Barthelemy Toguo – Bandjoun Station

Barthélémy Toguo

Bandjoun Station: Culture and Creativity as Vectors of Development

Day 2, Saturday, September 17, 2011, 14:30 – 16:00

It is important for me to tell you the year I was born, because in the course of the whole story I am going to tell you, you will see that the sum of this long journey of exile is the foundation of my work. I was born in April 1967. At that time my father saw how his boss, who was a white man, was sending his kids to school and decided to do the same with me. I went to a Western school, and when you go to school in Africa, it is because you want to be the splitting image of the white man. Unfortunately this education only opens doors for positions in the administrative sector. You can put on a tie and be the head of a department, which will make people say, “He succeeded, he is the splitting image of a white man.” Once I finished school, I decided not to enter the civil service, but rather to go to art school and become an artist. My family took it as a stab in the back, but I was grown up and knew what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to collaborate with the system because if I worked as a journalist, for the police, or went to medical school, I would have been working for the government. So I decided to work during summer and I bought a plane ticket and went to the Ivory Coast. I didn’t know how to survive there; I just wanted to enroll in a school of arts. When I was in high school, I discovered the drawings of Goya and Titian and it gave me the urge to be like them, an artist.

So I started art school in the Ivory Coast but I had no money to sustain myself. A Cameroonian compatriot working at a bank helped me out, and I started classes at the art school. During my first years there, we did copies of masterpieces because the school was following the model of the French academy of the 1960s and 1970s. After four years of only doing copies, I was enthusiastic and I wondered if there was another type of teaching elsewhere. I wanted to go to France, so I applied to three schools over there, without knowing what kind of teaching was given there and I was accepted at one. It was an avant-garde school. I took all the classes possible, from video art to photography and performance, and added this to the classical teaching that I already received. When I arrived at the school it was very difficult because the teachers thought: “Oh, this poor little African, he will be lost in contemporary art!” During three months I was a pariah, a forgotten student in the school. I had to take courage and invest myself and invest in what I was discovering. For four years, I worked with these new media. I did a first series of works that I called Une autre vie, a work in which I staged myself in the woods to show the overexploitation of the forest in Africa. In 1993, I began politically involved work. Then I got a scholarship to Düsseldorf’s Kunstakademie in Germany and the teaching there made me discover the great professors, the great masters of contemporary art such as Jannis Kounellis and Klaus Rinke. This is the summary of my whole education. I had four years at the school in Abidjan, four at Grenoble, two in Düsseldorf, which makes a total of ten years during which I learned different techniques, what brought me to have a very polyvalent work where drawing, sculpture, photo, performance will have its place.

This need to constantly travel will position me in what we called transculturality, because I discovered the Ivory Coast, which is a different culture from Cameroon, France, which is totally different, and Germany yet another culture, more rigid but very professional. This exile, this trajectory means that I consider myself as a sculpture of transculturality. The sum of the works I produce is inspired by what I discover along my journey and in my travels. For example in 1996 I started the series of performances Transit. It is a series of performances that happen at airports, train, stations, and borders. This idea comes from the fact that I noticed that at each journey I was always controlled by the police. I sculpted three suitcases in wood and I took the plane in Cameroon to go to Paris. I wanted to give the opportunity to the border police to work. As I landed, the customs office noticed me and asked if he could check the suitcases. They searched through my luggage for two hours, but I wasn’t allowed to film. I looked at them exercising their talent of controllers and this performance gave me the idea to continue to make provocations in airports. For the second performance, I got dressed as a dangerous man with a cartridge belt, which made me highly noticeable. I did a series of performances with a hat whereon it was written “X” and with my residence permit where I am all black. I knew it would create a tension between the police and me. What pleases me a lot in transit it is that I continue the transit but I do investigations in places to see the behavior of the people. I also wanted to display social discrimination. I dressed up as a street sweeper of the city of Paris and I bought a first class train ticket. As soon as I sat down on the train, I saw people stand up and change places to go to sit somewhere else. And that is what I liked, because those people stood up because the place of the sweeper was not there but rather outside. The ticket collector asked me to get off the train. He said the police will come to take me but I didn’t get off. I asked him why I had to go off. He said that I wasn’t allowed to travel in first class dressed like that, even if there is no dress code on the train.

Transit 5

Barthélémy Toguo, Transit 5, 1997, Düsseldorf airport, Germany. Courtesy of the artist.

I live in a universe where people have assumptions and I file through this transculturality. In 1995, when I arrived in Germany, I was housed in a university compound and started to miss Africa. I decided to create a series of drawings that I called Das Bett (1995) the bed, because I am far away in Germany and Africa was in my head. I decided to do these drawings where I portray African universes, where animals appear. In 1998, my family was thinking that I would never get married, since I was 30 years old and still single. In Africa, men and women get married very young. Soon the fact that I live in a different way, in a different country starts a conflict between my family and I. That is why I did the series Baptism, a series to answer to them. It showed that I had a good sexual life, I was happy, that I was neither ill nor impotent.

In the mean time, I had started a series of very political works, a series of performances that I called Climbingdown (2005). I was living in a poor neighborhood with other immigrants in the outskirts of Paris. I did this performance to show the bad conditions in which they were living.  At the same time, in 2002, there is the problem of the stranger, the foreigner raised in France. I decided to create a territory using plastic ribbon. It is a territory forbidden for the Other. In Africa, people project images of the West, they want to go there because they think a better life awaits them, but they are not allowed to go. But they are not going to find a better life there. It is also like this boat that I created, a boat where Africans take their belongings and try to cross a dangerous sea. Why do I have this need to show this problematic of exile?  Because a lot of Africans die during the crossing of the sea and this is told in a story that I explain here, that is called Innocent sinners (2006), a construction of a big boat that contains the narration of their lives. But when they come out from this boat, they are totally exhausted.

In that same period, in 2002, I listened a lot to the radio. I knew that prisoners were being tortured in a prison in Turkey. I was in Spain at the time and decided to do a work with that. I dressed up as a military officer and asked for irons. I plugged them in, but at the hotel I first drew a human figure. I want to show something to the public that is happening elsewhere. I heated the iron up for a long time and then I applied it on the drawing, that started to set on fire, to smoke, and this body starts to burn. Some people in the crowd started to cry and I just wanted to show how people are tortured. The information interests me a lot in my work, to be connected each time with the radio, newspapers, is really interesting for me. It is there, I learnt that prisoners were still suffering in Guantanamo and I did this performance where I am dressed up as a prisoner and suffered on bricks. This performance lasted from three in the afternoon until nine that evening. It was to show the seriousness of the situation and myself in pain. Once again, I am in Europe and the situation of Africa interests me. I have the impression that in Africa they are in a boxing ring and that they spend time fighting each other, so that’s why I did this performance where I show what will remain after the fight. There is no food left and they can only eat the stones that remain like fragments from this fight they had together. In my multiple travels I discover ten years later that I have so many stamps in my passport that I think that this passport could be a work of art. I will show how some people find in exile the difficulty of moving. The small passport became an installation of three huge tables. I built giant stamps with heavy wood to underline the complexity of administration and immigration and its effect on human lives. And all of that was at the same time a sculpture and a print that will be translated by a performance, the same installation. There are around 31 stamps and the performance was carried out in Berlin, one work that is first a sculpture, then becomes a print and finally also becomes a performance. This is an example of the richness of what I learned from the variety of teaching at the three schools I attended. I went to Martinique and I find that a lot of the Africans there and those of mixed race have a lot of problems on their mind. Because their ancestors were treated as slaves and they are today a French department, they don’t know how to position themselves: are they independent, are they Africans? During a two-week workshop I found that the students weren’t expressing themselves and I stopped everything that I was going to do and I decided to start a series of staged photographs that I called Take Your Place. I make a composition. I ask each one to get dressed and take on a profession they would have liked to do. One girl decides to play a prostitute, another a civil servant, another a military officer, another an independence fighter, another a rapper and so on. One’s a businessman, a few are religious people, Jehovah’s Witnesses. So, all of a sudden the students were motivated to work again and to affirm themselves. I continued this process in France where they don’t have the same problems but I asked them to take on a role too. In 2005, I still have my eyes on Africa, I decide to show the big part of responsibility of the African leaders in the continents. I again decide to create a series of photographs where I get dressed up as a president who holds speeches but the country doesn’t move forward. Each time they do speeches about what they are going to do but never do what they say they will. I called it the series Stupid African Presidents. For example one contributes to the exploitation of the forest (president pictured with this chainsaw) and also a president that contributes to the overexploitation of oil etc. But in 2004 I had the urge to leave my studio in Paris and to go elsewhere. There is a quote by Kant that really struck during my final year of school that I read as if he was teaching artists a lesson, to say that the artist has to consciously take a role in society. He says that art is not supposed to be an exclusive mode of pleasure for the producer himself/herself. Art is rather a medium to reach out and move people to the maximum amount. To touch and stir up different reactions by presenting them privileged images of human suffering for example. I was preparing a big show at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris. I was struggling with the fact that I was supposed to show my own work while always being conscious of the fact that there were people in the world that had more of a right to talk and express themselves. Less than ten days before the opening I decided to take my bags and go to Afghanistan. But, I was not able to go, because right at that time there had been a bomb that had exploded so flights were cancelled. So instead I went to Serbia where there was the conflict between the Kosovars and the Serbs. I arrived in Serbia and in my hotel room a series came about, which are post cards. [Head above Water, Serbia and Kosovo Series, 2004] So after having added drawing to the postcards I decided to go to a school where the children were born after the war and invited them to use the postcards to write messages. I did not ask them to write about what they saw, what I had drawn, but really to put a message that they wanted to add, maybe also a dream they had. And I informed them that their message would be read by many people all over the world. So, they did it as if they were writing to my personal address in Paris. So I collected all these postcards and went to the post office. And asked them to just stamp the postcards. It turned out to be difficult, but I was able to negotiate and get the postcards stamped. It was a sign that there had been a “real” correspondence between us. I then crossed the border to go to Kosovo, which is protected by the UN. I travelled to those cut off regions where people were suffering. I asked them also to participate and really create a message in their native language, where they are able to fully master the formulations of their expressions. I brought them back to the same space, of the Serbian and the Kosovo. The stamps are imprinted from both sites. I returned to Paris and exhibited the works with a translation. So the people were able to explore what was going on in the minds of the Serbians and Kosovars. I abstain from judging their respective positions. What I really wanted was just to give them a platform, to give the world to the people.

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Barthélémy Toguo, Head Above Water – Rwanda, 2011, ensemble of postcards, 130 x 208 cm. Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Bandjoun Station / Photo Fabrice Gibert (click on image for hi-res view)

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Barthélémy Toguo, Head Above Water – Mexico, 2008, ensemble of postcards, 130 x 208 cm. Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Bandjoun Station / Photo Fabrice Gibert (click on image for hi-res view)

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Barthélémy Toguo, Head above water, Auschwitz-Birkenau (detail), Poland, 2008, ensemble of postcards, 130 x 208 cm. Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Bandjoun Station / Photo Fabrice Gibert. (click on image for hi-res view)

I don’t judge people’s point of view. The concept is to allow people in the world to express themselves. Then I went to Nigeria, because I thought that Lagos is a capital that has 20 million people suffering. It is one of the most dangerous cities in the world and I asked myself why Mexico City, Johannesburg, and Lagos are some of the world’s most dangerous cities. I decided to travel there and to allow the people there their own word. People talk, they express their dreams, their despair, their suffering.

Daniel Kurjakovic: What kind of people were they? Where did you meet the people?

BT: They were people with different backgrounds. Street people, workers, professors, and intellectuals. I had to do 96 postcards. In South Africa I discovered other problems: For example, young white men feel that they are Africans but cannot find their place. Sometimes some people will talk about South Africans suffering with AIDS, sometimes it is people that will talk about exile with the situation of Zimbabwe, with Mugabe the dictator, which makes people flee the country.  In Mexico I gave the word to the people and each time I move in the world, the situation of Japan interests me because of the Second World War, the bomb of Hiroshima and I went there to give the word to people that I found on at the memorial site. I found out that the memorial in Hiroshima is always full of children because Japan decided to create educational trips to educate children about the story. And what young people wrote on the cards were messages of peace. In 2005 I worked with young French second generation immigrants born in the suburbs of Paris. At the same time the whole world came to the neighborhood of St. Denis and I went there as a “journalist” to allow the young immigrants to express themselves, to say what their problems were. There were happy to write and to speak. In this project, there’s always collaboration. First there is my intervention, the drawing that I apply on the postcard, and then the collaboration with the people I meet. As I know that the real problem is the recognition of the problem on a state level, I intervene with the colours of France, because the young people want to say, “We are from here”. I put the blue as someone who want to be from there, the white as a space that is not recognized, the red to signalize, “Stop, you aren’t from here.” So we have blue-white-red. So in this work series the real problems of France are discovered.

Those involved were young people between 10 and 20 years of age. They had difficulties writing and made many grammatical and orthographical mistakes. The children are not correctly educated, some don’t even go to school. This is the series I called Head above Water because people are fed up, they want to talk.

The actual trajectory of my work is exemplary of trans-culturality without my necessarily positing a concept of trans-culturality. I was born in Cameroon, I went to study in France and Germany and I have travelled to places such as Johannesburg, Hiroshima, Kosovo, Lagos, and Havana. This very strong urge to move is essentially very deeply linked to my practice. Overall I think there is a twenty-first century phenomenon linked to travel as a more common form of experience, the exile in constant movement. Independently of race, people move both virtually and literally in very different kinds of ways and at great velocity. At the same time, I have the feeling that I belong a community. A community that is clearly linked to what we call the “Third World.” In my widespread travels, I define my role and connect myself to the idea of Diaspora. I want to underline the responsibility of every diasporic African. I really insist on the fact that they have to redistribute parts of their knowledge to the people regardless of the domain, be it education, sport, health, culture or economics. They have to give back a part of their knowledge to the people. That is why I told myself, I have competence in the arts and I told myself that I have to do something for Africa, for the development of that continent and I had to show how this project could be a factor of development because the public powers don’t think that art can be a factor of development. So I created a cultural project. I am obsessed by these stories even when I am in bed at night. One morning I decided to take my luggage and go to work in Africa. I left for a family plot of land. I decided to give work to young people who were in the street, desperate to work for a cultural project. I used the money that I earned working in the art world, in a sense to give back this money to art. But as I know that there is also a problem of food and self-sufficiency in Africa, I decided to link a cultural project to an agricultural project: to have something to eat first and then to make art. But there was a motivation behind that: my head. I noticed that what the Westerns were calling primitive art, I was calling classical African art. I realized during my stay in Europe that most of this collection of classical African art was in the Western countries. It had been stolen, pillaged, taken without authorization, but this heritage is still located in museums in the West. As a contemporary artist today I am particularly concerned by the fact that our production still remains in western museums and collections. I think it is a double loss for our continent, again due to our African leaders.

Very much also related to the African leaders that still don’t know what the artists are doing. The motivation to create the Bandjoun Station project was therefore double-sided. On the one hand, it was to create a residence for artists to provide an opportunity to young artists from Africa and the rest of the world to create. Not to do a ghetto, but also to create space for the permanent collection issued from the exchange made with my artists colleagues that I met through biennials, shows etc. But it is not a project that is a copy of an art center in the Western sense. It is a living space where artists, writers, and actors from all over the world will come to create projects with the local community. The building site is finished since 2008 and as the building is really beautiful compared to the other houses of the small city, I decided to organize some open house days to make it easier for the local community to get involved with it. I have a movie to show you that shows how the Africans were happy to participate in the actual construction of building. They were happy to know that they will have visits from other people, from other cultures. The movie lasts 26 minutes. The whole movie is not only about the constructions. It starts with the construction, then it shifts to the city to show how the community lives. For example we see how they participate in funeral ceremonies with a Christian practice that is an element from colonization. We show how the people burry their dead, after you see the market, with people living from the street market. Then we come back to the construction and then back to the city and so on. We finish with a journey about the agricultural project I created, seeing the avocados, the bananas and corn to eat.