For Galleries Curate: RHE, Stevenson presents recent portraits by Barthélémy Toguo and Mame-Diarra Niang in its Amsterdam space.
Galleries Curate is an informal group of contemporary galleries from around the world, formed as a result of the universally felt global crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic. The coalition focuses on a supportive sense of community and co-operative interactions through collaborative exhibitions designed to express the dynamic dialogue between individual programmes. RHE is the first chapter of this collaboration, an exhibition and website themed around a universal and, we hope, unifying subject: water. Like culture, water is never static but always in flux.
Ours is the final exhibition of the project. Looking back, one can distinguish two distinct approaches to the theme of water. On the one hand, there is the political and economic aspect, manifesting in climate refugees, water shortages and privatisation of natural resources. On the other hand, there is the mythical and poetic potential of water: water as image and metaphor. Each of the groups of work in the Amsterdam show illustrates one of these impulses.
In his wood carvings, sculpted from the Zingana trees found throughout the country, Toguo pays homage to the sufferings and joys of the residents of the settlement of Bilongue, not far from his Cameroon studio. He remarks:
I chose the title of Bilongue because of the inhabitants of this neighbourhood in Douala. I lived and worked here for months in 2015 while preparing for All the World’s Futures, Okwui Enwezor’s Venice Biennale. I met incredible people and told myself I had to come back to Bilongue to portray them. These are people who left poor cities to come to Douala and figure themselves out. They came to settle down in a very challenging area. And they live there and survive there daily, not through violence but through solidarity. When there is a need, one runs to help the other. It is a flat area so there is a lot of stagnant water. When water floods the house of a neighbour everyone helps them, and so it goes on. I went to capture the images of their faces to tell them that in this difficult city of Douala, they exist as heroes.
Léthé, the new series by Mame-Diarra Niang, also consists of head-and-shoulders portraits, but that is where the similarities end. Her previous project, Call Me When You Get There, was a response to the artist’s desire to travel at a time when movements were severely restricted. Scanning the globe from her Paris home using her computer, Niang photographed its screen with her Fujifilm X-T2 camera. In this new series, she uses the same technical set-up but takes a different conceptual approach.
The series takes its title from the Lethe river of Greek mythology. Also known as the river of forgetfulness, or oblivion, it was said to run through the underworld of Hades; the souls of the departed would drink its water to forget their earthly lives in order to be reincarnated. Writes Niang:
My work has always been about memory and forgetting. What makes a self? I have come to think of the self as a territory made of well-curated memories and erasures. The Léthé series places us where being itself is a forgotten monument; where even the most persistent conception of identity dissolves in front of us. We have to forget what we were in order to become anew … Naître et n’être rien.
Toguo’s portraits are austere, tactile and monochrome, while Niang’s are joyous, digital and colourful. Juxtaposed, the two bodies of work use the iconography of the portrait to explore the universal. They remind us of the parallel economic and psychological crises we are faced with today; or, put differently, of our outward and inward struggles and discoveries.
The exhibition coincides with Amsterdam Art Week (17-27 June 2021).
Find out more about the collaborative network behind this exhibition in a conversation between Joost Bosland and Sadie Coles in our newsletter.
See the Galleries Curate website for more exhibitions, special contributions and texts themed around water.