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BARTHÉLÉMY TOGUO

STRANGE FRUIT


BARTHÉLÉMY TOGUO STRANGE FRUIT

Essay by Lwandile Fikeni


Human Feeding, 2016, acrylic on linen, 235.5 x 215cm


From Urban Requiem I, 2016, woodcut print on paper, 65 x 50cm


Barthélémy Toguo’s Strange Fruit and Our ‘Mimetic Desire’ for an Other LWANDILE FIKENI

Eighty-six years ago an angry mob of white folks broke into a jail in Marion, Indiana, pulled out two African-American men and lynched them in the town centre. This was in 1930 and the names of the two men who inspired Abel Meeropol’s terrifyingly pungent poem Bitter Fruit, which was later adapted into the song Strange Fruit by Billie Holiday, were Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith. What is little known about that evening is that there was a third man who narrowly escaped the lynching and his name was James Cameron. Then 16 years old, he survived to live to 92 years of age. When looking at Barthélémy Toguo’s Strange Fruit it is important to recall Cameron’s story, his life, for it completes the picture of that fateful night in the US Midwest, and gives insight into work which is filled with brutality, pain and suffering alongside hope for humanity and the possibility of freedom. The man who saved Cameron’s life was a white Marion resident. I state this to bring to the fore what writer and scholar Mahmood Mamdani discerned in South Africa’s struggle against apartheid: that to understand that bloody nightmare of racial enmity one

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should be careful of ascribing to one group the title of the perpetual perpetrator, and to the other the title of the perpetual victim. The perpetrator and the victim must be understood to exist within a single human entity. Only with time are the modalities of each of these qualities revealed, and only with time do they recede only to be revealed again. One ought then to refuse easy categorisations of human beings, to reject the expedient binary of good and evil, and to critically refute racialised and gendered forms of moral authority, especially in this post-woke, post-Black Lives Matter era. In this writing on Toguo’s work I do so in order to set the scene that best captures and complicates the nature and slant of this exhibition. It is with this in mind, then, that one should approach Toguo’s work. For if one refuses such an approach, one follows a unilinear narrative that seeks to narrow the understanding of the human interior into simplistic categories. These categories, I might add, only help to solidify the very same racist white supremacist ideas of humanity, namely, that one set of people are above the rest; that one set of people are universally ordained with the moral authority and vision 5


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Installation view with Look at Me! and, in foreground, Don’t Shoot, 2015, carved wood


for human civilisation; that, in fact, one set of people are the police and the other an undifferentiated mass of slovenly criminals, sans any human qualities. Quite frankly, if one has any appreciation of the messiness of existence and the vastness of the internal universe with which the human being has been generously endowed, one finds any and every oversimplification of this fact to be nothing more than political propaganda. And if art were mere political propaganda it would have to be relegated to advertising. Toguo’s Strange Fruit is a study of the anatomy of the human being under the astute eye of an artist concerned with the workings of the human mind, body and soul. He foregrounds the historical and the immediate while delving into the concealed and the covert in order to reveal the human condition as both sublime and grotesque. He attends to the immediate in the figurative red watercolours hanging on a dead and dismembered jacaranda tree. The dismemberment of the tree and its eerie watercolours with figures that allude to human and animal forms relate to some degree to the myths and rituals that society uses in its desire to create an Other or what René Girard terms ‘mimetic desire’.

This desire for an Other is central in the violence of racism and its two protagonists: colonialism (in Africa) and slavery (in America). Through the dismembered tree Toguo explores the cracks in the ‘seamless’ narratives of colonialism and slavery. The fractured tree able to hold up the works on paper, or to bear any fruit at all, is as unnatural as racism itself. What is bizarre is not merely that there hung these two men on that tree that fateful evening in the Midwest, but that those doing the hanging did so with a blind – if not erroneous – belief that they were white (therefore human) and the men were black (subhuman) when in fact the truth was quite different. Humanity does not have white people. White people are only an illusion, a mimetic desire to create an Other, and nothing more. To go back to Toguo’s Strange Fruit tree installation and the rituals that this project of Othering insists on, we must contrast the invisible mob implied in the installation with the very visible, very violent mob that embodies the chorus of the decline of the supremacy of the American white male and his desire for an Other in the election of Donald Trump as US president. With this new wave of white alt-right politics firmly in our view, 7


Toguo’s work is prescient. It demands that we study closely what it is that really hangs on that tree. One, black and brown lives hang on that tree; two, humanity hangs by those branches; three, a mirror reflecting the fear that cripples and subsequently emboldens racist white attitudes also hangs there, by a thin string. The rituals of maufacturing an Other by the breaking of black and brown bodies evidence the brokenness of those who wish to ‘make America white again’, to borrow from Toni Morrison’s short essay on the triumph of Trumpism in the recent US elections. Let us attend, then, to the translucent watercolours that construct the forms on paper. The very nature of these loose ink structures, taken with the thin strings that hang from the branches, gesture towards the instability resultant from the violent marginalisation of one race by the other, of one gender by another. While some of Toguo’s watercolours on paper depict human forms, others speak of animals, while others recall images from the slave archives. Interestingly, one might catch a glimpse of a smile – a deliberate mocking of the idea that some human beings believe they are more human than others when the evidence of 8

their acts is contrary to this fact, while those who know what is meant by the word ‘human’ simply smile at the absurdity of the former. And then there’s the chair in Spinning in the Air [p24]. This acrylic on linen painting is loaded with meaning for ‘the chair’ itself is thus loaded. On one hand, one might think of ‘the chair’ in which America has executed so many of its black citizens. One might think of the chair as alluding to some form of domestication, stability, a sense of home and permanence. To be the Other of this world is to literally, and figuratively, spin in the air, without a chair to sit on, without a place to call home. This state of liminality is further accentuated by the circular, freehand red lines that float and overwhelm the painting. To live without permanence is to endure an improvised existence. And to sit on that chair, if we are to recall it as a representation of execution, is to choose death. These red curlicues do not only point to the instability that the Other must certainly live with but also to the death of imagination in those who hold such rigid ideas of belonging, those who are able to claim borders and nation, when the entire world is in a whirl of globalisation and the potentiality of the creative


Installation view with Ouagadougou, January 15/2016 and “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday

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energies inherent in such an internationalist approach. The world, the chair seems to reproach, is too small, it is too narrow to contain the entire fulcrum of human existence and, as such, the world. And the artist refuses to take his seat at the table, as it were. He is content with ‘spinning in the air’, in being a world citizen, in embodying what it is to be a human being. There is more to being a human than the sum of one’s physical endowments and, therefore, spatial limitations. It is in Wait for Me [p24] that Toguo deals with this question through contrasting figuration with form. In the figure is implied social context and the immediacy of content. Here we find, again, those cursive strokes, that curl themselves on the figurative form and yet spill out into the black abyss beside it. By extending outside the immediately recognisable, Toguo is able to endow this particular painting with a depth that would otherwise have been missing. The looseness of his brush, which stains both the defined form and the undefined dark space, allows the mind to wander into its own internal consciouness. This way, Wait for Me becomes a sojourn into our interior selves. It is not the artist who is beckoning us to wait for him; it is rather 10

us, the viewers, who are calling for the artist to wait, for we are still shackled and obsessing over the physical dimension of what it is to be human. Wait for Me offers us a surface onto which we might draw some mimetic representationality, yet the artist goes beyond it and offers us more of the canvas on which we might explore ourselves and our consciousness. The abstract expressionism in the works in Strange Fruit find mimesis in the realism of the video Sugar Cane Sweat [p26] in which a man in white runs through a field of sugar cane. The piece recalls slaves who managed (and sometimes didn’t) to escape the plantation farms and run towards the north and, thus, freedom. In the act of running, of course, is implied a place one is running away from and the final destination ahead. This video, however, doesn’t deal with these ideas explicitly but rather seems focused on the act of running itself. Close-ups of the running man’s forehead, which is wet with sweat, his eyes that are often cast to the ground, his irregular breath, point us to the body and its power and fragility. In contemporary studies of society the body has taken up much of the cultural imagination. The body, as Joseph Gusfield points out, is the material


infrastructure from which culture and identity are manufactured. Although Toguo’s paintings and works on paper tend to be translucent and loose, they embody something concrete in society and in culture: the black body. The black body, like all bodies, sweats, it grows tired, it fears, it loves, it is cruel, it nurtures, it grieves. Unlike the mythologies from the racist alt-right which seek to erase the black body from humanity, Toguo – in Strange Fruit – thrusts it in the centre of society and global politics, from the racist anti-immigrant slogans of post-Brexit Europe to the violent triumphalism of Trumpists in the US, to the patriarchal misogynoir and homophobia in Africa. When we hang blacks in America or when we torture Muslims in France or when we jail homosexuals in Uganda or when we murder lesbians in Cape Town, a strange fruit is yielded. All these groups are defined by our Girardian desire of an Other and Toguo’s work reminds us that the violence necessitated by that very project of Othering is antithetical to the principles and values of humanity. A recurring motif of railway tracks on figurative forms is of particular curiosity to me. In Look at Me! [p17] the tracks are more pronounced and seem to run

along the length of the spine of the skeleton figure, climbing up to its cranium. Nails that recall torture are hammered into the skeleton and yet the painting screams ‘Look at me!’ The railway tracks gesture towards the Underground Railroad – the secret network of passageways and safehouses used by runaway slaves to reach the free north from slave plantations and slaveholding states. While the painting appears to refer and to speak to that historic moment, the fact that the artist builds it into the figure as a form of spine, appears to allude to the simple fact that freedom begins within ourselves. We all know that the racist isn’t free, but so isn’t the reactionary. True freedom, Toguo seems to suggest, is only possible if we delve inside ourselves and find the railways in our human anatomy that might lead us to our conscience, our consciousness and our ‘free north’.

→ Continued on p34

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“Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday, 2016, set of 12 watercolours on paper, 38 x 28cm each


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Strange Fruit IV, 2016, watercolour on paper, 113 x 100cm


Look at Me!, 2016, acrylic on linen, 235.5 x 209.5cm

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Strange Fruit I, 2016, watercolour on paper, 113 x 100cm


Transparent Mechanism, 2016, acrylic on linen, 203 x 159.5cm

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Explosion of Bubbles, 2016, acrylic on linen, 203 x 159.5cm


Strange Fruit II, 2016, watercolour on paper, 113 x 100cm

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Strange Fruit III, 2016, watercolour on paper, 113 x 100cm


The Solitary Gardener in the Baril, 2016, acrylic on linen, 235.5 x 215cm

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Installation view with, from left: Spinning in the Air, 2016, acrylic on linen, 203 x 159.5cm; Wait for Me, 2016, acrylic on linen, 203 x 159.5cm

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Sugar Cane Sweat, 2016, HD video, duration 2 min 46 sec


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Life Labyrinth, 2016, acrylic on linen, 203 x 159.5cm


Ouagadougou, January 15/2016, 2016, acrylic on linen, 266 x 210cm

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URBAN REQUIEM


→ Continued from p11

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In Urban Requiem, an installation comprising print, sculpture and engraving which Toguo exhibited on All the World’s Futures at the 56th Venice Biennale, the artist further explores the theme of our desire for an Other through the use of large wooden stamps that draw and re-draw boundaries that define and designate an us and a them. In ‘The Scapegoating Machine’, an essay by Geoff Shullenberger, academic and lecturer at New York University, the author describes the manufacturing of an Other and its attendant violence, thus: ‘Humans desire things not out of any intrinsic or autonomous volition, but because others desire those things, and we unconsciously mimic them. By having or seeming to have the object of desire, the Other makes us desire it, but also makes us resent the Other’s having it, instead of us. The model becomes an obstacle. This is why, in Girard’s account, mimetic desire and violence are inextricable. All desire is potentially a source of conflict, especially when the desire is for something intangible and perhaps illusory (such as honor, status, respect, and recognition – all fundamental to social life). The less concrete the object, in fact, the larger the rival looms, and the greater is the potential for violence.’ In creating these borders that define the subaltern while simultaneously confining the oppressor, we are compelled to ask: what is it that the so-called Other possesses that the aggressor wishes to obtain? And the uncomfortable answer is: power. If the dominant layer of society wills power through economic and political domination, the dominated wills her power through moral authority and conscience. The artist reveals these sites of conflict through another platform of mimesis and imitation: the social media hashtag. Even 34

more poignant is that these stamps are shaped in human form and are engraved in reverse so that they may be stamped onto an external surface. This has a poetic effect of imprinting one’s own consciousness onto the next person. We Are Other, as one of the stamps proclaims, is not merely internalised by the subject of the stamps but must necessarily be engraved within the psyche of the stamper. What this means, then, is that our manufacturing of an Other has less to do with the next person but rather comes from an internal feeling of inferiority, inhumanity, and the need to assert ourselves as the absolute norm, when we are anything but. It is also curious that the installation elements are in the form of a pyramidic hierarchy, with the main human-like figure/s occupying the top shelf while other human-like stamps fall all over each other in the bottom rungs. I will venture to say that this is not merely an aesthetic, even curatorial consideration, but rather speaks to the heart of Toguo’s study of the human. This upright human being at the top of the pile reminds one of Thomas Sankara’s programme of de-colonisation in his native Burkina Faso. Burkina Faso means ‘the land of upright/honest people’. Racists aren’t honourable people. Warmongers aren’t honourable people. Trump and his alt-right followers aren’t honourable and neither are Islamophobes and misogynists. The same is applicable to xenophobes in South Africa, who would set alight their own brother and sister in the name of the country’s colonial borders. It is these borders between people, be it race, or nationality, or sexuality, that perpetuate our violent desire for an Other and permeate our very social existence with terrifying results that can only yield bitter fruit from our collective human existence.


Urban Requiem I, 2016, steel ladder, 10 iroko wooden stamps, 235 x 180 x 67cm; 10 woodblock prints, 65 x 50cm each, overleaf

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Urban Requiem I, 2016


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Urban Requiem I, 2016


Urban Requiem II, 2016, steel ladder, 10 iroko wooden stamps, 235 x 180 x 67cm; 10 woodblock prints, 65 x 50cm each, overleaf

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Urban Requiem II, 2016


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Urban Requiem II, 2016


Urban Requiem, 2015, installation view, All the World’s Futures, 56th Venice Biennale

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Barthélémy Toguo was born in 1967 in Cameroon and lives between Paris and Bandjoun, where he has a centre for artistic exchange between local and international artists. Solo shows have taken place at institutions including Carré Sainte-Anne, Montpellier, France; Uppsala Art Museum, Sweden; Musée d’art contemporain de Sainte Etienne, France; La Verrière by Hermès, Brussels, Belgium; Fundaçao Gulbenkian, Lisbon; and Palais de Tokyo, Paris. Recent group shows include the Marcel Duchamp Prize nominee exhibition at the Centre Pompidou, Paris (2016); All the World’s Futures, 56th Venice Biennale (2015); 11th Dakar Biennale (2014); Body Language, Studio Museum in Harlem, New York (2013); La Triennale: Intense Proximity, Palais de Tokyo, Paris (2012); 11th Havana Biennial (2012); A terrible beauty is born, 11th Biennale de Lyon, France; 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 Marcel Duchamp Prize in 2016. Lwandile Fikeni is an award-winning arts journalist, critic and essayist. He lives in Johannesburg.

CAPE TOWN Buchanan Building 160 Sir Lowry Road Woodstock 7925 PO Box 616 Green Point 8051 T +27 (0)21 462 1500 JOHANNESBURG 62 Juta Street Braamfontein 2001 Postnet Suite 281 Private Bag x9 Melville 2109 T +27 (0)11 403 1055 info@stevenson.info www.stevenson.info Catalogue 87 December 2016 © 2016 for work: the artist © 2016 for text: the author Front cover Human Feeding, 2016, detail Back cover Urban Requiem II, 2016, detail Design Gabrielle Guy Photography Mario Todeschini, Anthea Pokroy, Nina Lieska; p43 © Filippo Cavalli, courtesy of Galerie Lelong Printing Hansa Print, Cape Town


Barthelemy Toguo: Strange Fruit  

Stevenson catalogue 87

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