Into the Vortex

Hervé Youmbi’s work explores the perils of longing for an art-world ‘centre’, writes Dominique Malaquais

Blinded by the Centre: Totems to Haunt Our Dreams

In news and film reportage, magazine specials and NGO sensitisation campaigns, considerable attention is paid to locations in Western Europe and North America that Africans risk life and limb to reach. Place and pathos are presented as coterminous entities. Little concern is shown for other types of quests: the desire to reach places in the so-called ‘North’ not because lives depend on it, but as part of carefully thought-out plans to construct alternative futures, strategies devised to maximise the identity of given countries or cities in the ‘developed world’ as loci for commodity consumption and as commodities in and of themselves. While immigrants hailing from other parts of the world – Asia notably – are commonly depicted on the move, searching for new homes as part of coherent, long-term plans, Africans are typecast as refugees. Freedom of choice rarely figures in the picture. Rather, African immigration is usually ascribed to the need to survive.

A 2010 installation by Hervé Youmbi1 takes preconceptions of this kind to task. Entitled Totems to Haunt Our Dreams, it considers the fascination that certain places exert on African imaginations wholly outside the ambit of daily survival. These places, Youmbi tells us, become veritable ‘fetishes’ or ‘totems’ (he uses the two terms interchangeably) in the eyes of those who dream of reaching them. This is so, he explains, because of the aura they have acquired as symbols of success. Youmbi has in mind museums, galleries, auction houses and international art fairs. All located in the ‘North’, these are distinctly bourgeois enclaves, a far cry from the inner-city squats and assorted interzones that the media and art market tend to favour as saleable expressions of what Africa is ‘about’.

If the shift in gaze that Youmbi proposes comes as a welcome move away from pathos-ridden clichés, it is not a happy foray into a world of moneyed possibilities. Equal parts humour, irony and cold appraisal, Totems is also a call for change, a demand that artists in the ‘South’ do for themselves what others – ‘Northern’ art world mavens, governments and bourgeoisies in Africa – will not: evacuate tired centre-periphery arrangements to develop spaces from which artists can define what is relevant to them and make this relevant to the market. Artists in the ‘South’, Youmbi argues, are blinded by the MOMAs and Guggenheims, the Louvres and Sotheby’s’ of Euro-America. Their ability to see and thus move effectively is impaired; all peripheral vision and any sense of what lies ahead is lost, as if they were confined to a maze. This hampers collective action. United in a proactive approach, artists across disciplines could demand that ministries of culture in their countries develop institutions: schools, libraries, community centres, museums. Instead, they move forward in far less effective single-file trajectories, and often get lost along the way.

Totems brings this argument to life. The work is in two parts: an ephemeral labyrinth of stacked travel bags – the totems proper – and a photo gallery of giant portraits of artists from ‘developing’ countries sporting sunglasses stencilled with the logos of major ‘Northern’ art spaces. Johannesburg-based filmmaker Thenjiwe Nkosi and multimedia artist Mega Mingiedi (DRC) wear glasses with the logo of Tate Modern. South African performance and visual artist Senzeni Marasela rocks MOMA shades. Cameroonian photographer Patrick Wokmeni wears the logo of FIAC, the major European art fair. Sculptor Ndary Lô (Senegal) peers through lenses adorned with the Louvre pyramid. Others join them: Goddy Leye (Cameroon), Emeka Okereke (Nigeria) and Nduwhite Ndubuisi (Nigeria) wear Tate; Justine Gaga (Cameroon), Liyolo Puanga and Pathy Tshindele (DRC) roll for MOMA; Judith Cyamala (DRC), Salifou Lindou and Joseph-Francis Sumegne (Cameroon) celebrate the Louvre; Fodé Camara (Senegal) wears FIAC signage. The logos make proper vision impossible. All that the wearers can see, in a kind of reverse dystopia, is the flip side of the totem-space adverts on their eyewear.

The portraits are arrayed, white cube style, around the columns of travel bags, among which viewers are invited to wander in search of meaning. The bags, filled with Styrofoam and stacked two, four, six and ten feet high, are the type that travellers from the continent use to ferry goods for sale on very different markets: preserved foods, cloth, cheap manufactured items from China, masks denigrated by ‘serious’ collectors as tourist art. Each bag, like the sunglasses, carries a ‘high art’ logo. The entire installation folds and rolls into a suitcase and a few poster tubes. It’s art ready-to-go, prepared for a headlong rush across oceans should the ‘centre’ come calling.

Youmbi does not stand above the fray. He identifies himself as one of many appalled by the totems game, but satisfied all the same to taste its bourgeois pleasures. Hence a self-portrait that he shot in Johannesburg, in which he appears in glasses stencilled with another kind totem: an iconic work by Andy Warhol, in the shape of a dollar sign. Several artists whose portraits grace the Totems installation wear Warhol’s dollar: Vincent Assiga, Kiripi Katembo, Joël Mpah Dooh, Androa Mindre, Asia Nyembo, Barbara Prézeau and Hervé Yamguen.2 Other art world icons show up as well. Among them is Damien Hirst’s diamond-encrusted skull, For the Love of God, which hinders the vision of Soly Cissé, Maksaens Denis, Elise Fitte-Duval, Joseph Gaylard, Koko Komegne, Bill Kouélany, Koura Shomali, Barthélémy Toguo and Dominique Zinkpè.3 Takashi Murakami’s Puti Panda appears on glasses worn by Roger Botembe (DRC) and plans are underway to photograph still other artists sporting lenses with images of Jeff Koons’s silver rabbit and golden calf. These and other icons show up on the bags that make up the columns at the centre of the installation, alongside the logos of major art spaces.4

The focus on money and fame in the installation is fraught. On the one hand, it points to the fact that, like others, Youmbi dreams of being exhibited in the ‘North’s’ espaces fétiches (his term). On the other hand, it underscores his objection to the economics and politics of a world in which he and his peers have little choice but to lust after such things. Complicating matters further is the artist’s experience of yet other forces that shape where and how works like his are exhibited. The story told by Totems is not simply one of artists on the ‘periphery’ aiming for the ‘centre’. It is also (and equally, I would argue) a tale of that centre gaining power and prestige from engagement with what the art market persists in defining as the ‘outside’: with Africa and the ‘South’.

The fetish spaces quoted in the installation gain a great deal from instrumentalising the African Other, who is brought in in carefully calibrated dribs and drabs to spice up an art-world in need of re-enchantment.5 Thus the Louvre, which, a few years back, gave itself goose bumps by exhibiting a work by Yinka Shonibare in a show on the nineteenth-century British draughtsman William Hogarth, or FIAC, which each year includes one or two African artists, a drop of coveted ‘otherness’ in a sea of European creators. A complex back and forth is at work, the installation suggests, in which ‘Southern’ artists reaching for the centre exist in a symbiotic, but unequal, relationship with an art world core calling on them to bring itself into being. Conceptually, this evokes a vortex6 into which the artist risks being sucked, reduced to a commodity, even as s/he actively commoditises the fetish space(s) in which s/he dreams of being put on display. The maze-like forest of columns at the centre of Youmbi’s installation gives tangible form to this state of affairs. It is a place in which one risks losing oneself – a place of danger and, ultimately, violence.

Still, there are alternatives to getting lost in the forest of fetishes. At the same time as he is intent on highlighting the pitfalls of the system to which the Other/artist is confined, Youmbi is determined to think through how this system can be countermanded. One tactic he finds promising is building artist-to-artist networks that operate outside the sphere of established institutions. To this end, wherever he travels in Africa, he seeks links with local artists and art collectives. His goal is to create a web of spaces within and through which the work of African artists can be appreciated by African audiences. The intent is not to invent spaces that can replace museums in Europe and North America, but ones that exist alongside them. It is to evacuate long-standing centre-periphery models and replace them with multiple, equal and coeval centres – to develop new paradigms.7

Hervé Youmbi, Face2Face (detail), 2003–7, video stills. Photos: Hervé Youmbi

Read more in the current issue of Art South Africa 11.2, on shelves now.

Dominique Malaquais
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN ART SOUTH AFRICA V11.2