Barthélémy Toguo
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Barthélémy Toguo interviewé par Carole Boulbès,
Paris, le 1er septembre 2005, Magazine du Mudam, n°8, décembre 2005
(entretien réalisé pour le site internet de la Fondation Musée d’Art Moderne Grand duc Jean, au Luxembourg)

For “The Sick Opera”, his first personal exhibition which took place in the Palais de Tokyo in November 2004, Barthélémy Toguo realized an ensemble composed of sculptures, ceramics, video films and drawings showing his vision of contemporary world, a vision focusing on the expression of feelings such as pain, love, fright, desire... Born in the Cameroons, Barthélémy Toguo studied in the Art School of Abidjan, then in the Ecole d’Art of Grenoble in France; his work, characterized by its sensitivity and generosity, provocative at times, deliberately reflects the social preoccupations of his fellow human beings. The art centre he conceived and funded in the same spirit - Bandjoun Station - is due to open in 2006 in the Cameroons.

1) Can you explain what made you switch from very political performances interpreted by yourself to this idea of inviting a choreographer (Romano Bottinelli) and an operatic singer (Caroline Chassagny) to participate in your recent Paris exhibition “The Sick Opera”, in the Palais de Tokyo ?
Beside being an African, I am first and foremost a human being, and as such pay heed to what is happening around me in our society. Whenever there are inequalities, if there is something wrong in North-South exchanges, when countries wage war agaisnst one another, the role of the artist, according to me, is to make it known, to raise other people’s consciousness. The vehicle can be painting, sculpture, a performance or video. The reason why I am very attentive to what people go through is that I come from a continent that at the time I speak has to fight its way through a lot of problems. My work cannot remain indifferent to the events taking place in the world. The exhibit of the Palais de Tokyo, “The Sick Opera”, reflects my observations of our contemporary society. For me, every human being is an actor pacing the stage, some play a tragic part, others a comic one ; others find themselves deep in distress, incertitude, joy or pain. By the introduction of the voice and the singing, the opera singer brought a more human dimension in the exhibition, something full of life, more dynamic. I find it very important to address many senses at the same time: sight, hearing, touch... The singer walked through the different pieces exhibited: she started among the ceramics, then she strolled across touching a white curtain, dressed like a diva singing an opera. She climbed on the stage, walked on a spreaded curtain of immaculate white cotton, created a dialogue with the drawings, sat on the wooden stamps with very strong, very emotional political slogans carved on them. Afterwards she came down again, caressed the drawings, treaded the jute cloth, picked up the sculptures representing female lower bodies whose behinds took the forms of soccer balls. Inherent in her gestures and songs there was a criticism of the image of women. The confrontation almost verged on revolt. This search for different moments of intensity is capital for me. The performance appeared to create an emotion beyond the purely aestetic point of view. The presence of the actor evidently gives another scope to plastic art. To find different ways of “playing” with my works: this is precisely one of my obsessions.

2) Would you have wished to renew this experience in the Georges Pompidou Centre exhibition called “Africa Remix” ? or in the one that took place in the Houston Museum of Fine Art?
The contexts were different. I always first analyse the finality of each exhibition and the problems I can tackle. For “Africa Remix” I chose to give a more visual character to my work. In showing Innocent Sinners (2005), I withdrew physically from the exhibit in order to give the public the opportunity to enter the boat himself, to walk on the cardboard packages, to read the newspaper clips and the slogans on the collages and drawings, to interpret and question themselves. For that exhibition, a video produced more movement than a performance. My hommage to the foreign workers carrying on the professions of refuse collectors, masons, carpenters took the form of a video. I showed them working on a music by “Bach of Africa”, my aim was having different cultures meet. This video was placed on the top of the boat. The public could hear the sound coming and disappearing. I also showed a series of drawings on such political themes as sex, freedom of expression, the Kyoto Treaty. In this allegorical boat, you could also find drawings expressing bodily pleasure and sensuality but also pain. The public went into the boat. They followed me in my voyage, a voyage exempt of tranquillity for questions arise, they become conscious of certain atrocities happening in the world. In Houston, it was very different. The project was much more personal, the subject of the series of drawings showed, called Baptism (1998), very intimate. About a generational problem between my family and myself.

3) Do you agree with the idea that your installations and your drawings “attempt to create ambiances, atmospheres leading to a confrontation between the Western and the non-Western worlds” - according to the press release of the exhibition “Africa Remix” ?
I always try in my work to attract people’s attention on the difficulties experienced by human beings, without moralizing. Personally I am not seeking the confrontation of the peoples with one another, far from it. Why should I? Art, rather than oppose cultures and peoples, should try to unite, make them progress. It’s too easy to label me as a provoker because I come from the Third World. If I mention the North-South relationships, it’s not to floor the West. I don’t target the peoples but the economy. The world, to my mind, should be more just. Even though I apply a critical eye, I am not seeking to oppose the North and the South. The angle from which I look is different, I am never where people expect me to be. My interest is not limited to Africa and its problems. I am present in the heart of the former Yougoslavia, where I allow the Serbs (in Cacak) and the Kosovars (in Prestina and Mitrovisca) to speak by asking them to tell me about their wishes, their desires by writing on postcards. I intend to do the same in Cuba, in Nigeria, in Cambodia, in Japan (Hiroshima), in Darfur, everywhere it vill be possible for me to do it. What creation needs to-day is more generosity. For me, life is a source of inspiration. Before the work I undertook in Kosovo, I went to Spain (“Las Palmas”) where I pointed at the horrible situation of the prisoners of conscience in Turkish prisons. This problem, the freedom of expression, also exists in quite a number of countries nowadays.

4) What have you learned from your confrontation with different curators “in the whole world” ?
It’s all a matter of persons. If the curator is in harmony with the artist, it is all the better. Unfortunately, the latter can be chosen according to his nationality, not his quality. The difference is huge. What must be celebrated is the talent, not the nationality. People don’t take the time to listen to the artists, to meet them... They are chosen only because their name is known. Things are biased in to-day’s art circles. I don’t want to appear pessimistic, but it seems that formerly artists were actors. They created concepts. They changed the world, and there were art critics to report their actions. We can say that the reverse is true nowadays. It’s a global phenomenon... Only time will tell where we are heading.
As a matter of fact, curators are quite different in England, Holland, France, Germany, Japan, USA... But can one say that one system is better than another? Think of soccer. You practice differently depending on if you are English, Italian, Brazilian, Nigerian... The difference is undeniable, which is a good thing. However all individuals long for the same thing: getting to be known. The soccer player drenches his jersey, the artist too must exert himself if he wants his talent to be recognized. There are thousands of artists in New York, thousands of artists in Berlin... It’s tough. Each one, the art critic as well as the artist, is looking for a niche. Each wants recognition. The curators want to create a major art event, a major historical exhibit or become the head of a major museum. It’s a race, all that counts is to get over the others’ heads, stand on the pedestal. And in this kind of race, the artist sometimes comes second.

5) Has according to you the multiplication of biennales throughout the world a levelling effect leading to general spiritlessness (“cultural tourism”, as some say), or does it appear to you as being a positive factor ?
The answer to that question should not be precipitous, one should look back on the past, look around to see what happens now and get some insight about what will happen in future. With time and the right perspective we should be able to say yes or no. In the past art swung between the United States, Western Europe and Japan. Quite a number of artists have been forgotten. As if there were no artistic activities elsewhere! The effervescence created by biennales in certain countries of Asia, in Eastern Europe and in Africa seems to me something very positive. One can but praise that. With the creation of the biennale of Sao Paulo, artists from Panama, Salvador, Guatemala could be seen, but Western works also... It has become a much expected event. In Cuba one could see artists from South-America; but also from Europe, well, from everywhere. Claiming that there are too many biennales is illogical when you think that Dakar is the only one where you can discover the artistic creations of 56 countries of the African continent!
These gatherings are very important. If some find there an opportunity for touristic travelling, why not. Do not forget that places like Sao Paulo, Dakar were already touristic destinations before. The argument is oversimplistic. The main thing to-day is the emergence of new talents developing original approaches. New stars are to be found in Latin America, in Eastern countries, in Africa and so on.

6) You have initiated an important project in the Cameroons: the establishment of Bandjoun Station in your birthplace. Can you elaborate on the stakes of this art centre ? How will the works be selected, on what criteria ?
First the fact that most African traditional art is found in the West - undoubtedly, I must admit, kept in good conservation conditions - became clear to me; and it dawned on me that most of it was looted, uprooted by force from the African continent. Then I realized that African contemporary art, more and more present in the West, was suffering exactly the same fate. Of course, it is important that African contemporary art should be known everywhere, but the African nations should conceive a preservation policy to prevent part of the works from going abroad. Nothing is left there, it’s quite sad.
Following my constatations, I decided to found in the Cameroons Bandjoun Station, a place where artists coming from the whole world would create and reside. The duration of residence will last from two months to one year at most, and after that time their work will be shown to the local population. A permanent collection will be set up thanks to exchanges - my own works against the ones of certain artist friends. Creators from the whole world side by side with African artists. No ghetto. I want the place to be open to the world, devoted to artistic creation and in total harmony with the environment it is situated in. Talking of a museum or a Toguo Foundation would be pretentious. Though this is indeed a private and personal experience.
Its objectives will be defined by a board of eight to twelve persons. Twelve workshops with lodgings will be created (2 for the Cameroons, 3 for the rest of Africa and 7 for the rest of the world). Selection will be made after examination of each applicant’s credentials and will give priority to talent. This place will receive comedians, writers, video artists, photographers, plastic artists, art historians, ethnologists, sociologists and researchers specialised in art. The space will be divided into five sections: one devoted to video, lectures and performances, one for the library and administrative services, two for temporary exhibitions, one for the permanent collection. The building is being built. The opening is due in April 2006. It is becoming urgent to invent solutions for the African continent, in spite of the failure of democracy and the absence of freedom. The Africans must understand that they must not capitulate, they must act, imagine new solutions. Africa is led by dictators supported by the West. We must stop the gangrene. Action should exercise itself in all fields, agriculture, medicine, culture, sports... All forces in Africa, the whole elite should mobilize to-day. Africa is a great and rich continent, which unfortunately has known two catastrophes: slavery; then colonialisation and imperialism. To-day Africa faces a third, a very serious catastrophe, which is braindrain.

Paris, le 1er septembre 2005.

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