Magiciens de la terre

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Magiciens de la Terre was a contemporary art exhibit at the Centre Georges Pompidou and the Grande Halle at the Parc de la Villette in 1989.


In 1989, in the wake of the infamous “Primitivism” show at MOMA, curator Jean-Hubert Martin set out to create a show that counteracted ethnocentric practices within the contemporary art world as a replacement for the format of the traditional Paris Biennial. (Buchloh 158) This exhibition sought to correct the problem of “one hundred percent of exhibitions ignoring 80 percent of the earth.” He did this in his show, Magiciens de la Terre, exhibited at the Centre Georges Pompidou and the Grande halle de la Villette.

Martin’s show worked to confront problems presented by several exhibitions that perpetuated a colonialist mentality, the most recent being the aforementioned show, “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern held at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Many critics condemned “Primitivism”, as it fell into a similar Modernist trap of providing only a pure aesthetization of the work of native cultures. “Primitivism” stated that it was only interested in displaying tribal works that influenced Modern artists and studying how this phenomenon functioned within the Modernist discourse. Many of the tribal works were presented vis-à-vis Modernist works when little or no historical evidence of these works drawing inspiration from specific “primitive” works or, in some cases, even a “primitive” idiom. (Varnedoe 13)

In addition to the “Primitivism” show, Magiciens de la Terre worked with the 1931 show, L’Exposition Coloniale as a counter-reference point. This exhibition was organized in a typical colonial fashion, to show the economic and moral superiority of the French country, and the products of the grateful colonized. The souvenir medal from the exhibition speaks volumes. The bas-relief features a Western woman on the right (A personification of France with references to allegorical representations of Liberty, Truth, or Wisdom) outstretching her arm to gently comfort and protect her smiling representations of ethnic stereotypes. This exhibition is covered within the Magiciens catalog, where this show’s colonialist ideology is explained. This show served as a definition of what Magiciens was not.

Paris Biennial[edit]

Although Magiciens served to counteract the ideology expressed in the two shows, Magiciens was also meant to resolve some long-standing problems of the format of the Paris Biennial. In years past, the French curatorial team would select the countries to be exhibited, and representatives from the respective countries would select artists that they deemed the greatest artistic talents of their nation. In the view of certain art critics, this method was seen to have failed for including non-Western artists who those critics regarded as second-rate practitioners (in style and content) of artistic movements that originated in the West. It was felt that these artists were not exemplary of the diversity of human cultures, and their work only strengthened Western hegemony. But other critics saw in such pronouncements as "second rate" and "originated in the West," the very eurocentrism these critics were reputedly denouncing, especially as many of the so-called "Western" styles could trace their origins to visual cultures outside and older than Western civilization. In this light, the lack of self-reflection by these critics, with regard to their own criteria and self-reference, showed the entire enterprise of Western criticism to be wanting of a deeper self-analysis, at the same time as it exposed an urgent need for a more thorough exposure to, and exchange with, cultures and histories still distinct from the West.

With the failings of the previous shows in mind, Martin organized Magiciens by selecting one hundred artists from around the world: fifty from the so-called “centers” of the world (the United States and Western Europe) and fifty from the “margins” (Africa, Latin America, Asia, and Australia). No specific criteria were set up for the selection of the individual works in the show as long as this numerical ratio was maintained. When selecting artists from outside the Western tradition, the curator claimed to choose artists according to their artworks’ “visual and sensual experiences.” Martin explains:

I want to play the role of someone who uses artistic intuition alone to select objects which come from totally different cultures, … But obviously, I also want to incorporate into that process the critical thinking which contemporary anthropology provides on the problem of ethnocentrism, the relativity of culture, and intercultural relations. (Buchloh 122-133)

In an interview with Benjamin H. D. Buchloh he acknowledged this method had inherent flaws, but also noted that any methodological framework for the selection of works will make similar mistakes. Martin felt that the inclusion of the fifty non-Western artists would begin to facilitate a change starts de-centering notions of an artistic center(s) within the Western tradition of art practice.

Artists exhibiting[edit]


  • Magiciens de la Terre, Editions du Centre Pompidou, Paris, 1989. Catalogue of the exhibition with texts by Homi Bhabha, Mark Francis, Pierre Gaudibert, Aline Luque, André Magnin, Bernard Marcadé, Jean-Hubert Martin, Thomas McEvilley, Jacques Soulillou, Adriana Valdés.
  • Okwui Enwezor and Olu Oguibe, Introduction in Reading the Contemporary. African Art from Theory to the Marketplace, (eds.) Olu Oguibe and Okwui Enwezor, Institute of International Visual Arts (inIVA) and MIT Press, London, 1999, p. 9.
  • Clémentine Deliss, Seven Stories About Modern Art in Africa, Flammarion, New York, 1995, p. 14/314 (note 6).
  • Pierre Gaudibert, Art africain contemporain, Editions Cercle d'Art, Paris, 1991, p. 16; 17.
  • Susan Vogel, Foreword in Africa Explores: 20th Century African Art, p. 12.
  • Marie-Laure Bernadac in Africa Remix, Centre Pompidou, Paris, 2005, p. 11.
  • "Third Text", Special Issue Magiciens de la Terre: Les Cahiers, n. 6, Spring 1989.
  • Roberto Pinto, Nuove geografie artistiche, chapter devoted to Magiciens de la Terre, postmediabooks, 2012, pp. 63-82.
  • Lucy Steeds and other authors, Making Art Global: Volume 2: Magiciens de la Terre 1989 (Exhibition Histories), Walther König, Köln, 2013.