Barthélémy Toguo
- œuvres - works projets - projects publications biographie - biography textes - texts liens - links contact actualités - at present -


Jérome Sans,
Toguo digère le monde, Entretien avec Barthélémy Toguo

in Catalogue Barthélémy Toguo : The Sick Opera, Paris: Paris-Musées: Palais de Tokyo, 2004

How did you become involved in art?
I spent my childhood in Africa in a town where there was lots of business in and transportation of cacao, coffee and trees or great cut logs. I was fascinated by the scenes of trading going on before my eyes at the different markets and especially by the immense trucks, the “monsters” as they’re called down there, that were hauling all those goods. So very early on, I was illustrating those colorful, hectic scenes in my notebook. Later, I would model those gigantic tractor-trailers out of bamboo. After high school, it was clear to me that I didn’t want to enter the civil service. I decided in 1989 to leave Cameroon to study at the school of fine arts in Abidjan in the Côte d’Ivoire.

With no art school, gallery, center or museum in Cameroon, what was your first encounter with contemporary art?
A few hours after my arrival in the halls of Grenoble’s graduate school of art, I quickly realized that I had to see things differently and that afterwards I would have to remain myself without changing my way of “speaking,” “dancing,” “laughing,” “screwing” and so on.

How did you decide to continue your course of studies abroad and especially in Grenoble?
I felt the need to move on to something else and especially a deep and wild desire to leave. The idea of leaving filled me completely. The choice of Grenoble came about quite naturally, after being rejected by two other schools. I was only accepted there. A few years later, I obtained a study grant for the Kunstakademie of Düsseldorf, in Germany. There I was able to learn “German realism,” in short, render concrete, realize, materialize an idea in all its plastic, esthetic and intellectual dimensions…

What was your first reaction when you arrived in France?
After four years at the school of fine arts in Abidjan, where you spent your time making “copies of copies” of classic sculpture from the Louvre, I wound up in Grenoble in 1993, where I felt a shock.
There was practically no technical instruction. The student is independent and enjoys a great amount of freedom in the use of different media. I got an enormous amount out of that school.

How do you work?
The fact that I’ve had the opportunity to go through classic training, have explored other media like photography and video, and love live performance has enabled me to constantly develop my ideas
and projects.

How would you characterize your artmaking?
I use that versatility to create a language that draws its inspiration from different encounters, travels, human beings, LIFE.

You often speak about travels as a source of inspiration. During your wanderings, you even create travel notebooks. What do they represent to you?
They are all at once the record of different discoveries, emotions, sensations… But also the record of my blow-ups after an all-too-sad realization of the deceptions, the lies, the violence…

You’ve done a series of performances called Transit in different airports, train stations and other places where people are on the move. What does this notion of transit mean to you? Is it still relevant?
We are all in a permanent “transit” state. It’s a notion that is inherent in 20th- and 21st-century man. Whether a man is white, black or yellow matters little. He is in any case a being who is potentially “exiled,” borne along by the driving force that is travel and which is going to make him move. We leave one place for another with the help of different means while bringing along with us during these different journeys our culture, which runs up against the other. Of course, this coming together can be either beautiful or difficult. The trips follow one another at the frenetic pace of our society today. We are constantly in motion. So this notion of transit is more than ever relevant to the present, maybe under different avatars since society evolves. My Transit performances question, most often with humor that’s not devoid of a certain dose of provocation, the conditions of passing borders.

Did this idea of transit and migration inspire the sculptures of giant wooden rubber stamps that regularly appear in your work?
That’s correct. Seeing my passports marked by those stamps that read “No entry,” “Immigration officers,” “Transit sans arrêt” [transit without stopping] or “Perimé” [expired] gave me the idea of creatingThe New World Climax. That piece is a perfect illustration of the difficulties that people traveling encounter whereas merchandise and consumer goods have an easier time circulating.

Why did you choose Paris as a refuge?
I had briefly stopped in Paris several times before settling here. I quickly realized that I felt good here. It’s this multicolor, multicultural and multinational Paris that suits me, pleases me, inspires me. Paris is a city that belongs to everyone. Certain neighborhoods now even have the authentic colors and odors of the inhabitants’ original countries. Its architecture, less aggressive than certain other great foreign cities, lends it a particular charm that I find touching. Its cafes, restaurants, avenues, small streets and panoramic views make it a magnificent city. Its more popular neighborhoods are also indispensable and so interesting to watch since persons of different backgrounds and upbringings manage to live together.

What do you think of globalization in the world of art?
That fashionable, overused word is in fact dangerous when applied to the world of art. You can very easily and quickly slip into cliché. Rather than appealing to nationalities, institutions and museums ought rather to celebrate Art in all its diversity and splendor, not focus on origins but make talent wherever it comes from burst out and explode.

How do you see the increasing number of biennials that systematically invite artists from every continent?
The increasing number of biennials isn’t a bad thing in itself since it’s often the only chance for artists to go and exhibit on other continents and in other countries in order to show their work to people who aren’t able to travel. Nevertheless, wanting to systematically invite artists from this or that continent or this or that country is dangerous. It’s a “politically correct” attitude in which the work isn’t judged for itself. It seems mad to me to select a nationality rather than a talent. What’s more, to want to show an origin rather than a talent can reinforce the clichés, discredit a country, for example, by reducing it because of the weakness of the works that are selected.

What is your relationship with Africa?
I maintain very close ties with Africa. I go there quite often because I also feel very much at ease down there. It’s a very rich continent that is unfortunately ravage by AIDS, war, poverty and corruption, and is flooded with stifling dictators supported by the West. It is high time that the West understands that we’re in the 21st century, that the ties of old with the colonies are once and for all a thing of the past and that they have to change before it’s too late. The succeeding governments in the West have kept the same advisors for foreign affairs as in the days of the colonies and colonial ideas. That could be fatal for certain countries in the decades to come. It’s very easy in the end to accuse African people of being responsible for their lot and their misery. It’s often forgotten that the West maintains privileged relations with African dictators and does everything to divide African peoples in order to better rule over them in the end. It is a disgrace to always hear from the lips of certain Western politicians that “democracy is a luxury for Africa.”
Africa needs friends who respect her in her exchanges and her dignity.

How do you see the art situation in Africa?
Art is not a priority in a continent that’s already weakened. The social, economic and political situation does not favor the emergence of young or new talent. What’s more, the problem of illiteracy is far from over, although there exist isolated and exceptional cases of artists and collectives that enable one to promote artistic forms that are often based on protest. And then there are several private and individual initiatives that should be hailed, such as the Villa Gottfried in Ngaparou near Dakar in Senegal, the Institute of Visual Arts in Bandjoun in Cameroon, or the Pigozzi Collection (CAAC) in Geneva, which have contributed to certain artists’ recognition.

You’ve also taken an interest in the human body and its manifestations, including sexuality, which is at the root of your installation Having Sex Kills. How does that sexuality inspire you today and why? What does sex represent for you?
Through my Dream Catchers series of drawings with their sinuous hypnotic lines, I celebrate the human body in all its splendor by sketching incomplete, amputated bodies whose gestures are left up in the air, lest I mandate their definitive beauty. As far as the range of sensations goes, more specifically it’s sex, the pleasure it procures, its practice, complexity and by-products that I question through my installation Having Sex Kills. This piece features a multitude of ceramics, clay sculptures that are covered in enamel and are erotic, violent, joyful and sad all at the same time… Trapped in a Plexiglas structure and discreetly veiled by a mosquito net tumbling down from the heavens. Yes, sex is important in my work since it has always been the preoccupation, priority and necessity of man and woman, the essence of their relationship. It inspires me because it’s a source of both pleasure and pain. It remains elusive, complex and fantastical. It is LIFE and life is by necessity a source of inspiration for an artist.

What does drawing represent in your work?
Drawing is very important to me. It’s an intimate, sincere and fitting artistic practice through which you can’t lie or cheat. It’s also a child’s first words. This discipline is likewise very rich since it can be done simply with a pencil on a small sheet, on a large sheet, with painting, watercolor… It can be infinitely varied. Drawing allows me to get carried away, to visually realized my desires and fantasies… to translate my pleasures, pains, worries, once again to express LIFE.

And what about performance? For example, Pure & Clean in New York in 2001, or Live in Yaoundé in Cameroon in 2002…
I don’t consider my work as formal output only. It’s also important for me to “play” with my works, whether it’s a piece of sculpture, a painting, or an installation. A performance is a way of both entering into osmosis with my work and provoking or creating a lively dialog with the audience. During a performance of The New World Climax at Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt in 2000, I struggled to lift, dressed in work clothes, immense rubber stamps in order to express the difficulty and cumbersomeness of the administration. In February 2001, Pierre Restany offered me the chance to take part in a group show called Political Ecology at White Box in New York. It seemed appropriate to me to associate my installation with a performance, Pure & Clean. At that time the United States had indeed decided not to ratify the Kyoto Treaty on reducing hothouse gas. They had also boycotted the World Congress against Racism in Johannesburg and had a “totalitarian” international policy. So I felt the urge to wash the stars and stripes of the American flag, shamefully dirtied, soiled. This necessarily short-lived performance enabled me to express in a very strong way my opposition to American policy at the time. Moreover, a performance brings the audience directly face to face with a situation. In Live, a couple yielding to an intimate moment directly referred the audience to a “banal” act that left them ill at ease in the end.

In 1996 you created Die Tageszeitung: conversation avec Frau Schenkenberg [Die Tageszeitung: conversation with Frau Schenkenberg], a piece in which you blackened out the articles in the German daily while keeping only the images. What is your relationship with information and the way it’s delivered?
For me information is primordial. I’ve got the radio on all day. I like to read newspaper headlines and compare them according to their political sympathies. It’s a vital need to know what’s going on in the entire world. That overdose of information, scoops, scandals, disinformation naturally inspires me a lot. You need to step back, however, vis-à-vis the information, the press, precisely in order to disassociate the real info from the disinformation. But disinformation is a wonderful source of inspiration!
Conversation avec Frau Schenkenberg, I might add, was published by Small Noise in Brussels.

You also practice wood sculpture with a chainsaw. How do you connect that material with the technique?
I like working with wood because of a personal affinity. It also seems more suitable to me for some of my creations. For me sculpture has nothing to do with an African tradition. The chainsaw and other sophisticated modern tools allow me to work quickly and produce marvelous, unexpected forms, which a chisel or gouge could never render.

Why did you start using construction tape, which is normally used to mark off a building zone or an area where caution is required?
At the International Art Festival of Las Palmas in 2001, I started the series called Dangerous Visit, which is an installation created like a map, a territory whose borders have to be laid down. So I thought about using construction tape to illustrate the idea of danger, immigration, fear of the other, the need to feel protected. This material perfectly represents one aspect of our contemporary society, that is, the incredible difficulty people have to move around and their desire to live in an ideal city that is and will remain an illusion. I’ve also used construction tape during the shows Emergency Exit in Nantes and Tutto normale in Rome (both held in 2002), and Solares in Valence in 2003.

What do you consider your artistic and cultural references?
The Viennese actionists, Fluxus and Martin Kippenberger, and in general living art, street art. I also draw a lot of my inspiration from theatrical staging (a number of my installations are staged like plays), theatrical structure, decoration and stage design.

Which African artists have influenced you and why?
The Kiyi M’Bock group and its dancers, the singers Ray Lema of Congo, Baaba Maal of Senegal and Alpha Blondy, because they tackle strong social concerns, human emotions. They’re politically committed visionaries. On the other hand, there are African artists who haven’t influenced me, but whom I admire, like Bodys Isek Kingelez, Jane Alexander, Malik Sidibe… who are known thanks to their art.

In 1999 you created the Institute of Visual Arts in Bandjoun in Cameroon. What’s at stake with that venue?
When I go home, I haven’t got a space where I can show my work. That situation made me want to create a space devoted to art in all its forms, theater, performance, music, temporary and permanent exhibitions featuring the works of African and international artists. It’s also a venue for experiencing life and coming together in that particularly “African way,” a convivial venue, for hosting workshops and creating residencies for artists from all over. It’s neither a foundation nor a museum, but truly a place for life where artists take charge of themselves. I think that African countries ought to provide themselves with a greater number of artistic structures, in order to stimulate creativity and the desire for culture. There needs to be instruction in the visual arts, music and so on. From the earliest age on.

What are your inspirations and projects currently?
LIFE and its celebration remain my obsession, the source of my inspiration daily. My projects… they’re born and live from day to day. To be continued…

top / haut