Interviewed by Dzekashu MacViban
Last month I introduced a collaborative project Bakwa was working on with Tito Valery in the article “Black and White are Colours Too: the Ambitious Experiments of Tito’s Photography”, wherein I discussed the experimental nature of Tito’s black and white photography, highlighting the fact that his upcoming exhibition, Da(r)kar Faces includes large-scale black and white close up film grain portrait pictures of humans with different expressions taken in Senegal between May and June 2014.
Tito’s experiment doesn’t just end with an expo which is scheduled for the end of this month (watch this space for more details). It goes beyond that because it serves as a springboard for another experimental project which will focus on the modus operandi involved during the creation of art and end with a collective exhibition.
Artists from different artistic disciplines (photography, video, Installation, painting, performance and sculpture) will form a team and record their individual creative processes in the form of blog posts which will be published on Bakwa, enabling readers to observe and comment (or ask questions) on the artists’ creative process, a phenomenon which most artists prefer to do in isolation.
Dzekashu MacViban: For your project Da(r)kar Faces, you have decided to move away from conventional exhibition spaces, seeking rather to transform an everyday area into an art hub. Why did you decide this?
Tito Valery: I guess it has something to do with the fact that I’m not a trained visual artist. Anyway, the thing about conventional art spaces in Cameroon is that sometimes the places considered as art galleries are small art stores where people just add gallery to the name in front and another reason is that the real art galleries in Cameroon are booked and only feature acclaimed artists, which is totally understandable because they are running a business.
In Of Curating and Audiences; Art at Work, Simon Njami states that “The question of the exhibition is intimately bound to that of the audience.” Thus, by setting up an exhibition outside its consecrated spaces (museums, cultural centers & art fairs), do you intend to attract a different audience, say for example, the man on the street?
The main reason why I’m taking this exhibition to new spaces is first of all, definitely to attract a new audience because I’m not looking to do art for people who are art collectors and want to buy art and hang in their rooms or add to their art collections, that is why I like the description “experimental” because I don’t expect people to understand or like it but I’m expecting people to be intrigued by it. I want people to feel something when they look at the work, and the people I have in mind here are everyday people, that is why I have to expose my work in everyday places and I have chosen a lounge which is also a café. Its audience is not the kind of audience you’d expect to focus on art and ask a sophisticated question, but then that’s the kind of audience I meet and interact with every day and those are the kind of people with whom I want to share my work, those people who are not found in conventional arts spaces.
Anyway, this project is experimental, and I have previously exhibited my work in conventional art spaces, both public and private but now my work is taking a different direction.
The way your projects flow into each other (the Da(r)kar Faces exhibition resulting from an OFF event of the Dak’art biennial, leading to an experimental documentation of the creative process in My Africa Is…, which ends with a group exhibition), gives the impression that these projects have been on your mind for a while. For how long have you been planning these projects?
I haven’t really been planning them per say for long, it is more of my recent participation in the intense curatorial course organised by the CCA and Bisi Silva, and meeting all these amazing artists from all over the continent like Kwesi from Ghana, Vasco from Mozambique, Taiye the meticulous sculptor from Nigeria, Eza and Rafiy, the painters from Togo and Benin…
I felt that these artists had something more than they were giving, or being allowed to show, and to me it was a natural evolution because my work was questioned a lot, especially by the Global Critic Clinic. During this course we had talks on curating and constantly, the need for the artist to engage in curatorial processes came up, and at the end of it, most artists who are also curators, like Dana from Zimbabwe, contemplated the dilemma of being an artists and a curator. Thus, the fine line between what you are supposed to do and what you are not supposed to do is something that kept ringing in my mind so I thought about doing something interesting and experimental, involving different artists and art forms which will be co-curated by the artists themselves.
Consequently, linking the Da(r)kar Faces exhibition to the longer one involving several artists is just natural because Da(r)kar Faces is supposed to introduce the other project, My Africa Is…, as well as support it financially, and , back to your question, they have been on my mind, but I had to be sure what direction my work was taking first
For an ambitious long-term project like the My Africa Is…, how did you choose the selected artists, who are they and how often would they meet?
I am interested in working with artists who are young; not in age but in the mind, artists who are subversive, daring and crazy, because as Viye Diba says, if you don’t surprise and shock the world as an artist, then you might not be pertinent. I’m not saying we should go out and do naked art or porn art.
I am particularly interested in working with artists who have a vision about their work and are very verbal about it too, that is, I’d rather work with artists who can communicate what their work is about rather than artists with really good techniques who can’t communicate because the raison d’etre of the group exhibition is to document the work-process involved in the creation of art online (on Bakwa). These artists are all Cameroonian, though from the start I wanted to make it an international project but due to inadequate logistics and other factors I changed my mind, plus, the project is self-funded.
The artists for now include Landry Mbassi, Stone karim, Happi Elundu Stephan, Antanasius, but as the project evolves, all the names will be made available.
As a participant of the 2014 Dak’art Biennial, how would you asses the importance of such a structure in legitimizing African art. Is it possible that it may inadvertently impose its vision on the notion of African art? I have in mind an article written by Fenneken Veldkamp for Savvy, which posits, echoing the opinion of some present, that the winner of the main prize of the biennial in 2010, Moridja Kitenge Banza, from the Democratic Republic of Congo was chosen because he was a ‘safe choice’ as winner of a biennial that takes place in Africa, since his work dealt with slavery and offered an alternative world.
The biennial is a particular event which brings together so many people from around the world that are making art, but to me I think the choices will always be safe choices, because the biennial is an institution and the exhibitions are curated; that means that the pieces of art which are exposed are not the choices of common people but of curators that have been picked to curate the exhibition. Every biennial has its curators and they choose works of art depending on the theme of the biennial as well as what they consider to be contemporarily relevant at that time, but who defines what is relevant at that time is the question that we should be asking. Anyway, coming back to the story of safe choices, this year, there were so many questions about identity, like who decides what good and contemporary African art is?
The problem about safe choices is complex and involves many factors, like the fact that it is an African Biennial on African soil, involving the crop of African artists and curators, thus, who gets what is always going to be a cause of contention and I find it even more intriguing that this is written in a German journal, Savvy.
Independent and artist-run art spaces in Cameroon have multiplied in the past five years. Do you think it is because the public is gradually becoming aware of the importance of art or can other reasons explain this phenomenon?
I think that artists are fed up with the bigger art spaces, the institutionalized art spaces, and have decided to take things into their hands because the selection process is usually long and tedious, besides, most galleries prefer to be safe and exhibit the work of artists they know will sell, because, it is after all a business. The fact that artists have decided to take things into their own hands isn’t happening only in Cameroon, it is happening all over the world. Many artists are running their own art spaces, take for example Nduwhite, the Nigerian sculptor, who was part of the Asiko Art Project this year, he is doing his own thing, because you need to be in control of your work and the way it is presented.
Exhibiting your work in major spaces is good for exposure, but artists can’t just sit and wait that is why independent run art spaces are important.
Tito Valery is a freelance journalist, TV host, photographer and BBC Arts Hour Cameroon correspondent.
Interesting short but deep overview of African contemporary art by a non-trained visual artist. I only have one comment about the chosen location of the next exhibition. Is it really a venue where you’ll get in touch with the kind of audience one meets and interacts with every day? Plus the place isn’t really an open kind of place (though unconventional), on a geographical basis. I wonder how such issues could be discussed.