Barthélemy Toguo: Urban Requiem
MARCH 15 – MAY 11, 2019
It started with a passport. For artist Barthélemy Toguo, movement through the world was tethered to the small book he was required to carry when he traveled, within which his progress could be tracked at every border he tried to cross. In the 1990s, he began thinking about the black stamps of customs agents that blotted the pages of his passport, and of the comparative freedom with which colleagues living in the European Union could move from place to place. The stamps became for him the visual mark of the policing of humans, historically tied to the tattooing of prisoners and the branding of slaves.
For Urban Requiem (2015)—the eponymous work of his show Barthélemy Toguo: Urban Requiem at Galerie Lelong & Co.—Toguo, who currently lives in France, makes his own stamps, using them to echo the refrains of protest from activist groups around the world. The artist gathers faceless wooden busts, which are hand-made in Cameroon and almost life-size in scale. Flipping the busts over, he carves words into each base, incising slogans or catch-phrases from recent political movements in reverse. Prints created by slathering the bases of the busts with black or blue ink and impressing them onto large sheets of paper hang on the wall at the back of the gallery: “We are All in Exile.” “Blues for Mr. Charlie.” “Black Lives Matter.” “Don’t Shoot.”
The repurposed wooden forms are cumbrous and awkward to maneuver, but they function as a simple means of spelling out the cries of discounted, unnamed individuals. They can be used repeatedly to print multiple replicas of their messages, and the impressions they make of the slogans are large and visible. Toguo stockpiles the used busts willy-nilly onto eight stainless-steel shelving units which resemble A-frame ladders, each step extending from front rail to back. Standing agape in the gallery, the shelves take on a sculptural feel, with each bust becoming an anonymous person loaded onto them more like cargo than individuals. I think of slave ships, prisons, refugee camps, detention centers.
The word slogan trickles into the English language from Irish and Scottish Gaelic; sluaghairm (or sluagh ghairm) literally means the cry of the crowd, but is translated more accurately as “war cry” or “uprising.” Reading the imprints, I begin to think of the events and situations from which these phrases were coined; the sorrow and anger that gathered groups together and inspired a swell of activism that hoped to realign the social construct in the fading days of the Obama presidency. My eye catches a phrase pinned close to the floor that reads, “Yes We Can,” and another that reads, “Hope”—both vestigial thoughts dating back to Obama’s 2008 campaign—and I can only sigh.
Across the gallery, a few wooden busts lay abandoned on the floor in front of another wall onto which more fliers have been pinned. Four years after beginning the Urban Requiem project, Toguo has returned to the work, carving and stamping new slogans: “#TimesUp.” “Republica De Mexico.” “Take a Knee.” “Love Trumps Hate.” To this current iteration, he adds the even earlier refrains: “Silence = Death,” “My Body, My Choice,” and “War is Over, Imagine peace.” Each new print in Urban Requeium (2019) expands the collective voice the ongoing project captures, underscoring the fact that the stamps and prints are still far from obsolete.
In a smaller room in the gallery, charcoal portraits of Michael Brown, Korryn Gaines, Kisha Michael, India Beaty, Walter Scott, Philando Castille, and Charleena Lyes—Black Americans killed in recent years by police shootings—hang on the walls, imbuing the room with the feeling of an ante-chamber in a funeral parlor. In Black Lives Matter, Walter Scott (2018), traces of the wooden slats which support the canvas intersect over Scott’s image like crosshairs. Scott was fatally shot in the back while running from a police officer in Charleston, North Carolina in 2015 after being pulled over for a faulty break light. In Black Lives Matter, Michael Brown (2018), the evidence of a single slat running vertically through the image of the 18 year old who was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014 creates a sense of prison bars. Collectively, the duotone portraits take on the feel of police photos, underscored by Toguo’s choice to retain the pencil lines of the grid initially laid down to guide his hand as he navigates the compositions of each victim’s face. Toguo’s choice to not erase the lines give each work the sense of being unfinished, like the lives the drawings commemorate.