely modern work has influenced generations of photographers in Africa and around the world.
From her gallery on the Ile Saint Louis in Paris, the contemporary photography publisher and gallerist explains why she views her work as a marriage of creatives.
For Clémentine de la Féronnière, it all stems from books. In the early days of her career in publishing, she gravitated naturally towards art books and was soon focusing on the photography scene. With its own DNA, its own festivals and its own publishing houses, she views photography as unique within the contemporary art scene.
When she decided to start her own gallery, the physical space itself was paramount and today she runs her art and publishing business out of a series of light, elegant rooms in a courtyard on the Ile Saint-Louis. As an exhibition and creative space, the gallery makes for a beautiful showcase of the evocative photography of her artists and mirrors her own minimal, understated Paris chic.
Clémentine travels regularly to seek out new scenes, uncover new artists and promote their work around the world. Whether she is at Paris Photo photography fair, or the new Nubuke Foundation in Accra, Ghana, there are always new discoveries to be made. Through her business, she works with artists as diverse as contemporary outdoor artist JR, and 90-year-old photographer James Barnor. Clémentine regards the artist-gallerist relationship as a union, allowing both parties to grow and evolve alongside each other.
When you meet someone for the first time, how do you describe what you do?
I talk about a marriage with the artists. My job is to help them move forwards and we both develop together on that journey. We have 12 photographers right now, who are all very different. We try to bring something to the table that complements their personality.
You lead a cosmopolitan life and travel widely. Is Paris where you most feel at home?
I’m very rooted here. On the Ile Saint Louis, we’re neither on the Right Bank nor the Left Bank, it’s different. I live here, my gallery is here, my children are at school here - my personal and professional lives happen in the same place.
I’m very attached to Paris, and for photography it’s a major city, through its history with the photography agencies and fairs like Paris Photo.
We have three photography institutions, which is unique; Jeu de Paume, MEP, Le Bal. There more I discover other places, the more I know that I’d find it hard to live elsewhere.
Why photography, rather than another art form?
After going to Dauphine to study management (when I really wanted to do literature), I trained as a publisher and discovered art and photography when I started working on art books for publishing houses. An internship at a photography marketplace while I was a student gave me an overview of the scene and I went from there. Photography is quite special in the art space, which means you can develop lots of things.
How do your travels nourish your artistic choices?
It allows me to get into different scenes. I was at the Dakar Biennale with a curator, Salimata Diop, who held an exhibition of the work of contemporary Senegalese photographers where I discovered a young photographer, Malick Welli, who we now represent. The photography fair I was at recently in Los Angeles for example, showcased a completely different aesthetic.
You work with both French contemporary artist JR and the Ghanaian photographer James Barnor. What do they have in common, despite very different styles?
We represent James Barnor and also manage his archive, so we work closely with him. JR was an opportunity for our publishing house, Maison CF, to work with a very creative artist with complete editorial freedom in publishing his book Momentum. Both men are incredibly open to the world and extremely generous, both in their art and their lives. That’s something that strikes me every day.
James Barnor’s work is anchored in time, in people’s lives. His archives are a huge project, we have thousands of negatives to index and digitize spanning over six decades. JR is a community artist whose work makes sense because it’s open; viewers become actors in the artworks themselves.
Jewelry is linked with spirituality in many different cultures around the world. Does that have resonance with you?
I believe in the importance of family jewelry that is handed down and arrives in the wearer’s life at a certain point in time. It’s very French, my daughters, who are four and six, are already telling me which of my pieces they would like. Jewelry for women has a special power.
How does your jewelry collection reflect the culture you are closest too?
I have a family ring by Chaumet, handed down to me from my grandmother. The last piece of jewelry that came to me was from my husband and that was also by Chaumet, so we seem to have a predilection for the French house.
Tell me about your relationship with Almasika.
I think above all, Almasika is an expression of fundamental universal values. Even if we come from different cultural backgrounds – Catherine lives in the US now with her family, I’m in Paris – we share creative interests. As part of a generation that leads a passionate professional life and travels, but remains deeply anchored in the family, we also share the same values.