Chanel Brings Senegal’s Textile Artistry to Paris

From afar, Alassane Koné’s portraits appear composed of coarse brush strokes: Move a little closer, and you could swear it’s meticulously arranged straw.

In fact, like most of the artworks on display at La Galerie du 19M, housed in the Paris hub for Chanel-owned specialty workshops that opened last year, Koné’s are made with textiles.

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Ditto the spooky, moss-green figures by artist Cheikha Sigil lording over the entrance of the exhibition “On the Thread: From Dakar to Paris,” which elaborates on Chanel’s cultural exchange with Senegal and affirms the gallery’s ambition to exalt weaving and embroidery on a global scale.

Giant textile figures by artist Cheikha Sigil.
Giant textile figures by artist Cheikha Sigil.

Last December, Chanel made history as the first European luxury brand to stage a fashion show in sub-Saharan Africa, unveiling its Métiers d’Art collection amid a three-day program of cultural events in the capital of Senegal.

The French brand invited a host of local creatives to cooperate on the event, established long-term initiatives to promote craftsmanship and sustainable farming, and mounted 19M’s first overseas exhibition.

That display, which ran from Jan. 12 to March 31 at the Musée Théodore-Monod d’Art Africain, attracted more than 10,000 visitors, giving unprecedented exposure to local textile artisans and generating prominent international media coverage, including a menton in Time magazine.

The Paris exhibition, tweaked and expanded for its stint at the mothership, coincides with heightened interest in textile art and rare craft skills, according to Bruno Pavlovsky, chairman of Chanel SAS and president of Le 19M.

“The whole Paris art world wants to come,” Pavlovsky marveled in an interview on Monday as curators put finishing touches on displays and a panel discussion unfurled, moderated by French newspaper Le Monde and dedicated to traditional know-how and fashion’s role in preserving it.

The executive stressed that the exhibition, which opens to the public Wednesday and runs through July 30, has no link to the Paris-Dakar Métiers d’Art collection, which lands in Chanel boutiques later this month. “I think the collection will fly by itself,” he remarked.

While the handiwork of some of the embroidery houses that made that collection is on display, the main goal of the showcase is to spotlight Senegal’s rich textile traditions, which go back centuries, and its vibrant art scene, Pavlovsky said.

“Chanel has been the enabler. But Chanel is not the subject of what you see here. The focus is more about the techniques around threads, weaving and embroidery. It’s about the craft and the artistry,” he explained.

Some 30 artists are showcased in the Paris exhibition, spanning paintings, photography, sculptures, installation and design objects.

Pavlovsky said Le 19M has received an outpouring of interest from community organizations in the 19th arrondissement, which boasts a high concentration of Senegalese immigrants, and it plans to invite Chanel’s ready-to-wear and couture clients, journalists, educational institutions and 19M’s various commercial partners to discover the showcase.

Mali artist Alassane Kone with two of his textile works.
Mali artist Alassane Kone with two of his textile works.

Since the inauguration of the 19M building, home to Chanel-owned specialty ateliers including Maison Lemarié, Lesage and Atelier Montex, its gallery has hosted two exhibitions and welcomed 27,000 visitors. It expects a greater influx once a streetcar provides a closer public transportation link to the site near Porte d’Aubervilliers, a working-class area north of Paris.

Pavlovsky noted that visitors to the Dakar museum included about 2,500 students who could participate in workshops and be exposed to artisanship as a possible career path. “We’re recruiting more than 100 people per year,” he noted.

Both exhibitions were designed to educate people, foster connections and spark artistic expressions between Senegalese and Western artisans, he explained.

Consider the pairing of French artist Julian Farade and the women of Ngaye Mekhe, north of Dakar, who embroider the lengths of off-white Malikane cotton women use to carry children on their backs, known as pagnes. Farade painted the pagnes with abstract landscapes and animal figures, to which the embroiderers added geometric designs, and conjured surprising interpretations.

Touring the exhbition with a visitor, Olivia Marsaud, one of the curators, noted that a blue figure Farade painted represented a bird, however, the embroiderers spied a frog and stitched motifs of that creature instead — to poetic effect.

Marsaud paused in front of works by Alioune Diouf, who portrays fashionable figures by sewing fabric scraps directly onto his canvases. Pointing to the delicately coiling decorations on the clothes depicted, Marsaud noted that Diouf uses a hand-guided embroidery device known as the Cornely, which has fallen out of favor in the West since it was invented in the mid-1800s, though Montex still possesses two of the antique tools.

One of the most charming installations was realized by Senegalese fashion designer Marie-Madeleine Diouf, who displays photos of her stylish family, heirloom clothes, and the tools employed to create indigo fabrics, her speciality.

Some visitors will also have the opportunity to help embroider “work in progress” maps of Dakar and 19M with help from the artisans of Montex and Lesage.

“Our specialty ateliers are quite mysterious for the public in general,” Pavlovsky said, noting it is well nigh impossible to let visitors stream through its busy workrooms. “But with our gallery, we can create exhibitions of our savoir-faire.”

He noted that most of the showcases involve artists collaborating with 19M artisans, who find it very inspiring, and who are very motivated to demonstrate their know-how, especially to young people.

“It’s good way to create a connection between inside and outside,” he said. “Visitors can learn, discover — and perhaps find their future career.”

Launch Gallery: 'On the Thread: From Dakar to Paris' Exhibition at La Galerie du 19M

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