Gam ’s Vivid Artworks on the Life and Legacy of Sankara

Gam ’s Vivid Artworks on the Life and Legacy of Sankara

Pierre-Christophe GAM, The Murder, 2017, Hahnemuhle archival paper, mixed media collage, 60x45

Pierre-Christophe GAM, The Murder, 2017, Hahnemuhle archival paper, mixed media collage, 60x45

Upper Volta was a colony of low strategic importance to France in economic terms, yet she subjected its people to harsh colonial rule. Growing up surrounded by stark inequalities, even after its independence from France in 1960, a young man was moved to pursue social justice: Thomas Sankara. His all-too-short life story remains an inspiration, both across Africa and in his own country, which he renamed Burkina Faso in 1984: “the land of the upright people”.

Sankara’s remarkable life story and his transformation of Burkina Faso during his four short years (1983–1987) as Prime Minister is brought to vivid life in the works of Pierre-Christophe Gam. The Cameroonian-Chadian artist’s mixed media installation, “The Upright Man”, offers a body of work that functions at the crossroads of the political, the personal and the spiritual. It encapsulates Sankara the man, the myth, and the visionary Pan-Africanist. The artist, who was 4 years old when Sankara was assassinated, captures in his works both the perspective of a child seeking the trail of his idol, and that of many contemporary Africans today seeking the truth of a shared past. Gam’s pieces feature certain milestones in Sankara’s time in power, expressed through both Christian iconography and visual symbolism specific to twentieth-century political history, such as the three colours (red, green and yellow) of pan-Africanism. It is an intriguing approach than befits Gam’s own definition of his art practice as that of a modern griot: a West African oral historian and storyteller.

The Battle, 2017, Hahnemuhle archival paper, mixed media collage, 100 x 74 cm, Gam

The Battle, 2017, Hahnemuhle archival paper, mixed media collage, 100 x 74 cm

In his representations of this towering political figure, Gam takes inspiration from a widely spread aesthetic practice in West Africa: commemorative cloths, which are printed textiles often featuring patterns, scenes, and memorial portraits. These colourful textiles, printed for commemorating everything from political campaigns to royal anniversaries, tell stories about people, movements, culture and society. Gam’s techniques include pencil colour drawing, pixel art, photography and digital manipulation; the results of this experimental mix are unique, yet somehow familiar to anyone who sees images mostly through a screen in their day-to-day lives. But to understand the story that these pieces visually narrate, it helps to grasp the significance of Sankara in post-colonial African history.

Some said Sankara’s visions were too grand, for he was impatient with those who insisted that a poor country should not set their sights too high.

Unlike the country’s previous military interventions, Sankara came to power in 1983 in a takeover that was conducted with the direct collaboration of several leftist civilian groups, resulting in a hybrid military–civilian formation at the helm of the country. From 1983 to 1987, Sankara transformed the institutions of the state fundamentally, so that they would cease to protect the interests of the few political elite. His aspirations for his fellow Burkinabé were rooted in social mobilisation and Pan-Africanist aspirations, but took direction from the needs of the majority of people. These included ecologically sustainable development, women’s emancipation, free education, accessible healthcare and community self-help projects. Some said Sankara’s visions were too grand, for he was impatient with those who insisted that a poor country should not set their sights too high. Yet Sankara’s quest was not impossibly utopian. In four years, he demonstrated repeatedly through initiatives that much social, political and economic progress could be made. His assassination in 1987 is widely confirmed by historians as having direct support from France, and other foreign powers alarmed by the Sankara’s policies.

The Temptation, 2017, Hahnemuhle archival paper, mixed media collage, 60x45 cm, Gam

The Temptation, 2017, Hahnemuhle archival paper, mixed media collage, 60x45 cm

Sankara’s strong stance against neocolonial dependency reflected in his programs for agricultural self-reliance, healthcare, and anti-corruption campaigns. From the outset, he also emphasised the emancipation of women as one of his central social and political goals – a rarity for any president in Africa at the time. These social and economic leaps are visualised with strong symbolism and joyful colours in several pieces of Gam’s series: Agricultural Reform, Battle of the Railway, The Emancipation of Women, Education for All and Self-Reliance (all 2017). Each concept is explored in two prints: one featuring Sankara initiating or demonstrating the task at hand, and the second featuring the people of Burkina Faso putting it into action together. A nod, perhaps, to the Sankarist approach to development, which was notable for its reliance on social mobilisation and community self-help.

Although Gam’s works illustrate key points throughout Sankara’s life and political career, there is also a strikingly original interpretative exercise at play: the religious and spiritual undertones to his art. Gam’s framing of Sankara as a Christ-like figure — both prophet and martyr — blurs the lines between the material and the spiritual world, as it does between the political and the personal. This acknowledges the contemporary relevance of West African traditional religions to social and political life, in which the spiritual world is widely accepted to exist in tandem with the physical one, and events in either are able to influence those in the other. Interpreting social and political changes not only for their implications in material reality, but also for their spiritual consequences, is part and parcel of community interactions and day-to-day life in many West African societies. The La Patrie triptych (2017), for instance, includes one mixed media collage featuring the dead Sankara, surrounding by six angelic female figures gesturing to his body, lying Christ-like in the arms of his widow, Myriam Sankara, who radiates a maternal and otherworldly persona reminiscent of the Virgin Mary. The third print in the triptych cements this biblical iconography by presenting the dead Sankara crucified on the cross. The two final works on the other hand, both titled La Resurrection (2017), bring the story full circle; one shows Sankara reawakened, draped in cloth like a prophet emerging from the desert, and the final one features the flag of Burkina Faso — a community of “believers” in symbolic unity under the pan-African colours.

The Resurrection, 2017, Hahnemuhle archival paper, mixed media collage, 74x100 cm, Gam

The Resurrection, 2017, Hahnemuhle archival paper, mixed media collage, 74x100 cm

The artworks’ formal qualities mirror this synthesis of traditional spirituality and modern political experience. Gam’s bright patterns in digital print, with their game-like aesthetic in certain places, make them unmistakably contemporary in their visual language. Sankara is represented in photorealistic style amidst geometric and repeating patterns that at times appear pixelated. All are composed of the same minuscule pattern, printed over and over again: an almost emoji-like head of a smiling African woman holding an abundance of colourful produce atop her headdress. When fused with the political content of the work — which is celebratory of the thoroughly secular, developmental goals of pan-African socialist thought — this Christian religiosity to the works do not remain static. They evolve into another kind of conceit: one that makes use of the familiar connotations of biblical iconography for much of Gam’s audience in West Africa and the world, but implies that this was the short-lived birth of a new “religion” in the form of pan-Africanism and a certain Sankarist humanism.

Tryptique “La Patrie B”, 2017, Hahnemuhle archival paper, mixed media collage, 133 x 100 cm, Gam

Tryptique “La Patrie B”, 2017, Hahnemuhle archival paper, mixed media collage, 133 x 100 cm

Gam’s synthesis of a digital aesthetic, biblical imagery and twentieth-century history is singular, and the result is a retelling of Sankara’s story through visuals that feel universal, youthful and dynamic. This story becomes, quite literally, anything but dead history. Gam paints Sankara garbed in spiritual mythologies to striking effect, but perhaps it is all the more remarkable that in doing so the artist reminds us Sankara was no saint or angel, but an ordinary man — albeit an exceptionally upright one.

Written by Sarah Jilani

Contributor - London

Narcissus’ Reflection

Narcissus’ Reflection

Piercing eyes, still as a lake, printed on the glossy images by photographer Adi Nes entice viewers to peel off these well-crafted veneers and reveal an autobiographical search of identity and the reason of a nation. With his art, Nes is the master storyteller. Yet, his career seems to hit its critical juncture only now after a five-year hiatus since Nes’ last series The Village in 2012. Like something is brewing and about to begin.

Adi Nes’ iconic image, Untitled (The Last Supper), from the photographer’s Soldiers series produced in 1999 once graced the front page of the New York Times, not only represents a high point in his artistic career, but also summarises many of his ideologies of what we should consider now as Nes’ first period of work. The reason to the previous assertion is the photographer’s motivation to depart from his archetypal staged photographs into researching the crux of the photographic medium, the raison d’être of propagating images. “I feel that photography has changed from the roots – how an image starts.”

Adi Nes- Soldiers

Untitled, 1999, from the serie “Soldiers” – 90 x 90 cm & 140 x 140 cm. © Courtesy of the Artist.

Flipping back the pages to the day when Nes registered for courses at Bezalel Academy of Art and Design Jerusalem after serving in the army and has mistakenly checked the box for the Photography department, his method of drawing out sketches and storyboarding prior to shooting was unusual in the late 80’s in Israel. Nes’ dramatic style and audacity are drawn from his experience working in the television and cinema industry as well as from Postmodernist figures from North America like Cindy Sherman, Jeff Wall and Philip-Lorca diCorcia. In Guy Debord’s definition of life being “presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles”, Nes bases his photography heavily on introspection, or rather his association with his world, his reality and his people.

“I deal with homoeroticism and masculinity because I’m gay; with Israeliness because I’m an Israeli. Because I’ve grown up in the periphery, I deal with the gap between the centre and the boundary; because my parents immigrated from Iran, I deal with ethnic issues and minority groups; because I’m an artist, I pay tribute to classical art; because I’m Jewish, I deal with Judaism.” Underneath the parallelism drawn from staged actors posing as contemporary homeless people and the moment before the Binding of Isaac in Untitled (Abraham & Isaac) (2004) or the tribute to Picasso’s Boy Leading a Horse (1906) and its allusion to the mythological beast Pegasus in Untitled (2008) from The Village series, Nes wishes to relate the viewers on an exceedingly intimate level.

Adi Nes - Biblical Abraham & Isaac

Untitled (Abraham & Isaac) 2004, from the serie “Biblical Stories” – 100 x 100 cm & 140 x 140 cm. © Courtesy of the Artist.

The elicited ambiguity in Nes’ images, which is also the reason to their unyielding fascination, often obfuscates the truth of its message that oscillates between its commanding visual language with its dark tones and contrasts, the allegorical stories,  the alluded drama and the underlying tensed atmosphere, and Nes’ concept in discussing identity. This collection of images by Nes is almost a by-product of the photographer’s state of mind and worldview during that specific period. His desire to piece together his inner identity struggles while living in and telling stories of “a young nation that started from a dream” and having his ideals shaped by Hebrew, an ancient and colourful language whose modern usage can still be considered to be in its infancy.

Nes bases his photography heavily on introspection, or rather his association with his world, his reality and his people.

It is not illogical to analyse that everything which has been created until now in Nes’ career is a long exposition to his story and of what is brewing up in his ongoing research. Upon the completion of the series The Village in 2012, Nes participated in a project at the science faculty at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Alongside scientists, the photographer delved into how the core of matters remains as materials fall apart. “I thought to create a project that follows the way of how I feel about contemporary life. My body, at the age of 51, starts to break apart but my identity is always there.” Far different from his situation during his creative proliferation, Nes finds himself leading a comfortable life. Yet, conflict ensues. “I’ve got to a place where I can feel that everything is settled down and suddenly, it starts to all break apart again.” This crisis in his identity as an artist solicits him to look for new expressions, new colours, new textures, and new ways of thinking.

Like when a star collapses, its nebular energy might birth another solar system. Nes is currently taking on a trepidatious task to rejuvenate his photographic discipline by incorporating motion in juxtaposition with still photographs. However, the results may not come for another couple of years.

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Where life and dreams are as one

Where life and dreams are as one

 

Nostalgia to some is a feeling leading to sadness, a yearning for the past accompanied with regrets. American writer Michael Chabon defines it rather as a straight connection with the past: “is the emotional experience – always momentary, always fragile of having what you lost or never had. (…) It’s the feeling that overcomes you when some minor vanished beauty of the world is restored.” Evgenia Arbugaeva, a Russian photographer, born in the small town of Tiksi has undertake the task of, if not restoring, at least rendering visible the almost vanished beauty of the world. Her projects, Amani, Tiksi, Weather Man and Mammoth Hunters explore the relation between man and nature accentuating the latter’s force.

 

 

Whether it is an abandoned laboratory in the forest of Amani in Tanzania or the splendorous Russian Arctic, Evgenia’s photographs position isolated or abandoned geographical regions in our radar: “I realize that my work (…) contributes to a certain preservation of, or allows to have some information about the place because most of the places where I go, there is no much information about them.” What we thought lost, what we ignored becomes existent and while she unravels the marvels of magical places frozen in time, the spectator learns that present and future are in reality commingled temporalities. In her most recent series Amani, Arbugaeva portrays an abandoned laboratory in the jungle of Amani, in Tanzania. Although abandoned by the scientific community after the country’s independence during the 60’s, the last keeper of the building, John Mganga preserves it zealously. Isolated by the forest and the neighboring natural reserve, the laboratory is struck in a limbo working as a memento from the golden years.

Chabon’s definition of nostalgia reverberates in the photographer’s images as they don’t relinquish the past but construct bridges interconnecting as well as questioning what we consider to be modernity. Old furniture and the laboratory’s shabby equipment contributes to the picture’s atmosphere soliciting the spectator’s imagination to recreate the rest of the photographic decor: “I ask myself this question, why I keep going to places struck in the limbo, struck between two worlds? I think this space of memory is very interesting for the artist because it’s so open for interpretation, that’s what really excites me”.

Her series Weather Man offers a similar stylistic device, Arbugaeva photographed the character’s measuring apparatuses underlining with this simple gesture the cleavage between today’s technology and that used by Weather Man. Objects metamorphose through the artist’s lens into taciturn accomplices conferring to the vernacular the ability to speak.

Analogous to furniture or gadgets, landscape communicates an unspoken message disclosing yet other components of her character’s personality. Quietness and reverie are conveyed in her series Tiksi, where a young girl from the region joyously plays in the Russian tundra, unfolding before our gaze her inner universe. Moreover, the artist’s approach mimics the methodology adopted by filmmakers associated with the “cinéma vérité” where the camera is acknowledged by the person filmed or photographed. Unlike other documentary sous genres, cinéma vérité envisions and permits the director to participate in the field experience, he is not there to purely contemplate, he’s a catalyst triggering action and emotional responses.

Arbugaeva follows this same precepts for she establishes a relationship with the people she photographs, her lyrical images externalize an internal feeling and are palpable imprints of the connection she shares with her protagonists. Her series Mammoth Hunters is probably the most “objective” one, as it illustrates an article for National Geographic. Yet, even within her journalistic production her aesthetics prevail with dreams and fantasy permeating her images. An example to this is a photograph of a mammoth hunter asleep in his tent, an image of a mammoth decorates the ceiling evoking what might be part of his sleeping universe. In the end “it’s not about photography”, as Arbugaeva stated in a recent conversation we held over the phone, it’s more about life and human relations. Beyond solely documenting what she sees, the photographer’s essence fill her clichés thereby unraveling her own doubts and psyche: “every time I photograph I try to figure out who I am, as many photographers do”. The power of Arbugaeva’s images lies in her ability to express in the blink of an eye what she and her character feel, the intangible and inexplicable become visible as affection materializes in her photographs.  

 

 

But what is real and what belongs to the realm of dreams? The problem of truth is indirectly posed in each photograph taken by the artist; nonetheless her intention isn’t the pursuit of ultimate objectivity rather the opposite: Arbugaeva’s captivating images question the structure of the world. In a society colonized by reason and practical thinking, her images propound an alternative existence in which dreams hold a leading role. Life’s futilities have no room in Arbugaeva’s work, she focuses on philosophical questions urging her spectators to interrogate themselves. In this respect, light can be considered as a metaphor of the mental activity occurring in her protagonists mind, such as in the series Weather Man where we see a portrait of this character looking blissfully into the void. When looking at the subtle lightning in this photographs, it is impossible not to think of Vermeer’s paintings, both artistic practices favouring contrast over harmony.

“What is life? a tale that is told; what is life? a frenzy extreme”, such were the words of the Spanish author Calderon de la Barca to poetically analyze the difference between dreams and life. In the writer’s universe, such as in Evgenia’s, the two are interwoven together and merge as one.

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Eamonn Doyle – “I, On , End”

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Inspiring Actions, Martin Schoeller at Paris Photo with Pernod Ricard

Inspiring Actions, Martin Schoeller at Paris Photo with Pernod Ricard

Elna Nordstrom - Pernod RicardAry_Ganeshalingam - Pernod RicardIlargi_Leturia_Ugarte - Pernod Ricard
Ary Ganeshalingam – Global Marketing Manager
Chivas Brothers Ltd – London, United Kingdom
© Martin Schoeller pour / for Pernod Ricard

 

Elna Nordström – Product Development Manager Operations.
The Absolut Company – Ahus, Sweden
© Martin Schoeller pour / for Pernod Ricard
Ilargi Leturia Ugarte – Global Brand Manager
Pernod Ricard Winemakers – San Sebastian, Spain
© Martin Schoeller pour / for Pernod Ricard

German photographer, Martin Schoeller worked conjointly with the French company Pernod Ricard to photograph some of the faces that constitute the company’s spectrum of employees.

The idea behind this project was to take 18 portraits of Pernod Ricard’s employees all over the world in order to show to the public the people who construct and expand the brand’s name. With the texture and light characterising Schoeller’s portraits, the photographer highlighted the brand’s work ethic and aimed at bearing witness of the importance of each employee. Every portrait is different and captures the detail of the person photographed, Schoeller thus highlights the uniqueness and beauty of the members of the company.

Pernod Ricard Group often calls upon contemporary artists to campaign with them to put under the spot their employees and their importance within the company. Among other artists who have participated we can cite Omar Victor Diop, Li Wei, Olaf Breuning, Vee Speers, Marco Lopez and more. Martin Schoeller  (b. 1968, Munich, works and live in New York City)  is the 42th artist invited to participate in this kind of project, perpetuating the tradition and bearing witness of Pernod Ricard’s commitment to contemporary art.

At the end of 2017, the campaign will be exhibited at Paris Photo 2017 international fair from 9  to 12 of November at the Grand Palais.. “This people are our ambassadors for our values and become a source of inspiration,” stated Olivier Cavil, director of communication for Pernod Ricard.

A Matter of Blood

A Matter of Blood

In the Jewish religion, blood is a cornerstone embodying the religion’s precepts. From their diet to whom belongs to the faith, the red liquid is replete of numerous connotations. The Israeli artist, Sigalit Landau centers part of her artistic practice in blood and the land where she was born.

Navigating Israël allows the wanderer to understand the visual poetry and the significance of the symbols in the artist’s oeuvre. Starting with blood one can read her work as a metaphor of the violent events that have agitated the country from its creation in 1948. Growing during the Intifada years, Landau witnessed the commence of the brutality that continues – perhaps less deadly now – to shudder the region. As mentioned before her work favours red, her sculptures reminds us often of the Viennese actionism and of Francis Bacon taste for fleshy compositions.

 

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The Dining Hall a sculptural installation mimicking the interior of a house is flooded with structures with red and visceral textures. If there is amy similarity to the Viennese Actionism in this work is not by mere coincidence as Landau’s grandparents were very close to the movement during the 60’s. “I grew up inside some Viennese Actionists, my grandparents were very radical. (…) I’ve always been very interested in this, it’s in my DNA”, declared the artist during our conversation.

Human anatomy is dissected constantly in her work reflecting her background as a dancer. As she studies human body and gives it a political meaning, she touches upon femininity and the way it is viewed through the male gaze. Dead Sea for instance is a video in which the artist is floating naked on the sea with watermelons surrounding her body. The body here is freed and shamelessly presented in a natural context, it is acknowledged and put under the spotlight. Furthermore in her salt sculptures the spectator is introduced to feminine cloths reminiscent of Victorian fashion. During this period of English history, women were confined to the household, their rights were no less than non existant.

Starting with blood one can read her work as a metaphor of the violent events that have agitated the country from its creation in 1948.

The submersion of this dresses in salty water transforms them into crystalised objects mirroring the customs and values from that epoch, same that prevail and preserve women stigma. Another video exploring this is Barbed Hula wherein Landau dances the hula with a barbed wire. Although not directly mentioned during our exchange, the artist did alluded to the importance of pain in her artistic practice. The previously mentioned shows Landau dancing without any protection moving the barbed wire all over her naked body. While she examines feminine pain, she too delves on Jewish suffering.

 

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Symbols of Jewish traditions and rituals appear in Landau’s work, such is the case of salt and blood. As stated before, she submerges objects in the Dead Sea, a salty body of water so saline that no animal or living being can survive to the levels of salt. The Dead Sea is a symbol for both, Jordan and Israel and serves even as a border between the two countries. Traditionally, salt is used to dry and preserve food, and in the rituals rabbis recommended it to drain the blood from the meat which is a procedure to purify food and make it proper to eat according to the Bible, another term for this practice is Kosher. Sigalit Landau’s body of work manifest contemporary Israeli society, from its roots and its ideology, to its metamorphosis over the years.

 

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Sigalit Landau’s work touches upon different aspects on Israeli culture and lineage, it explores present day customs as well as subjects such as identity and the bridging of cultures. One of her most ambitious projects yet to date is to construction of structure joining Jordan and Israel through a salt bridge built with the salt of the Dead Sea. This particular enterprise testifies of the state of mind of Israeli contemporary artists encouraging dialogue and peace instead of deaf conflict. Through the prism of sharing, blood gains a different connotation as it units rather than tear apart.

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