Monday, 10 August 2015

Emmanuel Kavi Does France by Joe Pollitt


Exhibition at Beautiful Art Gallery, Vichy.
Artist: Emmanuel Kavi from Togo

Playwright Arthur Miller, wrote his famous one act play, "Incident at Vichy" in 1964, which observes a group of men detained in Vichy, France. The men are all held in a makeshift detention cell, awaiting the unknown. What they are being held for soon becomes apparent, their “racial inspection” by the gendarmes sous Vichy and officers of the German army during the Second World War. The play dissects the true nature of human-beings, focusing on what has been done in the town and how easy tyranny and intimidation can dominate the weak majority. The themes of this short Play revolve around the ideas of guilt, fear and complicity and examines how the Nazis were able to perpetrate the Holocaust with so little resistance. 

With this troubled history in mind, to hear of a Congolese man, Christian Miltoni, had set up an establishment supporting the artists of Africa in the centre was quite remarkable. I could not wait to see the art and discover new works by the francophone artists. The gallery has only recently opened in January and is called, “Beautiful Art”. This is an ambitious project and the location is perfect; right in the heart of France. Vichy has an ugly history and it seems only fitting that an African Gallery should heal the wounds of the past this event was crucial. The importance of Africa in Art has yet to be fully realized but the works are similar to the Vichy waters; they rejuvenate, keep us young as they are full of original and inventive philosophical approaches to the subject. This fundamentally reminds us of the importance of Art.

It was interesting to see those on the streets taking such an interest in Emmanuel's work and engaging in ideas their parents would have found abhorrent. The French are a nation of Art Lovers and this is the one aspect where race has not barrier and the paintings were professional and personal, exhibited with a sensitivity that is rarely seen in the main stream. 
The work has such strength when shown together and the potency was not lost on the Vichy public. It was clear that the work was authentically organic and uniquely West African. The canvases were filled with messages of mythology and creative beasts, known and unknown. It was a luxury to see such a well constructed and curated solo show.

Two Faced
We must ask ourselves what is African Art?    What makes it different from European Art? What should we be looking for? We are acutely aware that the two forms of Art are seriously worlds apart. Emmanuel is a pioneer here and leading the way by harnessing all that is good in his environment from digging the land to work with, to weaving strips of cotton to make up his canvases. He works with professional leather dyers and has an interest in all those that make colour naturally. He even adds pieces of bark to create texture and depth showing his deep respect for nature. He is reducing and reducing himself down to nothing; expectant of nobody and reliant only on what he can find around him. This is the absolute polar opposite of the work being produced by artists in the West. Their works are over produced, created with huge budgets and constructed on a scale that mentally dwarfs the onlooker, leaving the audience in a state of a false impression. The work is overwhelming and generally leaves nothing for the imagination. It is plastic in all kinds of ways and devoid of feeding the mind so it high time for Africa to rise and come out of the shadows and play a pivotal role in our present day thinking.

On Saturday, July 4, I journeyed to Claremont by Ryan Air, which is Volvic country and then took a train up to Vichy, famed for its pure waters that are thought to have healthy properties. Held in the centre was a Mid-Career Exhibition by the Togolese artist, Emmanuel Kavi. Emmanuel has been working on various projects since the early 1990s and I stumbled across his artwork in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, back in 2003. I had kept in contact with Emmanuel but only via social media, so I was overjoyed to meet him in person. His work in 2003 was lively, full of hope and vigour, the type of work that can only be created within the comfort of Africa. Thankfully, in October 2014, Emmanuel made the decision to base himself permanently in Togo rather than France. He quickly re-established himself by joining four other artists who, together, work in a large studio located just outside the capital, Lome. In June Emmanuel proudly invited me to France to see his new works. I was thrilled to be asked and delighted to see that his works were breathing the same perennial energy as before. Certainly one of the favourites with the French audience was this erotic work entitled "Metamorphose".

The gallery was packed, the art was everywhere; displayed on the walls, on the floor, on shelves and Emmanuel had made these humanoid creatures that calmly sat on the windowsill in full view for the curious French public. This was the most comprehensive African exhibitions I’d seen in years. It highlighted an artist at his best and outlined what it means to be from a country where there are no recognised Art Colleges, galleries or even art shops. It is fascinating to watch artists with absolutely no access to materials like; paints, canvases, easels, brushes, white spirits and see what can be achieved with the bare minimum. On the walls there where paintings with pieces of bark, crushed cola nuts which made an impressive deep blue/purple, there was evidence of sand and plenty of the familiar rich Togolese soil. In the window of the gallery was the boldest piece of work I have seen in decades. An “Informel” naked African coming out of a canvas. Made up of mesh and the red earth found outside the city in the countryside.. 

In the window. In full view of all the passing French art lovers - Right in the centre of France. Vichy of all places..VICHY? Those that refer to these artists as,"Artiste de plasticen", what a vulgar phrase, typically french and trying their best to push the artists of Africa down like they did the writers with the phrase "Nigritude" - Artiste de Plasticen is a phrase specifically used for African artists and it means those that paint, sculpt, create ceramics, write poetry and even dance. But if you were to ask but was Picasso not an “Artiste de Plasticen”? The answer you would get is, "Non, Picasso est une grande Artiste period." Look what Emmanuel has done...the emerging naked African ready to take on the art world. Who can have asked for more? The whole show was full of bold work, stylish and full of fresh new visions coming from the francophones.

La danse du salon

It took me ages to understand but I was beginning to make the connections and links to post-war France, back to an exhilarating period in Art History; France’s “Art Informel” in the 1950s. This sea-changing period gave rise to the “Cobra Movement”; artists from Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam also the abstract movement throughout Europe and had links to the NY School of abstract expressionism in the USA. Surprisingly, this runs virtually in parallel with Contemporary francophone West Africa of now. For the artists to become international they will inevitably have to develop a movement of some kind and this is imperative for the Africans in general. Emmanuel and I spoke about this paradigm and it became evident that the artists had already inaugurated such a Movement; in fact they had started as far back as the last century; in the late 1990’s. Most of the serious artists were working with only the essentials, preferring to reject the techniques and ideals of the West in favour of making do with what was available from their immediate surroundings. This way the artists graciously accepted their fate and overcame the pitfalls by being creatively inventive. The Group hadn’t really seen themselves as anything other than individual artists but they share the same vocation so together Emmanuel and I settled on the aptly named phrase - “Afrique Informel”. In establishing this Movement the artists will be assured a place in history and also acquire the necessary changes needed in order to be accepted into the World of Art without the dreadful Imperialistic oversight of an unnecessary and unwanted Western qualification. The Group has essentially evolved from a series of French speaking West African artists: Emmanuel Kavi, Kossi Ankude “Laka”, Papisco Kudzi and Sokey Edorh from Lome, Togo; Soly Cisse and N’Dary Lo from Senegal: Suzanne Ouedraogo, and Sama from Ouaga, Burkina Faso; Ernest Duku from Cote D’Ivoire and Charly D’Almeida and Romuald Hazoume from Cotonou, Benin. All these artists are reducing their palettes and working with the essentials. They use natural dyes as pigments, the red soil, discarded metallic objects for sculptures and even the barks of the trees on handmade canvases in order to add texture but I digress; let us focus in on the work at hand. Back to the gallery....

In walking through the exhibition the art was almost overpowering and then in the back was a small box room, the light cozy and warm but the work was in stark contrast; it was full of scratches, claw marks of frustration and passion. The room was filled with items of significance woven twigs attached to material glued and painted over. The build up of a scream appearing within the centre of the canvas; a face trying to be heard or even transmitting the possibility of a subtle attack on a fragile audience.

On one of the shelves, next to the entrance to the back room quietly perched a relatively small work that many may even have overlooked. The artwork was almost in darkness and certainly overshadowed by rather impressive larger works, but there among the many and standing solo with an air of confidence,  was "Abreuvoir", looking remarkably like a exhibition of it's own. This work really touched me to the core so much so that it seemed to speak to me in ways I haven't heard or felt before. It said, 'I am a cave painting, I am primitive and proud. I have nothing and nobody to fear for I am part of the primitive, unashamed of my shortcomings, my crudeness, my nakedness, my ability to hunt and kill for my family if need be. Now in a time when all want to over develop and progress it is essential that we hear the counter arguments posed by artists who are thinking that if the cave paintings are still of such importance and the Constables, Stubbs and even Théodore Géricault are secondary to the rock art it only makes sense to respect the origins of mankind and echo their ideas on handmade canvases. These are the  voices that represent values held by the majority of  those thinking.

Dialogue du corps

The art was strong and evoked the sense and spirit of the idea of "Otherness". That secret knowledge of the spiritual and the unknown; things Western audiences are slightly frightened of. The unspoken and uncontrollable fear of the unpredictability of darkest Africa. Works like these are not seen in the mainstream as they are truly African with that unique sense of independence and rebellion that the establishment desperately tries to keep a lid on. These works are full of natural, raw and untamable talent, they are some of the best never seen works ever. They deserve their own classification and a movement to be born out from them. They are far from tepid and essential for our progressive international thinking on the overdeveloped series of the best of African art.

The boy in the corner nearest to us is crying as he reads the newspaper.

Somehow the timing of this Movement seems perfect. Back in the 1980’s Jean-Michel Basquiat joined friends he had met in NYC from Cote D’Ivoire and wanted to introduce the world to the creativity found in Africa, especially the work being created by Francophone West Africans. He was blocked, stopped in this tracks and ridiculed by the Media. Sadly, this young talented artist tragically died of an overdose in 1988 aged only 27 and his vision for Africa was never realized.  Since that time the Art World has not taken any risks. The best artists are not being celebrated or applauded and a total commercialization of art has taken shape since Basquiat’s demise. The market has aligned itself with the uncouth 'nouveau riche', so African Art is a welcomed change. Today, the Contemporary Africans are being seen, heard and respected. Thanks to technology and social media the artists are far more visible than ever before. These original and indigenous artworks are the perfect optimistic antidote to overthrow the beastly arena of the opulent vulgarity that is the Art World.  

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