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Interview with Barthélemy Toguo (By David Simo)
Barthélemy Toguo, who is a multidisciplinary artist is always looking for ways to make the public notice tiny absurdities, and in 1996 he produced a multidisciplinary expo based on his personal experience with customs and exile; a provocative probe into the experiences of Africans in airports, train and bus stations, as well as check points.
He is not part of those artists who are obsessed by their “Africaness” because he agrees with Wole Soyinka who says “a tiger does not proclaim its Tigritude” and he considers himself an artist of the world and wants to create work which would touch an Asian as much as it would a South American.
His challenge of the notion of an African Pavilion during the Venice Biennale 2007 was highly mediatised and put him at loggerheads with artists who didn’t understand his aversion for the ghettoization of African art by Western critics. Toguo studied in the framework of a DAAD scholarship as well at the Kunstakademie of Düsseldorf . In 2013 Toguo founded the center of cultural and artistic exchange “Bandjoun Station” in his home village.
You live on several continents and speak several languages, the most surprising of all being perhaps German? Could you tell us a bit about your background and what binds you to Germany?
When I was in High School, I had to make a choice between German and Spanish. I chose the first. Many people found Spanish easy and headed for it. I therefore made the difficult choice! At the end of high school, I went to Côte d'Ivoire, where I studied at the École Supérieure des Beaux-Art (Higher Institution of Fine Arts); and then in France in Grenoble, at the Graduate School of Art. As I loved German, I jumped on the opportunity offered me by the DAAD through a scholarship to go to Germany. That is how I found myself in Düsseldorf. My integration there was easy. The DAAD, that financed my studies, enabled me to deepen my German in Marburg before going to Düsseldorf.
Why Côte d'Ivoire in the first place? What did you get from this stage?
Because there was the INA (Institut National des Arts) at the Ecole Supérieure des Beaux-Art in Côte d'Ivoire! The word 'Fine Art' fascinated me. I wanted to attend a school of artistic training. It did not exist in Cameroon. Travelling out of Cameroon therefore resulted from the observation of a lack! I financed my departure to Côte d'Ivoire. I worked to finance my studies. I passed the entrance examination and received a scholarship in my second year (1989-1993). Then I went for the second cycle which enabled me to become a High School Fine Arts teacher after 5 years of studies.
What did the idea of Fine Arts represent in your imagination? What was the motivation?
Many chose their profession for the prestige that comes with it or because one could earn a lot of money. I believe that one must love his job. So my choice was the result of a lot of passion. I was not really concerned about the financial part, and of course many people do not understand my choice, but I wanted a job in which I could thrive and grow.
And after Côte d'Ivoire, how did you arrive in France?
In Côte d'Ivoire, I requested that my scholarship be transferred to France. I am among the last people to have benefited from the support of the Cameroonian State. When the State of Cameroon could no longer finance scholarships abroad, a flight ticket was offered to all scholarship recipients to return home. So I went back to Cameroon, but thanks to the support of my family and through my personal means, I was able to return to France. I then studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Grenoble.
Did your stay abroad change your life?
Yes, I first acquired a very classical and academic knowledge that enabled me to master drawing in Abidjan. In France, I entered the world of Contemporary Arts. In Côte d'Ivoire, we had training programmes in Art dating back to the 1960s. It was very useful to me: the sense of observation, the capacity to reproduce reality. Later it was contemporary Art that taught me how to think of the world, how to create ideas with contemporary forms and current resources: working with video, performances, using computers. I wanted to go further after Grenoble. This is when I truly became professional. It is this journey that made me the person that I am today.
And what do you answer those who tell you that this path has distanced you from yourself?
It is false! I stayed myself! I learnt several approaches, but I remained the same in my feelings, my passions.
How do people look at you?
I think that people see in me first of all someone who is sensitive to contemporary issues but especially someone committed, who addresses the issues of borders, exile and displacement.
These themes are indeed very present in your work. Are they your personal experiences?
Partly! The notion of exile is inherent in our society. The world runs at lightning speed and people want to travel and see this world and if possible at its own pace, to register in its movement. But I do not limit myself to geographical movement, I also consider virtual exile that is standard practice and that does not annul economic concerns or the dreams of an El Dorado.
Do these people who travel change with the world?
Yes, exactly! We sometimes want to resist, but can anyone seriously resist? We are gulped! One wonders how the people made it in the past!
What are your plans?
Firstly, share what I have gained as experience in my career; give back to others what Art has given me. I speak of generosity and virtue, values missing in our world today. This is rendered by an investment in a continent that needs its Diaspora.
This Diaspora must be able to share all its wealth with its community. My wish is to develop our continent. As for me, as an artist, it is to open Art to younger generations, giving them space to create; help new talents emerge in all artistic fields, hence the creation of the Bandjoun Station. To be at the disposal of others; that is my project! To know how to give, promote, the "giving person"! This is what should be done in all fields: agricultural, scientific, cultural ... To be at the disposal of others in order to develop our continent! To serve our community in the area in which we excel!
You are pursuing an international career. What consequences has it on your life?
Travelling to Asia and presenting my work in this part of the world that is presented as the future is an effort to embrace the world and the future precisely. It is a question of going towards others in order to create a human brotherhood beyond our peculiarities. Travelling to Asia is also to set out to celebrate the universal side of Art which passes through aesthetic research and the celebration of beauty.
If you had to define your identity?
I would define myself as an artist who draws inspiration from the contemporary world! I am of my time and I am inspired by what the world offers me. I live in the time of Facebook, Twitter, and the TGV (High-speed train). I live in the time of the world and I am part of its evolution. I am inspired by the Arab revolution as well as other fantasies of the geopolitical situation.
What is African about your Art?
(Thinks and smiles.) My obsession is not the celebration of my being African. I am not only sensitive to the concerns of Africa; I do not claim being African. I do not wear straws to look African. The tiger does not need to proclaim his tigritude, it shows it! I am an artist of today's world who is not in search of his origins. I claim a universal artistic production that an Asian can understand, that can give an emotion or bring a South American to reflect.
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