You are here

Pharrell Williams' manga mania

A portion of the "A Call to Action" installation by "Mr" (left) and Pharrell Williams at the Guimet Museum in Paris.


PHARRELL Williams has found a happy place for his inner child, and it's a manga-style fantasy in which children have taken up arms. That's the gist of "A Call To Action", a new exhibition the American singer, producer and entrepreneur has curated for the Guimet Museum, which is a collection of Asian art.

The show was created at Williams' invitation by "Mr", a 49-year-old Japanese visual artist known for his colourful work inspired by the manga and anime traditions.

The single-room exhibition is bright and deliberately chaotic: Visitors step onto plastic sheets splashed with paint, with blocks of concrete and drawings scattered around the floor. Large-scale paintings and figurines are dwarfed by even larger graffiti and neon signs. The main figures in this post-apocalyptic scene are young boys and girls, and most of them carrying multicoloured guns.

Williams is a collector of Mr's work, which "just seems like it's from the point of view of a perpetual teenager", the singer said in an interview in the exhibition space last week. "His imagination has no boundaries, no ceiling or floor," he added.

"If a person is disconnected from their inner child, they will see this work and wake up," Williams said.

Speaking through a translator next to Williams, Mr said the exhibition imagines an international revolt led by the young generation. "Children have been driven out of their homes, they have lost their parents and they must survive. They do everything they can not to be killed," Mr explained. A quote from William Golding's novel Lord of the Flies greets visitors at the entrance: "We did everything adults would do. What went wrong?" Mr produced the work over five years in response to a pitch from Williams, who described his vision in loose terms in Paris: "What is the future and how do we get there? If we didn't get there, what would prevent us?" The answer to the last question was "the bad decisions of grown-ups," on a range of issues including climate change and the lack of gun regulation in the United States, he said.

The role of art curator is still a relatively new one for Williams. In 2014, he curated his first group exhibition, "G I R L," which was presented at the Galerie Perrotin in Paris and featured Mr among peers including French conceptualist Sophie Calle and street artist JR.

As often with celebrity crossover collaborations, however, Williams' role was somewhat vaguely defined in "A Call To Action". While the mission of a curator varies across the contemporary art world, it usually involves at least selecting the work and arranging it for display. In Paris, Mr suggested that he had handled these aspects of the creative process. "Pharrell provided me with the theme," he said. "From that point on, I had no precise instructions about the details, the way to proceed."

"All of this work is by his hand," Williams said. "I think we just agreed on a destination, but it was ultimately his paint brushes, his hands, his choices of colour." Somewhat cryptically, he added: "It's a gift to be able to go on this visual exploration by rocket ship with his creativity."

A Call To Action is not the first collaboration between Williams and Mr, who were introduced by Japanese artist Takashi Murakami - Murakami is Mr's long-time mentor and a friend of Williams. In 2014, Mr co-directed the manga-style music video for Williams' song It Girl. Mr also produced a series of figurines modelled on the singer, complete with hat, and in 2015 put them up for sale at the Art Basel Hong Kong art fair.

Mr rose to prominence in the early 2000s as part of Kaikai Kiki, an art collective founded by Murakami. He was featured in Murakami's landmark "Superflat" exhibition, which toured the US in 2001 and inspired an artistic movement of the same name.

Williams said he was putting his faith in the young generation that A Call To Action is dedicated to. "I think our generation continues to fail, but I really do believe the millennials and Gen-Zers will make better decisions." NYTIMES