Aicon is pleased to present the debut solo exhibition of Serge Hélénon in the United States. The career retrospective introduces the artist to New York audiences, tracing the development of Hélénon’s art from academic training and publicity design, to folkloric representational strategies, to the appropriation of historical avant-garde styles, up through the more enduring abstraction which the artist nevertheless calls “une figuration Autre”—“an Other Figuration”.
As an introduction, curator Joshua I. Cohen offers the following:
Hélénon’s oeuvre emerges as significant within a global art world and intellectual community whose attention has turned increasingly toward transatlantic histories and postcolonial theoretical interventions. Figures featuring prominently within these discourses include major thinkers from Martinique, such as Aimé Césaire (1913-2008), Frantz Fanon (1925-1961), Édouard Glissant (1928-2011), and Patrick Chamoiseau (b. 1953), among others. Hélénon’s paintings, assemblages, prints, and other works demand to be situated within this intellectual and creative landscape, as well as in relation to broader histories of modernism and postwar abstraction.
The artist’s body of work can also be viewed as a critical engagement with Negritude, a Francophone diasporic modernist movement that originated in Paris in the 1920s and ’30s before gaining wider visibility following World War II.
In the late 1960s, Hélénon began to frame his art as belonging to what he called the École Négro-Caraïbe, or Black-Caribbean School. The name of this “school” refers neither to a formalized artistic movement nor to an institution of fine arts education. Rather it designates Hélénon’s individual output in dialogue with several likeminded Martinican artists of his generation—notably Louis Laouchez (1934-2016)—who lived and worked, as he did, in Francophone West Africa during the immediate post-independence decades.
The exhibition is organized in four sections: 1) Nice, Toulon, and Bamako, 1957-60; 2) Bamako, 1961-69; 3) Bamako and Abidjan, 1969-84; and 4) Abidjan and Nice, 1980-98. Through these geographic and temporal markers, Cohen marks phases and transitions in Hélénon’s work.
Section 1 covers the artist’s training and extra-curricular life at the École Nationale des Arts Décoratifs in Nice, France, during which time he produced works on paper that lean toward the visual language of advertising and what the artist described as a folkloric style.
Section 2 situates the artist entirely in Bamako, Mali. Cohen describes this as a period of “restless exploration and rapid transformation in dialogue with local urban life, European avant-garde movements, and West African material culture.” In landscapes and still-lifes, the artist flirts with abstraction in his move toward “une figuration Autre.”
Section 3 introduces Hélénon’s synthesis of painting and assemblage in his Expressions-Bidonville (Shantytown-Expressions) around the time of his move to Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, in 1970. Artworks in this category feature paintings on wood that “made use of paint and adhesives to amalgamate locally recuperated detritus and other elements. Hélénon saw shantytowns … as exemplifying African and diasporic life as characterized by migration, bricolage, and a fierce will to survive in the face of racism, poverty, and oppression.”
Lastly, section 4 sees the artist relocating to Nice in the early 1980s. Upon his return, he retired from teaching and took to his studio practice full-time in the private atelier where he still works today. The exhibition features several engravings and lithographs from this period, which coincided with a long-term contract with the print gallery Vision Nouvelle. For Cohen, “Hélénon’s personal style, always both figural and abstract, reflects his own unmistakable fracture in juxtaposition with manufactured elements culled from his immediate surroundings. Hélénon’s art in this way speaks at a level so individual as to undermine fixed identity categories, while at the same time expressing, even if not without tensions, his quest for (self-)discovery as an artist of diaspora.”