This feature includes objects from the show ‘L’Exhibition[niste]’, a celebration of Louboutin’s inspiration and work, at Paris’s Palais de la Porte Dorée, which is currently closed. Visit the exhibition online.
Below are excerpts from ‘Christian Louboutin, the Exhibition(ist)’ published by Rizzoli.
When I went to Peru, when I went to Colombia, when I went to Mexico, I saw loads of extraordinary things, so that I ended up acquiring, through my travels, a very pronounced taste for pre-Columbian objects. Plus I was lucky enough to know some dealers in objects, including an American I adore who’s called Steve, a very eccentric person who worked a lot in Mexico and Colombia, a former American football champion and later clearly in the CIA… who I love to visit when I go to California. He has an incredible house that he built with his own hands and that’s filled with extraordinary objects, particularly pre-Columbian ones.
Brasero, 6th century CE. Terracotta and feathers, private collection Credit: Studio Sebert
I love Egypt and pre-Columbian civilizations for more or less the same reason, which is that, unlike in Roman statuary, unlike in Greek statuary, even unlike in Buddhist or Khmer statuary (which I find a bit dry, even if it is sublime and very unusual), you find an essentially almost childlike, or in any case playful, dimension in them—shamans handling snakes, torchbearers with animal tails, humans with spotted skin like jaguars, etc. Before I was old enough to travel physically, I traveled through books, comic strips, and photos, and therefore also through objects that spoke to my childish sensibilities, and I’ve remained very attached to those objects.
Alexander the Great set off from Macedonia and passed through Egypt, where he consulted an oracle that told him he should head eastward and go beyond his father’s frontiers. He was accompanied by mathematicians, sculptors, architects, and he founded towns in his name along his route. When he arrived in what’s now Afghanistan, there was a great valley, called the Gandhāra valley — where you find very important Buddhist statuary — with a representation of Buddha that’s already very Indian.
The Greek Macedonian sculptors who were with Alexander the Great looked at this Indo-Buddhist statuary, which was already very accomplished, and were fascinated. And from that, the Macedonian sculptors would derive nourishment and inspiration from this local statuary, so that in this area there was a marriage of Hellenistic art and Indo-Buddhist art that produced a type of Indo-Hellenistic statuary that’s known today as Gandhāran art.
Standing bodhisattva, 1st to 3rd centuries. Musée National des Arts Asiatiques Guimet Credit: Thierry Ollivier / RMN-GP
You can clearly see in these sculptures how the Greek physique is mixed with an Indian physique; you often get profiles and hairstyles that are typically Greek but with eyes, ornament, flowers, and jewelry that are very Eastern. Gandhāran art is a mixture of two great civilizations that produced extraordinary, very unique statuary, of mixed races in stone.
Contemporary African artists
I find that international art is dominated by a very European and very WASP-ish viewpoint, which means we can find an African painting interesting, exotic, amusing, funny, but that we always refuse to attribute the same importance to it as to a European or American work. Whereas for me it’s just as important. We still struggle to admit that an African sculptor could be at the same level as a French or Spanish sculptor. Just as I can’t see why, nowadays, indigenous artists are considered primitive artists. There’s as much primitivism in Jackson Pollock or in Max Ernst as there is among indigenous peoples, and as little primitivism among indigenous peoples as we like to attribute to Pollock or Max Ernst.
‘Mongolique Soviétique (Soviet Mongol)’ (1989), Bodys Isek Kingelez. Cardboard, polystyrene, plastic, and other materials Credit: Bodys Isek Kingelez
‘Tobago’ (2019), Romuald Hazoumè. Plastic, feathers, and copper, private collection Credit: Romuald Hazoumè
Our attitude to world art could be somewhat readjusted, because it’s a very white attitude and remains, frankly, a bit condescending and with colonialist roots.
Kachina dolls and Hopi masks
I generally hate dolls—I find that wax dolls are always a bit scary; however, I like dolls when they’re like effigies, when they’re connected to sacred objects—which is the case with kachina dolls. The ones I know best are from the tribes around Arizona, the Zuni and the Hopi. In Hopi culture there are lots of rituals in relation to children, witchcraft, the transition to adulthood. All the masks were and still are worn for dances, they’re highly charged, they represent not gods but man-gods. They are masks that are charged with telling stories, to fend off drought, to mark the transition to adulthood. They all have a purpose. Each mask has a name and represents a character from Hopi legend.
Hopi mask and kachina dolls, late 19th to early 20th century. Eastern cottonwood, leather, pigments, wool, and feathers, private collection
I’ve always liked these dolls and masks, I don’t really know why. Probably the colors. While I love curved lines there aren’t many curved lines in these, but I love the Hopi’s geometric rigor. The construction of the design through colors. The fragmented faces. The rectangular eyes. A lot of masks were made for tourists in the early twentieth century, but always with the same richness, because the Native Americans considered it important to be able to spread and share one’s culture and its aesthetic qualities.
After Alexander the Great passed through Egypt, Egypt came under Greek control and was later governed by the Romans. When the Greeks arrived, they were fascinated by the civilization of the Pharaohs, which already for them was an aging civilization. And they were so fascinated by it that they borrowed from traditional Egyptian customs and had themselves buried as mummies, the only difference being that they added a portrait of the deceased on the sarcophagus, which is something the Romans continued to do when Egypt became a Roman province. So here we’re witnessing the arrival of realism among the Egyptians, the Greek Egyptians of northern Egypt. So the Fayum portraits are of Greek men, women, and sometimes children, but in an Egyptian taste and a Greek style, if I can say that.
Portrait of a young man, early 2nd century, painting on wood, Moscow, Pushkin Museum Credit: Heritage Images/Hulton Archive
As time goes by, I realize that I like interminglings of civilizations when each brings the best of itself to the other, or even a dream of the other. Besides, in some of the Fayum portraits, you sense that the faces aren’t purely Greek anymore; you sense Egyptian blood coming in, as if there’d been marriages between Greeks and Egyptians. Mixing and hybridization is beautiful in physiques; it’s beautiful in statuary; it’s beautiful in architecture; it’s beautiful in a lot of areas.