Pélagie Gbaguidi, an artist from Benin appearing on documenta 14, tells C& about a career-changing 2004 visit to the Loire River in France
In the series Curriculum of Connections, we bring together critical voices, ideas, and projects working towards educational, artistic, and research practices. In this space, we learn, unlearn, and co-investigate old and new territories of knowledge systems, collaborations, and imagination.
C&: Can you describe your path into art? How did it all start?
Pélagie Gbaguidi: I remember a particular day very clearly. I was four years old, my brother and I were in the house, and we saw a chameleon. We stayed nearby and observed it, and then something happened. The chameleon changed its color to match my brother’s jacket. I was fascinated! To me, these kind of astonishing moments are what open the doors of creativity.
It seems to me that sensitivity is a type of “chameleonic skin” from which we can understand the world. I think that the predispositions of becoming an artist are the extension of a body, a living process. This process is made up of encounters, intuition, determination, and infinite hazard. Art opens doors that never close.
C&: You describe yourself as a contemporary version of a griot, a person who transmits a culture’s knowledge and thus becomes a keeper of that nation’s history. Could you describe that approach? And why did you feel the need to inherit that role?
PG: I define myself more as a “contemporary griot” than a visual artist. This is part of the traditional form of storytelling in Africa. Around the year 2000, I decided to appropriate this heritage myself and it became my statement:
The “griot” questions the individual as he or she moves through life by absorbing the words of the ancients and modeling them like a ball of fat that they place in the stomach of each passerby with the ingredients of the day. In the practical sense, they break the commonplace rhythm by inserting subtle incidents integrating their part of eternity.
My artistic engagement led me to face identity issues, such as the history of Black people and their relationship with the world throughout time. These historical events also helped me to better understand contemporary cultural and economic issues. For a long time, I was caught up in “the primordial rape of Africa” that has been going on over the last 400 years. I was caught up by the destruction of an imaginary, by this “accident” that was slavery in the evolution of civilizations. Can we then speak of a clash of civilizations?
Then, in 2004, I went to the Loire river in France, which was a turning point in my career. I participated in a residency project linked to the Dakar Biennale. During my stay, I rediscovered Le Code Noir; it was on a display at a book fair. It was a revelation for me, a sepulchral place in France testifying to the tragedy of the slave trade. I learned a powerful lesson there: If you’re running from history, it will eventually catch up with you.
C&: And how does the griot intervene?
PG: As a griot, I bring historic events from the past to the present, in a kind of timeless syncretism where the future is perpetually remodeled by our past actions. There ensues a questioning quest for new aesthetic forms of orality: What is the place of orality in the contemporary sphere? Is orality an architecture of language? How is it transmitted today through the digital revolution? Is this important for the survival of the human species? A lure? A fiction.
I also challenge “collective amnesia,” which becomes an issue in reconstructing an intelligible world and in preserving a field of knowledge through the archives. It would be interesting if the information from all the archives circulated. If it was analyzed, redesigned, and rewritten for the sake of moving forward in history.
My vision as a griot is a commitment addressed to the community by speaking through different media, by creating a bridge between the traditional and the contemporary. My work revolves around the idea of seeing speech and image as signs that need to be deciphered and transmitted.
C&: You often reflect on the theme of “downfall” in your work. Through the paper boats in your Boomerang exhibition, for example, and through intense drawings that show humans falling down, falling apart. What draws you to this theme?
PG: My approach to downfall was forged by the encountering with historical archives and places of remembrance. This established an entire creative process and a research into new icons to create a visual database of contemporary trauma. The idea is to make trauma visible and work towards its acceptance. In a way, this helps us to learn from the mistakes of the past and link them to a better understanding of today’s society. Humanity’s downfall is possible, both at a symbolic individual level and at a global one. To me, all genocides have the same root. So, why should we separate them? Just to decorate libraries?
The Boomerang installation of 2009 raised questions about immigration and awakened in me the fact that there were historical backwards and forwards to reflect on. We can see how the exploitation of resources and all kinds of predations on the African continent perpetrated during the seventeenth century is still alive today with the deregulation of products. Not to mention the violence that it continues to generate. The title Boomerang came to evoke, in a way, the image of the conquest of the world by Western civilizations in the sixteenth century and the superpositions we find today with the massive influx of immigration to Western countries.
C&: Can you tell us a little bit about your work at the documenta 14?
PG: My contribution to documenta 14 will be part of my most recent research on the visibility of trauma in visual art. My project was conceived in South Africa. The encounter with this country was an emotional and spiritual breakthrough. The project is called The Missing Link: Dicolonization Education by Mrs Smiling Stone. It has taken root around the collision between the Cradle of Humankind near Johannesburg, different sources of documentation on apartheid, and my visits to memorial sites.
My encounter with the archives of Soweto, especially the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum, triggered a radical awareness of the involution of mentalities on the chessboard of the world: the increased racial discrimination, sexual discrimination, xenophobia, and dehumanization by economic superpowers.
Today, the transmission of knowledge deserves a wider and deeper debate. At the heart of UNESCO’s mission, there is the will to transform lives through education, to build peace, to eradicate poverty, and to promote sustainable development. However, one could also add “the eradication of the ideology of race, the living species on the earth” (Bruno Latour) or “the circulation of world archives” (Achille Mbembe). How can we hold onto the tragedy of Soweto? The sacrifice of these children, who carry an ideal for all of us? This is the moment in which we learn from the past.
With all this process of research and reflection, I created a statement for documenta 14 that synthecizes my thoughts and my work:
How might education contribute to
purge from consciousness that there exist no
under-beings but that the birth of a
life is a value in itself.
That every human has a right to a
The installation is composted by: school desks, photographs, glassine paper sheets, drawings made with colored pencils, earth, and lipstick on transparent paper, and a video called Relink.
This Interview was first published in the latest C& Print Issue #7. Read the full magazine here.