New York

Barthélémy Toguo

Robert Miller Gallery

Born in Cameroon in 1967 and now living in Paris, Barthélémy Toguo deploys various strategies to address the subject of cultural hybridity. Humor, parody, deliberate overdetermination, semantic dexterity, and medium-specific virtuosity are prominent among them, as was evidenced in this recent exhibition of work made over the past ten years. The mainstay of the show was a large installation to the rear of the gallery, which one entered through a curtain of white mosquito netting. Inside, the same material was draped, veil-like, onto a series of wooden cots stacked with clothes, evoking an African hospital ward of the kind set up by Catholic missionaries. The floor was tiled with banana-shipping boxes, with a monumental heap of stuffed-to-bursting blue-and-red-checked nylon shopping bags in one corner and an array of similarly full thrift-store suitcases in another. The installation thus brought into play several of the systemic feedback loops bound up in the asymmetrical power relations of globalization. A concrete example was proffered by the work’s title—“The AIDS issue cannot be solved thanks to the distribution of condoms” Benedict XVI, 2009—which paraphrases a statement the pope made on his way to Cameroon last year. It was hard to miss the medical and moral ramifications of this statement in the mosquito netting “protecting” lifeless figures (the clothing) from malaria-carrying insects but not from a virus that requires less permeable protection.

Several paintings and drawings also in this space took up directly related themes; among them was a group of airy sketches on paper in ink and acrylic portraying nuns and saints along with graphic depictions of their sexual fantasies. In other works within the installation, the connections were more tangential—for example, in a series of poster-scale, ink-jet prints of photographs taken around Paris, from “The Path of Life,” 2005. In the four corners of these prints, Toguo placed black playing-card clubs. These clubs also featured in works outside the installation, adorning a group of large watercolors depicting the body under duress: skin penetrated by nails, a cacophony of decapitated heads spewing ribbons of colored vomit, a woman’s outline pissing onto outstretched tongues. Through their dispersion, the clubs took on a somewhat sinister coding, perhaps even metonymic for aids, crossing borders both legal and organic, occupying multiple social, cultural, and formal contexts. They also operated as an artist’s tag with pleasingly distancing mechanistic properties, as if saying, This is not just a poster, or, This is not only a painting—it is part of a wider system of distribution.

In a world that trumpets the freedom of global exchange, Toguo’s “Transit” series, 1996–99 (eight actions, each represented by a photographic “relic” and explanatory text), demonstrates the actual difficulties of travel for most people. In Transit 1, 1996, Toguo travels to a French airport where he has previously been searched. His three bags, which he has had constructed out of solid wood, are, as expected, painstakingly prodded and scanned. For another work, Transit 8, 1999, he travels to Helsinki without a visa to experience for himself the horrifically unsanitary conditions in the “waiting area” where undocumented travelers are kept. Much of this series tests the gray area between legal codes and socially policed norms, as when Toguo wears a large wooden hat carved with an X (after Malcolm) onto an airplane in Düsseldorf, or boards a business-class coach in a high-speed train from Paris to Brussels in a brand-new garbageman’s uniform. Both incidents raise the ire of passengers and transport officials, to which Toguo responds with deliberate naïveté.

Throughout his oeuvre, Toguo dramatizes his negotiation of a minority status that brings the body up against the perceptual limitations of majority culture. Yet his work also transcends this problem. If Toguo’s quasi performances, elaborate mise-en-scènes, and representational depictions rehearse the fraught intersections of Western and African culture, they do so with an auteur’s eye. Toguo stages the postcolonial condition as something of a grand burlesque, the exaggerated nature of which invites alternative projections.

Bartholomew Ryan