Kamel Mennour started out by collecting photography books at flea markets – now he's opening his second gallery, steps away from the Seine
Looking well put together in a black suit, white shirt and tie – his elegance not lessened by a slight hobble and crutch due to a sporting injury – Kamel Mennour, 48, a gallery owner in Paris’s well-known art district of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, can’t help but answer half a dozen brief calls while welcoming me enthusiastically to his gallery.
Clearly busy, yet approachable and easygoing, Mennour points out sculptures and photographs from a private collection on the first floor of his gallery. In the high-ceilinged space, floorboards creak underfoot while a distant fan hums, draining out the street noise emanating from the very hectic Left Bank neighbourhood. In this lesser seen part of the gallery, artworks from past and present collections hang individually on every wall.
I wanted to be somewhere that was pertinent, that had identity, rather than going to the Marais like all my peers
Mennour has selected the pieces not just from artists represented by his award-winning art space but from ones he might have wanted to represent in another time. Neon-art, black and white photography and sculptures are sparsely situated in the large rooms. A white cowhide sofa is set against one wall and a table and chairs against another, constituting the only furniture.
‘Have you seen the exhibition downstairs? It’s fantastic, really,’ Mennour says, smiling between two calls. Located at ground level in a cool courtyard framed on three sides by buildings of the complex, the gallery-proper is made up of three rooms and is accessible through an arcade off the rue Saint-André des Arts. The atmosphere is vastly different to the private area, with concrete floors, whitewashed walls and a feel reminiscent of most contemporary art galleries around the world.
‘We opened the gallery in 1999. We were already in the neighbourhood but in a very, very small space on rue Mazarine. It was the size of a shoebox and the first three to four years we only exhibited photographs there,’ Mennour tells me, finally taking a seat.
The French-Algerian gallerist and father of three has lived in France since he was two. He remembers trawling the street markets as a teenager in the south of the city at Porte de Vanves, where his love of photography first developed. ‘[The gallery focused on] photos because I collect photography books and I bought many from dealers and flea markets.’
‘Sometimes you discover your vocation because you buy books or because you come across an item, a trinket or something in the attic or through your grandmother,’ Mennour reflects, ‘but for me it was because at the time we lived in a neighbourhood with “les puces” – flea markets – and I loved going on Saturday mornings,’ he recalls. ‘There were people who bought novels, some who bought lamps and paintings – I bought art books and usually they were photography books. Very quickly I realised this was a territory, a media that interested me and so I bought many, until later I could buy actual photographs that I had only, until then, seen in books.’
While the gallery at rue Mazarine exhibited photographers, the gallery on rue Saint-André des Arts showcases both up-and-coming and established contemporary visual artists who increasingly work with the medium of video. ‘It wasn’t random that we set up there. We wanted to be in the area as historically it was recognised but had become a bit overlooked as an art district, and had really dwindled by the 1960s and 1970s. Setting up a contemporary art gallery in this neighbourhood was, for me, a challenge. I wanted to be somewhere that was pertinent, that had identity, rather than going to the Marais like all my peers,’ Mennour comments. ‘We follow artists from the creative process to the finished artwork. We don’t deal or resell or expose things we have not had any input in.’ As the success of the gallery grows, Mennour has now launched a secondary space, on rue du Pont de Lodi.
This summer the space presented ‘L’image Pensée’, as part of the Palais de Tokyo’s ‘Nouvelles Vagues’ season with the support of the professional committee of art galleries. It features 11 artists, including Mohamed Bourouissa, a French-Algerian artist based in Paris. His body of work includes a video montage of photographs printed and placed in a pile as a tool of interpretive narration. The sequence entitled ‘23.08.08’ shows football fans from an underprivileged neighbourhood at a match.
‘Videography is a big component of contemporary art,’ Mennour explains. The exhibition aims to present specific images that both use and challenge the format of the slideshow. ‘There are some very good Arab artists and I’ve found that art from the Arab diaspora is very promising. I do have an interest in it and I do think that the reason their work is so pertinent is because it’s not allowed, it’s forbidden in their home countries. Outside their homeland they have access to art to begin with, and later can choose to become artists.’
Managing artists is as much part of the work as managing the gallery. Later in his busy day, Mennour will rush to Arles in the South of France – where Vincent Van Gogh spent the last two years of his life – to meet with some of the gallery’s artists. A far cry from the post-Impressionist’s work, Mennour also recently dedicated space at the gallery for a private show of artworks by his children and their classmates, offering their school and its pupils the opportunity to experience a real exhibition ‘opening’.
‘Art should be available to everyone. We want people to walk into the gallery and discover something they might not have otherwise seen,’ he says. ‘A successful show is one that brings in a lot of people, but that also doesn’t leave them feeling indifferent.’