1883 Magazine
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Pascale Marthine Tayou is full of contradictions. On entering the African artist’s latest show, Boomerang at Serpentine Sackler Gallery, it is easy miss the political undercurrents and become distracted by the beautiful lavenderish smell (turns out to be the hay packed structure near the doorway) and vibrant, almost childlike shapes and colours spilling out of walls and ceilings.

Tayou’s contradictions depend on these distractions, balancing harsh political truths with vivid eye candy, constantly pulling the viewer away from the underlying malice of the work.

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To understand both the undertones and intended relationships here takes time. Tayous work is characteristically loose, adding extra lines and forms to the work beyond the initial point of completion. Many of his works join together spatially and the building itself is fused with the work - branches bursting in through the roof, and one side wall filled with a life sized photograph of a Cameroon street market, creating a window into Tayou’s world. The effect - indoors, throughout the restaurant and outside - is one very whole body of work.

The opposites are consistent throughout, a cacophony of balanced antitheses - light and dark, craftsmanship and mass production, modernity and tribal tradition. It manages to both highlight and obscure the key elements at work and remind the viewer of the pretty obstructions that exist in life itself and shield these issues; which, in many cases, are driven by our own greed and demand.

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The artist himself splits his life between Cameroon and Belgium, and he has previously spoken of his struggles with identity, fitting into both cultures in very different ways. The split between the developed West and Africa are evident in the many contradictions at play. Africa is displayed more as a spiritual home, still holding roots to the natural earth, while the West sits as mass producer, in many instances feeding off the resources of Africa and repackaging them for a consumerist society. In one case where Tayou’s political interests are clearly stated, he explains in writing scribbled on the wall - apparently added just before our viewing, and echoed in the writing that wraps one side of the building - the cruelty of the diamond trade. Later in the exhibition, enchanting shards of coloured glass, suspended from diamond shape, cage-like structures call these facts to mind.

As with much of his work, this isn’t an instant realisation, but an awareness a couple of seconds after viewing, after first appreciating the simple beauty of the piece. This stands aligned with our treatment of goods from other areas of the world, our first concern is perhaps more of their use and appeal to us, thinking only secondarily of the struggle that got them into our hands.

 

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Likewise, Cotton Tige, suspended cloud-like in one of Sackler’s inner brick powder rooms beautifully veils layers of history that are chillingly significant. These very rooms were used to hold gunpowder and armament during the Napoleonic wars, while the UK and France fought to keep their colonies - cotton being a lucrative part of this. With this knowledge, the structure begins to take the form not of a graceful cloud but of an explosion that is violently poised to rip apart the brick walls.

There is a final contradiction here in the exhibition’s very curation, opening in line with fellow political artist Leon Golub. Each residing in one of the Serpentine’s Galleries, these two artists couldn’t display their political messages in more opposite manners. While Golub goes for the jugular, creating a violent assault on the eyeballs, Tayou dances around his subjects, placing a niggling thought in the back of the mind from where it can grow and grow. It would be difficult to pick the most effective of the two, and it is in fact the perfect balance between metaphor and graphic truth that made this visit so resonant. After all, violence in the world comes to us in many forms, in newspaper headlines and graphic YouTube videos as well the underhand purchase of every item that we don’t check the source of and every litre of oil we pump into our cars. These two highly contradicting shows make a trip to the Serpentine a pretty robust eye opener. And one that you won’t be able to shake off for a while to come.

Pascale Marthine Tayou: Boomerang will be running until 17th May at Serpentine Sackler Gallery, Kensington Gardens, West Carriage Drive, London W2

www.serpentinegalleries.org

Words by Emily Steer

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