Barthélémy Toguo
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Barthélémy Toguo interviewé par Samantha Longhi,

Barthéléphy Toguo, an artist from the Cameroons, has been living in France for years. Regular exhibitions have made his universal talent known throughout the world. Nowadays a recognized artist on the French art stage, his sensitivity and the mutiplicity of the mediums he uses are widely praised.

The French specialists of contemporary art very much like to talk about foreign artists living in France. Anne de Villepoix herself, who owns the gallery you exhibit in, shows a certain number of such artists, such as Yann Pei Ming for instance. Do you think this factor has had an influence on your success?

I don’t think that the fact of being a foreign artist working in France has really facilitated my career. It’s the hard work that made it. Working is the key. If I was living in another country and my work had ripened there until acquiring the same strength, the recognition would have been the same.
I am not asked to participate in an exhibition because the organizers wish to show a group of foreigners. Lately there took place several thematic exhibitions; even though my status as a foreigner was taken into account in certain cases, I was mainly chosen for my work. I never participate in an exhibition just because you have to be in it. I always ask myself : “Why am I invited?” Is it for the sake of the so-called “globalisation”? Because I am an African? Or for my own work?
So, it was in good faith that I accepted to be a part of “Africa Remix” which was a group exhibition of Africans in Beaubourg. Don’t forget that the purpose of “Sensation” (London, 1997) was to introduce the new British artistic stage, and that the Whitney Museum shows the new American artistic stage every other year.

You first studied art in the Abidjan Ecole des beaux-arts, then in Grenoble and in the Kunstakademie of Düsseldorf. Can we describe your protean work - drawing, watercolour, sculpture, ceramic, performances - as culturally hybrid?
My work is mostly inspired by Life and emotions. Having said that, my various travels have also fed it. The fact that I was born in the Cameroons, went to Ivory Coast for my artistic training, then to Grenoble and finally to Düsseldorf, the fact that I lived in those different places while at the same time in perpetual movement have influenced my artistic choices. I try to represent Life with its pleasures, its sufferings, its anguishes, its violences, universal feelings man is subject to whatever his origin.

Your watercolours are what the public generally identifies to-day as being specific of your work.
Five years ago they thought the same of my performances like Transit, a work on the problems foreigners are liable to meet at frontiers, in airports, railway stations, on passageways.
Later, I wanted to show them that I also had a graphic work. Every time I was invited to an exhibit, I was keen on producing my drawings, my watercolours, my works made with ballpoint pen and pencil. To me it was important not to be labelled as a performance artist, although my performances were much appreciated. I stopped in 1999 for I wanted to show the diversity of my work.
Having said that, I could still make one, as I am not really set upon a specific medium. Whenever I have an idea, I try fo find a way to illustrate it and with which medium. If I think that video can help me express it, I’ll choose video. If I think that sculpting plaster, stone or resin will help me, I’ll become a sculptor. If I think a theatrical play will be more suitable to express sadness, tears or extreme pleasure, I will look for actors. In the same way, if I think that only a series of 60, 100 or 200 drawings will express my idea in a proper manner, I will start drawing.
Contemporary art circles have a tendency to prescribe which medium is contemporary and which is not; I don’t agree. I do what I feel like doing, I just want to express myself. No medium is passé. This is why my favorite artists are Alpha Blondy, Kippenberger, Carole Schneeman, the Vienne actionnists, Dieter Roth, Robert Filliou, Rose-Marie Trockel who does not hesitate to go into embroidery or Jeff Koons who does ceramics.

The pregnant presence of the body and an undeniable universal dimensions are what strike the most in your work, especially in your watercolours.
You are right. The body, which is beautiful, is present in the watercolours I have shown in Paris these last two years. The aesthetic dimension comes first, but it also inherently expresses my inner feelings in front of those bodies, be they black, white or yellow, from the Northern hemisphere or the Southern. Through its fluidity, its diluted quality, the medium used, watercolour, confers their beauty to these bodies. The needles I added allow the sublimation of the pain expressed in the movement of the bodies and their accidental positioning. The universal dimension is accentuated by the presence of animals, of vegetation, of flowers which are not connected with any particular territory.

One of the watercolours shown in the Palais de Tokyo for the exhibition entitled “Notre histoire” introduces a very important dimension into your work: political and social commitment. This remains ubiquitous in spite of the fact that you stopped doing performances.
The performances were the plastic result of an idea. Which means that my political ideas can as well be expressed through sculpture or drawing. Politics is never very far away in my life. It’s not necessary to be an activist. The vision of the artist is another modality. The world is changing, the artist can’t stay indifferent. I cannot stay indifferent, for my work goes out to people, gives them the opportunity to speak, observes the way they live, makes them dream.

You will agree that in contemporary art you seldom meet artists determined to get a political message across.
I was born in the Cameroons and cannot shut my eyes in front of the rampant political corruption in the African continent, which bars the way to democracy. Being an artist, I must speak, I must make things happen, my art centre in the Cameroons for example. Plastic representation but also action are both part of my role as an artist. I also feel concerned about the social and political situation in France and elsewhere.

You were the only one to take the events of Novembre 2005 as a theme.
I don’t think I am alone. It just appeared to me that I had to give them the opportunity to speak. Which I did in my series of illustrated postcards called Head Above Water III.

How did you proceed in this work?
The project started in 2004. I first thought about it while preparing my personal Palais de Tokyo exhibition in my atelier.
I should have focused on the coming exhibition, but I wanted to go to Afghanistan instead. The situation in Kabul was very unstable, and I had to cancel my trip at the last minute. I Just changed my destination and flew to Yougoslavia. I gathered my blank postcards and went to the heart of Serbia, in Cacak. I first drew anonymous portraits on the postcards, then distributed them in schools, in the streets, asking local people to write about their every day life, their expectations, their wishes.
Then I went to Pristina and Mitrovica. People have suffered a lot in these enclaves, they were eager to express themselves. The result was shown two weeks later in the Palais de Tokyo where my personal exhibit “The Sick Opera” (2004) took place. I felt like going on with the project. Two months later I went to Nigeria. The situation there is very similar to other African countries, but I chose Nigeria. Hardly had I arrived at Lagos Airport that I felt the suffering and the misery. It’s a capital of 20 million inhabitants who live in dire poverty.
Then, during the November 2005 events in france, I told myself that I should be there. I stayed three days in Saint-Denis. It was not easy to be accepted, not belonging there.
I find this project interesting because people can thus express themselves without being judged.

And what is the next step in this project?
I usually don’t do things this way, however a few stages are on the map: the aftermath of the Vietnam war in Cambodia, the H bomb survivors in Hiroshima, maybe Darfur, violence and fright in Mexico, Saint-Petersburg - though it’s going to be very tough because of their anti-black racism. It’s a project similar to the Transits, never really ending.
The Transits did not deal, as some have said, about primary racism based on the colour of the skin, but about prejudices and clichés. When I travel first class on Thalys dressed in a City of Paris refuse collector uniform, I introduce a situation that seldom happens in every day life and am eager to see people’s reaction. I waited until all passengers were seated before going to my own seat. Hardly had I entered when those sitting around me rose to sit a little farther. By Aix-la-Chapelle, the railways inspector came to me and asked me to get off. What I wanted to express was social racism, and at the time I found this performance suitable to my purpose. Those people did not react this way because of my colour but because of my clothings and the function they signalled. Things would not have been different had I been a white man.

After “Notre histoire” in the Palais de Tokyo, you participate in the big show on the French art stage and called “La force de l’art” organised by the Ministry of Culture in the Grand Palais. Can you give us a general idea of what you will show there?
I am still hesitating between drawings and a series of photographs I have just made in Spain.

What do you think about this new light shed on the French art stage?
As I told you before, “Young British Art” shows English art, American art is in the Whitney Museum, Los Angeles art in Beaubourg. So why shouldn’t French art be shown?

What’s the use of such repeated exhibitions?
The Palais de Tokyo gathers artists in their thirties whereas in the Grand Palais artists of several generations are shown.

What about the number of curators working on this new exhibition?
I have no comment to do on the number of curators.

What are your projects?
In June, personal exhibitions will be held in Hong Kong’s Art Statements, “Jetlag in Hong Kong”, in the Mori Art Museum of Tokyo and at Michael Stevenson’s in Cape Town, South Africa.
Then, in September, it will be Seville, the festival Biarritz Photo, “Pars Black” in Iwalewa, Bayreuth, Germany; in October the White Night in the Goutte d’Or district of Paris and “Broken Memory” in the Musée des Arts derniers.
In 2007 a personal exhibition , “What’s Your Name?” is planned at the Modern Art Museum of Saint-Etienne. The same year, I will participate in the Skulptur Project in Münster, Germany.
My biggest project is still “Bandjoun Station”, the art centre I am building myself and with my own money in the Cameroons. It’s my answer to the failure of cultural projects on the African continent and the fact that most traditional African art is in the West. Moreover it is also the West that buys and judges contemporary African art. I therefore wanted to build a place where African as well as international artists could come to work, exhibit and live.
Each one of the five levels will have a surface of 120 m2. Debates will be held in the conference room of the basement. On the groundfloor a library open to everybody will stimulate the desire of culture and openness of mind. The first floor will be devoted to temporary exhibits, the second also, and on the third one the permanent collection will be shown - it will come from exchanges with African artists so that part of their work might remain on their continent, but also with artists from other nations in order to avoid a ghetto effect. The courtyard will be an open space theater, and on the side there will be a building with twelve ateliers-apartments.
This international rendez-vous will open in 2007.

Traducciòn española : Santiago Borja
English translation : Laura

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