Christelle Oyiri’s Black Sonic Ecosystems

The artist and DJ’s first solo show at Tramway, Glasgow, is a stunning exploration of West African music

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BY Tom Hastings in Exhibition Reviews , UK Reviews | 09 AUG 22

Christelle Oyiri’s debut solo exhibition, ‘Gentle Battle’, considers French decolonization in Côte d’Ivoire and the West African diaspora’s resistance to the French state in the banlieues of Paris. Oyiri, who is of Ivorian and Guadeloupian descent, lives in Paris, where she has a following as Crystallmess. Her exposition of coupé-décalé and logobi music at Tramway forms an exhilarating counterpart to her DJ sets in Abidjan, Berlin and Paris. Oyiri strips the West African music genres from the white gatekeepers of house and electronic music to create Black sonic ecosystems.

Douk Saga, a.k.a. Stéphane Doukouré, is the protagonist of Oyiri’s film War! Club! Action! (2022). Oyiri introduces the anonymized and fictional native informant DJ Eminence Grise before inviting us to ‘sing!’ with Saga and his stylish entourage. Grise shares: ‘Coupédécalé embodies a lifestyle and a mantra. Treat life like your own play […] enjoying the fruits of life, its pearls and nectar, in and outside of the clubs between Paris or Abidjan.’

Christelle Oyiri, ‘Gentle Battle’, 2022, installation view, Tramway, Glasgow. Courtesy: the artist and Tramway, Glasgow; photograph: Keith Hunter
Christelle Oyiri, ‘Gentle Battle’, 2022, installation view, Tramway, Glasgow. Courtesy: the artist and Tramway, Glasgow; photograph: Keith Hunter

Saga popularized coupé-décalé – meaning ‘cheat and run away’ in nouchi, an Ivorian- French creole – in the early 2000s. Ivorians in Paris and Abidjan absorbed this dance music’s gentle tactics and those of the adjacent genre, logobi, while living through the 2002 Ivorian military coup. War! Club! Action! ends with flashing archival footage of the previous 1999 coup d’état, suturing Saga’s rhythms to the violence of the republic.

Elsewhere, Vindicta (2022) is a series of masks from the Kru ethnic group, etched onto mirrored panels that reflect the viewer. Other sculptural works gesture to diverse timespaces: the red silk four-poster bed of Warrior Rest/Sleep Paralysis (2022) tied with golden braids; the splendidly fetishistic homage to French composer Bernard Szajner in Sum Deaths Take 4Eva (2022); a three-metre folding screen, 2002 (2022), featuring images of Oyiri’s family, some of whom were expelled from Côte d’Ivoire, and the enormous foam Tusk of Zegui (2022), decked in gold leaf after the underwater erosion of its exact elephant original, recovered from the Henrietta Marie, a sunken 17th century slave ship.

​  Christelle Oyiri, ‘Gentle Battle’, 2022, installation view, Tramway, Glasgow. Courtesy: the artist and Tramway, Glasgow; photograph: Keith Hunter  ​
Christelle Oyiri, ‘Gentle Battle’, 2022, installation view, Tramway, Glasgow. Courtesy: the artist and Tramway, Glasgow; photograph: Keith Hunter

Curated by Simon Gérard, Claire Jackson and Alexander Storey Gordon, ‘Gentle Battle’ perfectly describes the 20th century’s involute of sexual and colonial desire. As Oyiri puts it in one of my favourite lines in the stunning film Collective Amnesia (2018–22): ‘Suppress the lineage to the point it becomes a kink.’ Elsewhere in the film, R&B performer Helma Mayissa moves day-dreamily before a large fresco depicting subjects of the French Empire by Pierre-Henri Ducos de la Haille in Paris’s Palais de la Porte Dorée. Initially commissioned for the 1931 International Colonial Exposition in Paris, the fresco conveys how many non-white French ‘citizens’ were denied rights at that time, and begs the question, almost a century on, whether things have actually improved.

Christelle Oyiri, ‘Gentle Battle’, 2022, installation view, Tramway, Glasgow. Courtesy: the artist and Tramway, Glasgow; photograph: Keith Hunter
Christelle Oyiri, ‘Gentle Battle’, 2022, installation view, Tramway, Glasgow. Courtesy: the artist and Tramway, Glasgow; photograph: Keith Hunter

Under the screen, a pile of counterfeit Central African francs (CFA) seems to have fallen from the sky (Lahan!, 2022). As economist Ndongo Samba Sylla observed in Jacobin in 2020, this currency is a ‘recipe for underdevelopment’ that forces Côte d’Ivoire to hold reserves in the French treasury, a neo-colonial bureau de change. I take one of the bills, which has the word ‘CRIME’ etched on its surface, while in Collective Amnesia, Saga dispenses 10,000 CFA banknotes to clubbers in an act of celebration. Finally, there is footage of young men dancing logobi, as if representing, as Oyiri’s told Dazed in 2018: ‘The celebration of an uninhibited Africanness in the very sacred French public space.’

Christelle Oyiri’s ‘Gentle Battle’ is at Tramway, Glasgow, UK, until 14 August. 

Main image: Christelle Oyiri, ‘Gentle Battle’, 2022, installation view, Tramway, Glasgow. Courtesy: the artist and Tramway, Glasgow; photograph: Keith Hunter

Tom Hastings is a writer and lecturer based in London, UK. 

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