“Contemporary African art is meeting with an important echo”

Basel (Switzerland), special envoy.

We met Barthélémy Toguo at Art Basel (contemporary art fair in Basel), in Switzerland. With the Galerie Lelong, he presented a series of 110 portraits, majestic wooden bas-reliefs, the result of work in the Bilongue district of Douala, which have more to do with his feelings about the beings in front of him than with real representation.

How did your artistic adventure begin?

It all started in Cameroon. When I was a child, I liked to draw, to represent what marked me like, for example, the transport of logs in the town of Mbalmayo, through which the Zour cyclist from Cameroon also passed. I was fascinated by the position of the riders on their bikes. I thus drew a series of cyclists on their “bikes”. I remember the gigantic Renault trucks, like monsters that brought tree trunks to Douala through the rural areas of Cameroon. I put it all in drawings. Similarly, I made portraits of explorers who had come to Cameroon, like Magellan, or missionaries. After my secondary studies, I decided to go to the School of Fine Arts in Abidjan, where I received a classical education for four years. Four years to copy the dying slave of Michelangelo, Cardinal de Richelieu… without knowing the history of everything that was copied, which came from the molding workshop of the Louvre. I was able to deepen the art of the portrait, develop my sense of observation. Then I was admitted to Grenoble, which, fortunately for me, was the most avant-garde school in France, with notably Ange Leccia as teacher. I am from the generation of Matthieu Laurette and Serge Comte! I discovered in this school the work with computers, photography, performance, great artists like Joseph Kosuth. I edited exhibitions of Alighiero Boetti. I was able to penetrate contemporary art without, however, copying what was being done. Finally, I spent two years at the Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf.

From this comes the fact that you do not use one but several materials in your works, whether drawing, engraving, photography or other?

I was curious during my training. I did modeling in Abidjan, but before that I had gone to the ceramics workshop, to the wood engraving workshop… Then, in Grenoble, I learned how contemporary art worked and, finally, in Düsseldorf, I touched on the professional side. Suddenly, everything I learned in these schools leads me to produce a varied work. The material may be old but can be used to express contemporary issues. I use wood, ceramics to talk about things today such as Ebola, AIDS. This is the series of ceramics Defeat the virus! for the Marcel-Duchamp Prize, in 2016. I use wood to evoke the problems of travel, residence permits, immigration, migrants. I do performances to talk about issues of transit, border crossing. It’s all this that gives strength and diversity, the plurality of materials with which I work because I’ve always wanted to discover what’s going on elsewhere. Whenever I have an idea, I first think of the technique that will allow me to make it happen.

Why did you choose to deal with immigration?

There is a global dimension that goes beyond my simple African roots. Today, young Ukrainians move just like young Afghans or young Mexicans. In Africa, in the Mediterranean, young people are also on the move. I don’t work on immigration or exile because young Africans are on the move, but because there is this movement. And there are always difficulties in these movements. That’s what interests me. We have seen that Ukrainians were well received and integrated, whereas those from Africa were not. This discrimination exists. It must stop because we must think of something more universal, more united.

How do you view culture in Africa today?

Africa is lucky to see its cultural productions finally shown in the West. She nevertheless remains authentic in her approach because the discourses that African artists carry are issues that human beings encounter. Their work has a social dimension. Art is a great tool to talk about everything we see in the world today. This is why contemporary African art meets with an important echo. The artists talk about what they live. They have a word of humanity and solidarity.

Do you yourself have an artistic project in Cameroon?

Twenty years ago, I decided to launch a project called Bandjoun Station. It’s like an artist residency. But I associated an agricultural dimension to it, taking up the idea of ​​Léopold Sédar Senghor according to which the price of raw material products is fixed by the West, which impoverishes the farmers of the South. We figured we had to plant our coffee, grow it, harvest it, dry it, roast it, package it, and set the price ourselves to make a living from what we do. Bandjoun Station is first and foremost to celebrate art. This is where I gathered the works of my friends that I acquired in exchange for mine. But the agricultural project works with plantations of avocados, bananas, cassava. The artists who come must have a local project and associate the population with it. We even created a slam and rap festival, which allowed young people to listen to the music and then see the works. They discovered the works of Kiki Smith, Orlan, David Hockney… They thus appropriated Bandjoun Station, a place where people come to celebrate art and agriculture.


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