ABOUT TOTEMS

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Ces Totems qui Hantent la Mémoire des Fils de Mamadou ("Totems" for short) is an ephemeral, movable installation by Cameroonian visual artist Hervé Youmbi. Totems looks at the impact of globalised capitalism on the visual art world of the African continent.

 

Totems is a two-part piece: (1) an ephemeral architectural space made of travel bags and (2) an exhibition of large-scale photographs. The photographs are a series of 15-35 portraits of artists hailing from the “developing world”. The artists’ eyes are hidden behind dark sunglasses whose lenses have been stenciled with logos: the logo of a major museum (Louvre, Tate Modern, MOMA, Pompidou Centre, Guggenheim Bilbao), a famous gallery or auction house (Saatchi, Sotheby’s), an international art fair (Art Basel, FIAC, Venice biennale), or the stylized rendition of an iconic contemporary artwork (by Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, Xiao Gang, Andy Warhol, Takashi Murakamo…). The glasses, rendered opaque by sheets of vinyl that make it all but impossible for their wearers to see, are symbols, simultaneously, of contemplation, admiration, envy, longing and alienation.


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At the heart of the installation, surrounded by the photographs, is a cluster of columns. These are the totems. Their building blocks are cheap travel bags piled on top of one another, similar to brickwork. Like the sunglasses, the bags are adorned with logos. They are symbols of hope for achievement and fortune and express a spirit of exploration and conquest. Fundamental to their meaning is the kind of bag they are:  a type of carrier used by millions of Africans daily, as they travel across the continent and beyond - an object so common that it recently made its way onto haute couture catwalks (Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton in 2007). They speak to the central place Africa occupies in an increasingly mobile globalised world and to the complex effects that this accelerated movement has on communities and individuals.

Like the bags themselves, the installation is highly mobile. This is an intrinsic aspect of the work, made possible by the materials used. The bags are made of plastic-reinforced fabric and the photographs are printed on tarpaulin. All of this is easy to pack and quite light: two suitcases and a roll of plastic tubing do the trick. The piece travels with the artist as checked luggage. On arrival, the bags are filled with foam and stacked on top of each other. The resulting columns are light, stable and easy to manipulate.

The principal components of the work were designed and assembled in Douala, where the artist lives, and Aba (Nigeria). Then, with the support of Art Moves Africa (AMA) and Culturesrance, the installation hit the road: Dakar first (May 2010), followed by Johannesburg (June 2010), Cotonou (July 2010 on the invitation of Culturesfrance) and Kinshasa (October 2010), with other cities to come.

Developed with travel in mind, Totems is very flexible. It is designed to be shown in a wide range of locations, in ways that best accord with the parameters of spaces it enters. Physical as well as historical considerations impact how the artist mounts the piece in each city he visits. Everywhere, particular attention is paid to interfaces with the public.

Each time it moves, the installation changes. One or several new components are added, reflecting the artist’s stay (2-3 weeks) in each city and his encounters there with members of the local arts scene. Totems is not one but many pieces, shifting and ever in flux.