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What could be more intriguing than a fabulous threesome in Paris with MAPPLETHORPE, ENNINFUL and ROPAC? We asked Edward Enninful at the Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, about his very first curatorial work pairing Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography.

Review by Zoltan Alexander

COVER THE INSTIGATOR Robert Mapplethorpe Lisa Lyon


FABULOUS THREESOME For a solo exhibition

of American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe who died at the age of 42 in 1989, Ghanaian-born editor, Global Creative and Cultural Advisor of Vogue Edward Enninful OBE, has been given carte blanche by the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation to present his singular vision at the Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, and explore over 2,000 images held in the Foundation’s archives, and Enninful gives the exhibition a sensational visual harmony.

THE INSTIGATOR: Your first shock of Mapplethorpe?

EDWARD ENNINFUL: I got to know about Mapplethorpe the minute I started out in the fashion industry at 16, through stylist Simon Fox who introduced me to the Black Book, Mapplethorpe’s explosive collection of erotic photographs of black men. It was a potent photographic study, which came under fire, and was met with huge controversy. I saw pictures of black men I’d never seen before. I could also see myself reflected in some of the subjects he chose to photograph, that really began a process of my relationship with myself as a gay man.

I feel like his work has been with me ever since, on my whole journey for over 30 years. Mapplethorpe wanted to disrupt the idea of what a portrait is, and I've always wanted to disrupt the idea of what fashion is - what people consider as beautiful or not, has always been fascinating to me.

ROBERT MAPPLETHORPE / Video © Courtesy of Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac Paris

Edward Enninful’s work however, needs a little introduction. Certainly not his pioneering, fabulous, and very powerful, revolutionary mission at Vogue, but his first curatorial work at Thaddaeus Ropac.

Enninful selected 46 prints brilliantly as pairs, and throughout the exhibition, forged a new dialogue between the images, inviting visitors to see Mapplethorpe’s photography differently. The explanation is simple. As an editor, Enninful is used to be working with double-page spreads at the magazine.

THE INSTIGATOR: You’re strong with storytelling. How did you come across the idea of pairing Mapplethorpe with Mapplethorpe?

EDWARD ENNINFUL: It wasn’t until I got to the gallery in Paris, and saw the pictures together that I realized that they actually tell a story of pairs – that when you put them together, there is another level to the storytelling of his photography.

I used to seeing images working together, or fighting, tension and opposites, or harmony. Things that people don’t expect to work together, finding a sense of serenity within the chaotic.

THE INSTIGATOR Robert Mapplethorpe black torso
THE INSTIGATOR Robert Mapplethorpe Lisa Lyon
THE INSTIGATOR Robert Mapplethorpe arse
Men torsos and bodies (top / bottom) / Lisa Lyon (middle) / Photo © Courtesy of Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

Whilst the pairs of images often confront each other, many are marked by a sense of associative formal play. Shapes and silhouettes discovered in one of the two photographs; they reappear in the second in an unexpected way. With this unprecedented curatorial approach to the photographer’s work, the president of the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation Michael Ward Stout said: “Edward has made a unique contribution to Mapplethorpe’s legacy.”

The exhibition spans fashion photography as well as stark portraits, nudes and still lives. By capturing unexpected subjects with a classical formality, Mapplethorpe defied prevailing aesthetic standards, paving the way far ahead for unconventional, and often shocking beauty to be appreciated as ART. Mapplethorpe’s work is certainly very considered, well-thought-out, and meticulous. His use of light comes through in Enninful’s curation, which plays with contrasts, light, darkness, shadows, contrasts of skin tones, dressed and naked bodies.


THE INSTIGATOR Robert Mapplethorpe young black man flowers
Young Man with flowers / Photo © Courtesy of Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

In several of the pairings, Enninful juxtaposes a subject that conforms to traditional beauty standards alongside one that diverges from them. In one of the diptyque images, fingers against a dark background, and emerge as ribs brought out on a nude torso. In another, flowers are paired with a Dalmatian. He paired two photographs of Lisa Lyon, Mapplethorpe’s favourite model, where in one she wears a white wedding dress, and in the other, she is nude, exuding sensuality and strength as she flexes her biceps, a powerful exploration of a dichotomy, that women are still and often measured by today. A simply dressed Rae Dawn Chong smiling into the camera, and next there is Grace Jones, painted head-to-toe by Keith Haring: an epitome of what Enninful explains as the “angry Black woman stereotype’.

Enninful is not afraid of anything, but he made a firm decision to bypass Mapplethorpe’s extreme sexual imagery, such as the Mineshaft BDSM club in the 70s, full-frontal male portraits or urinating lovers and those that were published in the controversial X Portfolio.

THE INSTIGATOR Robert Mapplethorpe cuddle black torso
THE INSTIGATOR Robert Mapplethorpe black white couple Aira in feather hat
THE INSTIGATOR Robert Mapplethorpe arse black back
All Photos © Courtesy of Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

THE INSTIGATOR: What was your core idea to go through the archives?

EDWARD ENNINFUL: Mapplethorpe’s archive is vast as you can imagine. It was just impossible to include everything. I literally went through thousands of images, and spent days and days, editing down to the perfect number we now have in the exhibition. What I really wanted to show was that Mapplethorpe wasn’t just one thing. Doing this project, I was reminded how varied and broad Mapplethorpe’s work was. I think a common misconception is that it is just one sexual thing, but his spectrum is so vast. I really wanted to show people that there is more to it, and hope that’s something I was able to achieve with this curation.

Through Mapplethorpe’s lens, these visual dialogues prompt viewers to engage with the questioning of aesthetic norms that was central to his practice: questions, which remain relevant even today. Enninful is also known for making powerful visual statements and using models who don’t fit the norm on the pages of Vogue, and his work, like Mapplethorpe’s, has always represented a challenge to discriminatory aesthetic ideals.

THE INSTIGATOR Robert Mapplethorpe portaits makeup fur coat
THE INSTIGATOR Robert Mapplethorpe portraits makeup naked torso
Robert Mapplethorpe self-portraits / Photo © Courtesy of Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

A lot of Mapplethorpe’s work is about the idea of what’s conventionally beautiful versus what is seen as not beautiful. Breaking the norm of what is beautiful, Enninful succeeded to get the fashion industry to embrace different types of beauty, whether it was about shape, age, religious background or sexuality.

THE INSTIGATOR Robert Mapplethorpe Paloma Picasso
THE INSTIGATOR Robert Mapplethorpe visitor at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac Paris
THE INSTIGATOR Robert Mapplethorpe young man
Paloma Picasso (top) / Young man (bottom) / Photo © Courtesy of Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation / Visitor during the Mapplethorpe exhibition (middle) / Photo © Courtesy of Zoltan Alexander

THE INSTIGATOR: Creating a new dialog is storytelling without restrictions, right?

EDWARD ENNINFUL: For me, everything has to be about storytelling, and that’s why the pairings in this exhibition are so relevant, and interesting to me – it’s like the passage of time and life, where nothing is black or white. I strongly believe that everyone should be seen. I always felt that. Everyone should be represented, regardless of race, religion, sexuality or socioeconomic background.


THE INSTIGATOR Robert Mapplethorpe Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac Paris
Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition / Photo © Courtesy of Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac Paris
THE INSTIGATOR Robert Mapplethorpe flowers Dalmatian
Dalmatian with flowers / Photo © Courtesy of Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation
THE INSTIGATOR Robert Mapplethorpe self-portrait naked bathtub
Self-portrait in bathtub / Photo © Courtesy of Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

We asked some of the guests during the private view, which image had the most impact on them.

Artist and Master of Interiors VINCENT DARRE with actress ARIEL DOMBASLE: Ahhhh his self-portraits! The transformation is just amazing from masculinity to a non-formative portrait with make-up.

Princesse de Savoie, actress CLOTILDE COURAU: The hands. Very powerful image.

THE INSTIGATOR Robert Mapplethorpe hands
/ Hands / Photo © Courtesy of Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

King of Red Soles CHRISTIAN LOUBOUTIN: You put me on the spot, let me think. Oh, it’s the portrait of Lisa Lyon, most definitely that one.

THE INSTIGATOR Robert Mapplethorpe Christian Louboutin
Christian Louboutin / Photo © Courtesy of Zoltan Alexander

THE INSTIGATOR Robert Mapplethorpe wedding Lisa Lyon
Lisa Lyon / Photo © Courtesy of Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

Tennis champion SERENA WILLIAMS: I love Edward’s selections. All. Impossible to choose.

Designer HAIDER ACKERMAN with ELIZABETH VON GUTTMAN: This one. (He walks me to the portrait of Aira from 1979, a woman making a surprised face, wearing a birdcage hat, veil, and white fur). Absolute elegance, and a very mysterious figure.


THE INSTIGATOR Robert Mapplethorpe Haider Ackermann Elizabeth von Guttman
Haider Ackermann with Elizabeth von Guttman / Photo © Courtesy of Zoltan Alexander

THE INSTIGATOR Robert Mapplethorpe Aira in feather hat
Aira / Photo © Courtesy of Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

Curator EDWARD ENNINFUL: Yes, Aira. Yet little is known about her beyond her name. I’m obsessed with her. I literally haven’t stopped searching, and asking friends who were in New York at the time.

THE INSTIGATOR Edward Enninful
Edward Enninful / Photo © Courtesy of Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac Paris

Gallery owner THADDAEUS ROPAC comments on his unique exhibition: This is a completely new way of looking at Mapplethorpe’s photographs, and Edward has a singular way of identifying what makes sense when two images are brought together. We are delighted to have him as a guest curator at Ropac.

Finally, intimate, close friend of Karl Lagerfeld, Jacques de Bascher, Andy Warhol, the exquisitely stylish writer, Princess DIANE DE BEAUVAU-CRAON approached me, but did not answer my question. Instead, she smiled, and guided me to Mapplethorpe’s self-portraits, paying homage to him.

THE INSTIGATOR Robert Mapplethorpe Diane de Beauvau-Craon
Diane de Beauvau-Craon / Photo © Courtesy of Zoltan Alexander

Across the exhibition, there is a fine vibration, in the air, a balance of confrontation, resonance, with juxtaposing serenity, chaos, and harmony, the core characteristics of Enninful’s approach to Mapplethorpe.




COVER THE INSTIGATOR Robert Mapplethorpe Lisa Lyon


(right) Lisa Lyon by Robert Mapplethorpe

Photo © Courtesy of Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

Cover design © ZOLTAN+MEDIA London


Robert Mapplethorpe

2 March - 6 April 2024

Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Marais / Paris (France)


Robert Mapplethorpe

Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

Thaddaeus Ropac Paris

Zoltan Alexander



© curated by Zoltan Alexander 








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