The African Experience (English)


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When Christian Lapie began planning his crude, generic, anthropomorphic figures, in principle suited to every situation, he surely cannot have imagined that one day he would end up working as a sculptor in the heart of Africa. He cannot have known that his Western primitivism, solidly rooted in modern artistic traditions, was one day to be submitted to the critical gaze of the descendants of ancient tribal societies, now Muslim for the most part, sometimes Christian, and in either case raised in societies that have forgotten their ancestral rites and ethnographic roots. An invitation to work in Ngaoundéré, the biggest town in northern Cameroon, in 2001 and 2002 gave Christian Lapie a unique experience of complex cultural relations. He did not change the way he worked for the Cameroon project-the sculptures were to be irresistibly monumental, the hieratic outlines of human forms standing tall, roughly hewn from the trunks of local trees destined for the building trade or for use as fuel. Thus the artist demonstrated his deep sense of respect for the African jungle. His travels in the Amazon basin introduced Christian Lapie to the sheer power of natural forces; he left behind the clay of his native Champagne, heavy with the dead of the First World War, to invent a basic vocabulary describing the essence of humanity. Once he had carved the rough figures from the tree trunks, he painted them black, to indicate both his indifference to the wood as a material, and his interest for the symbolism shared by most of the cultures based on the use of wood. The figures produced by the artist are suffused with a primitivism that is prehistoric rather than tribal in nature, as they are too humanized to be truly totemic. This primitivism is no more inspired by a model of pure spirituality than it is by an exaltation of the values of savagery. At no point does the artist's systematic use of hewn trunks remind the viewer of hybrid beings, halfway between vegetable and animal, animal and human; in this, his creations go against the work of many Western artists inspired by primitive art, in particular the Surrealists. There is not the slightest hint of an animal nature in Christian Lapie's sculptures-only the shades of humans, presence and absence, emptiness and fullness, depending on the context the artist situates the figure in, once he has in all neutrality defined the smallest (or largest) common denominator of the depiction of the human form. His attitude is that of a conceptualist or minimalist, whose figures only acquire a history in relation to a specific environment. The history of these structures, which give free rein to the imagination, depends on how the viewer-creator looks at these ordinary trunks, their signification turning like a weathervane in the breezes of the mind and its narratives. The town of Ngaoundéré, "the mountain of the belly-button," owes its name to the shape of a nearby hill, which resembles a bald mountain topped by a round stone that invites the belly-button metaphor. Christian Lapie took this symbolic landmark as a starting point for his installation, dotting five groups of figures within the town or in the environs, on sites offering a view of the hill. The other symbolic link with the local culture that the artist was keen to develop was the placing of the figures of each group in a semi-circle, echoing the architecture of the djaoulérou, the traditional open forum built at the entrance to the private plots of land, on the boundary between public and private life, outside and inside. In December 2001, soon after Christian Lapie's figures had been erected on their various sites, the comments of the users, passers-by, students, and representatives of the cultural institutions, indicate that the sculptures were not considered a source of humor. Among the comments was the following affirmation: "You will see that no-one will ever touch the work you have done, because it belongs to the sacred, and to touch it, you have to take precautions against the evil eye." This prediction proved mistaken: between May and September, after a new mayor was elected to represent the town, the "idols" became a political issue and were surrounded by heaps of tires and destroyed by fire, like a sacrificial victim. Christian Lapie was surely unaware of how seriously his local interpretation of primitivism would be taken, despite the objectivity and detachment preached by Islamic law. Nor could he have foreseen that his statues, by their ambivalence and their very incompleteness, would give rise to interpretations that were far more disturbing than would have been possible in the West, where, whatever the artist creates, even in a space wholly given over to commemoration, a work of art is always just that-a work of art.

Geneviève Breerette

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