In his first-ever solo exhibition at a German gallery, the Cameroonian artist Barthélémy Toguo critically examines the political climate of the globalised present and the psychological implications of the human condition. The exhibition includes key historical works dating back to 1999 as well as brand new works.
Addressing social and environmental issues, his works are fuelled by his personal experience as an African in Europe. Based between France and his birthplace of Cameroon, Toguo responds to issues affecting the Global North and the Global South. His studies of urgent challenges – such as discrimination, alienation and cross-border relations – transcend cultural distinctions. Besides installations encompassing sculpture and video, he integrates enigmatic watercolours into his output, which figure as poetic vessels of hope amid the social and political critique articulated in his wider oeuvre. Fraught with allegorical significance derived from indigenous myths and rituals, they inquire into the foundations of human existence and dare to envision the body’s inward psyche.
In the exhibition, Toguo presents several large- and midsize paper works. The watercolour drawings on paper, many of them mounted on canvas, unfold fantasies of a human and vegetative metamorphosis and create a living symbiosis between man and nature. The translucent colours convey an expression of vigour as well as fragility, its form spreading graphically across the white and strangely cathartic surface. Proliferating entrails, as vital as they are brutal, grow out of the human body, breaking physical and mental boundaries. In being both deformed and enhanced, human existence appears at once grotesque and sublime.
Two new works on canvas show Toguo’s interest in vegetation, especially the palm tree. “In my works,” the artist explains “the palm tree is represented as a protector, like an umbrella, a tree of peace, a tree of nourishment.” The choice of metaphors is rooted in the palm tree’s significance in his native Cameroon, where local resources are essential to traditional cuisine and medicine.
Toguo’s porcelain vases are dedicated to two epidemics currently threatening the contemporary world and Africa in particular: AIDS and the Ebola virus. The monumental vases, produced in China, show visual representations of the pathogenic cells as seen the cells as seen through a microscope. These pattern drawings are combined with self-portraits of Toguo, vegetative forms and bats, which are carriers and distributors of the viruses. The vases also symbolise humankind’s ambivalent relationship with water, which, though purifying and regenerative is also a source of contamination when polluted.
In his installation ‘Strange Fruit’, Toguo addresses recent upsurges of racialized violence. The title of the work is taken from a song first recorded by jazz musician Billie Holiday in 1939. The lyrics, describing black bodies in the aftermath of a lynching, are a protest against racism, drawing attention to it as a corruption of nature that culminates in death. The tree installation thus becomes an allegory for racism. Toguo presents this social stain as complex but conquerable; it has the capacity to grow and produce ‘strange fruit’, but it can also be cut down. Like the song, the installation and the paintings in this exhibition combine imagery of viscera and vegetation. The recurrent depictions of tendrils reaching deep into bodies read as both vital and violent.
When asked about the violence and terrorist attacks on public, Toguo responded, ‘How could I not be sensitive to the many situations of distress that our world meets today?’ Toguo’s art is not just one of activism however, it is also infused with a critical eye and a sense of wonder.
About the Artist:
Barthélémy Toguo was born in 1967 in Cameroon and lives between Paris and Bandjoun. He trained at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Abidjan, Ivory Coast; the École Supérieure d’Art in Grenoble, France; and the Kunstakademie, Düsseldorf, Germany. He founded Bandjoun Station, a centre for artistic exchange between local and international artists featuring residencies, an exhibition space, a library and plantations in Bandjoun, Cameroon.
He has presented solo shows at institutions including the Parrish Art Museum, New York; Uppsala Art Museum, Sweden; Musée d’art contemporain de Sainte Etiennne, France; La Verrière by Hermès, Brussels, Belgium; and Fundaçao Gulbenkian, Lisbon. Notable group shows include Paris7th Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale, Japan (2018); Homo Planta at Fondation Blachère (2018); The Red Hour, the 13th Dakar Biennale (2018); Art/Afrique, le nouvel atelier at Fondation Louis Vuitton (2017); All The World’s Futures at the Venice Biennale (2015); Body Language at the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York (2013); La Triennale: Intense Proximity, Palais de Tokyo, Paris (2012); the 11th Havana Biennial (2012); A terrible beauty is born, 11th Biennale de Lyon, France; the 18th Sydney Biennale (2011); and Laughing in a Foreign Language, Hayward Gallery, London (2008).
In 2011, Toguo was made a Knight of the Order of Arts and Literature in France. He was shortlisted for the Prix Marcel Duchamp in 2016. His work is in the collections of the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Studio Museum in Harlem, New York; Musée d’art contemporain, Lyon; Fondation Louis Vuitton; and the Kunstsammlung der Stadt Düsseldorf, among others.