For our latest edition of Streams, we decided to interview Pascale Marthine Tayou, an internationally renowned Cameroonian artist attentive to social and environmental issues, above all, the pollution of the planet, the depletion of energy resources and related conflicts.
The exuberant art of Pascale Marthine Tayou (Cameroon,1966) is rich in symbolic and technical overlaps. The colour and shapes recall its roots to African culture. As the artist himself says, ”Colour is the tool to make things talk”. The composition of the works is designed to amaze the viewer playfully and profoundly.
The works, many of which are famous, are a cultural bridge between Africa and the Old Continent, such as the Poupée Pascale, refined crystal idols enriched with natural or artificial elements, such as recycled materials, to underline the importance of respecting the environment. The artist collects during his travels, in Africa and elsewhere, but also on the spot, objects, debris of the consumer society, the work is multiple, proliferating, sometimes unexpected, ranging from sculptures to collages, to installations, with its deep recognition.
The works amuse, possess a disturbing and provocative beauty, evoke nature also through other symbols: the egg and the hope of rebirth, the nest and the tangle, the birds and their songs. Clouds of cotton evoke the exploitation of the black population enslaved for centuries on plantations.
The Falling House or Jpegafrica / Africagift, Plastic Tree or Octopus, are some of the most emblematic artworks of the artist. The first for their strong social symbolism, the others because they recall those objects that to simplify life have become symbols of discomfort, just like plastic. How not to forget Make Up … Peace!, The chimney, like red lipstick in honour of the women of Donetsk who rebuilt the city after the war, blew up in 2015 by militants, or Colonne Pascale, a twelve meters high column of enamelled pots, vandalized in Lyon.
Tayou is not afraid to face the disorder that Man continues to create, bringing out the chaos of our lives, in which we avoid admitting the negativity of certain lifestyles. The artist tackles really hard themes with superb results and disturbing beauty. The positive and the negative of human life. The artist has been defined as a travelling artist because through the journey he speaks of the experience of life, the power of man’s individuality and the richness of sharing with others. With him, we want to deepen words such as journey, identity, environment, and expand them.
A CONVERSATION WITH PASCALE MARTHINE TAYOU
Interview by Marika Marchese, interpreter Pauline Armellini
Marika Marchese: Thank you for agreeing to do this interview. My first question, what represents for you the journey from an exodus point of view and from a discovery point of view? Can you tell us why you define yourself as a travelling artist?
Pascale Marthine Tayou: We can see the journey on several planes, it can be physical, it can be mental, so it can be a displacement, from a mass to a point, it is precisely the journey of a human being who starts from one point to another point. Travel to places known or maybe unknown. For my part, I think this journey is towards the unknown because I suppose that what I know I have already anchored in me and that I rather want to put myself to the test of the unknown. So the journey then becomes a bridge between what I am andwhatIamnot.AndwhatIknowtobe,whatI could be. In the field of my practice, it is the hunt for discovery, creation, proposals. For me to move in a static or dynamic way is to build bridges between what I seem to be and what I might like to be. So to travel is to be on the move all the time and to always set the counter to zero. You talk in your question of immigration, of physical, geographic displacement, so the journey following the plane on which it is drawn always has a rather intense colouring. Travel in the deeper sense is an important element for the species, therefore biodiversity, even plants travel, beasts travel as much as humans, clouds travel, wind travels, sea travels, so it all transports with itself something and therefore it comes to question the story of the rolling stone that does not collect moss. To travel is to collect foam.
I would like to say about the trip that I started my first trip simply by lying in my bed and dreaming in my bed. It was first an internal emigration, this is the greatest journey!
M.M. I moving on to the second word: IDENTITY.
Your works often refer to Africa, but they have occidental elements, you could say that they have a history, both personal and social, before our eyes. A story that speaks of sharing. A meeting of cultures which constitutes the future of humanity. Tribal civilization and consumerist civilization, past and present in close contact. What value do you assign to the contamination? Also, we know that you have changed your identity, can you explain to us why?
P.M.T. We will start with identity, for me, identity is never unique, it is never individual. It’s something plural. We don’t have an identity, we have identities because it is imposed on us. It seems that sometimes according to certain meanings we can believe that we are linked to the origins of our ancestors, we are linked to the origins of our race, we are linked to the thought of the first people who belong to your village. With the evolution of things, the personification becomes of plural origin, “I am only me, only because I have other people in front of me”. I can’t know what I am if I don’t put myself in… with what other people are. So, in the end, there is only the other who is my test, my revealer. In my formal approach, I mix all this up because I believe that the future of this world is Creole, we have no choice. It is not about entering into a forced logic of interbreeding, these are things that are done in a natural way. I must give my being the time to build itself in this direction. I can be black and be blue, green, red. The race has nothing to do with humans. Besides, when we see everything that is happening today, we can see that we as human entities have made a lot of mistakes, we believed that our origins were the origins of others. The origins of others are not our origins until the moment we enter the other’s room. If we stay in our room we can’t be ourselves. When you shut yourself in at home, you are playing against yourself. It is therefore important to enter the other’s room. The other’s bedroom is a mirror of myself. For me, questions of civilisation are human questions. We can never link a civilisation to a fixed distribution of the vision of identity because identity is plural. It’s like a colour box. I have an idea because I can refer to the other identities that are in front of me. If I look at myself in a mirror it means I don’t have an identity.
M.M. Third and last word: Environment.
You told us what travel means, in it we find the power of contamination, of cultures that come together, therefore Identity, we come to know ourselves and the environment that surrounds us.
The environment has always been and is very important to you, so much so that you were one of the first artists to highlight the theme of safeguarding and its respect. We did notice that in your works there are recurring symbols, among them are there some which represent you more? Can you tell us how the Plastic Tree and the Plastic Bag were born?
P.M.T. You talk about the environment but I don’t necessarily see nature, I see the environment in a more general sense. The environment is everything around us. Those who fight for the environment are often also big polluters and that is a problem. I’ll tell you an anecdote: I once found myself facing a lady who was complaining because there was a group working with me that was doing plastic bag displays in a shed. The lady came, very angry, asking what we were doing and why we were doing this. She was honest about her outlook. For her, plastic bags should not be shown or celebrated. I tried to explain to her. She kept telling me that plastic bags are polluting, that they should not be shown that way. The first thing I told her was that I wasn’t responsible for making the plastic bags, and if they hadn’t been used, she wouldn’t have seen them and she wouldn’t have reacted that way. The reason I use the plastic bags is because I do what is called plastic arts. I want to justify my profession. She said I was polluting. The lady was dressed in jeans. I asked her if she had wondered how her pants were made. She started to hesitate. These pants aren’t made by destroying the environment she defended. So she was screaming at someone as innocent as her.
If you attack someone who ignores their fault it does not advance. Because he’s right in his head, he’s not at the same level of thinking as you and even as you reflect with the person you may find that your own thinking is limited. So the environment is first and foremost a question of mentality. In my work, I wanted to sculpt the mentality. I wanted to touch the objects that can question and allow all those they have the chance to meet, to analyze if they have an emotion, to analyze from their point of view, from their education. I can’t directly explain something to someone who hasn’t learned to see it. Today, I am challenged on environmental issues, I am associated with a defender of the greens. I am not a green person, I am as much of a polluter as you are. I touch on what is difficult to pin down, I show it in my everyday life. I might be ahead of some people, but that doesn’t mean I’m better than others. I am as much a polluter as the others. The polluter is my neighbour. I am an accomplice. We are complicit in our ignorance.
I still remember I worked with students on a documentary in which we talked about humanity, about humanism, about the human. In the film, there were a lot of players, and sometimes criminals, dictators, people who did impossible things in their life but who tried to explain how they had met the human despite their bad deeds. While watching the film, what interested me was showing the human side, even the criminal. Someone said, “Sir, I can’t watch this movie”. I asked her why she replied that the one who produced the film is an exhibitor (the film had been produced in part by the Béthencourt family). I replied in this way: “It is not of her in the film, that’s the subject that interests me. If someone gives you a kiss for love, will you tell them that you don’t want their kiss because their mouth has bad breath? You have to take my love. We must not reject everything! You have to ignore the smell of her mouth to take her love.”
We should talk about the environment without using that word. When we use this word, some people turn their heads, very quickly, there are people who pollute to live. They are aware that this is not good. Usually, the big polluter is the one who bans pollution. This is the state! He is the one who signs contracts with polluting factories. Then we go after consumers.
You said that in my approach I tried talking about it, that’s true, but I think the best way to talk about it is to pretend not to talk about it. I spoke about plastic in Africa. I’m not sure when I started talking about it, I meant to talk about the environment. Gradually I realized that people were sensitive, they told me that I was green.
The best way to talk about the environment is to just be human, kind, kind to your neighbour, kind to the weed in the forest. When it becomes too political a score, it no longer has much effects, because you are linked directly to a group of thought.
It’s like my job. I always say that I am not an artist. I’m just a thug, who doesn’t want to do anything, even if he doesn’t do anything, he still does something! This is how I build my environment.
I find a way to get anyone who is interested in what I’m doing to go see reality. I do not have the means to explain to the other what he must be feeling, I invite him to go see for himself.
I was born in Cameroon, where they did a bit of western humanism because they wanted to look like occidental civilization, without understanding their reality. Then they pushed the population to return to consumption. How do you explain to a person who pollutes in Cameroon, who earns money on it, therefore power, that he should not do it when it is the state that lets it happen.
Not long ago I spoke with a French thinker who works in biodiversity and asked him to explain to me, in the history of man, who could be the first green man. He was stuck. He didn’t know when we started to say that you have to be really careful with the environment.
I am not one of the first as you said. I look at the work of some artists before me, for example, Joseph Beuys, with what he called social sculpture. I am talking about mental sculpture because sculpture for me is not necessarily what we see, it is first of all what makes it possible to do things visible, palpable, sensitive. I am not from the school where you think that emotion should just be beautiful. Beauty is also ugly. To translate the beauty of the ugly one must enter into a mental sculpture. Beuys was already interested in the aesthetic relationship between inhabitants and the environment. To avoid weird behaviour, maybe you have to restructure the mentality, sculpt the mentality, that’s what I call mental sculpting. When we see a large plastic bag, it can push us towards an emotion of preserving our environment but to do it you have to have been educated in this. Otherwise, we don’t.
Thanks to Pascale Marthine Tayou and Galleria Continua for the kind concession of this interview.
Thanks to Lars Skaaning for the portrait