BY Sean O'Toole in Features | 01 NOV 08
Featured in
Issue 119

Bili Bidjocka

Begonias, the lure of travel, endless writing and an unfinished book

BY Sean O'Toole in Features | 01 NOV 08

Bili Bidjocka, The Jet-Lag Experiment 2 (On est dans l'espace de la peinture ou on n'est pas...) (One is either in the space of the painting or one is not...,), DVD still, 2004

It’s the morning after. Gravel-voiced, Bili Bidjocka orders eggs and black coffee from the waiter patrolling the poolside terrace at Bamako’s Mirabeau Hotel, a trim structure down a side-street in the Malian capital. The waiter frowns – it is lunchtime – but dutifully obliges. Bidjocka, whose affecting installations and itinerant aesthetic have made him a fixture on numerous Africa-themed group exhibitions, leans back into his deckchair. ‘Wow, I said that?’

He is responding to a quote I found attributed to him on the web: ‘Paris made me discover the world. Paris has given me the time and space to begin doing art.’

‘I think it’s true’, he offers through the murk of his hangover. Although born in Douala, Cameroon, he is equally a Parisian. ‘I went there when I was two. When I was seven, I went back to Douala for five years, then came back to Paris aged 12. I was a teenager in Paris; I made love for the first time in Paris.’

Crucially, though, his first ‘aesthetic experience’ wasn’t in France, where he trained as a painter, having previously been a go-go dancer at Fabrice Emaer’s urbane Le Palace night-club in the early 1980s. Rather, it happened during the Eucharist at a Catholic Mass in Douala, an accumulation of sound and sunlight prompting a sort of naive religious ecstasy in the pre-teen. ‘If I try to do something in my art, it is something similar to that’, he says. ‘Not religion as in sacred, but spiritual.’ One of only a handful of noteworthy contributions to last year’s lacklustre African Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, Bidjocka’s installation L’écriture infinie (Infinite Writing, 2005), further clarifies his allusive intentions. Comprising a 100kg vellum book (with hardbound cover and gold inlay) paired with a projection on an 18-second delay, L’écriture infinie forms an ongoing project aimed at preserving examples of handwritten text. Initiated at Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum in 2006, the project is typical of Bidjocka’s vagabond practice: ambitious, evolutionary, quixotic and unfinished, it is also unashamedly participatory and anti-consumerist, something often to his detriment as a professional artist.

‘I don’t have solo shows, I have individual projects’, he says. ‘I suppose this is why I don’t exhibit so much. I am dilettantish about my career as an artist. I am practising an aesthetic of desperation, to make it sound chic. I have bad habits, I disappear, I travel, I fall in love and I fill my bag with love.’ Central to the resilience of his itinerant career, which has included stints in Brussels and New York, are his alliances, past and present, with Okwui Enwezor and Simon Njami. In 1997 Enwezor invited Bidjocka to participate at the Johannesburg Biennale. For his first ever exhibition on the African continent Bidjocka planted 16,000 begonias over a three-month period, his project assuming more sinister overtones as his experience of the city became more fraught.

‘Previously, in my Cameroonian passport, South Africa was the only place I couldn’t go’, he explains. ‘It was important for me to be there. I wanted to make something that was a pure gift, pure beauty, a bouquet to this new country, to this new woman I wanted to seduce.’ Johannesburg’s abiding obsession with safety and security, however, soon hemmed Bidjocka in. ‘I put electric fences and broken bottles around the flowers and called the work South African Garden. It wasn’t part of the project at the beginning. I wrote a text to the public, apologizing: I wanted to make a work of art, but I made a piece of communication.’ The distinction, he explains, is one of affect, the former less blunted by the compulsion to address the immediate. Bidjocka has since returned to Johannesburg twice, in 2007 with the travelling group exhibition ‘Africa Remix’, and again in March 2008, when he contributed to Njami’s exhibition for the Joburg Art Fair, ‘As You Like It’, a DVD projection offering a stationary shot of Mont Sainte-Victoire, near Aix-en-Provence. The allusions to Paul Cézanne and Andy Warhol form part of Bidjocka’s habit of conversing with and against the canon; in 2000 he collaborated with Kendell Geers on a video installation that drew on Francis Ford Coppola and Nicolas Roeg’s filmic interpretations of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902), a novella famously criticised by Chinua Achebe as ‘grossly inadequate’. Despite his ranging tastes – Lautréamont, Stephane Mallarmé, Serge Gainsbourg’s take on Baudelaire, dance and its relationship to space, the art of Pascale Marthine Tayou – Bidjocka says his art is often reductively perceived, either as an expression of his race or birthplace, worse still, both. ‘When I started exhibiting at art school, I was confronted with this notion’, he says. ‘I never really chose it, but I have always been confronted with it. It is difficult when people define you the way you are not.’

Revived by the coffee, Bidjocka ends our conversation with a moody series of propositions that apply his own experiences to the wider category of contemporary African art. ‘What is it? A slogan? A brand? If it is a brand, where is the product to sell? There is no market. I have a feeling that what we are selling is always just a slogan: contemporary African art, African photography. It has become a kind of label. If it is just a label, it is not my space.’

Sean O’Toole is a contributing editor of frieze, based in Cape Town, South Africa.