Emo de Medeiros has been selected to present )U(, a transmedia installation, at the Ancien Palais de Justice in Dakar as part of the upcoming Dak’Art – Biennale de l’Art African Contemporain in May 2018.
Congratulations on this exciting new project. Can you tell us more about the inspiration
behind the piece?
I’m interested in creating artworks that are also liberation devices, whether it be proposing non-ethnocentric conceptual art, pieces that counter the othering of African art and reactivate the memory of Civil Rights and decolonisation movements to fuel the current struggle against racism, or bring down barriers between actor and spectator. Most recently at the Palais de Tokyo, I proposed a participative installation that established parallels between the #MeToo movement and the anti-victimisation approach of Malcolm X and the Black Panthers. More generally, I am looking for ways to incorporate considerations of a political, philosophical and spiritual nature into my work.
)U( is one such liberation device. It is a contexture incorporating elements of five theories that inspire me: Foucault’s ideas of the panopticon and heterotopia, Du Bois’ double consciousness, the Ubuntu concept prevalent in Zulu philosophy, the idea that ‘I is another’ by poet Arthur Rimbaud, and finally the metaphysics of Fa or Ifa, the West African canon and divination system.
In )U(, one of the ideas is to create a counter-panopticon that is also a heterotopia, referring to notions formulated by Michel Foucault. The panopticon is a system invented by Jeremy Bentham as a blueprint for institutional surveillance systems. The panopticon facilitates the constant surveillance of inmates, or, in Foucault’s words, renders inmates ‘the subject of information, never a subject in communication’ so as to ‘increase both the docility and the utility of all elements of the system’. Here the idea is exactly the opposite: everybody is empowered since the spectators are watching as much as they are being watched, subverting surveillance devices for liberation purposes, reclaiming their image as their own. But the installation also contains works that I created out of mirrors, pieces that are a fractal mise en abyme of the whole work, mirrors being the metaphor, once again in Foucault’s words, of what he calls heterotopias or ‘counter-locations, effectively realised utopias’.
)U( also materialises the notion of double consciousness developed by the African-American writer Du Bois, which he describes as ‘this sense of looking at oneself through the eyes of others’.
Besides, the work also embodies the Zulu philosophical concept of Ubuntu, which means ‘I am a human through other humans’ referring to a co-creation of our common humanity, here through a reciprocal gaze that is allowed by the use of technology.
Furthermore, it allows visitors to experience this idea formulated by the poet Rimbaud that “I is another’, since they see themselves and others as never before, thanks to the multiplication of non-standard points of view (such as low-angle shots) provided by the 24 CCTV cameras.
A last dimension of the piece comes from neon sculptures based on the Fa or Ifá canon, which was added to the UNESCO’s Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2005. It is simultaneously a corpus of proverbs, stories and poetry, but also a divination system in which the central metaphysical concept is that destiny exists, but not as a pre-written story: it is a set of possibilities that need to be activated through the help of spirituality. Which seems to me a very interesting approach of what the African continent’s future is about.
Much of your work relies on developing ‘perfomative installations,’ turning visitors into
active participants of your installations. Why this emphasis?
I’m extremely interested by the ideas of presence, experience, initiation and revelation in art, as well as its transformative power. Not only, as Duchamp famously proposed, is the spectator the co-creator of the work, but I also think a work of art is always a mirror, that reflects the spectators and their gaze and materialises and questions the present time and space—both physical and social—they exist in. The immersive and participative dimension makes spectators “spectactors”, and ultimately both empowers them and opens the possibility of exploring and experiencing undiscovered dimensions of themselves through art. The idea is to heighten the visitors’ presence both to the artworks and to themselves.
You’ve presented )U( as dealing with ‘I’ and the projected self, a topical subject in the age of social media. How do you think your work questions the role of social networks in our daily life and the selves we project on these platforms?
My project focuses on the multiplicity of possible points of view and the collective dimension in the construction of a social image of the self. Of course it therefore brushes on the question of social media, even though what primarily interests me is something more immediate and anthropological. On social networks, notably through the publication of selfies, people aim at staging, defining and controlling an image of themselves, pursuing something akin to a personal marketing of an ideal self.
However I think these selves we project on social networks are essentially avatars that actually materialise the difference between our personal self and our public self. These fabricated selves can interact much more freely than our organic social selves, allowing us to establish a greater number of connections, and to interact with avatars of people we would never meet in the organic world. These projected selves are rather in my opinion tools for exploration. Now with humanity, the question is always the same since the Stone Age: the transformation of flint—also called microlithic technology—produced both tools and weapons. It’s not about the technology, it’s about the way we use it, and indeed, some people might get paradoxically enslaved and consumed by this image of themselves, like Narcissus drowning in his own reflection. In my opinion the safeguard and remedy against this narcissistic trap is a philosophical and spiritual reflection.
You are often and increasingly referred to as an Afro-futurist artist; is that a label you feel
I indeed belong to a new generation of Africans that are more interested in the future of our continent than in its past, even though memory, history and tradition are fundamental elements of this outlook on the future. This perspective fuels my work, and it’s also true that I’m a digital artist extensively utilising technology both in my creative process and the mediums I use. If this means being an Afro-futurist, then I gladly embrace the label. But I also define myself as a pan-African artist, not only politically, because I believe the continent’s nations should set aside their rivalries and increase their collaboration and unity both to gain more weight in global negotiations as well as develop common innovations in order to solve common problems; but also artistically since I find inspiration in many of the continent’s cultures. Finally I’m just as much a trans-African artist, that considers that we should seize the presence of a worldwide diaspora with a rich history, that embraces a wide array of arts and cultures, as a tremendous asset, from which I also draw inspiration. So in short Afro-futurist artist, yes, but if pan-African and trans-African should be added to it.
You have been vocal about the logistical difficulties involved with large-scale mixed media projects. What do you think are some of the major obstacles in the way of artistic creation and its execution on the continent?
I think that what we need today is a synergy between strong institutions, able to curate high quality artistic projects, and support from the private sector. Traditionally it is a model that has proved very effective in the Americas, both in North America and in South America, like Brazil, for instance. I’m thinking about the Videobrasil festival, where I was recently invited: it is financed by SESC which is in turn entirely funded by the private sector leveraging tax breaks incentives. It is true that in Africa, there is a striking discrepancy between the overabundant artistic energy and production on the one hand, and the limited means both to produce and show art on the other hand. But a philosophy that I believe in is to act decisively and counting on one’s own forces, so as to initiate the changes one wants to happen, so I’m doing just that and have started a Kickstarter campaign to finance the piece. We still need help because we have 15 days left to reach our goal: we have managed to raise 60% of our budget so far, but still need to find the remaining 40%.
For more information and to support the project click here.