STEVENSON is pleased to present Strange Fruit, a solo exhibition by Barthélémy Toguo – his first in Johannesburg and his second with the gallery, following Celebrations in Cape Town in 2014.
In Strange Fruit Toguo addresses recent upsurges of racialised violence. The title of the exhibition is taken from the song first recorded by Billie Holiday in 1939. The lyrics describing black bodies in the aftermath of lynching are a protest against racism, drawing attention to it as a corruption of nature that culminates in death. The song begins:
Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swingin’ in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees
The tree installation at the heart of this exhibition thus becomes an allegory for racism. Toguo presents this social stain as complex but conquerable; it has the capacity to grow and produce ‘strange fruit’, but it can also be razed. Like the song, the installation and the paintings in this exhibition combine imagery of viscera and vegetation. The recurrent depictions of tendrils reaching deep into bodies read as both vital and violent.
Toguo also presents a series of gun sculptures carved from wood. These respond to the broader phenomenon of violence across the globe. By rendering them in wood – carving machinery from organic matter – Toguo severs guns from their function. As objects wielded by terrorists and freedom fighters, used in defence and killing, adopted by leftist and rightwing movements, fired accidentally and in calculated malice, their power, Toguo reminds us, lies with the human who is both perpetrator and victim.
Based between France and his birthplace of Cameroon, Toguo is responsive to issues affecting the global north and the global south. In 2013, novelist and culture writer Brian Keith Jackson noted that ‘though Toguo’s work may accentuate some of the sufferings of Africa, they extend to those going through the same trials, wherever they may be’. Indeed, following the recent Bastille Day attack in Nice, Toguo asked ‘How could I not be sensitive to the many situations of distress that our world meets today?’ Toguo’s is not just an art of activism however; it is infused equally with criticality and a sense of wonder.
Toguo is one of four artists nominated for the 2016 Marcel Duchamp Prize, a prestigious annual award given by the Association for the International Diffusion of French Art; an exhibition by the nominees opens at the Pompidou Centre, Paris, in October.
The exhibition opens on Thursday 1 September, 6 to 8pm.