The Lighthouse of Memory

Go Nogé Mènè

Globalisation and the collapse of information and communication borders have enabled art to recover many of its ancestral functions, and to reuse these ideas, within the parameters of Manichean semiotics, to reflect the mood and interests of our times. From the magical and inexplicable to the rational and scientific, these ideas find expression in contemporary art, the principal medium through which the evolution of thinking and the construction of change can be grasped. Indeed, we might ask ourselves if changes in the world are reflected in art, or if changes in art are reflected in the world. Perhaps it is impossible to understand because one is the consequence of the other. In either case, contemporary art is a precocious journalist who detects and responds to the world’s problems sooner than most ideological observers. What is clear, in this context, is the transient nature of art. Bertrand Russell believed that ‘Change is scientific, progress is ethical’. Certainly, progress is a result of continuous dialogue. Like beavers’ dams, revolutionary ideas are built to stop the current that might eventually destroy them, and are rebuilt on their ruins in a more resistant form. The same principle of construction-destruction-reconstruction is present in the science of healing, and in all creative practices, such as art.

Clearly, contemporary art has a greater capacity to transform itself and to exert influence than the art of the past, but perhaps it is also less local, and for this reason analyses, ponders and follows common processes irrespective of geographic, cultural and historical origin, often forgetting the idiosyncratic richness of each group, country or region of the world. A multicultural forum, allowing global discussion, would, without doubt, stimulate progress and enrich the processes of thought and science. The goal would be to find common aspirations and values that embrace all thoughts, all stories, all truths... somewhere between utopia and tolerance. We should look for aspects of our present world that are relevant to all societies, regardless of historical, economic, social, cultural or political circumstances, and consider the constructive role of art in this discussion. Too often, spectators within the world of art long for the artist’s complicity and personal commitment to the problems of the world, even if some artists who become too involved have been called opportunistic. Consciences can still be moved, and made to feel uncomfortable by art. This is what still moves me, and what I am interested in. This generally coincides with reflexive or autobiographical art, which arises from the artist’s memory; the depth of his or her heart and thoughts projected to the world with the ‘scientific, progressive and ethical’ intention of changing it for the better.

Curiously, when I think about the artists who coincide with these values and principles, I can only recall the names of women: Ana Mendieta, Frida Kahlo, Louise Bourgeois, Tracey Emin, Shirin Neshat, Marina Abramovic and Owanto – all synonymous with courage and authenticity. Owanto, which means ‘Woman’ in Gabonese, is the name of Yvette Berger’s mother, and is also her identity as an artist. As well as a worthy homage to her mother, the name ‘Owanto’ is a symbol for all those who stand committed in the world; who demand an end to gender violence; who demand a different role for women; who demand the respect and acknowledgement refused to women during thousands of years of ‘civilisation’. Owanto’s work is imbued with this spirit, in which female energy is at the centre of nature. Like Martin Luther King, she also has a utopian dream. She builds images that question eternal doubts: ‘Where are we going?’ the artist asks. The majesty of this question suggests good intentions; Owanto also offers daring answers, the consequence of human values that will help to build a better, more compassionate, world.

Owanto’s focus on the Africa of her childhood has nothing to do with the similar experiences of 19th Century travel writers and explorers, and is at the opposite end of the aesthetic gaze of rational architects and Cubist painters. Hers is a call to the world based on life experiences, and her message is cogent and optimistic. Truth may be found at the origins of civilisation, which is why Africa, the land of her mother, has much to contribute to the construction of a world order - a contribution that is not scientific, economic or technical... but ethical. The ideas and principles which underlie Owanto’s message are as simple as nature. Her animist convictions, and belief that family unity is a starting point for world unity, are deeply rooted in her Gabonese background. The home, for Owanto, is the best laboratory in which to design and build love, a raw material that is vital for mutual understanding in the world. This laboratory, in which mothers are symbols of unity and courage, is a metaphor for hope that a better world is possible if each of us exerts a positive influence on our immediate environment, our family, our tribe, our society.

Owanto has used pop, conceptual and minimal art in her creation of universal symbols, which remind spectators of where the solutions to our world may lie, and how a society lacking moral strength may begin to heal. Using her sculptures as starting points, Owanto has created a series of icons which she presents in highly technical formats such as light-boxes and traffic signs - media previously explored by Maurizio Cattelan, Rogelio López Cuenca, Gabriel Acuña and Michael Pinsky. Owanto’s discourse focuses on images of a family group and a child playing, which suggest a happier world to come. The pieces have a double intention: to alert us to solutions to our global predicament, and to suggest a change in governing attitudes and rules. The light-boxes, like torches and lighthouses, illuminate a future characterised by tolerance, unity and hope. For Owanto, subversion as a necessary precursor to freedom is no longer a matter of provocation, but one of memory.

Fernando Francés

Curator of the Exhibition