Artist Elom 20ce reasserts art and culture as vital vessels to reformulate African identities

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Exhibition Le Silence est un Cri (Silence is a Scream)
Exhibition Le Silence est un Cri (Silence is a Scream)

Away from economic considerations, young Togolese artist Elom 20ce is on a quest to reposition art and culture as essential vessels to reformulate African identities and self-worth.

Over the last few decades, the long-overdue expansion of the art canon has made space for the emergence of Black and African artists and by and large non-Western artists. The traction from the periphery towards the center of the art world has come with mercantile art market considerations and avid reports dedicated to growing sales, artist’s market ranking, and rising prices. 

This partial redress has not fully compensated for the fundamental imbalances inherent to the art world that disproportionately impact Black and African artists. On the continent, questions about the role of art, that of the artist, concerns over audience (who is the art for?) access, (who can see the artwork?) are old questions that have been addressed mostly the usual way: the way western art institutions have answered them. Many art spaces emerging on the continent are by design, visible areas of economic privilege reserved for the few. 

The assumption is that art emerges in countries with flourishing economies on the heels of rising GDP (gross domestic products) and an abundance of disposable income. I have interviewed a gallery owner who called buying artworks a “hobby for rich people.”

If wealth is the sole enabler and art is viewed exclusively through the prism of the economy, what happens then to artistic expression and artists in countries that have only economic scarcity in profusion? 

This week, Elom 20ce (pronounce Vince), a young multi-disciplinary artist, based in Togo, a small country in West Africa, is attempting to wrench art back to its most original preoccupation devoid of monetary concerns: meaning. 

Hotel de la Paix, Le Silence est un Cri (Silence is a Scream), Elom 20ce, Emerson Lawson
Hotel de la Paix, Le Silence est un Cri (Silence is a Scream), Elom 20ce, Emerson Lawson

The artist is better known as a Pan-African activist rapper whose lyrics lament African discord and castigate the tight hold of neo-colonialism on the continent. Beyond the apparent political discourse, though, he has set himself on an overarching philosophical mission: reverse the centuries-old cultural erosion that has left his contemporaries disconnected from their roots and alienated from their culture. 

Along with photographer Emerson Lawson, Elom 20ce eschewed the very few designated artistic spaces in the city, Lome. They took over the sturdy sections left of the abandoned “Hotel de la Paix” (Peace Hotel) to stage the exhibition “Le Silence est un Cri” (Silence is a Scream). It features the photographic series “Amewuga”, which is a visual extension of Elom 20ce’s latest album of the same name. In Mina, the local language, “Amewuga,” means humans are more precious than money.  

Amewuga,Amewuga, Elom 20ce / Juvencio Ayivi, Exhibition Le Silence est un Cri (Silence is a Scream)
Amewuga, Elom 20ce / Juvencio Ayivi, Exhibition Le Silence est un Cri (Silence is a Scream)

It’s not clear whether Elom 20ce has written off the current generation of Africans, but he certainly has high hopes for future generations. In the alternate reality imagined in the photographic series, a young King surrounded by young court attendants, all of them wrapped in the traditional royal cloth Kente and sporting natural hairstyles, stare down the viewers. It would be tempting to rush to the end and wonder if they can succeed where the current generation has failed? That would be missing the point. The emphasis here is not placed on their destination but their starting point: their full embrace of their culture and deep connection to their roots.

Another series of premonitory pictures shot in January depict a not so dystopian future when humans, who have long prioritized money over life, are now compelled to wear masks to survive due to the ambient pollution. 

Exhibition Le Silence est un cri (Silence is a Scream), Elom 20ce / Emerson Lawson
Exhibition Le Silence est un cri (Silence is a Scream), Elom 20ce / Emerson Lawson

For the last days of the short exhibition, the artist will screen his documentary trilogy, “Silence is a Scream.” In the first two episodes, he draws on the Togolese tradition of telling cautionary tales through scenes of the animalistic world to distill his message of cultural resistance. His heartfelt message is encapsulated in the layered meanings, in the inferences, and sometimes shrouded in the silences rather than the openly spoken words.

But there comes the point when silence can no longer contain his rage. Then, he shouts to conclude the videos, “They came to walk in my wounds to warm their feet. They ask how I felt as they trample on me. I went back to my cell. The bird was no longer singing. It was laying there rigid like a stone, sad like a church.” 

Church, religion, and spirituality are the central theme of the 25-minute long documentary that completes the trilogy. 

In the opening monologue and against a backdrop of images of village life blended with scenes of brutal arrests, the artist questions how a nation can gain freedom “if it is cut off from its lands, its roots, its spirituality, its tradition, its culture? What becomes of our capital cities without the countryside that feeds them? What respect do we have for their inhabitants?”

The camera follows the artist visiting a village where he meets women farmers whose lives revolve around the daily pace of cultivating the land and the seasonal rhythm of sowing and harvesting. The film exposes the practices, and the spiritual rules followers of African traditions must adhere to: the sanctity of life and the necessity to wish no harm to another human being. After centuries of vilification, this gospel of love and life must come as a shock to young urban dwellers who have come to equate African spirituality with diabolical manifestations. 

Although the film is dedicated to the poet, agricultural engineer, and anti-colonial activist Amilcar Cabral, it is permeated by Frantz Fanon’s ethos. In “The Wretched of the Earth,” Fanon repeatedly called for the unification of urban areas with the countryside to fight colonialism. The film is an artistic attempt at sparking an intergenerational and cross geographical dialogue about the contentious subject of spirituality between the middle-aged rural community and the youth living in urban areas. 

Photo Exhibition Le Silence est un Cri (Silence is a Scream) Installed View_Elom20ce / Emerson Lawson
Exhibition Le Silence est un Cri (Silence is a Scream) Installed View, Elom20ce / Emerson Lawson

The staging of the exhibition in this third alternative space demystifies the work and stifles issues of access. Those attending know there will be no expensive shoes, and sophisticated vocabulary required of them to be at ease in this space. There is no fear of a condescending look at the non-existing entry doors. All that is required of them is an open mind and a willingness to engage with the work. 

This art experiment stripped down as much by necessity as by philosophy to the bare minimum of viewers facing the artwork, inherently begets broader questions about the art world. What is the role of the artist? What is the purpose of art, especially in a country without an art ecosystem such as Togo?

Photo Exhibition Le Silence est un Cri (Silence is a Scream), Elom 20ce / Emerson Lawson, Lome Togo
Exhibition Le Silence est un Cri (Silence is a Scream), Elom 20ce / Emerson Lawson, Lome Togo

There is no clear-cut answer. This experiment certainly doesn’t resolve the thorny issue of monetisation and how an artist can live off his art. However, it makes a strong case for a return to the essential: a visceral necessity to create against all the odds and engage with the local community. The creative drive exuding from the show echoes Congolese artists’ experiences in the documentary System K released earlier this year. 

Besides, this 3rd alternative space indirectly questions the desire to emulate the West with the construction of swanky and lavish cultural buildings often disconnected from the economic and architectural realities of some African countries. Instead, it posits a focus on reclaiming existing spaces, an innovative use of the resources available combined with a renewed engagement with art as a mediator of meaning for us and the future generations. 

In a phone conversation, I asked Elom 20ce if the location’s choice was linked to the name (Peace) or the building’s storied past (political negotiations were held there during tumultuous years in the nineties). He had that on his mind he admitted before commenting specifically on the building’s current dilapidated state. “I was interested in how to rebuild when everything is destroyed and ruined?” he explained. Art and culture are not for him expendable activities and frivolous receptacles of unused disposable income. Instead, they are the vital vessels African imaginations require to reformulate African identities, rebuild shattered self-worth, and lift the continent from the wreckage left behind by centuries of subjugation. 

The exhibition Le Silence est un Cri (Silence is a Scream) will conclude on August 23rd, 2020.

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