The Monumental Landscape: François-Xavier Gbré in conversation with Brendan Wattenberg and Emmanuel Iduma

© François-Xavier Gbré, Swimming pool III, Bamako, 2009. Courtesy of Galerie Cécile Fakhoury, Abidjan.

 

In the summer of 2010, François-Xavier Gbré was sent to assist an eminent American photographer on a fashion shoot. After four years of living in Milan, where he had worked primarily in commercial and editorial photography contracted through the Italian agency Exit, Gbré was leaving Europe to resettle in west Africa. To prepare, Gbré quickly glossed the photographer’s images online. On location outside of Milan, in a village originally built for factory workers, Gbré was charged with managing digital memory cards and processing images for a spread entitled “Un Racconto” (“A Tale”), which appeared in October 2010 in the fashion magazine Amica. Only much later, when he picked up a copy of the photographer’s classic 1982 monograph Uncommon Places, did Gbré realize the significance of having worked with Stephen Shore.

Gbré was born in 1978 in Lille, France, to a French-Ivorian family. Once a thriving industrial center, in the 1970s and ’80s, like many European cities formerly dependent on coal mining or factory production, Lille was in decline. As a teenager, Gbré remembers friends who took jobs at a Unilever plant. But by the time he began to photograph in Lille, on visits home during the years he lived in Milan, the building was slated for destruction. The thresholds of nearly erased architecture occupy his early photographs from this period: Buildings that were once somewhere appear at the edge of nowhere. In the interlude between decay and collapse, such buildings have a brief second life as purely aesthetic objects. Like Shore, whose pioneering images of city streets, hotel rooms, and vernacular architecture are intimately connected with the transformation of landscape and color photography in the late twentieth century, Gbré finds in the surfaces of the built environment complex narratives about economy and history, geography and memory.

After moving to west Africa in 2010, first to Mali and later to Côte d’Ivoire, Gbré began a cartographic exploration of west African cities, in particular the buildings and civic structures where the past appears both foreign and unfinished. Heroic military statues in Bamako claim victories for a nation beleaguered by violence. Housing developments rise in Abidjan, a city replete with contradictions between futuristic symbols of progress and ambivalent signs of exclusion or conformity. But Gbré, whose series also recall the landmark imagery of Lewis Baltz and Guy Tillim, doesn’t propose a comprehensive history of French colonialism in west Africa or of the turbulent growth of post-independence African cities. Instead, united by a methodical, often distanced perspective on architecture and landscape as a form of documentary evidence, his images summon the personal experience of public space and the social aspirations encoded in concrete, rebar, clay, and dust.

In architecture, as Stephen Shore has said, “there are parameters of expectation, and of meaning, of how people are supposed to respond to a building, of the tradition it comes from … all of which has gone through exposure to time and the elements.” Being most accessible through and vividly illustrated by photography, architecture must pass though the exposure of the camera and the perspective of the artist. The exposure of the built environment—the radiant moment when the present is fixed in the past—is the subject of Gbré’s photography.

Brendan Wattenberg | When we first met, you were speaking on a panel at Autograph ABP in London about an exhibition called Uprooting the Gaze. This was in the fall of 2010. How did you become involved with that project?

François-Xavier Gbré | Fondation Blachère, a French organization, invited a group of artists for a residency in Lyon. We were nominees of the foundation’s prize at the Bamako Biennale in 2009. I spent two weeks with Zanele Muholi, Uche Okpa Iroha, Nestor Da, Baudouin Mouanda, and the video artist Breeze Yoko. Afterward, we had an exhibition at the foundation and the Brighton Photo Biennial.

Wattenberg | You were still living in Europe then, but were you already planning a move to west Africa?

Gbré | Originally, my plan was to go to Côte d’Ivoire. But, with the post-electoral crisis in 2010 and 2011, the situation there was very complicated. It wasn’t safe. So, I decided to move to Mali. I had a great experience in Bamako during my first visit in 2009. I loved that city from the first minute. Bamako is a big village; the elements we usually find in a city are not really all there. You can find a mountain of tires on the street. You can see people working outside. The buildings are very low. When I arrived, I thought of Rome, which is another city surrounded by hills with a river crossing the center.

Wattenberg | In Bamako, you were photographing monuments in the process of being built. Was this part of a public campaign? What did people think of these monuments?

Gbré | I remember that it was a new thing, so people were happy. But, because of the military coup, the work seemed absurd: monuments that glorify the army when the army is not there to keep the country safe. I used to take tea with a guy who had a shop in front of a monument. I asked him to take care of my motorcycle while I went around to photograph. It was funny to me, even though I realised that to build a monument was really not the priority at that moment.

 

© François-Xavier Gbré, République du Mali, Avenue des Armées, Sotuba, Bamako, 2012. Courtesy of Galerie Cécile Fakhoury, Abidjan.

 

Emmanuel Iduma | I was in Bamako last summer and on every corner of the city you have these monuments. There’s even a monument of the elephant. In a way, they’re kind of beautiful, but I didn’t know the historical context. What needed to be monumentalised?

Gbré | From 1992 until 2002, the President Alpha Oumar Konaré ordered the construction of many monuments. The aim was to create a national identity and unity. They should have a memory and educational function as well. At the beginning, people complained about the cost and the foreign inspiration. In 2011, President Amadou Toumani Touré required monuments to glorify the army. Being a being a general, I guess he wanted the Army Corps to be present in the public space too. These statues are made of cement. You have the leg, the body, the head, and they put the three pieces together. Then they’re painted with a bronze colour. So they look real, but these are real fakes.

 

© François-Xavier Gbré, Le Voile, Avenue des Armées, Sotuba, Bamako, 2012. Courtesy of Galerie Cécile Fakhoury, Abidjan.

 

Iduma | Now that you’ve been living permanently in Abidjan, and you know more about the photography that’s happening on the continent, or that has happened in west Africa, I wonder if you consider yourself part of any tradition of architectural photography or landscape photography?

Gbré | Nowadays, everybody is connecting to everybody. My first influence was in Europe, so of course I looked to European photographers. I didn’t even know about the Bamako Biennale. Maybe if I would have known about it in 2004, when I did my first work in Côte d’Ivoire, Nouvelle Ivoirienne, the Biennale could have helped me to receive feedback from curators. I didn’t get this feedback on my personal work. And that’s also why I focused on commercial work. Today, I feel like I’m part of the continent. We are all moving now. That’s why Christine Eyene’s exhibition Uprooting the Gaze, the one at the Brighton Biennial, really got the point.

Wattenberg | Do you mean it was important to uproot your own gaze, since you had been looking to and working within European photography for so many years?

Gbré | It’s important to find what you really want to speak about. Then you focus on it, keeping an open mind, not forgetting where you come from or where you mainly built your gaze.

 

© François-Xavier Gbré, Unilever II, Haubourdin, France, 2010. Courtesy of Galerie Cécile Fakhoury, Abidjan.

 

Wattenberg | Throughout your ongoing series Tracks there is a dialogue between interior and exterior. You’ve said Tracks is concerned with memory and identity, particularly in relation to the social and the built environment. What unites Tracks? How are all the geographies related?

Gbré | On a CD or vinyl record, you have different tracks, different songs. The tracks can be the roads, the railway, the traces left by imprints. Each track is a chapter telling a different story. The first group in Tracks is of the Elizabeth Hotel in Tiberias. Then Bamako gave me a beautiful gift, which was the Olympic swimming pool. The factories chapter in Tracks is a mix of photographs of two distinct factories: Unilever in Haubourdin and Poyaud in Surgères. I mixed both because they looked similar—and I could add more images from other industrial places because they all share the same end of European industrial history. Then came Bénin with the national printing shop and the palace of the governor in Lomé in 2012. The last “track,” in 2014, is the Palais de Justice in Dakar.

 

© François-Xavier Gbré, Cour suprême I, Palais de Justice, Cap Manuel, Dakar, 2014. Courtesy of Galerie Cécile Fakhoury, Abidjan.

 

Iduma | When you exhibit works from Tracks that mix up the series, you could have pictures from different countries and different periods of time on view together. How do you make the installations? What kinds of associations are you trying to create?

Gbré | Until 2014, I exhibited the strongest photographs from different chapters, without exploring one in depth. It was kind of an overview of the series, and the curators had to deal with the limited space and costs of the large prints. It was not easy to make coherent installations. We made decisions regarding the association of images with a common aesthetic. For example, in the Bamako Biennale in 2011, the curators chose three pictures from Bamako and two from Israel. But last year, at Art Twenty One in Lagos, I had my first solo exhibition where I showed different chapters in the same space.

Wattenberg | When you make installations of numerous small pictures, or what you have called “constellations,” how do you organise these works?

Gbré | The first constellation was an experiment. I created it in May 2013 for the Surfaces exhibition at Galerie Cécile Fakhoury in Abidjan. It was a map made of photographs from Israel, Senegal, Mali, Bénin, and Togo. Here is the process: I print many photographs, and I create groups regarding the stories, shapes, and colors. I give a structure to each group, and then I try to link the groups in order to make sense of the series. These collections open new doors and windows to the viewer, who can go further in reading the artwork, an experience that is more like dreaming.

 

Installation view, Sphères 7, Galleria Continua, Les Moulins, France, 2014. Courtesy of Galerie Cécile Fakhoury, Abidjan.

 

Iduma | In these constellations, and in your series, you’re not making a statement about African cities in general—that’s not your project. You’re doing something more conceptual.

Gbré | Yes. In Mali Militari, I have a few landscapes, but I try to speak about other things through them. I want my photographs to have different readings, to be metaphorical. With time, I can see the link between my work from different cities because I’ve seen this situation or that social issue before in other places; so I am able to produce similar photos in Dakar, Bamako, or Abidjan.

Iduma | In relation to the building projects you photograph in Dakar, just traveling through the continent you see that these buildings are going up at the same time in almost every city. People say that’s evidence of “Africa Rising”—evidence that something new is happening on this continent. But the sense I get from looking at your images is that you’re not really saying that this is something good. In the context of your other images of ruined or decaying buildings, you might also be projecting that these buildings will suffer the same fate as other structures that were also constructed in a spirit of optimism.

Gbré | It’s nice to see all these recent buildings, and the impulse is great—but sometimes you can also see bad things in the good things. For example, in Dakar, I mainly worked on the seafront. You have this road, and you can see the water everywhere from it. But now, the sea is disappearing behind these new buildings. It’s like the waterfront is becoming a private place for a little group of people who can get access to those buildings. One landscape is moving ahead, but there’s also one that’s disappearing.

 

© François-Xavier Gbré, Baie de Mermoz II, Dakar, Sénégal, 2012. Courtesy of Galerie Cécile Fakhoury, Abidjan.

 

Wattenberg | Do you see a similar tension in Abidjan?

Gbré | In Abidjan, we are building many things, but at the same time the authorities are cleaning the place using bulldozers. Recently, they destroyed more than fifty slums. I live very near to one: Gobelé was created in the early 1970s and was the biggest slum you could find in Cocody, 2 Plateaux—a very rich area. I spent weeks going there to photograph the walls and objects left in the middle of the rubble.

 

© François-Xavier Gbré, Gobelé Boston #1, Abidjan, 2015. Courtesy of Galerie Cécile Fakhoury, Abidjan.

 

Wattenberg | Are these areas cleared for new housing?

Gbré | Not always. It could be for roads or something else. The phenomenon of exclusion has existed in Africa since the colonial period. The demolition of slums seeks to make public space “clean.” On the other hand, the social housing program does not fit the demographic growth. Thousands of excluded people shift to other places, to the peripheries, to build new slums. So, the problem is displaced but not resolved. Think about this green house I found in Bingerville. The red mud is the only element that says you are in west Africa, in Abidjan. If you don’t look at the ground, just at the house, it could be a suburb in Germany or the U.K. We still have free space in African cities, even if they are growing very fast. You can experiment with these kinds of things. Instead, we copy and paste an inappropriate model.

 

© François-Xavier Gbré, Cité Espérance #2, Route de Bingerville, 2013. Courtesy of Galerie Cécile Fakhoury, Abidjan.

 

Wattenberg | When was the first time you made a site-specific installation with wallpaper prints?

Gbré | The first was in Bamako, at the Blabla Bar, and was installed during the Bamako Biennale in 2011. The idea was to bring back the photographs I had taken of the swimming pool in Bamako two years before, to share them with more people beyond the previous exhibition.

 

Installation view, Rencontres de Bamako, Blabla Bar, Bamako, 2011. Courtesy of Galerie Cécile Fakhoury, Abidjan.

 

Wattenberg | What was the reaction of the people who came to the bar? Did they recognise the structure?

Gbré | A few people, yes—people from Mali. It was very funny. For example, people had different reactions to the one with the blue ladder and the removed tiles. One night, people were sitting and eating. At the end of the dinner, one guy stood up, and he touched the wall and he realized that it was a photograph. So I got that kind of reaction. For the image of the swimming pool, people came to pose for photographs as though they were “jumping” in front of the diving board. It was very playful.

Wattenberg: In your most recent work in Abidjan, you’re exploring seemingly futuristic forms of architecture. There is new infrastructure under construction, like the bridge or the social housing. In contrast to your photographs from Bamako, which are preoccupied with the past as embodied in former structures, in Abidjan, it’s really about the immediacy of today and tomorrow. The surfaces are much more polished.

Gbré | Of course, I look at the future. These new structures are part of the present, but part of the future, too. The bridge is a very positive addition to the city. We suffered so much while waiting for this bridge with traffic jams, but now everybody is very happy with it. It has solved many problems. And I’m very happy that I got this photograph of the pillar of the bridge standing as a monument in the middle of the water.

 

© François-Xavier Gbré, Pont HKB #1, Abidjan, 2014. Courtesy of Galerie Cécile Fakhoury, Abidjan.

 

Wattenberg | What is it about Abidjan today that makes for these futuristic images? Or perhaps the futurism of Abidjan is just of a different order than other west African cities where you’ve worked.

Gbré | I have known Abidjan for a long time. I used to look at these changes in a fragmented or incremental way, before I lived there, but they have happened so quickly. You have beautiful projects, you can do beautiful things, but you can also make mistakes; I try to understand this, to ask questions, and to keep in mind the uncertainty of whether a place is being built or being destroyed. I also try to show contrasts.

Wattenberg | You have participated in numerous exhibitions in Africa, such as biennials in Dakar, Cotonou, Bamako, and Lubumbashi, as well as your solo show at Art Twenty One in Lagos. You’re really part of the art scene of Abidjan, at a moment when things are happening in both commercial and nonprofit venues there. You’ve been building your work in the context of African spaces. This represents a major change in how contemporary art is experienced in Africa. What does it mean for you to be participating in a community that’s being assembled as we speak—and to exchange ideas regularly with African artists and audiences?

Gbré | This is not an easy question. At the moment, I’m very happy to be part of a dynamic and about the way things are moving. I’m very enthusiastic about it and about the work I’m doing here. I showed my early work in Lille because I was already connected with people from the African diaspora. At that time, I was not working full-time on the continent. It was difficult to build the bridge—to get the tickets, to make the work, and to come back and print the photographs. Until you reach a certain level, after many years of work, it’s very, very hard. But now we are living in very exciting times because we can have an exchange. To go to Nigeria for the Art Twenty One exhibition, for example, was an amazing experience. When I was there, I thought I could start a new series in Lagos, connected to the others, to Abidjan, which would be a chapter of all these stories about African cities growing. I know in South Africa they have many amazing exhibition spaces. But we need those opportunities in west Africa, too. We need a structure that can support exchange, artistic residencies, and exhibitions. Galerie Cécile Fakhoury and Fondation Donwahi in Abidjan play an important role.

 

Installation view, Fragments, Galerie Cécile Fakhoury, Abidjan, 2014. Courtesy of Galerie Cécile Fakhoury, Abidjan.

 

Iduma | At this point, I think what we need are also institutions that are more mediumor disciplinespecific. There are small initiatives for photography and video art, workshops and pop-up spaces, often created by people who are returning from the West. But it’s hard—there’s little funding. You have to pull your teeth each time to make something new happen.

Gbré | Yes, but Lagos is really a leader for photography in the region. Now, new project spaces are also rising. Two or three weeks ago, the Ghanaian photographer Nii Obodai opened an exhibition from his own workshop. He worked for several months with photographers who wanted to learn more about photography. Unfortunately, we can’t wait for anything from our governments, so private initiatives are key. Morocco is doing a lot, too. I was part of a photography exhibition last year called New Africa, organized by Kulte Editions in Casablanca. Some people in North Africa don’t consider themselves African—maybe they’re more part of the Arabic world—but you can find others who are so open, who want to come visit other parts of the continent and who want to learn more. We are building new bridges.

Written by Brendan Wattenberg.

This conversation is adapted from François-Xavier Gbré: The Past is a Foreign Country, published on the occasion of Gbré’s first solo exhibition in North America, The Past is a Foreign Country, on view at the Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery at Haverford College from August 28–October 9, 2015. Gbré is also participating in The Lay of the Land, a group exhibition on emerging African photographers, presented from September 10, 2015 to January 16, 2016 at The Walther Collection Project Space in New York.

 

François-Xavier Gbré was born in 1978 in Lille, France. After studying photography at the École Supérieure des Métiers Artistiques in Montpellier, he worked in fashion and design photography in Milan for four years. This experience led him to explore African stories through landscape and architecture. Gbré’s work has been presented in solo and group exhibitions including Abroad, Art Twenty One, Lagos, Nigeria (2014); Surfaces and Fragments, Galerie Cécile Fakhoury, Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire (2013, 2014); DAK’ART: The 11th Dakar Biennale, Dakar, Senegal (2014); FLOW, Kyoto City University of Arts Gallery, Japan (2014); New Africa, Kulte Editions, Casablanca, Morocco (2014); Biennale Regard Bénin, Cotonou, Bénin (2012); We Face Forward: Art from West Africa Today, and Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester, U.K. (2012); Rencontres de Bamako–The African Biennale of Photography (2009, 2011); and Uprooting the Gaze, Brighton Photo Fringe, U.K. (2010). Gbré lives and works in Abidjan.

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Emmanuel Iduma, born and raised in Nigeria, is a writer and art critic. He directs Saraba Magazine, which he co-founded. In 2015, Iduma was writer-in-residence at the New York-based Danspace Project’s Platform, and part of a collaborative residency at L’Appartement 22, Rabat. His work with Invisible Borders was exhibited at the 56th Venice Biennale. A lawyer by training, he holds an MFA in Art Criticism and Writing from the School of Visual Arts, New York. He is the author of Farad and co-editor of Gambit: Newer African Writing.

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All images are © François-Xavier Gbré / Courtesy Galerie Cécile Fakhoury, Abidjan. All rights reserved.

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