Barthélémy Toguo
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critics / critiques 

Peter Doroshenko,
Transcultural producer
in Catalogue Barthélémy Toguo : The Sick Opera, Paris: Paris-Musées: Palais de Tokyo, 2004.

Throughout the humanities and social sciences, scholarly work has turned to focus on how globalization and transnationalism are altering our concepts of culture and community. We are living through a break with the era of separable societies and nation-states. No longer can the world be thought of in terms of autonomous cultures, languages and expressive traditions. The idea of transculturalism points towards the new arrangements of people, identities and social practices that are currently emerging, and it belongs to a longer history that needs reinterpretation. As our economic and cultural systems of exchange burst former boundaries, people experience both a sense of liberation and anxiety, for the institutions and ways of life that had grounded their definitions of self are challenged. Inequalities among communities, regions and nations, moreover, mean that different people will have unequalled power as well as distinct resources when it comes to shaping the transcultural future.

How do the terms “culture” and “community” function relative to one another in various disciplines, including art history, literary theory, political economy, philosophy, cultural studies, architecture and health sciences, as well as in “minority” discourses on race, gender and sexuality studies? The expressionist model often used to frame such inquiries—making a culture the expression of a singular community—is increasingly inadequate given the research on the many differences within the communities and the incessant back-and-forth of borrowings among cultural groups.

In light of the changes involved in transculturalism, what are the ends of community? The question has (at least) two senses. (1) What are the limits of traditional communities (ethnic groups, urban neighborhoods, etc.) as a way of organizing social life? How do transnational and globalizing forces foreclose some forms of community life and open up others? (2) What are the aims of community in a globalized world? What aspects of human expression demand to be rooted in ongoing and bounded collective groups? What are the moral ideals and practical motives that sustain people in communities and create loyalty to them? The answers we give to such questions will determine how we conduct ourselves as artists, citizens and scholars.

Born in Cameroon and now working in France, Barthélémy Toguo creates multileveled, mixed-media installations that explore themes of identity, exile, cultural relevance and sexual identification, along with emotionally compelling issues. Like a chronicler appropriating knowledge, Toguo is always on the lookout for whatever pushes the limits of his past and his present. His work is the product of a complex deliberation. Producing images from his own reality, Toguo offers only that which is already embedded in our memory, like a reference point of what is lost or a temporal experience of an eternal recurrence.

In his work, Toguo likes the physical acts of painting or creating sculptural forms. With the glut of imagery in the world from various media, he chooses images from his own life—not narrative per se—as a way to organize the formal elements of his work. Elements from public activities and situations such as literature, music, travel, family and friends influence his work as a way to make them accessible to a broader audience. He uses painting as the most recognizable sign of art while introducing painting and installation elements that reflect a new artistic thought. He is interested in how people define themselves, and in how identity is constructed and manifested publicly. Superficially fluid in style, Toguo’s works have nothing to do with action or animation. His works never carry elements of movement—even though they may seem to do so. 

At first glance, Barthélémy Toguo's art objects appear to be well-packaged transcultural objects. But his rhetoric has an underhanded virtuosity, capable of producing unexpected effects with a bit of black humor tossed in discreetly to prevent the final ensemble. If, as the architect Le Corbusier once remarked, the purpose of architecture is to move us, then in his work Toguo consistently realizes architecture's highest aim: he creates works whose extraordinary power lies not only in how deeply they make us feel, but also in how they let us see the complexity of our feelings, in meaningful environments that help us to dwell. As explained in a fascinating essay exploring the significance of peripheral spaces in dwellings, the word dwelling has its origins in the Old English dwellan, which means to go astray or to delay. A dwelling is an in-between space where one may hesitate between worlds. That our feelings about such places are often mixed, that we are often drawn to what both attracts and repels, these are things Barthélémy Toguo understands intuitively and are his greatest insights as an artist. If in the space of his works we experience our own ambivalence about certain issues more intensely, it is because of the way, in theme and structure, his work so elegantly holds contradictory elements in tension.

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