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Hamptons Life

May 22, 2018 12:10 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Artist Asks East End Students To Explain Where They Fit Into American Society

Artist Barthélémy Toguo asked East Hampton High School students to consider their place in society.  KYRIL BROMLEY
May 22, 2018 12:33 PM

“Where do I fit in, in American Society?”

That’s the question Barthélémy Toguo posed to a group of East Hampton High School art students last week—and like any deceptively simple question, the short answer is, “It’s complicated.”

Mr. Toguo is an internationally renowned multi-disciplinary artist from Cameroon and Paris. He is also the Parrish Art Museum’s 2018 Platform artist, and later this summer, he will have the opportunity to use the entire museum as his palette in creating an installation that reflects his vision and explores new ways to experience art.

His show “Head above Water” opens August 5 at the Parrish in Water Mill and its content will reach beyond the museum’s walls to encompass the entire community. In preparation for his Platform exhibition, Mr. Toguo visited the East End in April to get an overall sense of this place. He returns in June for a residency at The Watermill Center where he will assemble the work that will be installed at the Parrish in August.

But for much of May, Mr. Toguo has been reaching out to various East End communities by proxy in order to solicit their contributions for the show—which is why Parrish education director Cara Conklin-Wingfield, curator of special projects Corinne Erni, and teaching artist Wendy Gottlieb came to visit students in Heather Evans’s and Sheila Batiste’s A.P. art classes at East Hampton High School.

“The artist has asked people to write something about themselves on a postcard related to their daily life or their hopes and dreams,” said Ms. Conklin-Wingfield, explaining that the completed postcards will become part of a 96-card assemblage in Mr. Toguo’s show, just one of several pieces he will install as part of his Platform exhibition.

She added that since 2004, the “Head above Water” project is one that Mr. Toguo has taken to communities around the world, including Cuba, Mexico, Tunisia, Hiroshima and even Auschwitz.

“Usually, he draws or prints something on the cards that relates to the places he visits,” Ms. Erni said.

She explained to the students that while working with the largely African immigrant population in St. Denis, a poor suburb in northern Paris, Mr. Toguo distributed postcards printed with a blue foot and a red hand.

“The foot represents the immigrant people who have a foot in the country,” Ms. Erni explained. “The red hand is how they are stopped by the government. He asked them, ‘How do you feel about living in France and not being full accepted?’”

Social and cultural questions like this drive Mr. Toguo’s art and in “Head above Water,” he gives ordinary citizens the opportunity to have their voices heard. While to outsiders, the glitzy East End may seem an odd place for Mr. Toguo to pursue this project, those living here year round—especially students—understand how the wealthy, highly visible summer visitors are supported by the labors of many more residents who fly under the radar and for whom life is a constant financial struggle.

In order to address Mr. Toguo’s thesis question “Where do I fit in, in American Society?” each student was given a postcard branded with a print of a red horse head. It’s an image Mr. Toguo chose because of the many symbolic and often contradictory meanings the horse represents in this country—from Native Americans roaming freely on the plains, to Spanish imperialism (it was the conquistadors who introduced horses to the Americas), and, here on the East End where riding horses is a pricey proposition, a notion of wealth and privilege.

After addressing the postcards to Mr. Toguo in Paris and selecting a stamp from the U.S. Postal Service National Parks collection, the students sat down at tables to share their thoughts on where they fit into American society. For some, the writing began right away, while others sat pondering just how to answer such a complicated question in such a limited space.

For Montauk senior Gianna Gregorio, the words came fast and furious.

“This is definitely something I’ve thought about for awhile,” said Gianna, who spoke at the March for Our Lives protest in Sag Harbor earlier this spring, and in 2016 led the charge to create a gender-neutral bathroom at the high school. “Everyone’s thought about it, especially those who are outsiders and not of American descent.”

Though Gianna is not an immigrant to this country, she did note how her family has worked hard for generations to live on the East End.

“Herb of Herb’s Market is my grandfather,” Gianna said. “We’re not exactly rich. We’re blue collar and my mom answers the phone at Mickey’s Carting.

“There’s an image as if only the bourgeois live out here,” she added. “But blue collar is who we are and we’re happy to be that.”

In the fall, Gianna begins her freshman year at Reed College in Oregon where she plans to study bioethics. She said that while touring the college, people were intrigued to hear that she is from the Hamptons.

“It’s so prevalent in pop culture. Like anything, we have the façade and then there’s the turmoil underneath,” she said. “I know of people who have been deported.”

When asked to explain how he approached Mr. Toguo’s question, senior Noah Gualtieri said, “People are too quick to generalize about what it means to be from here. I think about this question all the time.

“My brother didn’t get a job because the guy doing the hiring didn’t like anyone from here,” Noah added. “When I go other places, I don’t like telling people where I’m from. I just say I’m from Long Island.”

“I found it difficult to answer the question of where you fit in with the multitudes in American society,” said junior Emma Wiltshire. “On one hand, I’m a woman living in a patriarchal society that’s going backwards. But I’m also a white woman who lives with a privileged family. I’ll never be able to experience what it’s like to be an immigrant here. But it’s a common theme for me—my parents are both from Europe.”

These are the kinds of conversations that “Head Above Water” is sparking and the East Hampton students are just one of several groups involved. Ms. Erni, Ms. Conklin-Wingfield and Ms. Gottlieb are also asking students in Bridgehampton, Sag Harbor and Hampton Bays schools, as well as Suffolk County Community College, to take part in Mr. Toguo’s postcard project.

As Ms. Erni notes, it’s all part of Mr. Toguo’s interest to go beyond the glitz and glamour of “the Hamptons” by exploring the real socio-economic makeup of the East End.

“He learned a lot when he was here about the different communities, and is particularly interested in connecting with young adults,” Ms. Erni said.

“He wants to know what the students are thinking about and what’s next in their lives,” Ms. Conklin-Wingfield said. “It’s a time when identify is an important thing to consider.”

Barthélémy Toguo’s residency at The Watermill Center is June 15 to June 29. His Platform installation “Head above Water” opens August 5 at the Parrish Art Museum, 279 Montauk Highway, Water Mill, and will remain on view through October 14. For more information, visit parrishart.org or call 631-283-2118.

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