Barthélémy Togou: Kochi Biennale artist who experiments with popularising art in his Cameroonian town
>>Culture can go well with agriculture and local traditions, the African with his studio in Paris tells ‘Let’s Talk’ series
Introducing contemporary art to a non-elite populace may amount to “violence” initially, but cultural activists should persevere to make the grassroots mission a success, according to Africa-born artist Barthelemey Togou.
Such tenacity is necessary for both villages largely removed from the trends in visual art and even towns or cities widely known to be hubs of modern culture, the 51-year-old artist said during an audience interaction ahead of the fourth Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB).
“I live in Paris and also Bandjoun (a town in the West Region of Cameroon). I have noticed that anything new to one’s culture is widely seen with suspicion and prejudice in both urban and rural areas,” he noted at the ‘Let’s Talk’ series, which was attended by Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2018 curator Anita Dube, among others.
Toguo, a trained fine arts practitioner, has exhibited his works in the US, England, France, Germany and Austria. He was in Kochi, creating work on-site for the Biennale, South Asia’s biggest contemporary art event, which will be held at multiple venues in Kochi from 12 December, 2018, and will conclude on 29 March, 2019.
At one of its key Fort Kochi venues, Togou said in Pepper House that it was a 1957 speech by French writer Albert Camus that inspired the artist to give back to society what one earned from life. The message, which Camus (1913-60) delivered at the banquet on his conferment of the Nobel Prize, prompted Togou to open an art centre in his native Bandjoun in 2007, he recalled at the Wednesday evening lecture.
However, not all the locals were welcoming at the start of that venture in his country, pointed out Togou. “Even today, some continue to think the art centre is basically for the White,” he added. Not the kind who gives up, Togou sought ways to ensure that people are brought into the centre. Hence, the building began hosting local traditions and rituals associated with weddings and funerals, which helped him gain confidence of the people and develop their curiosity about art.
Nature is an important part of Togou’s initiative of nurturing different forms of art. His studio near Paris is surrounded by a green landscape and his centre in Bandjoun promotes vegetable farming in a big way even as its provides residencies for visual artists, said Togou, who had, just before his Pepper House talk, spent some time soaking up the Arabian Sea.
Togou, whose practice ranges from watercolours, performance art to wood carving, was 20 years old when he left Cameroon for higher studies. He first went to Ivory Coast to learn fine arts at Abidjan, which was followed by a four-year course at École supérieure d’Art de Grenoble (Graduate School of Art) in France, and a period of two-year training at Kunstakademie (Arts Academy) in Germany.