After crossing the Pont Neuf, one of many bridges that straddle the Seine, I pass the threshold into Kamel Mennour’s world. “This is the performance I wanted you to see,” the gallery-owner says excitedly, taking me to the basement of his second space. In the white room, a lady stands half naked. Her red skirting is pulled up over her head by white helium balloons, revealing only a slim strip of modesty below. Entitled Hommage, Mr Mennour beholds the piece by Pier Paolo Calzolari as though for the first time. And it’s this self-taught eye to which he owes his supreme success.
Kamel Mennour at Francois Morellet exhibition, photo courtesy of Fabrice Seixas
The owner of his eponymous contemporary art gallery, Kamel Mennour represents big talent like Martin Parr, Anish Kapoor, Daniel Buren and Huang Yong Ping, the next artist to be commissioned by the Grand Palais for art event of the year Monumenta 2016.
Installation Wu Zei by artist Huang Yong Ping, photo by Andre Morin
An internationally acclaimed gallery-owner today, Mr Mennour actually started out by selling paintings door-to-door at the age of 23 while studying to become a banker. “They were ugly, but I was enthralled by it; art became an obsession. I studied day and night teaching myself a whole world I knew nothing about, the unknown attracting me even more.”
Installation by Freize Art Fair London darling, artist Camille Henrot also represented by Mr Mennour, photo by Fabrice Seixas
Almost 10 years later he snapped up a space on rue Mazarine where he showed photography by Annie Lebowitz and Larry Clark, and in 2007, he moved to the Vieuville mansion and a second space on rue du Pont de Lodi.
Under the glass nave of the Grand Palais in Paris, photo by DR. Right
A hop through the Saint-Germain-des-Près lanes lined by restaurants time seems to have forgotten and we arrive at Mr Mennour’s main gallery. We slip behind a hidden door and upstairs to the seldom-walked floors of a lofty 17th-century apartment. Regularly curated works await here for the next deals to be sealed with the world’s most influential collectors.
“I wouldn’t live anywhere else but Paris,” says Mr Mennour motioning the Haussmannian surroundings. “It’s where I always come back to, it’s where my work and my family are” (he has five children).
Huang Yong Ping, Petits-Augustins Chapel, photo by Marc Domage
Mr Mennour lives steps away from his gallery. “My wife and I fell in love with the neighbourhood and although it’s changed a lot since the days of Sartre, the Left Bank still has that anti-conformist spirit, that rebellious energy that the Right Bank doesn’t have.”
Hicham Berrada, exhibition Artificial Climates
While often travelling across the world to various art fairs, he still loves to lose himself in the tangle of Paris. “I still walk a lot – there’s just no place like Paris, it’s a waking dream. I love walking from Ile Saint Louis, along the Seine past the bouquinistes to Invalides via the Grand Palais, Orsay... you can see as much of the best the city has to offer this way, it’s like its backbone.
Pier Paolo Cazolari, photo by Fabrice Seixas
“When I lack inspiration, I go to my refuge at the Louvre – to one painting in particular actually. I love to sit in front of Eugène Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapalus. It’s such a huge painting, I lose myself in it... It’s like a journey; I imagine Delacroix painting this enormous work...
“I just love Paris and for a long time it was a bit static – a ‘museum-city’ – but it’s changing with the new generation of players in the arts like the Monnaie de Paris, the contemporary choreographer Benjamin Millepied taking over the Opéra de Paris, the Palais de Tokyo, even Versailles commissioning contemporary artists, and Monumenta at the Grand Palais.”
Kamel Mennour, photo courtesy of Julie Joubert
Monumenta is a much anticipated event, where this year Huang Ping Yong, represented by Mr Mennour, is next to invest the Grand Palais’ glass nave. His installation, entitled Empires, will explore humanity and the constant mutation of alliances. “Huang’s installation will gather importance and significance with time, within its historical context, because it highlights key issues we are dealing with every day at the moment,” says Mr Mennour. “And I think it will be one of the world’s most important.”