The new Centre de Photographie de Mougins opens its inaugural show, presenting the work of Isabel Muñoz

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It is the first time the Spanish photographer will show the result of her time spent with yakuzas in Japan, in France

The Provençal village of Mougins in the south of France is known as the place where Pablo Picasso spent the last 12 years of his life. There’s even a bronze statue of the artist in the square. Perched on a hill, the village is also near Grasse, the heart of the perfume industry, where the sweet scent of flowers wafts through the air. Now the picturesque village has something new to offer its visitors; a photography centre, inaugurated in July.

Situated up a winding, cobbled street next to a clock tower, the Centre de Photographie de Mougins is housed in a historic stone building that was once a presbytery. It was previously home to the photography museum of André Villiers, who had snapped the portraits of Picasso and his artist contemporaries Fernand Léger, Alexander Calder, Man Ray and Jean Cocteau. However, the museum closed in 2018 due to a fall in visitor numbers and lack of a curatorial programme. The mayor of Mougins pondered what to do with the edifice in order to attract more cultural tourists.

“The mayor went to see François Cheval [a curator and co-founder of Lianzhou Museum of Photography in China] and asked him to devise a strategy to define a photography centre here,” Yasmine Chemali, who manages the photography centre, says.

The village council spent €1.8m renovating the venue and earmarked €450,000 for annual running costs. Cheval was appointed artistic director and independent curator while Chemali was hired last year to run the space. She has joined the Centre de Photographie de Mougins from Sursock Museum in Beirut where she was responsible for the modern and contemporary art collections.

Dos, tres, cuatro, 2018 ©Isabel Munoz
Sans titre - Série _ Deux, trois, quatre, 2019 © Isabel Muñoz

“The idea is to support artistic creation through exhibitions, publications and artists’ residencies,” Chemali says about the photography centre, which plans to launch an artists’ residency programme next year.

Above a bookshop on the ground floor are two exhibition levels that are painted white and have black wooden beams. In the hope of building an ambitious and international exhibitions’ programme, the inaugural show – running until 03 October 2021 – is dedicated to the Spanish photographer Isabel Muñoz. Her first solo exhibition in a French institution in over 20 years, it brings together 36 large-format images, mostly in black and white, and four video works. Muñoz, 70, produced the work following seven trips to Japan between 2017 and 2020.

During this time Muñoz was able enter the closed, underground world of yakuzas – organised crime groups whose members swear their allegiance by having elaborate tattoos inked by the use of a bamboo needle on their backs. The punishment for betrayal is a finger cut off on the left hand. Muñoz took classically framed portraits of the yakuzas naked as well as close-ups of their faces. There are more portraits of them wearing a suit and sunglasses, thus displaying their exterior image as gangsters.

Jun Wakabayashi © Isabel Munoz

“Isabel Muñoz’s work on Japan has never been shown in France. She’s an artist who exhausts her subject and was interested in photographing the yakuzas who are people on the margin of society.”

Yasmine Chemali

Isabel Munoz show © Communication Ville de Mougins

“Isabel Muñoz’s work on Japan has never been shown in France,” Chemali says. “She’s an artist who exhausts her subject and was interested in photographing the yakuzas who are people on the margin of society.”

Muñoz also photographed Japanese women practicing shibari, or bondage, against a black curtain in a studio. For submissive women, the constriction of their bodies being tied in ropes, with their own complicity, by a master, brings a cerebral and physical form of stimulation, a kind of pleasure and pain. An anguished woman stares frontally at the camera, a tear rolling down her cheek, while another image shows a body wrapped in a blue fabric like a bundle – the body itself discernible only by its contours and suspended by red ropes.

Particularly breathtaking and mysterious are the photographs that Muñoz made of Butoh dancers underwater. She also filmed performers on stage, capturing how they enter a dreamlike and agitated state, and photographed kabuki theatre – a transgender art form whereby male actors play female roles, disguising themselves through make-up and costumes.

This initial commitment to exhibit women photographers continues in the autumn, when the Centre de Photographie de Mougins will present the work of London-based photographer Natasha Caruana and of the Swedish, Zurich-based photographer Jenny Rova. Both shows will run from 29 October 2021 to 30 January 2022.

1001 by Isabel Muñoz is on show at the Centre Photographie Mougins until 03 October 2021

Isabel Munoz show © Communication Ville de Mougins