C& met the artists Guy Wouete and Serge Alain Nitegeka to talk about the context of migratory experiences in their work, and the tragedy of Lampedusa.
C&: Tell us something about your time during art school. What was the beginning of your artistic journey?
Guy Wouete: I decided to go to art school only in 2009. I was already an artist and had my career. I was trained at the Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten, Amsterdam. Banksy said, “Exit Through the Gift Shop”. Well, I say, “Exit Through the Academy…” I became an artist by accident, in a positive sense. When I was 17 and grew up in Douala , I met the sculptor Yia Simon who introduced me into his artistic world. At one point, he asked me to work for him. So that was when it all began, in 1997.
C&: For which reasons did you decide then to go and study at the Rijksakademie?
GW: I just needed some new challenges. Before, I learned from studio to studio in Douala. I became a sculptor and a video artist using photography and installation. I had shows taking place in Douala and other places in Africa, also at the Biennale in Dakar and the festival in Algiers as well as many other shows and residencies in Europe and so on. By being permanently on the move, I was in the permanent search of challenge. So at one point, I needed a space where I could deepen my research. During this process, Goddy Leye was also a great mentor to me. He was able to understand my approach to mix different media.
Serge Alain Nitegeka: I didn’t have an idea already where my artistic journey would lead me when I started art school at the University of the Witwatersrand. It is like one of those rare moments in life where you pack your bag and go for a random drive, hopefully to find yourself. The roads ahead intertwine and unfold and before you know it, you are being lead somewhere familiar – where the universe needs you to be. It is like one of those life-changing experiences. I started wanting to become an artist the first time I set my foot in art school. However, I only started to see myself as an artist during my second year of study. I felt like there is nothing else that I wanted to do in life. I’m very good with my hands and art is a practice I can utterly immerse myself in. I like having an idea and seeing it become an object; an idea becomes a painting. I was fascinated by the mechanics of translating ideas into something. Trying new things. Experimenting.
C&: Have you ever thought about going to Europe, working there or why is it important for you to work and live in South Africa?
SAN: South Africa has rich social-political and cultural fabrics that keep artists working overtime. I fancy working in a big city, there is a sort of energy that I like: noise, traffic – things are happening. I believe that this energy mediates the business of making art. For example, I felt at home in Dakar, I thought that I could have a studio there. It doesn’t have to be Europe or Johannesburg for me. It could be anywhere. However, there is no place quite like Johannesburg. There is no place like home.
C&: Guy, how do you situate your multimedia work in the context of migratory experiences? For example there is your ongoing project Next Week that you started in 2010…
GW: My multimedia work aims to re-humanize the notion of migration and border. I want to create emotions in people through my works. At the aesthetical level, most of the art works that I’ve produced from these topics have obvious critical aspects within their disposition. Next Week is a project I did in 2010 in Malta. I went there to visit some migrant camps including Hal Far Tent Village, which were planned as temporary space in 2007, when the other centres could no longer accommodate the rising number of refugees. Actually from 2007 to 2010 when I arrived there, this was no longer temporary; it had become a settlement.
First of all, the main concern and motivation for the immigration/borders issue started from my indignation in 2005 in Cameroon. Remember, what happened in Melilla and Ceuta in September 2005? There were more than 500 migrants who tried to jump the 7 metre high (and 11 and 8 kilometre long) electric and barbed wire fence border between Morocco and these two Spanish peninsulas in Africa.
When I arrived in Amsterdam in 2009, I was keen to refocus on this issue from a European perspective, from the final point. I know from the Cameroonian, African perspective how the people put themselves in danger on the way of immigration. That is the only way many can keep hope, the way they can keep their minds and their bodies in the perspective of making change in their lives. Once I arrived in Europe, I was confronted with the question of migration, and no matter if it’s legal or illegal, the point is, I’m a migrant from a poor country.
C&: How do you translate this into your aesthetical language?
GW: It’s a very dynamic process; I work with different emotions and affects that I feel. For example, for the last project Next Week I used a lot of elements, materials such as pictures and interviews, also some belongings from those migrants, things which symbolically represent migration, like shoes, pallets, books… After my fifteen-day trip I transformed all those elements into an installation including a video, photography and physical structures and objects.
C&: Serge, your sculptures, by the use of black and their size, can trigger notions of threat when one stands under them. Is that intended, and why?
SAN: Yes, because this is the refugee situation. The viewers have to be exposed to this situation in the rawest form possible.
C&: In both installations Tunnel VII (My Joburg, 2013) and Tunnel VIII (The Space Between Us, 2013), there is a sense of elevation. How would you define this?
SAN: The elevation is in response to space. The installations are constructed to occupy the whole space allocated to them, maximizing on volume. The two installations work on the principles of lines and angles, distribution of weight and balancing forces. In conceiving these site-specific pieces I needed to figure out the possibilities of angles and weight based on the best probable aesthetic outcomes. In these installations there is movement, direction and obstruction. This abstract approach is a self generating fabrication process that evolves to cover the floor space and the volume above it. I guess it is structural engineering one on one, without the sketches and mathematical planning on paper. If I had to do another degree, I would do structural engineering.
C&: Would you describe your pieces as political?
C&: How would you define your body of work by making the connection with border politics and migratory experiences?
SAN: Let me use the Black Subjects film to elaborate. This film is inspired by the realities of forced migration as experienced by refugees and asylum seekers. The film portrays the liminal space, the in-between space of former selves and the unknown future selves. It is a space/stage where they don’t make any plans or have the luxury of hopes. There is just the now. The moment is lived and confined to the everyday. It is based on the improvised negotiations of survival, a primal human instinct prevalent in all situations where life or die are the only options. These negotiations of survival begin with the construction or finding of a shelter. The film consolidates these ideas in narratives that prop up a sense of community that arises in the face of adversity.
C&: How was your reaction towards the Lampedusa tragedy that occured on October 3, 2013?
SAN: Sad. Even sadder is that there are a lot of people today who suffer similar misfortunes. They never make the headlines. We never get to hear their stories of valor that their daring pursuits to better lives epitomize.
GW: My first reaction towards this huge tragedy was shame, shame for us (as human beings) for letting this tragedy happen again and again. Shame, because the context of the global economy in which we’re living does not have any humanity, humility or faith. With all the diplomacy that has been going on in the global world regarding the respect of human rights and democracy, the political rulers are still not taking us in the direction of a peaceful world.
C&: Guy, are there any plans to travel to Lampedusa?
GW: Yes, that’s the artistic action that I’m planning to do. By mid-December 2013, I will be already be working on this. I have an idea in mind for a trip to Melilla and Lampedusa. I will go there and do a Walk, first in the memory of all these unknown people who died trying to cross that border. And secondly, this Walk should be an open door for everyone who wishes to move from here to there and from there to here. My aim with this video performance is to question/exorcise this migration tragedy. I would like to address once again this unfair capitalistic dynamic which has been dehumanizing and marginalizing the African continent for centuries now. This Walk will take place on both sides of the Spanish and Moroccan border in Melilla and later along the Lampedusa coast. The protagonist of this action will be me walking along that 11 kilometres long border without water or food till the end.
Now we’re busy looking at the Lampedusa tragedy where nearly 350 people passed away. But on the 17th of September at the border of Melilla and Ceuta there were hundreds of other people who lost their livestrying to make it to Europe. This wasn’t covered in the news as much as the Lampedusa tragedy.
As this happened on the continent, it was treated as faits divers (miscellaneous), as these cases are most of the time. As an artist, I would like to make the connection between these two tragedies. I will start from Morocco then go to Melilla (Spain) and continue to Lampedusa…
C&: As a militant artist, do you have a network of artists? Do you collaborate with journalists and/or NGOs? Or do you work just on an individual level?
GW: I don’t collaborate with NGOs for these types of projects. I just work on an individual level. It’s my personal approach to work for the change that I want to see in the world. However I have to mention that I wasn’t able to support a project like Next Week alonefinancially. The Rijksakademie in Amsterdam, Cultures France, and my wife Medina Tokalic were my major partners when I travelled to Malta. And now I’m looking for some financial support to realize this new step of my artistic quest regarding migration and borders in the context of a globalized world.
Guy Wouete and Serge Alain Nitegeka are on show as part of “The Space Between Us” at the ifa Galerie in Berlin (Linienstraße 139/140, 10115Berlin). The group show runs until December 22, 2013, the second edition opens on 22 January 2013 at the ifa Gallery, Stuttgart.
Interview by Aïcha Diallo and Olivia Buschey