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"The Medium is the Message:' ART AFRICA In Conversation with Emo de Medeiros

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Emo de Medeiros is the Invited Artist at this year’s edition of THAT ART FAIR. The Beninese/French artist has shown his work across the globe (including the Marrakech Biennale and the Palais de Tokyo in Paris), and was recently selected for Dak’Art 2016. His participation at THAT ART FAIR marks his debut in the ‘Southern’ market. In the following interview, the ‘hypermedia’ artist speaks to ART AFRICA about his practice as well as the pioneering concepts that inform it. The artist also delves into the renewal of traditional platforms and the evolution of the role of the artist.

AA Newsletter 25Feb Emo1Emo de Medeiros, detail from Night Kaleta, 2015. Digital Fine print on Vellum. All images courtesy of the artist

ART AFRICA: You are the Invited Artist at this year’s edition of THAT ART FAIR, which marks the first time your work will be exhibited in South Africa. What are your impressions and expectations of the ‘Southern’ market?

Emo de Medeiros: First of all, I’m very happy and proud to have been invited to THAT ART FAIR and I am delighted to work in South Africa. Not only because it’s Nelson Mandela’s country, but also because of a spiritual coincidence: I met a South African collector in Florence a few months ago, who told me that it was a complex, fast-changing country, and therefore interesting regarding the emergence and diffusion of new artistic forms. She urged me to visit and show my work in South Africa… and here I am six months later! Besides, I am very pleased to discover South Africa through Cape Town, not only because it’s one of the largest and most multi-ethnic cities in Africa, but also because it’s a harbor city much like my two home cities where I work and live, Cotonou and Paris. Harbours are hubs for exchanges and interactions of all sorts, where people and cultures coalesce and collide, places where transformations happen, laboratories that diffuse innovations and mutations.

My impression of the ‘Southern’ market is that it’s an emerging market bringing about new visions, involving a new generation of artists, curators and collectors. I’ve just come back from Lagos, where I witnessed the same kind of takeoff. I am very excited to discover another African scene different from West Africa.

I’m also looking forward to discovering it by being the invited artist of THAT ART FAIR: I think TAF is a great initiative, that is a harbinger of the global art market’s future: it is both Pan-African and global, it welcomes galleries and artists alike and embodies what ‘emergence’ stands for: bringing innovative practices, thinking out the box, inventing new perspectives. I feel completely in sync with this evolution, which could be a first step to a revolution in the art world.

THAT ART FAIR has a strong focus emerging artists, a number of whom are unrepresented. What is your view on representation and what is your opinion on the role of events such as THAT ART FAIR in this regard?

I think gallery representation can definitely help an artist’s career. Established galleries are the traditional outlet of artworks and point of access for collectors, as well as being one of the sources of legitimation. When they are professional, they also provide valuable resources, efficient communication and publicity. A good relationship between gallery and artist can also be a source of interesting creative discussions.

That being said, the key words here are ‘established’ and ‘professional.’ Established means they have a solid and active network of curators and collectors. Professional means that they have strong curatorial knowledge and are proficient in communication and marketing, which should include new media. They also need an ability to be bold and take risks. I have had the experience, before I accepted any gallery deal, of selling my work myself, some of which now belongs to prestigious collections. I have shown my work at the Palais de Tokyo and the D’Dessin Paris Contemporary Drawing Fair, both in Paris.

I have done several solo and group shows which put me in a much better position to choose which galleries to work with and to decide with whom (and in which countries) I wanted to collaborate with. I think social media has changed the game: artists can now build their own network, show and sell their work online and have a choice in whether they want to work with a gallery or retain complete freedom, all while still making a living. New models have become possible. I think an event such as TAF is in harmony with this state of things. By renewing the traditional model of the art fair, it constitutes a sign that change is happening fast and strong.

AA Newsletter 25Feb Emo4Emo de Medeiros, detail from Surtenture #05 (...since ghosts and dogs shall fight until the end of time), 2015. Fabric, paint, NFC chips.

You define yourself as a ‘hypermedia’ artist – what does that mean?

Hypermedia is a reference to hypertext. It means that I work in a wide range of media, establishing multidirectional hyperlinks between their properties and symbols – material and conceptual. As Marshall McLuhan famously said, the medium is indeed also the message. I am not only interested in what is multidimensional, but in what is ‘hyperdimensional,’ like the notion of hyperspace and quantum physics. That’s why I like to mix and remix elements from very different corpora, which results in works that have “variable geometry.”

For instance, in my ‘Electrofetishes’ series, which are deliberately anti-exotic and anti-folkloric, I remix Beninese culture with the bocio (ritual statuettes) and French culture with the readymade. I add NFC (near field communication) chips that allow the works to actually exchange energy with the viewer, or rather the ‘experiencer.’ The same is true of my ‘Vodunaut’ series, in which I use cowry shells, but once again to refer simultaneously to their history as a currency and to their paradoxical symbolism as a visual marker of Africa, even though they are very rarely found in Africa itself. The symbol that they represent and the fact that I love to use them as a material comes from the fact that they embody the value of the ‘Elsewhere,’ the transcultural value of luck and the notion of a point of view (since they can be seen as an eye, a mouth or a vagina). They are a far more complex visual symbol than one first thinks. In this series, I hyperlink this seme to other semantic networks by incorporating smartphones that display a video series of mine, called ‘e-canvasses,’ made of seamless video loops that stand between photography and video. I filmed this series on four continents. Each video contains references to classic painters (Canaletto, for example) but also to silent cinema. The fact that I use smartphones also implies that I can, in the future, remotely modify the pieces, extend or change the videos or add interactive elements such as movement detection. The electronically connected component allows me to create works that are virtually in constant evolution.

AA Newsletter 25Feb Emo2Emo de Medeiros, Vodunaut #2 (Hypercharger), 2015. Helmet, cowry shells, paint, plastic tubes, smartphone.

Your work is built upon the concept of contexture, the creation of which is driven by three processes: pulse, improvisation and collective participation. How do these elements manifest in your video piece Kaleta/Kaleta (shown at the official opening of THAT ART FAIR) and in your other works?

In the case of Kaleta/Kaleta, the pulse is the uniform tempo of one hundred and thirty-three beats per minute, to which the sounds, music and video are all synchronised. The word Kaleta refers to a tradition created in Benin by freed AfroBrazilians who came back to Ouidah (Benin) during the nineteenth century. The Kaleta tradition is a unique mix of European and Brazilian carnival and American Halloween that includes Abomey’s (the capital of Danhomè kingdom) Zinli dance moves among other Beninese traditional dances. This mix genuinely embodies the specific Beninese talent for syncretism. Born from the wounds of the slave trade, this tradition is far from being any sort of lamentation. On the contrary, it is a tribute to resilience. Not only to human resilience but also to cultural resilience, because this tradition is passed on exclusively by children. It represents children’s unique capacity to transmute horror into joy through play and transformation.

Kaleta is performed only by young boys, who gather in temporary and spontaneous bands during the New Year period. They go from house to house, dancing and playing makeshift instruments in exchange for small tips. The musicians and singers never wear masks and their percussive instruments are made out of reused material (cans, bottles, pieces of scrap metal etc). The dancers are always masked and never talk. They communicate only through gestures and only respond individually and collectively to the name of Kaleta.

Kaleta/Kaleta was first shown at the Palais de Tokyo (Paris) in 2014 as a performative and monumental video installation, where the hall in which it was shown was divided into two spaces. In one of them, the ‘Kaleta space,’ the ‘experiencers’ (or ‘spectactors’) wore masks on which I had intervened with spray paint. The masks were free to the public and they could keep them both as a physical memory of their experience and as an art piece. I later had the pleasure of seeing them displayed as such in several places, including the home of a well-known collector. The second space was the ‘Persona space,’ a reference to the psychoanalyst C.G. Jung’s concept of the ‘social mask,’ in which people were free to either wear a mask or not. Kaleta/Kaleta incorporates hundreds of audio and video bits that can be infinitely recombined, each time producing different pieces and performances. Its music incorporates traditional percussions of Benin, Brazil or Cuba, Jamaican dub, Chicago house music and Nigerian afrobeatz.

The improvisation part is that in all versions of the piece, the dimensions and the media are variable (what I call ‘variable geometry’) so there is an element of improvisation. In the installation, the videos play in random order, so the piece is never the same. In the performance instantiation (‘instantiation’ is from the language of computer science, I use it to refer to the specific materialisation of a piece at a specific moment) I play all elements, music and video. Even the film I showed at the official opening of THAT ART FAIR is the result of a video improvisation that I played on a keyboard and then re-edited.

Regarding collective participation, it happens essentially during the installation instantiation. Visitors, even those who do not want to actively participate in the installation, become part of the piece as soon as they enter the hall where it is set up, since they are the object of the masked gaze of other participants and they can shift constantly between the role of performers or spectators, or stand in-between. In the ‘Kaleta space,’ on the masked side, it’s a really interesting experience to be surrounded by people wearing almost identical masks or to freely stare at other people without any embarrassment because of the protection that the mask provides.

The pulse can also be visual, like when I use repetitive rows of cowries, or in video loops, or in my musical works. The collective participation comes from the fact that most of my pieces demand action from the ‘spectator’ (for instance in my series ‘Mempo,’ one has to come face to face at close range with a mask in order to see the video that’s displayed inside). Regarding improvisation, I like to take risks and modify pieces at the last moment. During my last exhibition in Paris, I finished hanging some works while people were already there. I decided to modify one of the Surtentures on the spot and at the last moment added part of an instantiation of Pavillon du Bénin, the piece that I showed at the Venice biennale’s Giardinis.

AA Newsletter 25Feb Emo6Emo de Medeiros, detail from the video Kaleta/Kaleta (stills), 2014.

The interactivity in Kaleta/Kaleta blurs the idea of the artist as the originator and the creator of art and the piece would remain largely unrealised without participation. What does this imply about how you perceive the role of the artist?

I wouldn’t actually say that the piece would remain largely unrealised without participation: this statement is only valid for a specific performative installation that needs strong participation from the visitors. But it is realised in other instantiations, for instance Kaleta/Kaleta as a multiscreen video and sound installation or in its purely musical or film version, such as the one I showed in Paris and at THAT ART FAIR’s official opening, or even as the photographic version (also shown at TAF). These are all different instantiations of the same piece that resides largely in its concept. The degree of participation is different, on a continuum going from actively watching (I always hide meaningful details in the pieces) to dancing or densely interacting with other ‘spectactors.’ It is still the same artwork, some aspects of which are more prominent than others depending on the context. Once again it’s a piece with ‘variable geometry.’ The medium is part of the message, so it’s in a way similar to looking at a statue from different angles, like different two dimensional ways of looking at a three dimesional object.

Regarding artists, to me they are essentially – as Ezra Pound wrote – antennae. But they are also catalysts: they crystallise visions, ideas and experiences that are latent and manifest them. I personally think, like Mondrian, that they express a spiritual reality. I create this link in my own practice, in my ‘Electrofetishes’ series for instance, by literally charging the works with active spiritual and artistic energy. Moreover, I also feel this role as a catalyst when I work with craftsmen who manifest, during the realisation of the pieces, something that comes into existence through them after manifesting through me. It is my creation, but it also incorporates their craft and their mastery, and implies a three-tier exchange between ‘them and me’, and something that is beyond ‘them or me.’

AA Newsletter 25Feb Emo7Emo de Medeiros, detail from Surtenture #07 (…for the crown shall rest on your head, or your head on the crown), 2015. Fabric, paint, NFC chips.

Your works on fabric, such as Surtenture #8 (…for the crown shall rest on your head or your head on the crown) and the creation of works in collaboration with Beninese craftsmen is reminiscent of South African artists who also work with local communities and craftspeople. What do you make of the fact that work from Benin, made by an artist who has never been to South Africa, resonates so strongly with artists here in SA?

I think it has to do with several factors. Considering the idea of artists being antennae, several of them can tune in to the same signal. I think it also expresses the fact that art is universal, our first and last contact with spirituality, which essentially functions in a quantum way and therefore implies synchronicity. Besides, I think this movement of incorporating a collective element in the process of creating art has social and political meaning and reflects the fact that fundamentally, art is a collective phenomenon. Creation has a mysterious element to it that allows very different people to come together and make it happen.

In arecent interview you made comments about style, saying if it’s done to better evolve the corpus, it’s a positive thing, but if it’s done to enhance the brand-visibility or marketability of the artist, it is negative. As an artist who is gaining acclaim throughout Africa and internationally, how do you navigate this balance? What advice would you give to other emerging artists?

For me, navigating this balance simply has to do with maintaining my integrity. I don’t create artworks that would “fit my style,” and I think my corpus attests to it. I strive to try new things, to venture out of my comfort zone and to explore and experiment as much as I can. On the other hand, there are recurrent directions, materials and themes that I work upon because I haven’t finished exploring them and because they transform over time. I think style flows from what an artist deeply is. My style and what is reflected in my work stems from the fact that I have a double belonging, that I’m simultaneously completely Beninese and completely French and that I fully embrace and live my syncretic and mutant identity as a human being, beyond any idea of ethnicity.

So the only advice I could give other emerging artists is to unapologetically embrace who they are, not to be afraid to explore different directions, to never exert any kind of self-censorship, to never blindly accept that things should be done in a certain way and to keep working in spite of what others may say. Do your thing, keep at it and as we say in Benin “let them talk....”

You have a studio in Benin and work between Cotonou and Paris. What are some of the starkest contrasts you experience as an art practitioner working between two such different cities?

First of all, the starkest contrast is within myself. I grew up in Benin and my father was a filmmaker (I say ‘was’ because even though he is still alive, I can’t seem to convince him to continue filming) so the visual universe that appears to me when I am in Cotonou always has a feeling of homecoming, transformed by my having lived elsewhere. My family comes from Ouidah and I went through spiritual rituals in Benin, so when I’m there, I feel the spirituality everywhere. Even visually or conceptually, I sense two realities coexisting, much more than in Paris.

Another difference (this time external) is that art is taken far more seriously in Paris. There are many more venues to show one’s work and opportunities for artists to be in contact with the global art world. Besides that, on a purely creative level, the relationship to time is really different, and therefore the inspiration also is. Paris is faster and more cybernetic, Cotonou is deeper and more organic. I need both environments to do what I do.

Finally, you took part in the Marrakech Biennale just a few weeks ago. What was your experience of the biennale and how was your work received in North Africa? Well received, I guess, but you really never know! Actually I was selected for the Marrakech Biennale but I am also selected for this year’s Dakar Biennale, Dak’art 2016. Beyond immediate reception I think it’s very important that the local public in Africa be exposed to the continent’s contemporary art scene, similar to how in Europe, art from different countries is shown all over on the continent and beyond.

Apart from this, the format of the biennale is instrumental in connecting the continent’s creations to the global art world, and not just as ‘African art.’ Does it make any sense, except marketing-wise, to talk about ‘Asian art’ that would lump together Chinese, Japanese and Indian art? Is Anish Kapoor an ‘Asian artist?’

 

Emo de Medeiros' interview is featured in the March issue of ART AFRICA titled 'Looking Further North' which will be on shelves soon!

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