Loaded with baggage and living in cages

Belgian-based Cameroonian artist Pascale Marthine Tayou’s installation, LOOOOBHY n.50, opened at Goethe on Main last Friday.

Arriving early, I found Tayou — a star of the African art world who has shown at the Venice Biennale, the Guggenheim, on the Africa Remix exhibition and at the National Gallery in Berlin — sitting in darkness outside the open gallery door.

The area around Arts on Main, where the gallery is situated, had been affected by a power cut. Copper thieves had hit the relevant electricity substation, leaving the inner-city neighbourhood in darkness.

As we waited for the generator to restore power, Tayou explained some of the concepts behind the work.

Much of the art on show takes the form of wrought-iron gates that are adorned, where locks would be situated, with African carvings. The gates have been installed on the inside of the gallery, with vivid photomontages on the walls directly behind them. Each gate forms a composite landscape.

“Are you in front of the gate, or behind it?” Tayou asked, once the lights had gone on, as we were viewing the work.

His installations play on the local obsession with security, something he has found in Jo’burg, which no visitor to the city can fail to miss. He believes that South Africans carry this gate, this baggage, around with them inside their minds.

To some it may at first glance appear to be slightly clichéd, yet in fact Tayou provides an interesting insight into this aspect of Jo’burg psychology. The gates refer to insecurity, a lack of confidence in one’s neighbours; they play with concepts of incarceration and freedom.

“What does it mean to be safe and to be insecure?” Tayou wonders.

“Who is an angel and who is a devil?” Behind one such gate, titled the Bobo Gate, there are illustrations of a character from a children’s story he has made up. It is about a boy who in his dreams tries to reach the moon in a home-made rocket.

Another, titled the Marigot Gate, suggests a creative solution to problems of water in Africa. This is a working graphic for a large sculpture depicting a mammoth two-storey-high table upon which have been placed all sorts of factory-made buckets and bowls. These, one assumes, would catch rainwater.

Carved wooden men from Mali, which the artist had purchased ready-made for inclusion in the work, sit inside another gate making a comment on the neocolonial demand for African craftwork. A fourth gate is made up of collages of photos, including a picture of Tayou’s parents’ shack in Cameroon.

On the gallery walls Tayou has placed neon signs displaying community messages taken from a wall in Yeoville where migrants offer or request different services, such as French or English lessons, and rooms to rent. “I am looking for a lady to share a big bedroom with in a clean flat asap,” reads one sign. “I’m a single lady looking 4 single lady 2 share bedroom,” says another.
“Yeoville is a paradise,” comments Tayou, perhaps with irony. The question is, for whom?

Johannesburg is fortunate to have an artist such as Tayou working in it. He has brought humour, with a cynical edge, to a cultural landscape somewhat lacking in experimentation.

Since the city is void of cultural spaces, it is possible that art installations can make the place feel less dysfunctional. The fact of Tayou’s presence here reinforces the importance of Johannesburg as a place where vital discourses can happen about art production.

“This country for me is the future of the world, of humanity,” says Tayou. And then, in his playful manner he calls his own conclusion into question: “That’s my reading of this society anyway. But maybe it’s not true.”

LOOOOBHY n.50 runs at Goethe on Main at Arts on Main until August 4

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