Pascale Marthine Tayou balances personal with political
Adopted Gentenaar Pascale Marthine Tayou confronts small and big themes head-on in his new exhibition – from his childhood fears of the empty blackboard to the long shadow of slavery in the US
“The exhibition is more or less a self-portrait of the human race,” he says, in a typically sweeping statement. “That’s to say, I position myself as the representative of the human race, a race that is turning progressively against itself.”
The result is art that is personal, particularly when it comes to his African roots, while addressing big themes such as the environment, religion, power and identity.
Tayou (pictured) was born and raised in the central African country of Cameroon, studying law to please his parents before becoming a self-taught artist. His international career began in the mid-1990s, taking off in 2002 when he participated in the Documenta 11 exhibition in Kassel, Germany. Subsequent appearances at the Venice Biennale cemented his reputation.
Instead of gravitating to one of art’s international capitals, like Berlin, Paris or New York, he settled in Ghent. He first got to know the city in 1997, when he was invited to participate in a group show at SMAK, the museum for contemporary art.
He liked the atmosphere and returned to the city several times in subsequent years. It was also in Ghent that he met his wife, the future fashion designer Jo De Visscher. After living in Bonn and Brussels, they set up home in Ghent in 2009.
Bright lights, small city
Suggestions that Ghent is an odd choice for a French-speaking artist with an international reputation are briskly dismissed. “I think it’s the centre of the world,” Tayou says. “It’s from here that I see the world, that I admire it, that I can put some distance between myself and the events that take place around me.”
I think Ghent is the centre of the world
I must look sceptical, since he goes on to explain that Ghent may need a little time to rise to this ambition. “All centres of the world start out on the periphery. They turn themselves into centres of the world, and I want to participate in the fabrication of a Ghent that is also a centre of the world.”
Fabrication is the right word. His studio, where we are sitting, occupies a former metal works in the Sint-Amandsberg district. Its rooms are stacked with the found objects that go into Tayou’s work, from African drums and carved figures, to cooking pots and gourds. Elsewhere there is work in progress, while completed pieces stand in open packing cases or hang from the roof.
The current exhibition, Boomerang, is an expanded version of a show that had its debut earlier this year at London’s high-profile Serpentine Sackler Gallery. Transferring from this compact space to the roomier halls of Bozar means more work could be included and, although some of the intensity is lost, the range of media and materials is dizzying.
Like a serpent
There are photographs and videos, framed fabrics and graffiti re-imagined in neon light. Pipes snake along the walls, accompanied by hand-written comments on pollution black spots around the world. There are piles of painted cobblestones, cracked mirrors, stacks of cooking pots, figurines and fetishes.
Tayou’s large constructions are the most impressive, particularly “Africonda”, which greets visitors as they step through Bozar’s front door. A brightly coloured knitted snake sits in a vast coil on top of a pedestal of wooden stakes (pictured above). Embroidered masks are caught in its embrace. A bale of hay concealed within releases a powerful scent.
This is a commentary on the way outsiders have cast Africa as a romantic, highly colourful place. “Some Africans are surprised when they discover this reading, while others live with it and even come to believe that they are really colourful and romantic,” Tayou explains. “Africa is like a serpent that someone has invented that is very pretty, and that bites its own tail. It is caught in its own trap.”
Equally bold statements can be found in “Coton tiges”, a vast cloud of cotton suspended from the ceiling, pierced through with wooden stakes. This refers back to US slavery and the cotton fields. “Our Traditions” also hangs from the ceiling, a dense mass of palm brooms, horsetails with beaded handles, gourds and glass heads suspended from an iron grid.
Glass figures are a Tayou trademark. Modelled on traditional wooden figures, the change in material makes them transparent, ghostly and fragile. Yet they still carry a burden, laden down with merchandise in “Les Sauveteurs”, or caked in chocolate in the “Poupées Pascale”.
For me it’s an act of revenge on a certain kind of education
You will also see a lot of “colonists”, thin stick-like figures initially carved as souvenirs for Africa’s occupiers but since reappropriated and turned out for tourists. This bright cast of characters appears in many of Tayou’s assemblages, while giant versions of them stand guard over Bozar’s Horta Hall.
The impact of these large pieces is immediate, but there is also a power in Tayou’s more understated work, such as the “Chalk” and “Charcoal” series. These fill frames with pieces of coloured chalk or charcoal to give a textured, abstract surface, broken occasionally with small embedded objects or numbers written black-on-black.
The idea harks back to Tayou’s school days and the terror of the empty blackboard. In contrast to the discipline of white chalk, coloured chalk was a joyful release: not just to write and draw with, but also to play with, since ends of coloured chalk were used in games like marbles.
Replacing the blackboard entirely with coloured chalk, or the paper with charcoal, takes back the power. “For me it’s an act of revenge on a certain kind of education, but it’s also a way of showing the origin of what I have become today,” Tayou says. “Chalk and charcoal are also universal. It’s not a case of north or south; who doesn’t know chalk?”
Until 20 September at Bozar, Ravensteinstraat 23, Brussels
More visual arts this week
Mijn Vlakke Land (My Flat Country)
Mijn Vlakke Land examines ideas of the Flemish landscape through the eyes of 50 photographers from Belgium and abroad, with work dating from 1856 to the present (pictured). FoMu, Antwerp’s museum of photography, describes the result as “more a hymn to the romantic landscapes of our hearts and imaginations than to the actual Flemish countryside”. Until 4 October, FoMu, Waalsekaai 47, Antwerp
M Museum in Leuven is devoting its latest show to the Tervuren School, a group of artists that gathered around Hippolyte Boulenger in the 1870s to explore painting in the open air. Pitched as the missing link between romanticism and impressionism, the museum says they redefined Belgian landscape forever. Until 13 September, M Museum, L Vanderkelenstraat 28, Leuven
Henri-Victor Wolvens: From Darkness to Light
Henri-Victor Wolvens stars at Elsene Museum in particular his bright paintings inspired by the North Sea. Close to James Ensor and Constant Permeke, there are traces of inspiration from both painters in Wolvens’ work. The museum also has a more general show of Belgian landscapes, with work by Ensor, Leon Spilliaert, René Magritte and Fernand Khnopff ,amongst others. Until 20 September, Elsene Museum, Jean Van Volsemstraat 71, Brussels
Photo by Ben Pruchnie / Getty Images for Serpentine Galleries
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