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CHIMURENGA@20: Midway Between Silence and Speech

The art and incarnation of Justine Gaga explores the multi-layered and emotionally complex experiences of the unidentified, adrift in the megalopolis of beyond, in which bonds between people fall away and desire and need are commodified. As Adeline Chapelle* writes, in Gaga’s “making of lonely crowds” there are no easy lamentations. (*Translated by Dominique Malaquais)

Justine Gaga moves in a space beyond gender, shadowing the distress of men, of women, of crowds she encounters on her way. Post-colonial, post-modern, feminist, humanist, African, European: her art is all of these and none of these. Little matter, Justine Gaga rejects all labels. Male/female dichotomies mean little to her. Independent and emancipated to a fault, she signs with a simple “Gaga”: no identifiable gender there, an enigma, akin to the phantom-like figure – neither she nor he nor being in between – that haunts so many of her works and is, perhaps, the artist’s incarnation.

The figure, a silhouette rendered in black or white, appears over and over in Gaga’s paintings and installations. A human body – an elongated trunk and a head; neither limbs nor features. Geometric. Standing firm and strong – very strong, but lacking a visible identity. A being stripped of land, of origin and nationality; a being radically unidentified.

“Perpetually in situ, between universes, passing through, mid-way between here, there and elsewhere. Is it coming, going, hovering, floating, walking? We never know.” So wrote Goddy Leye in an unpublished article in 2007. Three years earlier – in 2004 – the figure had begun appearing in all manner of places: in passageways, on trees, on canvas – a nomadic being, rootless (or shall we say uprooted?), exiled, made of immense emotional complexity, adrift in an inextricable urban crowd.

The global village, urban despite its name, and so very structured, stops wanderings dead in their tracks, imposes conformity, plays ugly with appearances, every day isolating a little more the figures that people Gaga’s art. Lonely crowds bloom. In Cameroon, the artist’s home, much is made of solidarity. There is comfort in numbers, they say. Yet the hypocrisy of crowds hides just that: loneliness. Utter solitude. Capitalism rules and, with it, a culture of appearances, of goods selected for, rather than by, the self. And so the “I” loses track of the “I”. Objects stand in for true desires and needs. Links between people fall away. In Douala, Guy Debord’s society of the spectacle is fast afoot and, with it, “the constant reinforcement of isolation” he describes in the making of “lonely crowds”.

Cellphones, telenovelas, US music videos, Chinese goods, beer and football are the bread and circus of a megalopolis that fails abjectly in bringing its inhabitants together – in federating its people around values that matter. Douala, increasingly, is a mix of solitude, of indifference and disdain. The city’s arts scene, historically structured around artists’ collectives (Dreamers, Kheops, Cercle Kapsiki, Kokoricos, to cite but a few examples), tries over and over to unite its actors so that, together, they might imagine collective utopias, yet teeters in the face of sabotage, ego games, power plays and influence peddling. Time and again, “the spectacle reunites the separate, but reunites it as separate”.

By way of the silhouette figure she deploys in so many of her works, and by way of the loneliness it exudes, Gaga seeks to reorient the gaze that we cast upon the world, an exercise that Paul Auster and Gérard de Cortanze refer to as “deciphering our own chaos through the chaos of others”.

In the words of Leye, who began mentoring Gaga in 2004, “the terrifying solitude that suffuses her paintings with contagious anxiety does not turn us away; it reaches out to us, beckoning us to share in life-making acts”.

Yes, life. For, though they are most often alone, Gaga’s figures are never melancholy. Much like the people one meets in paintings by Edward Hopper, whom she much admires, they suggest little in the way of emotion. Rather, they are wrapped in silence, in a sense of exclusion, but also of power. It is as if they were waiting. Solitude, here, is a state of being, not an emotion.

Citing Auster, the artist states that “solitude is not a negative thing. It is a fact. It is the truth of our lives. That and nothing else: we are alone.”

Others may surround us, even live within us, but we remain alone. Alone in the urban landscape of Douala, alone in the village of Bonendale on the banks of the Wouri River, alone in the Botswana desert, alone in Medellin, Columbia – the silhouette she paints and sculpts over and over again resists, like its maker, giving the lie to preconceived notions, chief among them the stereotype of African solidarity. And so, writes Lionel Manga, solitude in Gaga’s work “becomes a matrix for creativity and invention, an unquenchable source of poetry. No noise and bluster, here, no easy, empty lamentations on the void. For such emptiness, there is little room in the complex topology she brings into being.”

Mid-way between silence and true speech, Gaga explores the solitude(s) she encounters. As for Paul Auster, whose Solitude of the Labyrinth is ever at her side, for her it is the process of creation – the trajectory – rather than the finished work that matters most. Her focus is “the vertigo of moving forward and of doing so with ‘eyes wide open’”. Solo wanderings are at the heart of her practice. Exiles meant to save bodies and souls, voyages left unfinished, put an end to by immigration authorities, by death and drowning, the solitude of the clandestine traveller… these are the things she thinks about, most often in-transit herself.

Exitour underscored this for her: on this voyage centred on artistic nomadism and which took seven artists, on foot, across seven West African countries, Gaga learned that solitude and travel alike help her make sense of things. Manga channels her thoughts on the matter:
“Face-to-face with myself, I am as if behind closed doors, with no way out. A conclave. A confrontation. No room for lies here. An initiation thick with lessons, many a one bitter to learn, so that, lucid, I may stay the path on the crooked ways of life.”

Here, there, everywhere, the silhouette pursues her. She explains it, first, as an expression of introspection. Soon, however, it morphs into a critical observer, a witness to the times it traverses. It is her spokesperson. Its gaze is its own and hers too: the figure lost in the crowd – alone – and the figure of the artist made one. Bisi Silva, writing in Africultures about Gaga’s work, notes that there is no trace of violence here, no brutality, vengeance or anger. Goddy Leye concurs: despite the revolt at the core of it all, this is an art of reserve and silence.

Gaga’s indignant refusal to accept a society that isolates and rejects plays a key role in her practice. In Botswana, while taking part in an artists’ residency, she encountered refugees left to wander the streets, surviving as best they could. In response, her signature silhouette appeared on a tree chosen for the hardness of its shape and the roughness of its bark. The figure that resulted was wounded, its surface – its skin – ripped and its expression blank, echoing the bodies and the lives of the refugees. It appeared smack in the city centre, in a place where people cross paths, meet and do business. Quasi-absent, utterly simple and discrete in its white garb, it was akin to a phantom. Like its creator, “it saw all”. “Like a fetish!” passers-by exclaimed. The figure prompted all kinds of interpretations. Silent and simple in its ever-presence, it shattered solitude(s), inciting discussion and debate and creating unexpected links between people who encountered it.

An installation titled “The Seat of Thought” looks to the street as well. Here, we are in Medellin, Colombia in 2010, where, as a UNESCO laureate, Gaga is in residency. On the pavements live many homeless folk, men and women who sleep outdoors, alone with their thoughts. The piece evokes crowds of skulls – the heads of the homeless – abandoned to the elements. Made of 200 cardboard boxes, “The Seat of Thought” confronts viewers with simple messages, some poetic, others violent: “Listen to the silence”, “I’m fucking dying”, “help”. Literally hanging from a thread, these fragile thoughts, these unstable messages, give tangible form to the subconscious of the homeless. The piece is interactive: visitors are invited to transform it, leaving traces of their own so that they too may give voice to the lonely and silent crowd of the homeless.

Mirroring this relational proposition is a second installation that questions the space entered by those who walk through it. The piece, “Crowd of Solitudes”, brings together 200 plaster figures, each 30cm tall. It speaks to the urban landscape of Medellin, a space of discrimination in which the meeting of black and white is complex and violent. For each figure there is a “seat of thought” – 200 in all – sitting on the floor, in a mess of white plaster powder, calling forth truths that appearances would seek to obscure.

Gaga might appear calm, even serene, but inside, her anger never abates. Anger, for one, at the regression of memory and of freedom of speech so prevalent in her country. Her family hails from the western highlands. There, in the context of a bloody quest for independence, it has endured torture, resistance and flight. Violence directed at the mind, harassment and psycho-social conditioning scandalise her. Political massacres, mafia-like alliances along political and economic lines, administrative corruption, manipulations by the state and official denial of lives lost during the battle for independence, in her own words, “do her damage”.

Conscious of her role as an artist in a society dominated by the bling of appearances – to have and to look (like) – Gaga fights for projects that free speech. One such project is “3V” (Voir, Vivre, ‘Verber’ – to see, to live, to verbalise), an international poetry festival initiated by the poet Marcel Kemadjou. In this context, visual artists are invited to take part and to share their thoughts in poetry readings, debates and performances open to a wide public. Here and elsewhere, discretely, Gaga wages a quiet battle against the omertà and disinformation that characterises her country.

“Listen to the silence,” she enjoins us in “The Seat of Thought”, for to listen is to hear the hypocrisy that blinds and eats us alive, to denounce the society of the spectacle we inhabit.

“Where disinformation is named it does not exist,” writes Debord, and “where it exists, it goes unnamed.” Gaga’s work queries this affirmation.

“Untitled”, a piece presented in Dakar at an exhibition titled Kaddou Diggen – Parole aux Femmes (Women Speak Out), engages with Debord’s injunction to name things. Against a wall painted black, echoing the darkness of our cities and systems of thought, white silhouettes appear, their bodies etched in words. They tell stories – of a man, a Cameroonian, who moved the artist: once a functionary of the state, he resigned his post in disgust precisely at those things that disgust Gaga. He appears as an anonymous figure, just as he did in life – under the right governmental circumstances, terror can render mute. The point, here, moreover, is not to personify, to create (the impression of) intimate links, but to share, to transmit speech rendered silent too long. He recounts, she listens, and the figure she draws of him with his words tells truths in need of telling.

These words, this story, are those of silent crowds. The black background against which they appear is a border, a frontier of disdain, an obstacle to liberty of expression. It is the stultifying silence that casts entire countries into the void. Achille Mbembe, in his 2010 work, Sortir de la grande nuit, calls on us to exit the all-encompassing night. Gaga symbolically neutralises this night-black wall, flinging open the doors of a world warped by secrets. Silence, for an instant, is shattered.

In commemoration of our 20th year, we will be digging through our extensive archive.

This story, and others, features in the Chronic (August 2013). This issue features artists and writers from around the world taking on the philanthropic complex to unravel the philosophies of dependency and power at play in the civil society of African states. The stand-alone Chronic Books magazine is a self help guide on reading and writing.

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