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Nkhensani Mkhari shares his thoughts on Barthélémy Toguo’s latest exhibition at Stevenson, Johannesburg, South Africa.

Installation view of ‘Life on Earth’. LEFT TO RIGHT: Song of flowers (Bandjoun Station), 2023. Mosaic, 161.5 x 147.5cm. Underwater wander, 2023. Ink and acrylic on canvas, 200 x 200cm. Humans and their environment, 2023. Ink and acrylic on canvas, 200 x 200cm. Courtesy of Stevenson.

The opening of art exhibitions has, for me, always birthed a strange and unsettling sensation. The pressing swarm of crowd(s) and the clamour that ensues remain ceaselessly alien. After I moved from Johannesburg to quite pastures, the feeling just got augmented. So the morning I decided to go see Barthélémy Toguo’s ‘Life on Earth’ showing at Stevenson Gallery Johannesburg, I was extremely anxious or perhaps excited – twin dispositions eternally entwined within my corporeal frame. Yet, I knew a couple of things that gave me comfort:

  1.  A dialogue had been shared the prior night with one of the directors, assuring me of the tender diligence devoted to this display. 
  2. The show was back to back with Zander Bloms’ monumental exhibition of paintings in Cape Town 
  3. I wanted to engage critically with Barthélémy Toguo’s work for years now as I found resonance with the artist’s anthropocentric thematics and admired how low key they were. 

This helped me relax and align my chakras in the Uber on my way to the show.

Stevenson Joburg always felt, well, like home. Strange thing to say about a commercial art gallery. This is a space where one has partaken in repasts, heralded comrades’ triumphs, raised voice and felt its resonances, etching an aura of belonging. At Stevenson I had found a space of comfort, generosity and belonging. Entering this exhibition, I felt verfremdungseffekt on a spatiotemporal level. Stay with me; the previous exhibition was titled ‘Club House’, made of a series of holistic interventions, the experience was a masterclass in the ‘paracuratorial’ – those orbits and adjunctive practices dwelling tangentially outside the formal exhibition structure. What unfolded was a crystalline synthesis, a simulacrum of the clubhouse, inverted in essence. 

Installation view of ‘Life on Earth’. LEFT TO RIGHT: Germination (Bandjoun Station), 2023. Mosaic, 174 x 141cm. Une autre vie (Another Life), 1993 – 2023. Archival pigment ink on Baryta paper, 60 x 42.5cm. Une autre vie (Another Life), 1993 – 2023. Archival pigment ink on Baryta paper, 70 x 49.5cm. Courtesy of Stevenson.

Barthélémy Toguo’s art navigates the intricate terrain of identity, traversing the realms of personal and communal belonging amidst the ever-shifting tides of globalisation and cultural interplay. Hailing from Cameroon and resonating internationally, his multidimensional oeuvre unfurls a vivid tapestry of human experiences, woven with threads of migration’s trials, environmental urgencies, and incisive reckonings with power dynamics. Toguo’s creations, a symphony of mediums and textures, form a resonant chorus of social critique, exuding an activist spirit that probes the sinews of inequality, casting a discerning eye on the pulse of both local and global narratives. Through his tactile evocations, he invokes the intimacy of human connections, inviting viewers to engage with the visceral palpitations of shared emotions. In this, Toguo not only illuminates the intricacies of African art’s contemporary dialogue but also weaves an artistic praxis that merges ancestral echoes with the urgencies of our time. I remember looking around, saying to myself, flute in hand, this is why I’m here. 

The exhibition takes on a multivalent transdiscpilinary approach with sculpture, mosaic, video, watercolour paintings and photographs. With titles like ‘Water Seeker’ and ‘New World Climax’ there’s a beckoning urgency to the exhibition. A cosmopolitical tension of what’s to come and what has been. In the photo series titled ‘Another Life’, we find limbs and the human body juxtaposed against trees. In my culture, trees bear a weighty significance, embodying the intricate weave of existence shared between humans and the natural world. As intermediaries between realms seen and unseen, trees stand as repositories for ancestral spirits, facilitating communion and guidance from the beyond. 

The reciprocity between humans and these majestic beings lies in the nourishment they bestow and the spiritual guardianship they provide over sacred lands. Wisdom courses through their arboreal veins, their cyclic growth mirroring the profound rhythm of life, death, and rebirth, where elders gather to impart sagacity under their verdant canopy. Medicinal properties and healing energies reside within their forms, while their branches and roots symbolise the axis mundi, connecting the cosmic realms in harmonious unity. Beneath their boughs, rituals unfurl, cultivating unity and spiritual cohesion among communities. In this diverse tapestry of African beliefs, trees serve as envoys of sacred connection, threading the profound dialogue between humanity and the cosmos. 

Installation view of ‘Life on Earth’. LEFT TO RIGHT: The New World Climax (Inegalité), 2001 – 2023. Wooden stamp, ink, 24 x 55 x 49cm. The New World Climax (Illegal), 2001 – 2023. Wooden stamp, ink, 22 x 49 x 29cm. Courtesy of Stevenson.

But then you got these trees, right? And they’re not just trees, no. They carry a weight, a shadow, a history. They stand as witnesses to extraction, forced sweat, the grind of exploitation, and the bitter taste of dispossession. But you know what else they carry? Loss, and that feeling of being cast away, exile.

Trees are a recurring symbol in ‘Life on Earth’, trees and people. Toguo’s figuration is a symphony of stories and silhouettes. These bodies, marked by the intricacies of migration, carry the weight of worlds on their skin. See, they’re not just figures; they’re living texts, narratives written in the scars of movement. Their forms, never just singular, are a chorus of histories, like a choir of voices singing the melodies of displacement. You feel the rhythm of their existence, a syncopation of belonging and yearning, as if the lines that contour their shapes are tracing the pathways of longing. These figures, they don’t stand alone; they stand in the midst of each other’s echoes, a constellation of presences that remind us of the multiplicities contained within a single frame. They’re like the verses of a song, an ode to the diasporic spirit, a visual riff on the blues of existence. And in this cacophony of shapes, Toguo captures the grace and struggle of humanity, composing a visual poetics that resonates with the echoes of shared journeys. This comes through in everything Toguo has touched. 

Installation view of ‘Life on Earth’. Courtesy of Stevenson.

As the whine of that flyback transformer from the CRT TV hums its melody, I’m pulled into the final chamber of this exhibition’s river. A sly grin finds my lips, grounded in the uncanny familiarity of it all. It hits me: I’m running low on champagne, so I step outside for another pour. Friends and kin surround me, faces known like an old song, the air brimming with the pulse of youth, the comfort of togetherness. It’s an echo, distant but resonant, of the warnings etched into the exhibition’s core, a testament to what we’re recklessly enacting upon our dear Mother Earth. How do we abide, dancing to the tune of tomorrow’s certainty, when every whisper, every leaf rustling, insists it might not be so?

Toguo’s art, it’s like a ghostly echo of where we stand together. It tells us that the Anthropocene ain’t just rocks and soil, but a chorus of tales, our fragilities, and all we’ve got to answer for. His works throw down the gauntlet, making us wrestle with the force of our actions, urging us to conjure fresh tales that wade through the abyss between our smarts and the earth’s salvation.

Nkhensani Mkhari (b. 1994) is a South African post-disciplinary curator and artist. Their broad praxis spans from the philosophy that ‘the medium shapes the message’. They describe their work as a queer meditation on transience, aesthetic sociology, and redemptive imaginaries to explore what individuality is, what collectivity is, and what it means to share space.

The exhibition will be on view until the 29th of September, 2023. For more information, please visit Stevenson.

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