Three African masks generously deposited by the Musée du Quai Branly recall Paul Guillaume’s preeminent role in making African art known and appreciated in the early 20th century. In 1911, while a young employee in a garage, he exhibited a few objects sent over in consignments of rubber intended for tyre manufacture. This was when he met Guillaume Apollinaire, a great enthusiast of this art, who supported him, introduced him into his circle, and helped him structure and develop his business. Guillaume very quickly became one of the most dynamic and influential players in this field. While acting as an intermediary for Apollinaire, he also put together his own collection by continuing to deal with his early suppliers, and by placing advertisements in publications intended for "colonials".
In 1912, the Société d’art et d’archéologie nègre (Society for Negro Art and Archaeology) was created, with Guillaume presenting himself as its representative, followed in 1913 by the Société des Mélanophiles (Society of Melanophiles). In 1914, through Marius de Zayas, Guillaume sent a batch of sculptures to Alfred Stieglitz in New York for the "Statuary in Wood: the Roots of Modern Art" exhibition.
When Paul Guillaume opened his first gallery in 1914, the "Soirées de Paris" (a journal whose editor in chief was Apollinaire) pointed out that "modern paintings... and negro sculptures" could be found there. Throughout his career he made a point of combining pieces of African art with the contemporary sculptures and paintings in his galleries and his interiors. This choice highlighted the aesthetic aspect of these objects, which were at that time considered merely as ethnographic objects. In 1917, he published, with Apollinaire, a highly symbolic book, "A First Album of Negro Sculpture", illustrated by photographs of artworks in private collections.
It was this shared interest in contemporary and African art that led to his collaboration from 1922 to 1929 with the American doctor Paul Barnes, who had established a foundation near Philadelphia. After 1929, Paul Guillaume stated that he wanted to get rid of his African collection. Nevertheless, in 1935, after his death, fifty items that had belonged to him appeared in a major exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
The wonderful Baule mask from the Ivory Coast, acquired by the Musée des Arts Africains et Océaniens in 2003, and the two reliquaries (Fang et Kota) from Gabon donated in 1941 to the Musée de l’Homme by his wife Domenica Walter, form an ensemble that perfectly represents this still prestigious collection.