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Interview with Marthine Tayou on the future of German-African cultural relations (By Irene Bark)
The work of the internationally renowned artist Pascale Marthine Tayou includes drawings, sculptures, conceptions, videos and performances. With 'Colonial Erection', a conception of flags of the African Union, which received the visitors of the exhibition 'Who knows Tomorrow' last year in the National Gallery in Berlin, Tayou addresses a central theme of his work: the political and social conditions in post-colonial Africa.
The collaboration between Tayou and Goethe-Institut in Africa began in Yaoundé in the 90s with discussions on averting from an academic education after the French model and a reassessment of the individual, the spontaneous, the creative, the autonomous, conducted in a group of young Cameroonian artists.
Painting did not seem to be the adequate expression channel of this young generation of African young artists. They were instead concerned with conceptions, collages and assemblages, and found a great proximity to Dadaism, which, after the transformation of values, hit the nerve of young up-and-coming artists.
Then, when the neo-Dadaist Timm Ulrichs came to Cameroon in 1994, this was a sort of an awaken for young Cameroonian artists who began to understand their art and their life as an entity. Experimental forms were discovered.
Especially the group around the artists Tayou, Hélène Beleck, Rigobert Eshu, who created a DADA theatre with “LooOBhY”. This theater broke with the standards of the theatre and worked for the first time on interdisciplinary basis, treading on new territory. Over the years, new contemplations on what can be contemporary art in Africa and how this art can collectively be developed and presented were developed in close collaboration with the Goethe-Institut in Africa.
Irene Bark: Art works travel around in the context of globalization and are less and less a property of a culture. At the same time there is the need to recognize oneself in ones culture. How do you perceive the area of conflict of a transnational, cultural space?
Pascale Marthine Tayou: There are no borders in culture. Just as the sky is an indefinable dimension. Someone once said, culture is that which remains when one has forgotten everything else. I see culture as a kind of interaction and mixture of diverse flavours and tastes, for example how they improve the meals of a menu in one of the Restaurants opposite.
Cultural collaboration puts us before the challenge of making images of self and others more accessible in the media of art and culture and to always further refer to each other.How does one master the balancing act between self perception in the other and maintaining a cultural identity as an artist?
Borders shift depending on the context in which one is located. For me, what connects us humans together is a not definable, but universally perceptible variable. If for instance one takes a taxi to the Goethe-Institute Cameroon in Yaoundé, it is, as though one is in an airplane with Munich, Berlin or Bonn as airport destination … with the difference that one does not leave the Cameroon borders at all. Diplomatic rules are also cultural rules and they contribute to the convergence and blending of customs and mentalities through cultural cooperation - in politically correct wrapping. The Goethe-Institute creates, such as the French, Swiss or American Cultural Centre, a kind of comfort zone, a sort of lobby between me and you, between us and the others. It is the space of an encounter between what I am and what I am not. What I want to understand interconnects with them. These are places where one learns the unknown better, to explore and understand, and where one learns to make progress on the bridge where strangers from here and there meet.
The image of a culture that we present to the world is not static but constantly changes. Partners of the dialogue between cultures take up the role of cultural mediators here. To what extent is art a bridge between two cultures?
Artistic work is an attempt to take a part of your own paradise into the hell of the other. Art is universal. It expresses something fundamentally common. To establish a bridge of identities also means to help cultural mediators find the good sense in our personal vicious feelings and instincts.
Where do you see the cultural relationship between Germany and Cameroon in the future?
In the view of the future, we must also talk - namely neither with fear nor with shame - about our common past; given that we share a colonial relationship that cannot be ignored. In the future, we will develop our relations as relations of curiosity and the integration between our people and we will continue to cultivate them and this in the fields of culture, economy and politics -. in the sense of a relationship, a relationship structure. Since we are urged to live together in whatever geographical location that we see as our home.
To what extent can the Edea bridge in Cameroon, a building from the German colonial period, engender an impulse for artistic projects that we are developing in cooperation with you and other Cameroonian artists, the art centre Doual’art and the Edea community?
The art project 'Cultural Bridge' is a very good opportunity to make us become more conscious of our differences. The moments of encounter that are created around the Edéa Bridge in its importance as a colonial heritage, can help our two peoples, to brighten up the dark chapters of the past and discover ways of reaching out to each other. This project must contribute in the identification of: The quintessence of what our cultures hide, must constitute our engagement and contribution to a common universal cultural treasure *. That is why the 'Culture Bridge' is a necessary historical and at the same time absolutely contemporary project! (*Tayou uses the word “cagnotte” literally translated 'Savings Bank'.)
What is in your opinion the role of a national cultural institute abroad? What should it do? What should it not do?
A national cultural institution theoretically assumes a mediation role. It is a place of encounter, of giving and taking. As I mentioned earlier, culture is the dishes that I prefer in a menu. In addition I am convinced that every country, every province, every city, every neighborhood, every family and every individual should have their own cultural centre.
How would you describe your collaboration with the Goethe-Institut?
The first contact was a coincidental meeting. I made the acquaintance of the leaders of the Goethe- Institute when its headquarters was still in the Avenue Kennedy in Yaoundé. I walked through the door, as if it were any restaurant in the city centre. I would describe the first meeting rather as unfortunate. Only much later, with the arrival of the new director of the Institute Peter Anders, did some of my friends as for example Hélène Beleck, Rigobert Eshu, Richard Pipa, Alex Bijocka and I started cooperating with the Goethe-Institut. We have experienced fascinating moments together - between experimental exhibitions, construction and design of stage techniques and stage scenery. That was a beautiful time – this is how I got to know the philosophy of the Goethe-Institut, as an instrument of encounter, of defense of cultural values and of sharing.
What role did the intercultural dialogue play in your artistic career?
Intercultural dialogue? Do you mean the encounter between people? I am not a big fan of this formula, it is worn out. The fact that you are interviewing me now is already a wonderful thing. It is exactly the same feeling when I buy pastry from the sales personnel down the road or when I repair my shoe soles at the shoemaker’s. Do these daily walks and meetings make me grow? I would say yes. There is a French proverb that says a rolling stone gathers no moss. I, however, gather moss because I am constantly on the move, meaning that I amass a lot of impressions and experiences. (Note: In French, a wordplay here: “Pierre qui roule n'amasse pas de mousse” - 'Pascale qui roule amasse mousse. ”)
What role should an artist play for his/her land, his/her region and his/her nation?
One would first of all have to define the word artist. It can mean something different depending on the environment and milieu, as well as spell out the role that he/she plays in his/her respective environment. In my opinion it is first of all an affiliation role. Artist or not, one is a part of a society. Regardless of who and what one is, I think that the action as such is the good thing, especially if you have lived in the streets and grown up there.
Will Africa become a Union? As an artist, how do you see the future of Africa?What does it mean to be united?
I never ask myself this question. Others may ask themselves this question. My work gives answers and raises further questions... I do not do my work to prove that I am an African or that I have an African vision. I, I am Tayou.
The Goethe-Institut Cameroon is celebrating its 50th anniversary. Has it had any influence on the cultural life in Cameroon?
The Goethe-Institut saw something in me and as a result has decided to help me, to develop certain aspects of my artistic work. This has enabled me to explore other areas beyond my own limits - and that in the context of a relationship that is characterized by respect and kindness.
Why do you think so many Cameroonians learn the German language?
There can be several obvious reasons. All young Cameroonians learn German because they would like to further their studies in Germany. That constitutes already 80 percent. Others again learn German, because German is simply a beautiful language. Do not forget that German, beside Spanish and English, is a second foreign language, which is taught in our secondary schools and universities.
Did you ever wanted to learn German?
No – but see you. I would have loved to do this interview with you in German.
Pascale Marthine Tayou, born in 1967 in Yaoundé, currently lives in Brussels and Douala, the biggest city in Cameroon. He studied Law before turning to Arts. Single exhibitions of his work have been shown in numerous European countries, in Cameroon and New York. Tayou had participated in many group exhibitions, including documenta 11 and the Biennales in Venice, Havana, Istanbul and São Paulo.
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