Artist Jems Koko Bi carves a new meaning for wealth

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Le chant du colibri, Jems Koko Bi, 2020. Courtesy The artist & Gallery Cecile Fakhoury
Le chant du colibri, Jems Koko Bi, 2020. Courtesy The Artist & Gallery Cecile Fakhoury

Virtual studio visits have become basic staples in an art world gone all-digital, but perhaps some of the most intriguing of these studio tours are still yet to be recorded. One of them would undoubtedly be with artist Jems Koko Bi. How enthralling would it be to see him engage in his habitual pre-sculpting dialogue with wood? Asking the wood, he is about to transform where it came from, querying the life stories inscribed deep inside the layers of striations.

That encounter and the dialogue that ensued are pivotal to Jems Koko Bi’s practice. They determine the appearances, shapes, and forms of the sculptures. “In order to extract forms from the wood, I can only go through a dialogue with this material, which is alive. I have to knock on its door, on its flesh, and ask him what his story is, and he tells it to me. It’s a journey through which a dialogue takes place.” He explains on the phone with birds chirping in the background. The latest forms to have emerged from this dialogue are on view in his exhibition Patrimoine with the gallery Cecile Fakhoury in Abidjan, alongside a new series of wood engraving prints.

The prints are an easier entry point into Koko Bi’s world. They allow to grasp at a glance the artist’s conception of the world as one whole structure. “De la vie à la naissance #2” is a minimalistic blue blending of human, vegetal, and animal forms into one. The contours of each entity are distinct enough to be visible, yet their outlines meld into each other, making them inseparable. There is no hint of hierarchy, just life, different forms of conjoined lives irrevocably enmeshed together. He insists the intense process of dialogue that produces these forms is neither “magical nor mystical.” However, it certainly stands at odds with the hyper rationalist views of the world inherited from the 17th-century philosophers such as Descartes and pursued throughout the enlightenment period with the classification of everything into siloed categories. 

De la vie a la naissance, Jems Koko Bi, 2021. Courtesy The Artist and Gallery Cecile Fakhoury
De la vie à la naissance #2, Jems Koko Bi, 2021. Courtesy The Artist and Gallery Cecile Fakhoury

Understanding Jems Koko Bi’s practice requires first to consider a different conception of the world. One that harks back to West African philosophy and regards humans as a subpart, an element in a broader, wider system in which all forms of life are intertwined. He attributes his perception of the world to his unexpected birth fifty-five years ago in the middle of a forest in Ivory Coast, which established a unique connection with the botanical world. Twenty-six years later, in 1992, that special bond with plants, trees, and wood took a dramatic artistic turn at art school. In a break from the orthodox teachings based on duplicating Greco-Roman art history sculptures, a visiting German professor encouraged students to experiment with wood and invited them to inscribe their histories in wood. It sparked Jems Koko Bi’s interest in wood as artistic material. “It was,” he says now, “astonishing because I was able to do something on my own without a copy. I had, in my own way, mapped out a story that was mine. And the wood was able to express what I was doing effectively. It was something the plaster couldn’t do, and clay couldn’t do either”.

He stuck to wood ever since. From monumental sculptures that memorialise iconic figures such as Nelson Mandela to the smaller ones in the exhibition and everything in between, wood became the material of choice to narrate stories. And the stories Koko Bi brings forth in Patrimoine underscore his country’s green wealth. Ivory coast’s Patrimoine, heritage, or wealth in French is often measured in economic terms. The country is often referenced for its commodities cocoa and coffee, oil and gems. But the artist’s attention is on the unquantifiable wealth that is seldom valued and fast disappearing: the country’s ecological wealth. In the half-century since the independence, the country lost about 77% of its forest. Understanding what that loss means requires a dive into Peter Wohlleben’s intriguing book, The Hidden Life of Trees. Wohlleben provides details about the ways in which trees have feelings, nurse each other to health, and communicate to prevent and thwart attacks from insects and recover from death. These are behaviours and sentiments very close to those expressed by humans. And that perspective turns each print in the show into a visual chapter of a story that re-asserts the way humans are nature and nature is human.

The artist carried that interconnected conception of the world and applied it to the notion of identity and the relationship between the country and its citizens. In the early 2000s, the country experienced years of infighting sparked by a wave of ethnocentrism that drove many to clutch desperately to its flag and other nationalist emblems. Two decades onwards, the country is now peaceful, but its scars are sensitive and the memories of the vitriolic rhetoric of authentic identity not forgotten. Reclaiming the flag in that context was both an exercise of thoughtfulness and artistic balance. With the opening act of the exhibition, Koko Bi deconstructs the orange, white and green of the flag into materials such as orange and sand, almost as a reminder that Ivory Coast and its flag are not merely empty concepts to evoke opportunistically. Instead, they are tangible and affordable items to be seen, felt, and experienced by all. Talking about that installation, he said, “At one point, Ivory Coast became for some a packaging in which they put their objects, and they threw it away once they were done with it. […] But Ivory Coast is the matter. We are material. So let’s learn to experience that, and we will feel that we are good, that we are irresistible. This is what wealth is.” The birds are still chirping in the background, and the artist who makes wood talk is making Ivorian materials hum a message of unity and interconnectedness. Let’s hope viewers tune in.

Patrimoine by Jems Koko Bi at the gallery Cecile Fakhoury will conclude on June 5th.

The written interview was translated from French.

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