On a sunny afternoon back in mid-June at the Watermill Center, Barthélémy Toguo was found in a studio space deeply engaged in the creation of his art—preparing canvases, taking stock of materials and building a full-size replica of a wooden boat.
It was all in a day’s work (and a two-week residency) for the Cameroon- and Paris-based Mr. Toguo, and it came in advance of “Barthélémy Toguo: The Beauty of Our Voice,” an exhibition opening to the public on Sunday, August 5, at the Parrish Art Museum.
Mr. Toguo is the Parrish’s 2018 Platform artist, which means he has been given a unique opportunity and great latitude in creating an exhibition using the entire museum, its collection and the wider East End community as his palette.
His residency also represents a new collaboration between the Parrish and the Watermill Center, where he used his time to assemble the various installations that will make up “The Beauty of Our Voice.”
The 51-year-old Mr. Toguo has a lot to say to his audiences, and his multidisciplinary work encompasses themes that speak to several hot-button issues—among them race, migration, mobility, colonialism and the stark inequity between the northern and southern hemispheres. Mr. Toguo’s work has been seen in many countries, and these are topics he approaches on both the global and the local level.
“The goal is to be in harmony with my artwork. Because my work always has a social aspect, it has be integrated into my exhibitions,” explained Mr. Toguo, speaking in French, his native tongue, at the Watermill Center with Corinne Erni, the Parrish’s senior curator of ArtsReach and special projects, acting as interpreter. “I need to take a look at the society around me and see where I fit in with all that.”
To that end, this past March, the artist made his inaugural visit to the East End and met with individuals from a number of socio-economic groups—among them high school and college students, members of the Latino community, and members of the Shinnecock Indian Nation.
In the months following his visit, Mr. Toguo enlisted the staff at the Parrish to help him engage the people he met here by asking them to weigh in on one very specific question: “Where do I fit in in American society?”
Participants were given postcards on which to write their responses. Each card was branded with a print of a red horse head, an image Mr. Toguo selected because of the many contradictory meanings it has in this country—from freedom on the plains for Native Americans, to the Spanish conquistadors who first brought horses to the New World and, here on the East End, wealth and privilege for those who can afford to ride them.
The completed postcards, nearly 100 in all, will make up “Head Above Water—Hamptons,” one of several installations in “The Beauty of Our Voice.” The goal of the piece is to bring the voices of everyday people into museum spaces.
Since 2004, Mr. Toguo has done just that, traveling the world asking people to share their thoughts about their lives, dreams and hopes on postcards. Unlike in the Hamptons, many of the people who take part in the project live in very challenging environments, and when asked to share his impression of the East End participants, the incongruities inherent in this place were not lost on Mr. Toguo.
“When I first came to New York City, everyone told me that this place was like the Côte D’Azur,” he said. “It’s a beautiful place that makes you dream. As an artist, I feel good here because there’s a cohabitation with nature.
“Of course, when I came here, I didn’t know what to expect and find, but obviously there are inequalities as well,” Mr. Toguo added. “What struck me was going to the Shinnecock Reservation and meeting the residents and realizing they hadn’t been integrated into American society.
“It’s a kind of an apartheid, and I’m not sure if it’s because they want to preserve their culture,” he said. “I wanted to do ‘Head Above Water’ to give voice to those people and integrate it into this overall exhibition in a balanced way.”
During his time at the Watermill Center, Mr. Toguo was able access a workshop on the property which is where he constructed the wooden boat that is the centerpiece of “Road to Exile,” an installation that explores the concept of migration—specifically, the desire of young Africans to leave their homeland in hopes of finding a better life across the sea.
Once installed in the museum, the boat will be overloaded with stuffed bags made from African fabrics. Mr. Toguo notes the bags represent the worldly possessions of migrants who risk everything for a new life, and on the floor surrounding the boat will be a sea of glass bottles meant to replicate the precarious surface of the water during these dangerous voyages.
Since 2008, Mr. Toguo has created several versions of “Road to Exile” in museums throughout the world. But at the Parrish, he will supplement the installation with drawings, etchings and paintings of boats chosen from the museum’s permanent collection. Most of these images feature boats in pastoral and peaceful settings, in stark contrast to the message behind the piece he’s creating.
Another installation in “The Beauty of Our Voice” will be Mr. Toguo’s “Mobile Cafeteria,” which will occupy an entire gallery at the Parrish. This participatory installation is inspired by African street cafés. But this café comes with a message that calls attention to the inequity between global north and south in terms of economic, social and cultural relationships.
It was an imbalance described by Léopold Senghor, the first Senegalese president who served from 1960 to 1980, and is a situation that has grown only more acute in the years since.
“After I heard this quote by Singhor—because of unequal relationships, the southern countries are impoverished and couldn’t sell their produce, like coffee or cacao, at reasonable prices—we decided to grow this coffee ourselves,” Mr. Toguo said. “We do all the production, from roasting it to packaging.
“We sign it and sell it as an art piece as an excuse to make the price higher,” he explained.
The Parrish intended to sell the coffee in the museum store, but government restrictions scuttled that plan. However, for his exhibition’s “Mobile Cafeteria,” Mr. Toguo will serve coffee to guests during the members reception on Saturday, August 4.
The Mobile Cafeteria is both playful and educational. Visitors are invited to play African board games and watch pre-recorded African soccer games while learning about Bandjoun Station, Mr. Toguo’s center for culture, art, education and agriculture, which he founded in his native Cameroon.
The installation will also include three nearly life-size staged photographs of Mr. Toguo from his 2005 to 2008 series “Stupid African President.” The photographs, “Speech,” “Afrika Oil?” and “Forest Destruction,” explore sociopolitical issues in Africa.
Also on view in the space will be “Black Lives Matter,” a new series of pencil drawings by Mr. Toguo depicting African-Americans killed in recent years in high-profile incidents, including Michael Brown, Philando Castile, Trayvon Martin and Alton Sterling.
“I’m also creating watercolors to express universal human feelings,” he said. “They’re usually figurative, but I also include a lot of vegetation in the paintings to indicate the cohabitation between humans and nature.
“The work is basically a celebration of life and everything that cohabits it—death, pain, beauty.”
Because his work offers an examination of today’s society, Mr. Toguo admits that he spends a great deal of time searching out the stories behind current events, no matter where they are happening.
“I watch a lot of television and consume a lot of information—news from around the world, the fake news, the good news, the bad news,” Mr. Toguo said. “That allows me to create my work.”
Whether it’s about the struggles of the migrant culture, the inequity in the distribution of the world’s resources, or the concerns of East End high school students, Mr. Toguo strives to take a holistic look at life across the entire spectrum of experience. He points to 16th century Florentine artists who painted scenes of what was happening in their world, or Pablo Picasso’s mural “Guernica,” which documents the bombing of a small Basque town during the Spanish Civil War, as examples of the kind of art that his inspired him.
A few years ago, Mr. Toguo created his own large-scale painting, “Rwanda 1994,” which revisits the horrific genocide of that place.
“I want to be an artist of my time,” Mr. Toguo said. “… The journey is at the center of this exhibition.”
“Barthélémy Toguo: The Beauty of Our Voice” will be on view at the Parrish Art Museum, 279 Montauk Highway, Water Mill, from August 5 through October 14. This is the first solo exhibition in an American museum by Mr. Toguo and it follows his participation in international biennials in Venice, Havana and Sydney, as well as this year’s Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale in Japan.
The members’ opening reception on Saturday, August 4, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. will feature Mr. Toguo and performance artist Nèfta Poetry from Guadalupe in a special performance that will begin in the museum’s Lichtenstein Theater and move through the galleries to “Road to Exile.” Later, during the reception, as part of “Mobile Cafeteria,” Mr. Toguo will serve Bandjoun coffee. For information, visit parrish.org or call 631-283-2118.
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