Pascal Marthine Tayou’s exhibition at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery transports the viewer from dull and cloudy London to warmer surroundings, met by the sounds of birds tweeting, popping colours, bright textures and fabrics, and the smell of fresh hay.
All is not as idyllic as it may seem, however. Tayou, who initially studied law before becoming an artist, is known for tackling complex issues of colonialism, global consumption and socio-economic problems through skilled and playful craftsmanship. He started exhibiting in the early 1990s, moved to create work in response to the political and social upheaval spreading across West Africa. As a Belgium-based artist born in Cameroon, Tayou is particularly interested in exploring the identity split between his West African roots and his position in the Western art world. His self-reflexive take on the American Modernist use of strip lights in his ‘Graffiti Neon’ works, instead used to depict stereotyped, primal and sexualised bodies, make this particularly apparent.
Two site-specific installations in the central rooms were made in response to the Sackler’s history – built as an armoury in 1805. The objects in ‘Our Traditions’, hung like trophies from the ceiling, reference the double meanings latent within desirable items. Diamonds may symbolise wealth and beauty, but the trade itself is riddled with labour and suffering. ‘Coton Tige’, a large cotton wool cloud sculpture, interrogates concepts of race and domination by implicating the persecution of colonial slaves by the European cotton trade. The wooden spikes represent how much money the trade generates in order to buy arms.
Sculptural forms are made from a combination of found objects, organic matter and a diverse range of materials. The exhibition is prolific. The space overflows. However, a narrative and visual language is sustained by the continuity and repetition of certain objects – drums, stitched fabrics, mirrors, painted rubble, coloured bags tied to branches in the ceiling, and traditional African sculptures recast into ground coffee and chocolate forms. Tayou sourced most of the leaves and branches locally in the park. The use of natural objects, particularly the chocolate and coffee, questions the inequality and cruelty within global trade and export culture.
The ‘Oil Pipeline’, which snakes along the walls in the space, accompanied by Tayou’s writing directly on the wall, charts statistics about the world’s most polluted places. Tayou points out that poorer nations tend to suffer from grave ecological problems, another manifestation of political and social imbalance.
‘The Falling House’, a reference to the writer Chinua Achebe’s novel ‘Things Fall Apart’, appears twice in diagonal corners of the space. These sculptures, the size of a Wendy house, made from sacks of paper, corrugated iron, and photographs overlaid on wood, hang upside down from the ceiling. They intervene physically. The viewer must confront their presence as they are forced to crouch or duck to slide past the works. The domination of the space is unsurprising considering its significance to the overarching themes of the exhibition; “The world is collapsing, but do we realise it? And what are we doing to reverse the process? This house suspended from the ceiling is the house of dogmas, of joy, of respite, of fears, of frustrations, of unhappiness, of happiness. We, the human race, are this house”.
In conversation with curator and critic N’Goné Fall, Tayou implied that it is the responsibility of the artist to voice current political, ecological and economic concerns, and not to be caught up in the image of the artist as celebrity; “I make art because I think about the world, I ask myself who we are, what it is we do, and what consequences that has for humanity. That is BOOMERANG. We are all boomerangs”.