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Published 08/08/2018 email E-MAIL print PRINT

Thierry Oussou: ‘I would like the discourse that I am developing in my work to educate people – to make them think differently’

The Benin-born artist Thierry Oussou reflects on his artistic practice, the need for repatriation of cultural objects, and art and culture in Africa more generally


Thierry Oussou (b1988, Benin) refers to his artistic practice – encompassing paintings, videos, drawings, installations and performances – as “social archaeology”, exploring the relationship between contemporary art and ethnographic objects. It raises questions of authenticity and visibility in relation to heritage and archaeology, especially that of his country of birth, Benin. “I have a desire to document the vanishing before it is completely gone,” Oussou says. “Forgetting and not being aware of your own history can be used as a tool of manipulation by politicians. Thus, I also feel there is a need to save some things just for the sake of knowing.” Having recently taken part in the Berlin Biennale, showing a project concerned with the debate around the repatriation of African artefacts, he also has a solo exhibition at Tiwani Contemporary in London.

Studio International spoke to Oussou by email, after his UK visa was declined for the installation and opening of this show.

Anna McNay: Your recent work for the Berlin Biennale was concerned with the debate around the return of African artefacts. It stemmed from a performance project in which you conducted a mock archaeological field study in collaboration with students from the University of Abomey-Calavi, Benin, in your hometown of Allada. Can you tell me a bit about what this performance involved and about the resulting installation, Impossible is Nothing?

Thierry Oussou: Impossible is Nothing is a project I began in 2014. The initial idea was to copy the throne of Béhanzin, King of Dahomey [present-day Benin], and do something with it. Chairs and seats often feature in my work – they are a symbol of power and of one’s place in society. I asked a friend, Elias Boko, who is a wood sculptor, to produce a copy of this throne. He knew how to sculpt it because, in Benin, we have a region where craftsmen, although they are not formally trained, have developed the gift of producing such works. It’s a form of heritage, passed from father to son. My friend Elias comes from this region.

Thierry Oussou. Le temps sacrifié, 2018. Mixed media on paper, 152 x 200 cm (59 7/8 x 78 3/4 in).

Naturally, I’m not the only one who has commissioned a copy of this throne. Lots of people have commissioned copies. I visit Elias from time to time and see people coming to his studio, commissioning copies, and leaving with them. I told him that I was an artist and needed to do something with this throne. That is how the conversation began.

In 2014, we started looking for the wood. A very rigid wood, iroko, was used to make the original throne. We found the material in 2015 and made the sculpture that same year. By the time Elias had finished it, I had left Benin for a residency at the Rijksakademie (RA) in Amsterdam and so I was thinking about how to appropriate this throne and turn it into a work. How could I change its story, and make something “authentic” from it? This is what led me to organise the performance. When I was at the RA, I was also interested in developing a scientific aspect to my work. I was painting, layer by layer, and I was looking for ways to apply this approach to the field of archaeological experimentation.

When I was back home in Benin, I asked a friend, who is an art historian and a university professor, to put me in touch with a group of students to help me realise an archaeological experiment with an object I had buried and was going to excavate. He put me in touch with a group of 12 students from the University of Abomey-Calavi. We organised our first meeting, and 11 students agreed to take part in the project. We travelled to Allada and worked for five days. The students did not know what was buried, but they knew an object was going to be discovered. I buried the throne under a surface area covering 90 sq cm, with other objects, including ceramics and metal shards. When we started to excavate, we dug over a surface of  2 sq metre – a much wider surface – and we discovered other ceramics and metal shards, which I had not buried. So, it became a real archaeological study. I then placed all these objects together and decided to take them to Amsterdam, to the RA, with the throne. 

When we finished the project, the head of the archaeological department of the university in Benin was unhappy. He rang me and said that, for him, it was an archaeological study and I could not leave without letting them know. He asked me to write a letter to confirm that the throne would not be exhibited as an original. This letter became part of my work and the installation. He also asked some of the students not to share their reports on the study, and requested the RA to contact the university if I wanted to exhibit the project, which the RA did.

Thierry Oussou. Le temps de la vérité, 2018. Mixed media on paper, 198 x 152 cm (78 x 59 7/8 in).

I arrived in Amsterdam and the university in Benin finally responded to us. But the project had begun to evolve – even though some of the students refused to share their reports. Other students agreed to collaborate, wrote reports, shared them with me, and some of these have been exhibited at the Berlin Biennale.

It’s important for me to collaborate with students. These students were not used to assisting conceptual artists. This project had an educational aspect. When I started the project, I had no idea about the current political debates. France and Benin are now engaged in a debate over the restitution of artefacts, but I was unaware of this before.

The original throne was exhibited once in Benin and it captivated everyone’s attention – this is also what attracted me to the idea of doing the performance. I’m interested in history, in how I can change the history of the throne. The way in which the discourse has become so international gives me the courage to say that I’m artist and that I have a vision. I’m proud of this.

AMc: Do you believe that all dispersed artefacts should be returned to their countries of origin?

TO: I’m happy about the debate around the restitution of African artefacts. I’ve only seen the throne once – it was exhibited in Benin in 2006, I think, and attracted lots of visitors who went to see it at the Fondation Zinsou. When Lionel Zinsou announced his candidacy for the presidency [Zinsou, a French-Beninese businessman, was prime minister of Benin in 2015-16], he proposed buying the throne and exhibiting it in Benin again. After this, and during my research, I discovered that the throne was actually no longer available for Zinsou to buy. So, you can see how a cultural object can become part of a political debate. It is possible to use a cultural object – a piece of heritage – to become elected. This is politics: the manipulation of history to gain power. It’s very real.

I’m not sure it’s possible to say that we can repatriate all the objects that have left their countries of origin. But there is the possibility of some form of collaboration. People who have these objects can make themselves known and build partnerships with the countries that are requesting these objects. We need these objects in these countries. For instance, some of the students I worked with had never seen the throne, but, as historians, they were supposed to write about it. If the original throne were in Benin, perhaps it would encourage other people to write about it – to experiment with new ideas. But it is not there and so to study these objects you have to travel to France.

Thierry Oussou. To live, and the pipes, 2018. Mixed media on paper, 248 x 152 cm (97 5/8 x 59 7/8 in).

Similarly, a young Nigerian man who wants to write about the Benin bronzes has to travel to London (to the British Museum), or elsewhere, to see the original objects. And sometimes it might not even be possible to see them there. So, I think they have to return what is necessary and to find a way for such objects to circulate freely.

AMc: If all cultural objects were repatriated, how then could the rest of the world come to be educated about other cultures?

TO: If you want to see Rembrandt’s paintings, you have to go to the Rijksmuseum.  You also have to travel to the Netherlands to see where Rembrandt produced his paintings. If you want to see or study Picasso’s paintings, you have to go to the Musée Picasso in Paris or visit a collection that holds his works.

It’s different for young Africans. They have to travel abroad to see what belonged to their ancestors – and not because it was purchased, but because it was stolen. It was taken away. The way our youth in Benin are accustomed to studying today is not right. They should be in direct contact with these objects. These objects should be in the appropriate place. 

I don’t think you can displace a Rembrandt and send it to Benin. I don’t think the Netherlands would accept that. Or move France’s cultural treasures and send them to Benin with the consent of France. So, why do we accept that everything that comes from Africa should be in Europe? We should re-establish a balance. There will always be a way to educate others about this.  

AMc: You refer to your practice as social archaeology. What do you mean by this and what do you hope your work will achieve?

TO: What do I mean by social archaeology? I observe things and I try to speak about them. When I’m looking at something, I do not look at it the way you might. I observe, I take a picture, I go to my studio, I start to work. I observe, I have a title, I go to my studio, I start to work.

There are multiple layers and stages to making a work. I can give you another example. Everybody engages with social archaeology. You are asking me questions, I am sending you answers, and you will work on this. You, too, are looking for something and you have gone through several stages to get these answers.

Thierry Oussou. Un sac pour tous, 2018. Mixed media on paper, 152 x 177 cm (59 7/8 x 69 3/4 in).

What do I hope to achieve with my work? I cannot give a precise answer. I do not know. I am looking for something. I am looking for perfection. I am looking for professional stability. To say that my work has a fixed objective would be a lie. One day, I would like the discourse that I am developing in my work to educate people – to make them think differently.

AMc: In 2011, you founded Atelier Ye in Benin. What is the purpose of the studio and how do you think art and visual culture should be integrated into education in African countries?

TO: Setting up the atelier was a way for me to work with other artists because there was no art school in Benin and I wanted to go to art school. You cannot separate art from life in African countries. In Africa, children are not taught to dance. In Africa, children are not taught to sing. There are many things that are not taught, but people still do them. Take performance, for example. In Africa, there is the culture of performing all the time, without calling it art. So, it would be difficult to separate art from active life, in my opinion. Art is present in everyday life, it’s already part of education. African schools do not really have a culture of inserting an art curriculum.

I didn’t go to art school but I was able to turn my passion into a career. Lots of people did not go to art school but are experienced professional artists. We must organise things so that people who are interested in becoming artists are directed to find their way. We must create an archive so others come to know about it. We must open people’s eyes, and encourage talent, so those who want to turn their passion into a career can find their way. If art schools can boost this process, then let’s set them up. But you might set up art schools and still not have great artists.

AMc: Is there a large artistic community around you in Allada?

TO: Allada is the city I love. It’s where I was born and grew up. Allada is also the homeland of Toussaint Louverture [an ex-slave who led the Haitian Revolution against French colonial rule in 1791]. It’s where his father was born. It is the city at the centre of the monarchy we know in history in South Benin. It is a city with many rich histories, which are largely unknown. You know the story of Toussaint Louverture, of Béhanzin, of Toffa I [the ruler of the Kingdom of Hogbonu – which falls in modern day Benin] – they all originate from Allada. They are heroes who originate from Allada, but you might not know about Allada.

Allada has a large artistic community, depending on what you define as art, yes. There are performances every day. People perform. They do something with their hands. And when someone like me exhibits there, people are interested. They want to know what it is. How did you make it? What is the idea? So, as you can see, there is already an artistic community because they are interested. It is an inquisitive culture.

Thierry Oussou. Le train en marche, 2018. Mixed media on paper, 152 x 202 cm (59 7/8 x 79 1/2 in).

AMc: You work with many media. Do you have a preferred medium?

TO: I cannot say I that I have a favourite medium. I have to extract everything that is inside of me to make something.

AMc: Do your works across different media interact with, and relate to and build on, one another in any way?

TO: Yes, I work with wood. I make installations with twigs. I work with paper, which comes from wood. I perform, too. In Impossible is Nothing, the throne was sculpted and buried and then excavated. I make videos, and I paint from my videos. There is a link and coherence between all these media.

AMc: Your paintings for your exhibition Timelines, at Tiwani Contemporary in London, are made exclusively on black paper. Why is this? What does it add to the work? Do you only ever work on black paper?

TO: I’ll start with the end of the question. I am experimenting with other ways of working on paper, but I have not exhibited them yet. I work with black paper, because I was thinking about the slates used by pupils to write their answers on at school. I made some small drawings from which I then made large installations –sometimes using up to 80 drawings in one installation. In 2014, I started to experiment with larger formats and now I make larger works, up to 3 metres x 4 metres. At the beginning, I was following a concept, and this is how I developed the black background. Now I’ve appropriated it.

Today, it has become my main artistic support. It is also a challenge. Not many people use paper or a black background. I try to go deeper to find something unique, something that I like and that other people can like as well. We are all a reflection of paper. I am developing the concept of the fragility of paper in relation to human beings. We are as fragile as paper. You touch paper every day. If we were to be doing this interview in person, you would be in front of me now with a piece of paper, a notepad, something made of paper. It’s true that there are digital media, but paper still has its place. When you are born, the first thing the doctor touches is a piece of paper to write down the date and time of birth, and this [information] becomes your birth certificate. This is the significance of paper. If you do not take care of paper, it tears. Just like if you do not take care of your neighbour, of your child, of a loved one, they will not be happy. This tearing of paper is comparable to the anger we can sometimes experience. Paper is not flat. I do not mount paper, I let it live, I let it take shape. I find it beautiful. It shows that we are not perfect. We are not straight, neatly folded. You see the folds, the lines, it talks about movement, about travel. If ever I have to ship my work from Benin to London, I prefer to fold it, so it bears the marks of movement. It adds an aesthetic.

Thierry Oussou. Adja, 2018. Mixed media on paper, 152 x 194 cm (59 7/8 x 76 3/8 in).

AMc: How important are the physical qualities of the paper to you?

TO: They have a lot of importance. Canvas, for instance, does not have the same effect as paper. Paper is very sculptural. I can work on canvas, but it is more rigid than paper. I cannot tear canvas the way I tear paper. A collector once contacted me via Instagram to buy a work. I directed him towards the gallery. He asked if I had works on canvas. I answered that I did not work on canvas, but used paper conceptually. I never heard from him again and he never contacted the gallery. He was scared of something. He was scared to buy paper – to buy what he was. The physical quality of paper is paramount for me. It’s the physical quality of the human being.

AMc: Do you want and allow viewers to touch your works in order to experience them more fully?

TO: No, no, no, no, no! I cannot allow viewers to touch the paper – it is what they already are. They only have to look at the work, to ask questions and they will find the answers within, since the paper is their mirror image. It is out of the question that they should touch the work, but there are some works where touching is allowed. For instance, with my installations made from twigs, the viewer is invited to walk into these environments. With other works, viewers are invited to sit on them. But never, ever for my works on paper.

AMc: Can you tell me more about the works that will be included in the Tiwani Contemporary exhibition? Do they form a cohesive series? Is there an overarching concept or message to these works?

TO: The works that are being exhibited in Timelines belong to a specific concept. I use a naive language. In Benin, I took lots of photographs of wall drawings – children’s wall drawings, done without thinking, but also markings to count the days on the walls, banal, everyday drawings. I photographed them in the villages and towns. I then travelled to Berlin with these photographs and made the works there. There is a notion of time in the drawings. We do everything according to time. It is well defined, well structured, well framed, so we can use it. My grandfather never went to school, but he knows how to count money and account for “tontines” [a communal credit system], marking all his contributions so he can collect them. Whenever he makes one, he draws a charcoal line on the wall. Without knowing it, he is making art. In Berlin, you can see graffiti made by people who are aware of language, aware of what they are doing, and aware of the discourse they are communicating. They went to buy materials in art supplies shops, they went to buy paint to make the graffiti. My grandfather does not know what acrylic paint is when he sees me use it. But he knows that he can take a piece of charcoal to draw a line, to remember time, to remember something. Young children in Benin, maybe aged around one and a half, pick up pieces of charcoal and doodle on the walls, unaware. But the elders, who also draw on the walls, are aware of what they are doing. They are communicating. They are saying something. This is what I am interested in. I take photographs of this and make something else with them. It is always about transformation. It is a transformative process, a process of authenticity, something that is always present in my work.

AMc: Where did you learn to paint?

TO: I like this question. I never learned to paint! I’ve been drawing since I was a child. I’ve used drawing and painting to communicate since I was a child. I never went to art school, but I’ve assisted artists. Even when I’m assisting artists, I’m not learning to paint. I learn how to formulate an artistic language. I do not enter an artist’s studio to learn about what they do, but to understand what I do. I’ve assisted Ernest Houngbo, who is a painter, but I do not paint like him. I’ve assisted Meschac Gaba, who is a conceptual artist, but I do not work like him. I’m seeking my own personal development, when I’m assisting these artists, so I have experience.

When I was nine years old, in 1997, there was an artist residency in Allada organised by the artist Edwige Aplogan. It was in the public square where we used to play. Resident artists were producing something I did not understand. I wanted to touch, but Aplogan said: “Young man, do not touch!” I thought to myself (and I still remember it to this day): “What are these drawings that I’m forbidden from touching, when my drawings are prettier than theirs?”

They then organised a workshop that I took part in and thoroughly enjoyed. It was my first contact with contemporary art in Allada. After this, I started to enter art competitions, which allowed me to meet other artists, other young people who were also doing similar things. Then I started a club in my school. I started clubs in all the schools I went to in Cotonou, and we won prizes. Then I started Atelier Ye, which organises residencies. All of this was with the view to learning.

AMc: You’ve participated in residencies in Lagos and at the Rijksakademie, where you were awarded the first Jacqueline van Tongeren Fellowship and were nominated by the Dutch Royal Award for Modern Painting in Amsterdam Royal Palace. What did you study or spend your time there doing?

TO: I learned so much at the RA – experimenting and researching. It was the first time I was given funding to do my work, so I did not have to think about money. I had access to a library and I was able to work 24/7‬. I had a sounding board of advisers and professors, who did not tell me what to do (this is so important), but who listened, gave advice, and then let me decide whether to follow it or not. It was such an important moment in my artistic journey.

It is not easy to become an RA resident. Only 10 or 11 international artists are selected out of 1,500 applicants. When an African artist is selected for the RA, there is no budget, however. You receive €50,000, but you need to add to this grant with another €15,000. When I was awarded the residency, I looked for that €15,000 in Benin but I was unable to find it. Only Dutch institutions in Benin helped me, through the former Dutch ambassador in Benin.

I managed to do an exhibition and sold some work, so I saved some money. I went to the RA and paid part of my bursary. Other institutions also helped. During the second year, I was the first artist to receive the Jacqueline van Tongeren fellowship. That was the beginning of something and I was delighted about it. I was also nominated to meet the King, which was a proud moment. I studied a lot at the RA. I worked on performance and the development of my painting and sculpture, and how to create a solid discourse. This is mostly what I talked about with my advisers: how to have a solid discourse, how to build an artistic concept.

AMc: How did you come to participate in these residencies?

TO: I embarked on the residency with the help of artists Hermann Pitz and Meschac Gaba. I was Gaba’s assistant, and he had taken part in something similar at the RA more than 23 years ago. I was working with him when a group of RA students came to do a residency. We spoke about my work and they suggested that I apply to the RA. They thought my work was interesting and that it could help me. Pitz also suggested I do it. I was very reticent about the idea, but they insisted.

Gaba had invited me to take part in another residency on the theme of unity. There, Pitz, who is also a professor at the RA, suggested I apply again. I said: “No, I’m too young, I should develop my work first.” He said: “No, I will talk to Meschac and he will send you the application form and you will apply.”

He talked to Gaba and Gaba called me. We spoke and he said: “Thierry, I know you want to develop your work and take your time before you apply to the RA, but, you know, artists as young as 20 apply. You are not too young. You should apply. If your work is not of interest, your application will be turned down and you can try again another year. It is possible to apply several times.” So, I said yes. When he had said that artists as young as 20 take part at the RA, I thought: “Wow, I’m late!” He woke me up. He sent me a link to the residency and I wrote my application. I was visiting the Dakar Biennale, assisting Barthélémy Toguo, when I received a message saying that I had been selected and I should come to the RA for an interview. I was so happy. I came back to Benin, booked my flight, applied for a visa and went to the interview. I used this opportunity to do a residency in Brussels, as well, and it was during that time that I learned I had been selected. I was overjoyed.

AMc: How different was the culture in Amsterdam from what you knew in Benin and Nigeria? Did this new experience alter your work or practice in any way?

TO: Culture changes depending on local contexts, how people live, and their means of living. It is true that Europe and Africa do not have the same culture. When an artist lives across both continents, there are certainly influences. My work has not changed much, but it has evolved. It has allowed me to be more concrete in terms of what I do. My paintings used to be busier, I used to project everything I had in my head. Now they are becoming lighter. As a painter, it is difficult to know when to stop. Especially for me, it is very difficult to stop. I want to add things. I overdo it. But, with time, my paintings are becoming more fluid. I am very pleased with how my work is developing.

What prompted this? If I had stayed in Benin, it would have been different. I had to look at other things. We have no museum in Benin. But in Europe you have a museum culture. There is the Amsterdam Art Fair, the Rotterdam Art Fair, there are gallery weekends, project spaces, etc … We do not have this in Benin. When you see this every day, you think about your work. It allows you to open up to the world. It helped me so much to live in a culture where people believe in preserving their cultural heritage. When you read the history of these people, you realise you lack something and you have to work on it. You cannot disown your own culture. You have to work with your own culture so that, one day, something similar happens in your own country. This is my dream.

AMc: Where does the inspiration for your work generally come from?

TO: I don’t know about inspiration. I live 24/7‬ in my work. It’s complicated to define how inspiration comes to me. This year, I did a residency in Nigeria. After that I went back to Benin and then I travelled to South Africa for my solo at the Stevenson Gallery. Then I went to Amsterdam for a one-month residency, where I worked on my project Laboratoire de Langues. Then I went to Berlin for the biennale, and I stayed for three months. In Amsterdam, I prepared my exhibition at the Cobra Museum and, in Berlin, I prepared for my show in London. Now, I’m back in Amsterdam and, next, I’m going to Benin again. I don’t know about inspiration: for me, defining it implies that there is a time when I’m working and a time when I’m not. But I’m always thinking about my work. Does inspiration even exist? When you are inside of it, you cannot define it.

AMc: Is your family artistic?

TO: I’m not from an artistic family. On my mother’s side, my grandfather was a farmer. On my father’s side, there is fishing and a bit of politics. There haven’t been any artists in my family. I am the first one, paving the way. Maybe others will follow now.

AMc: You’ve described drawing as a universal human endeavour. Do you believe everyone can draw?

TO: Everybody can draw. I agree with that. If you can hold a pencil and draw a line, it’s a drawing. But what does the line symbolise? What does it mean? This is where the artistic concept comes into play. Everyone can draw, but not everyone can be an artist. Everyone can tell a story, but not everyone can turn history into a concept. Everyone can write, but not everyone can write a concept. Not everyone could have made Duchamp’s urinal. Only he had the genius to do it.

AMc: Is drawing a better means for communicating certain things than language? If so, what, and how can it be used?

TO: Yes. I’m very shy. I’m chatty when I’m used to people, but generally I’m shy. I’ve used drawing as an artistic language. I’m so happy I’ve turned my passion into a career. Is drawing a better way to communicate? Yes. Caricature is very expressive, and a wide audience owns it and uses it to capture a message. Yes, drawing is a way of communicating. Hieroglyphs are drawings. The alphabet – A, B, C, D – these letters are also drawings. I think language started with drawing. Writing is drawing.

When I was a child, if I was provoked, I would draw. At school, if I was provoked, I would come early in the morning and, with my piece of chalk, draw a small drawing where you sit, and leave. When I was at high school, a friend provoked me: I had forgotten my bag and he took it. Instead of giving it to the teacher, he took it home, and I wasn’t happy. The day after, he did not bring the bag to school. So, when he left, I took a ballpoint pen, sat at his table and drew his caricature. In the morning, when he came back, he was welcomed by his caricature, with a note saying: “Bring me my bag.” He was so angry, he complained to the teacher. I was called in, but I did not say anything except: “Why did he leave my bag at his place?” And the teachers understood. They told him he should not have taken my bag to his house. This was my way of communicating. I have lots of similar stories, of friends who provoked me, and, as I could not speak back, I drew instead. But, today, I can communicate, through drawing and in other ways, too.

AMc: You were unable to obtain a visa to come to London for your exhibition at Tiwani Contemporary. How did that feel, and has it affected the exhibition in any way?

TO: It’s a pity, but I accept the decision. My work was able to travel and the exhibition looks great. I’m not trying to move to a place that does not want me. I live in Amsterdam, I’m welcome here, I’m comfortable here, that’s enough. I don’t need a visa for somewhere else. I did not get my visa, but it did not affect my work. I’m not the only one, I’m one of many. I did not get it today, maybe I’ll get it tomorrow. But if I never get it, that’s OK, too.

AMc: Has this been a problem for you before – not being able to travel? What would you say in response to being denied this right?

TO: It is the first time in my life that I have been refused a visa. It will leave a scar. It’s the first time I’ve not been able to travel. They have their reasons, and I won’t criticise. I will take into account what they said, so, hopefully, I can have my visa next time I apply.

AMc: What do you see as the role of art today?

TO: Art can change the world. The discourse behind a work of art can make people think differently. Art can educate, on every level – a child, an adult, everyone. Art is very important for the development of our world.

Thierry Oussou: Timelines is at Tiwani Contemporary, London, from 14 to 25 August 2018.

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