At a guess, Michel Puchercos’ recent sizzling class-act outing at the Victoria Island-based Red Door Gallery deserves to be engraved in the Lagos exhibition circuit’s annals as one of its biggest events. In any case, it is unlikely that the 64-year-old Frenchman, who is the chief executive officer and group managing director of Dangote Cement, cares for such recognitions. Nor did his mainly by-invitation-only photography exhibition cum charity sales deliberately court public attention.
Talking about the exhibition, it is no coincidence that Carnet de Voyage – as the event held between Friday, October 29 and Monday, November 1 was titled – is unambiguously reminiscent of his 2018 first Nigerian solo, titled Carnet de Route. After all, both titles ultimately translate as “Travelogue” in English. Besides, who – after viewing both exhibitions – wouldn’t have discerned that it was a sequel of the previous one?
Puchercos’ approach to photography – with disarming candour, a discerning viewer would easily notice – attests not only to his verve and mastery of the medium but also to his deeper sensibilities. Notably, there is this predilection to ferret out the subtleties lurking beneath the obvious. Thus, even in the most materially-deprived conditions, he sees the resilience of the human spirit. This is thanks to the priceless lessons he has learnt since his threads of fate led him to Africa (especially to Kenya and Nigeria).
The 1981 Ecole Nationale du Génie Rural, des Eaux et des Forêts (France) graduate bases his fascination for Africans on their effortless cheerful disposition despite the harsh realities that confront them every day.
Carnet de Voyage – a collaborative effort of the host gallery (a. k. a. RDG) and Polly Alakija – was, by the way, a charity sale, organised to support the activities of the Five Cowries Arts Education Initiative, which was founded in 2018 through the efforts of artist, illustrator and educator, Polly Alakija. The initiative, which is sometimes referred to as FCI, hopes through its efforts to integrate the arts into teaching as a more inclusive pathway to realising better learning outcomes.
In the exhibition hall, the photographer’s diverse vignettes of sensibilities assail the viewer emphatically. The viewer figuratively saunters from the colourful Durbar scenes in “Flamboyant”, “Durbar Cavalry” and “Smoke and Guns” to the serenity of “Sacred Heart”, “I Pray” and “Deities Monumental Sculpture: Susanne Wenger”. Then, he is drawn to the dreaminess of “Walking on Water” (in which a solitary fisherman stands out against a backdrop of cerulean waters wavering between calmness and turbulence), the steely greyness of “Silver Fishing” (featuring silhouetted figures in canoes floating in a silver-grey watery expanse) and the witty metaphor of “Shattered Dreams” (showing a weather-beaten cargo ship chugging its way through foamy waters).
Clearly, Puchercos has a thing for diligence, perhaps for the dignity of labour. Hence, his empathy for the struggles at the lowest levels of existence. This passion seeps through the photographs taken by the seaside like “Solidarity”, “Teamwork” and “Serpentine” (showing the gathering of large fishing nets) and “The Way It Was Today” (a monochrome photograph of a seaside firewood mini-market). In them, and others, the recognition, that all attributes of humanity exist at all levels of existence, runs through like a common thread.
Indeed, the exhibition’s 34 photographs – none of which were Photoshopped – are simple, spontaneous shots depicting emotions and beauty as well as things and people locals are so used to that they don’t notice anymore.
Among the landmark feats of his heady incursion into photography was an exhibition he held in October 2015 in the South Korean capital Seoul, which he titled Couleurs et Lumières d’ Afrique (Colours and Lights of Africa). That exhibition only re-energised a passion that dated far back to when he, as a 9-year-old, received his first camera from his dad.
Buying himself a Minolta with his first savings a decade later, he was soon enthusiastically taking portraits and documenting sports events. These were the times, he recalled when he would spend sleepless nights developing the negatives of black and white photographs. He also participated in several photography competitions, one of which he won. He recalled investing the prize money in buying more Minoltas (one for black and white, one for colour and 24-70 zoom and another for colour and 70-200 zoom).
But then, digital photography came with its unintended cocktail of side effects, which included the plummeting quality of films and their development. Demoralised, Puchercos stayed away from photography for 10 years until a Lumix, which he got as a gift while in Kenya, reawakened his interest.
As a former chief executive officer and group managing director of Lafarge Africa PLC, Puchercos has been around, working in Kenya, South Korea and Nigeria. As a child, he had grown up in countries like Algeria and Iran, besides his home country France. All the while, as he led what the LASMARA/IMPART Fair founder Hana Omilani, calls an “uber-itinerant” life, he never forgot to strike the work-life balance with photography.