The Nomadic Expressions of Pascale Marthine Tayou
The Nomadic Expressions of Pascale Marthine Tayou
Susan Snodgrass Pascale Marthine Tayou is a self-described foreigner and traveler, one who negotiates freely the physical and psychological terrain of both the global and local. Born in 1967 in Yaoundé, Cameroon, and now living and working in Brussels (previously, Stockholm and Paris), Tayou belongs to a generation of African artists redefining postcolonial culture, merging experiences from their place of origin with those from their adopted Europe.
His varied practice encompasses drawing, sculpture, installation, video, and performance, and is fundamentally diaristic, melding aspects of his own nomadic existence, his family, and life in Cameroon. It also posits thorny questions regarding cultural and national identity alongside more existential meditations, whether on AIDS or the cacophony of contemporary urban life. Thus, the self as defined by personal history (and its encounters with others) meets issues of commerce and migration in works of profound invention that reveal the permeability of borders.
These themes play out in several works, including Game Station (2002) presented at Documenta XI, a multimedia installation in which Tayou also addressed notions of public space. One entered a long corridor lit by a beam of red, yellow, and green light (the colors of the Cameroon flag), which delivered the viewer to a dark, enclosed street scene. Inside, stood a small wood shed, a street lamp, and several television monitors that mixed everyday images from Cameroon with those taken elsewhere. The entire tableaux was interconnected by an overhang of electric wires bearing headphones that broadcast various radio frequencies from around the world. Here, Tayou created a piece of theater (a “monster” in his words), a clash of sight and sound, an electrifying experience that posed the possibility for dialogue and exchange, despite moments of intentional inaudibility and the challenges of cultural translation.
Game Station also illustrates the artist’s working process -- “It’s the fruit of the jaunt of a resident tourist in the antechamber of his cities” (note 3) -- a process emulated by the viewer’s own meandering throughout the space. Movement is crucial to Tayou’s work and is in keeping with theorist Michel de Certeau’s ideas about public/urban space, in particular his idea of the city as an “immense social experience of lacking a place” (note 4). According to de Certeau, the city is experienced through walking and freedom of movement. As Rosalyn Deutsche asserts: “The right literally to walk in the city then becomes part of a more comprehensive freedom, the freedom to use the constructed spatial order in a way that not only actualizes but also transforms it.” (note 5)
In fact, Tayou, who is self-taught, has said that his education in art comes from “the theater of the street.” When asked about his influences, he cites, “I like the madcaps, those people who wander through the African streets, who rummage through what we throw away.” (note 6) During the early 1990s, Tayou pursued a degree in law at the University of Yaoundé, which he eventually abandoned after becoming disillusioned by, what he saw, as law’s inadequacy to create real social change. Likewise, Tayou wanted to reorder his life, “so I could quite simply say and do the things I love and detest,” (note 7) thus he turned to art. However, Cameroon lacked a school of art, so Tayou began creating works on his own: writings with corresponding patches of color and sculptural assemblages made from found objects.
He eventually became involved with AIDS activism in Douala and with the Doual’Art Association, which led to various collaborative projects with AIDS patients. This experience, no doubt, provided the impetus for certain solo works also on the subject of AIDS, including Profound Emotion (1994), a wood totem to which is adhered condoms, shreds of clothing, and other readymade materials, created to the memory of a young girl who died of this devastating disease.
The Speaking Self
Writing or rather language seems an appropriate place for Tayou to begin his journey as an artist, particularly for someone whose native country and outsider status place him on the periphery of mainstream centers of art. French feminist theory, mainly the semiotic analysis of Julia Kristeva, stresses the importance of marginality (and heterogeneity) in subverting centralized structures of linguistics or power. In other words, the speaking subject gains access to the symbolic order. For Tayou, “The wish to say a few things and to refuse others led me to take action.” (note 8) His first writings were “Patches of colour that corresponded to an ideal I was defending for myself. . .I never lost my commitment to this and everything I’m doing now is quite simply another aspect of what I was doing before.” (note 9)
Tayou’s drawings can be read as recasts of these writings, similarly executed in a quick freehand. In early series, such as Das Kapital (1995), All the Mighty (1996), Pauvres Hommes (1996), and Les gens de la rue (1996), the artist drew on the back of discarded posters using chalks, inks, colored markers, and ballpoint pens. His graffitiesque style has been likened to that of Jean-Michel Basquiat, integrating totemic stick figures, anthropomorphic renderings, and random scribbles and doodles. These all-over markings also recall the automatist strategies of the Abstract Expressionists and the Surrealists before them. In later works, figures, scrawls, semi-autobiographical musings, and other snippets of text inhabit flat, shallow spaces, reflective of the larger issues of location and dislocation that occupy the artist’s installations.
If Tayou’s drawings are actually visualizations of his writings, then one might characterize his installations as three-dimensional drawings. They are composed with the same improvisational lyricism that defines the graphic works, and are filled, quite literally, with similar entanglements of words, drawn images, and incidental marks, along with personal artifacts and found debris. The Colorful Maze (1997), for example, is a labyrinthian structure, a series of small rooms, the halls and walls of which are inscribed with Tayou’s writings and drawings rendered in chalk and colored paint. Attached here and there are scraps of paper, empty containers, and other castoffs, items collected along the way. The viewer’s passage, while self-determined, is guided by Tayou’s curious notations and, to some degree, echoes the artist’s own movement from point A to B.
Being itinerant, and of and between many places, has come to define many contemporary postmodern artists, and differs from early twentieth-century ideas about travel and cosmopolitanism. The modernist artist, while often fleeing one place or circumstance for another, assumed the identity of an immigrant through processes of assimilation. A nomad like Tayou, on the other hand, who shuttles between various cities in Europe and Cameroon, has multiple identities, and is a mongrel, if you will, that operates from the spaces in between cultures, histories, and borders. Cultural historian Kobena Mercer, who writes extensively on the visual arts of the Black diaspora, uses the term “hybridity” to describe this state of in between.
The installations Connecting Cites (2000) and Crazy Nomad (1999) reflect this hybridization by fusing issues of ethnic origin and diasporic experience. In Connecting Cities, a large egg or nestlike sculpture, crafted from shreds of paper, served as a central site for meeting, sharing, and nurturing. At the time of the work’s creation, Tayou was living in Stockholm, and asked artists there to film themselves in their day-to-day contexts. These images were then juxtaposed with the artist’s home movies in a video projection, while photographs from Yaoundé, as well as several colored-pencil drawings, hung nearby on the wall. Although two very different realities are depicted, they are united by Tayou’s identity as an artist, who here serves as a cultural ambassador, a facilitator of cultural exchange.
Crazy Nomad is similarly autobiographical, its title an apt descriptive for Tayou himself. This seminal work, in addition to being part of his first solo exhibition in the United States (at Lombard-Freid Fine Arts in New York), epitomizes the artist’s hybrid aesthetic. Amassed on the floor, ceiling, and walls was a sprawling accumulation of disparate objects: strips of red, black, and yellow fabric; plastic and wood crates; empty bottles and cups; plane and train tickets; receipts, package labels, and paper stubs. Also included were more literal references to the artist (exhibition announcements, photocopies of his previous works), as well as original drawings and written texts. Guided by memory and intuition, the artist creates (or recreates) a point of passage, a ritualistic space that pays homage to migration -- and to the self, whether Tayou or others in transition.
Sources and Symbols
The artist’s recasting of personal remnants, society’s throw aways, and the detritus of the city street has much in common with Process and Scatter art. Others have placed Tayou in the company of historical figures like Eva Hesse, and alongside such contemporaries as Thomas Hirschhorn and Sara Sze. Much earlier references can be made to the Berlin Dadaists’s use of assemblage and collage, which they viewed as inherently political, and to Kurt Schwiitters’s room-sized accretions or Merzbau. It is here that the Western artist’s quest for integrating art and life was born.
Cultural theorist bell hooks suggests that assemblage is also part of a distinctly African-American practice: “Since many displaced African slaves brought to this country an aesthetic based on the belief that beauty, especially that created in a collective context, should be an integrated aspect of everyday life. . .these ideas formed the basis of African-American aesthetics.” (note 10) Within this context, one can look then to the sculptural assemblages and installations of David Hammons and, with some extension, to the work of Kerry James Marshall, who integrates themes of contemporary urban black experience and African history with images of collectivity and community.
For Tayou, collectivity is not only represented by the collecting and recycling of things, but also, and more importantly, by the melding of artistic strategies and cultural identities. In the voluminous, rambling La Folle de Gand Chante Encore, Looobhy (originally shown at Rode Poort in 1996 and partially recreated for SMAK in 2004, both in Ghent), Tayou employs his familiar materials -- fragments of paper, plastic bottles, textiles, cardboard boxes -- as well as drawings and stacks of red bricks. In the earlier version, the public was invited to dismantle and reinstall portions of the installation, serving as the work’s co-author. This act of mutual participation expanded the parameters of the piece to the realm of the performative, an idea reinforced by the word “Looobhy” in its title. Looobhy is the name of a theater group Tayou belonged to in Yaoundé; it is also the title of a documentary he co-produced (along with Simon Njami and Jean Loup Pivin) in 1997 about art in Cameroon. Additionally, the term appears in other works: the sculpture/assemblage Looobhy (1995), for instance, and Externet.com@LoooBHy (1999), a collection of used radios, tvs, and other electronics displayed atop wood shipping crates and interconnected by a maze of wires.
While many of Tayou’s works are interrelated, there are several projects that draw upon different sets of iconography, including labyrinths (Tourner en rond, 1999), shelters (Brazilism, 2002), and soccer balls (Cameroon Embassy,1998; My Happy Football-Food Bowl, 1999). Flags are another recurring motif, encoded with the symbolism of national identity, as in the installation Colonie de Foulards (2004), a serpentine display of national flags and headscarves, and the dart game Devise/Untitled, created for the 2003 Istanbul Biennial. Attached to each dart was a national flag, which viewesr were invited to throw at a target marked with the names of the nations of the world and their dates of entry to the United Nations. Elsewhere, the flags of Africa become a substitute for the African body, individual and collective, its continual reconfiguration and placement in unexpected territories or sites suggests a protean self-awareness, or in those works where Tayou specifically incorporates the Cameroon flag, it functions as a moving self-portrait.
In Erection (2002), Tayou placed 54 flagpoles representing the 54 nations of Africa on and around the exterior of the Portikus exhibition space in Frankfurt am Main, and on the nurses’ home of the adjacent hospital. The flags were redesigned by local art students, whose subtle alterations were an act of both subversion and liberation. Once installed, the flags performed a kind of political takeover, Western structures of culture and power, as symbolized by the Portikus’s quintessentially classical architecture, besieged by a unified Africa. Additionally, Tayou inscribed the word “close” on the front entrance, a directive that invited the viewer to come “closer,” as well as a linguistic pun that pointed to the fact that the Portikus remained “closed” throughout the exhibition, the last at this location.
Africa, especially the artist’s native Cameroon, is always represented in Tayou’s work, whether symbolized by particular objects or by photographs and moving images. Although he shuns the label “African” artist, Cameroon plays an important role in almost every project, says Tayou: “It’s a relationship of origin. Cameroon is my registered trademark, my initiatory base. I was born there and it was there that I received my education from my parents and friends, and from the street. It’s important for me to show this in my work so that everyone back there who follows me can know that everything is possible.” (note 11)
Thus acting as a guide for others, Tayou invited his father to participate in various public dialogues organized on the occasion of the exhibitions “Paris pour Escale” and “Voilá, Le Monde dans la Tete” (both Paris, 2000), in which he spoke in his native language Bayangam about his life in Cameroon. Additionally, for this second exhibition, Tayou did not contribute his own piece, but rather provided opportunities for four artists/friends (Joel Andrianomearisoa, Moshekwa Langa, Zwelethu Mthethwq, Aime Ntaklyica) by inviting them to exhibit instead.
Home and family are the subjects of several more personal works. For the Le menu familial (2002), Tayou built a makeshift piece of architecture from gyproc or plaster, its labyrinthian construction reminiscent of the winding streets of Yaoundé. Inside, were photographs and videos depicting his family life in Cameroon; the same images were reproduced in a series of postcards available at the exhibition’s entrance. These souvenirs, while at once very personal mementos, also played into aspects of tourism and the viewer’s impulse to exoticize. The quasi-documentary 30 Dreamdays With My Father (2001) reverses the voyeuristic gaze by presenting a trip to the United States through his father’s eyes. Created for the Institute of Visual Art at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Tayou first filmed his father in Africa, then documented their travel together from Yaoundé to Milwaukee and, finally, their return to Cameroon. Tayou’s itinerant, more privileged existence comes face-to-face with his father’s limited travels and access to the larger world, reconciled, in the end, by the experiences they share along the way.
The artist filmed a similar piece Omnes Viae Romam Ducunt (2004), about his mother for the Museum of Contemporary Art or MACRO in Rome, consisting of a video collection of their travels from Cameroon to Italy and back home. Of these works, Tayou has said that they “[provide] a moment of relaxation and conversation with my parents. They provide the punctuation I need when waiting out my adventures as a whole.” (note 12)
Cameroon figures prominently in several new works created specifically for his 2004 exhibition at SMAK, in which the artist addresses themes of cultural and economic exchange. The exhibition title “Rendez-vous” suggests a meeting or gathering place, and in these works, different aspects of Western and African trade compete side by side. Although Cameroon suffers from a soaring debt and adverse business conditions, it has one of the better primary commodity economies in sub-Saharan Africa, based mainly on agriculture and oil. In Import/Export, logos of real Cameroon companies (AfroJam, Apphac, ANNA, Tigre Supermarche) are recast in a collage of stickers, photographs of package labels, and neon signs. These symbols of Western-style organized trade are juxtaposed with Africa’s more typical street markets in Fashion Street, a series of photographs and posters depicting the salesmen and women who constitute the local textile and clothing trade.
For the site-specific installation/performance La Boutique de Mamadou, Tayou shipped the contents and structure of a typical Cameroon streetshop from Yaoundé, which he then reconstructed in SMAK’s main, first-floor gallery. A new film about market trade in Cameroon was also shown, and during the exhibition opening, a Cameroon salesperson sold local wares to the museum public. In addition to recreating the open atmosphere of an African street market inside a European institution of art, Tayou subverts the Western economic forces on which his native country is dependent. Belgium is one of Cameroon’s main European trade partners and importers of Western commodities. In La Boutique, Tayou reverses this equation: Africa becomes the exporter and the Belgium public the consumer of African goods.
These works find their roots in some of Tayou’s earlier projects, such as the installation Bank of Cameroon (originally shown at Art in General, New York, in 1998, and reincarnated at SMAK), Art a Vendre (1998), and La Vieille Neuve (2000.) For the latter, Tayou shipped a used, beat-out Toyota from Africa to the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Lyon. Tayou’s ironical gesture -- the car, originally manufactured in Japan, was imported to Europe, then made its way to a market in Ghana -- discloses, and rejects, the subjugation of so-called Third World economies to global systems of exchange. Similar issues have been explored by Tayou’s contemporaries Meschac Gaba and Yinka Shonibare, artists of African origin also living in Europe. Their interventionist strategies (Gaba’s Museum of Contemporary African Art, for example, portions of which were exhibited at and acquired by SMAK, and Shonibare’s textile-based figural tableaux) reveal the trajectory of objects, from authentic expression to commodification, and the legacies of colonization and trade.
Whether trafficking in African goods, recycled objects, or original images and texts, Tayou’s nomadic expressions, in all their varied forms and configurations, offer reflections of the self, encompassing the artist, the viewer, and the other. His hybrid aesthetic is intentionally pliant, adaptable to any given space, while challenging the structural stability of the institutions of culture and the authority of the white cube. Likewise, the integration of ephemeral materials from everyday life (both personal remnants and found debris) expands the definitions of art, even though the artist has admitted that he is unclear what the “real sense” of the word “Art’ actually means. However, “If Art existed,” he has stated, “it would have no limits.” (note 13)
Critic Roberta Smith has written that “Tayou’s incessant recycling confirms the fluidity and borderlessness of space, culture and thought.” (note 14) Tayou prefers the term “retranscribing” to recycling; although he is engaged in systems of use and reuse, retranscribing belongs to the realm of language and delivers the artist full circle to his first works of art -- his writings. It also implies the idea of translating one set of ideas to another, as suggested by the artist’s continual reworking of previous works for new contexts and sites. Tayou’s incessant retranscribing is taken to its ultimate, and almost absurdist, fruition in the installation Qui perd gagne (2002), in which he reinvents work dated from 1995.
These formal and conceptual strategies are purposefully destabilizing. For Tayou, travel or rather dislocation/relocation is how one navigates the world; it is also a means for self-discovery. Instability is the essence of radical definitions of democracy and essential for the establishment of true personal relations, as described by theorist Claude Lefort: "[D]emocracy is instituted and sustained by the dissolution of the markers of certainty. It inaugurates a history in which people experience a fundamental indeterminacy as to the basis of power, law and knowledge, and as to the basis of relations between self and other . . ." (note 15)
Instability, hybridity, and fluidity then form the foundation for Tayou’s work. They also define the experiences of the viewer. It is through Tayou’s art without limits that the self and the other meet in McEvilley’s “secret embrace,” ultimately transcending cultures and borders.