A visual artist, Jean David Nkot became particularly well known on the Cameroonian art scene first with the installation « The Martyrs’ Memorial », presented in 2014 at Doual’art. Three years later, for the festival SUD (Salon Urbain de Douala), he questions in « Les Dits et les Non-Dits » the memory of Ruben Um Nyobé, figure of independence movements in his country. Active, nowadays, on the art market with his paintings, he is represented by the galleries JackBellGAllery in the United Kingdom and Afikaris in France. At the heart of his work: cartographies as a space for questioning today’s circulations and ways of inhabiting space. To read the french version : http://africultures.com/quelle-sera-la-nouvelle-cartographie-du-monde-apres-la-sortie-de-cette-crise/
Your latest series of paintings have in common to work on the imaginary of maps, to invent cartographies linked to portraits of women, men and children. How do you read the current health crisis in which, confronted with the pandemic, borders are closing and traffic is being disrupted?
I see, here in Africa, Europeans who no longer want to return to Europe. I want to tell them: « Today you see that it is important to move freely, because when a case occurs somewhere, another can be a reception area while solutions are found. Yet what do you do when the rest of the time you close the borders and forbid others to enter? If everyone starts doing that, how do you get out of it? You can see that you need your neighbour to exist ». In Italy today it is the Cubans who come to help the sick. So I ask myself: what will be the new cartography of the world after this event? How will people rebuild the world map? Either we are going to lock ourselves up more, or we are really going to re-examine the questions of borders between us. Not physically, but between humans. How do we want to see them again? Cartography is something crucial. We can’t do anything without it. It guides us. But what cartography? Are the ones we’re currently using suitable for us?
You have been creating new cartographies for years with collages and paintings, and also installations. Maps that you link to portraits of people. What do these cartographies tell us? How did this interest in this questioning about space and inhabiting it come about?
My work questions the problems of the human condition. From then on, I address questions of violence, identity, erasure, confinement. How the human being is dehumanized today, how he is perceived, how he is looked at, how he is considered in a space that is not his, or that can be his. Questions of otherness are at the heart of my work; how we look at ourselves today. In 2015, I will start working on a question: how to write the contemporary history of my country, threatened at that time by the advent of Boko Haram? How, as an artist, do I translate this into a plastic dimension? And how, today and tomorrow, can we remember those who were victims of these terrorists? Then I think of using a postal universe. After some research, I transform my paintings into giant post-stamps. My handwriting up to that point was more like a portrait. My mentor, Hervé Youmbi, works a lot on portraits. But I was wondering how I, who works in his school, could present the portrait in another way. The stamp has long been a communication tool to signify the important events of a country. And then there’s all the symbolism of the postage and the traffic it carries. So for me, who needed to circulate the message of what was happening in Cameroon, the medium was ideal, both philosophically and in terms of matter. Each stamp, normally, is associated with a nation, via the indication « republic of… ». I have removed this mention to list the places and spaces where terrorist attacks have taken place. In 2016, this way of working led me, after a residency at Bandjoun Station at Barthélémy Togo, to question myself on the notion of space. Is writing the places of terrorist attacks the only way to represent space? By digging into how space is physically materialized, from writing to its representation, I came to cartography.
You’re talking about traffic, not migration. Is there a reason for that?
The maps will allow me to touch on an important issue, that of migration. But I always repeat: immigration is not a subject I deal with, it is the human condition. What happens between the process of immigration and displacement. What interests me is the « grey zone » that Primo Levi talks about. This space he defines between the executioner and the victim. And for me this zone is in particular the period of time between the point of departure and the point of arrival for a person on the move. I’m trying to materialize it through cartography.
Your paintings are then a tangle of maps, portraits and objects as well. Sometimes the character appears in the foreground, sometimes it is guessed under the lines of the cartographies. What do they say?
Those with backstage cartographies symbolize dream cartographies. These men and women that I represent conceive a dream space in their minds. In her works I define my spaces in 3 dimensions: physical space, mental space and virtual space. The physical space can be defined by the place of residence. I represent it in particular on some canvases by objects that indicate the position, like a chair, a bench… Any element that could materialize where the universe of reflection began to dream of another space; what can push us to leave the society we are in. The mental space is all the expressions of the character, his posture, the attitude of the body which will be able to translate emotions, his clothes… all that also tells something. And then the virtual space is represented by this cartography in the background or in the foreground; a combination of all the dreams that an individual can have, the way he represents himself where he would like to be, where he could exist. These cartographies become places of claim and politicization in my work. We know that the way of drawing a map is never neutral. Cartography can also be a space for manipulating territories.
How do you signify it?
Cartography is never an element of scenery. It is an element of politicization. For example, for the series on gold panners under construction, I work from maps on mining today in Africa, which is one of the scourges that are undermining the African continent today because of the richness of the subsoil. This trade is one of the reasons, in some countries, why people are forced to move away. Les Orpailleurs is an installation with a representation notably of the DRC in giant format and painted with a cartography of its subsoil, on which I place a chess game but whose figurines are surmounted by work tools used by the workers. I figure as men and women are used for economic and political purposes by large organizations. They are pawns that feed large companies that manipulate them for their own gain.
And sometimes they are forced, as you put it, to migrate. Your series « Les Indésirables » (The Undesirables), then « Les Hommes de l’ombre » ( The Shapes of World) in particular, highlight these workers who move around. On the maps, sometimes in the background, you have place names but also stories.
I am inspired by the sociologist Michel Agier, who wrote the book « Les Indésirables ». He highlights the relationship between the foreigner and space, how both look at and represent themselves, and how both try to exist. In some portrait paintings, space emerges, in others it is the space that phagocytize the human being. I work on the question of identity in movement; how as we move we may lose something of ourselves. And then where do we stop? How do we sometimes lend in transit zones that become zones in which we settle, where a new life is created. Then these zones are often destroyed, but then a whole life is destroyed, a whole story goes away. In these spaces, which are the products of globalization, of displacement, certain cities are born. Perhaps these are future cities. And I wanted to think about these places by doing a symbolic work that mixes European and African cartographies and that symbolizes these so-called non-places, those of the Undesirable.
Who are the characters you represent?
They are people who have really experienced migration, with whom I exchange. I take pictures of them and I keep track of their history. Because there are two dimensions to the Undesirables project that continue, a mental mapping and a graphic mapping: I invited the migrants to retrace their migratory journey. When we see the work of many artists on the journeys, they often represent the point of departure and arrival. But what happens between each stop, what emotions have emerged at each stage. I have invited each migrant to flesh out his or her account of the things that have marked them at each stage, events, anecdotes, reminiscences, why and how they decided to continue the journey as they went along. So each map was marked by points of lived history. And then there was the mental mapping of how they told their story, both verbally and graphically. I gave them sheets where they themselves represented their journey with the different stages, which I would later reuse on canvas. But this time by changing the faces. I can attach the face to another person’s story. It’s the continuation of Les Indésirables. Now there are texts and paths that go inside the maps.
In » Feet story « , one of your paintings, you work more particularly on the symbolism of the feet with always the cartography in the background.
I have photographed more particularly the feet of migrants that I met and I wrote their story on a cartography that comes from their imagination. The foot tells us about displacement, it is the foot that walks, the foot that undergoes. But we often think that it is only the foot that leaves its imprint on the ground, we forget that the ground also sends back its imprint on us. These two footprints create the story of the one who walks. How, from the sole of the foot, I relay the story of the displaced person. Sometimes it is the hands, because it is the hands that work. During this displacement, the hand works to be able to have money to continue the circuit. How the hands tell about his endurance at work, to the world today. These are the stories of the workers. It is a series that I have called « Pictorial Manuscript ».
Where did you meet these migrants? Where do they leave from?
Some of them I met in Paris where they pass through or arrive when I was in residence at the Cité des Arts. And many of them are in Douala because I am in a neighbourhood where there are a lot of migrants; people who want to leave, others who have come back and want to leave again. I’m immersed in these stories. That’s what prompted me to set up a new project, « El Consquitador », inspired by the age of Discovery. How I divert these events that took place between the 14th and 17th centuries to connect them to what is happening now. When Europeans left their continent for elsewhere, they were considered explorers, conquistadors. They went with weapons to conquer space. Today « explorers » do not leave their country with weapons, but for dreams of a better life. They will travel with ideas, pickaxes, shovels, and many tools that relate to work. I have made a series of photos where migrants are with army uniforms and work tools and I will work on new maps mixing those of the past centuries with those of today.
What other works are you currently working on that are still linked to imaginary cartographies?
I have been working on a project I called « Djoudjou Connection » inspired by rituals linked to migration in Niger. I question the relationship between ritual practices and displacement. How do women in particular become dependent on the so-called « mama », the godmother who finances the girl’s displacement by promising her that she will go to the best schools, that she will work, although she ends up in a prostitution network. So I thought about the condition of migrant women.
What are the upcoming projects?
Everything is kind of on hold for the moment because of the current crisis. But anyway, it is the art-work that makes the exhibitions. So we continue to create. The exhibitions will come when it’s time. Even though my paintings are now in galleries, or are sold commercially, my painting is still a battle, as Picasso saw it: it’s an object of war.