Climbing Down, the centerpiece of Barthélémy Toguo’s exhibition at Art Brussels, is a set of bunks, stacked several meters high with criss-crossing ladders and adorned with large shopping bags. The installation gives a simultaneous sense of nostalgia and claustrophobia. While the beds recall childhood “bunking in” with classmates and siblings, they also evoke places one would perhaps not want to remember: forced transports, the army, prison.
But the style of the bags strung around the bunks hone the reference and tip the viewer off as to whom the implied inhabitants of this preposterous structure might actually be. It is not children warm at home, but rather today’s migrants, on the move and far from any sense of home at all.
The debate raging in the West about immigration often refers to the reality of the massive movement of humans across borders as an “issue” or a “problem.” What the debate often neatly omits, however, is the subjectivity of those humans, their desires, their ideas, their individual histories, their … humanity. In all the abstract wrangling over economic and socio-cultural implications, the voice of the migrant him or herself is rarely heard. Climbing Down relocates the migrant experience and grants it a place where it is subjectively spoken rather than objectively observed. According to Toguo, this work:
Addresses notions of being wrenched away, uprooted, and inhabiting a precarious space–though not without a certain humor. It shows the tensions that exist between the public space of the home and the private sphere, in which everyone attempts to rebuild his own universe.
This is represented by the bags that often contain the few effects that migrants have brought with them, as well as memories of what they left behind. Overcrowding and over-stacking make for the impossibility of an intimate space. Due to its size, the installation will elicit astonishment and capture the imagination, thereby focusing attention on a painful subject.
(Image: Barthélémy Toguo, Climbing Down (installation view from Musée d'art moderne de la ville de Saint-Etienne, France), 2005, Mixed media installation. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Lelong)
Toguo is no stranger to the migrant reality. Born in Cameroon in 1967 and educated in the Ivory Coast before traveling to Europe to continue his professional development, he has been constantly on the go. Yet the label of international art star and a CV that encompasses performance, drawing, sculpture, printing, bookmaking, installation and exhibitions in several continents does not help him get through customs any faster.
Politically outspoken in a number of media, Toguo’s themes consistently return to the lack of fluid mobility and the invisibility accorded to the migrant, as well as to the migrant’s unheard story. The work Climbing Down will be accompanied by African Spirit, drawings made with ink, cutout and collage that reflect on African myths that accompany the traveler as he or she plunges into new worlds. Additionally, the video, The Thirsty Gardener, shows someone watering a flower pot of US dollars in hopes that they will “grow.”
Meanwhile, around the installation will be bananas, and viewers will be invited to smash them. The banana, an export of the global South, can be taken as a metaphor for both exploitation and sensuality. To crush them is political protest (perhaps against unfair low price-fixing imposed by the West), yet it is also a sensual, sweet experience.
(Image at top: Barthélémy Toguo, The shame, 2006, Performance with Marie Denis, FRAC, Marseille)