In ‘What If’, the Cameroon-born artist resists traditional depictions of the Black experience to restitute an alternative, serene history of African home life
There is a mutual, powerful relationship between the richly textured canvases presented in What If (through 25 November), Ludovic Nkoth’s inaugural Paris solo show, and Maison La Roche, its hosting institution. It is a symbolic interplay that, founded on the notion of domesticity, sees them both altered as a result of their encounter.
Designed and developed between 1923 and 1925 by Le Corbusier and his cousin-turned-long-term collaborator Pierre Jeanneret, Maison La Roche is one of the twelve “purist” villas that cemented the Swiss-French architect and designer as one of the maestros of modern architecture. Its bright, detail-free minimalist interiors serve as an embodiment of Purism in itself: an aesthetic doctrine that, coined by Le Corbusier with the cubist painter and writer Amédée Ozenfant in 1918, looks at elementary forms and their loyal execution as the ultimate goal. Once home to the banker and art collector Raoul La Roche, besides housing the Foundation Le Corbusier, the building is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Recently, its spacious rooms have become the stage for Cameroonian painter Nkoth’s latest body of work, which added a richly textured layer to the otherwise linear surfacing of the Parisian Maison. Similarly, framed within the walls of the French institution, the 20 expansive canvases at the heart of What If — ethereal vignettes of African quotidian life — are imbued with new meanings and dilemmas unravelling throughout the show.
Known for his vibrant, impastoed paintings depicting the highs and lows of the Black experience, in this exhibition, the artist turns to his brush to birth scenes that beg the question: What if Raoul La Roche had come across Ludovic Nkoth’s work? What if a family of colour lived in the house? What if we reconsidered the very notion of home? And, finally, what if the painter could talk to Le Corbusier? Projecting the viewer in a hypothetical dimension, the showcase deliberately sets itself aside from the dominant narratives around Black identity — which, according to Nkoth, is too often “reduced to a site of struggle” — to render the multitude of perspectives, stories and individual interiorities embodied by it. Taking over the different, warmly-lit rooms of Maison La Roche, this collection of paintings absorbs the public in a world of mental and physical repose, quiet and leisure, breaking with the non-stop frenzy of contemporary life. In a society that continues to capitalise on the discrimination and violence to which marginalised communities are subjected without actively taking action to put an end to them, Nkoth chooses to distance himself from the victimising portrayals imposed on his people to capture Blackness on his own terms.
In What If, a collaboration between the Foundation Le Corbusier and gallery Massimo De Carlo, the artist lays emphasis on the subjective existence of his Black by showing them at rest, at play, as well as caught up in moments of reflection. In Plié, one of the works currently on display in Paris, Nkoth turns Edgar Degas’s ballerina-filled canvases on their head. His interpretation of a rehearsal studio sees the artist reject the conception of ballet (and its associated artworks) as an inherently white environment to present the audience with an ensemble of Black and Brown practising dancers. Standing out against the warm tones of orange and turquoise used for the backdrop of the scene, the protagonists of Plié appear, at once, proud, content, relaxed, elegant and comfortable in their skin.
Elsewhere, like in Night Games and Deep Blue, it is a dimension of playfulness that prevails, as downtime spent in good company becomes the focus of two of Nkoth’s most uplifting new creations. Whether it is a water game or a twilight volleyball match to be immortalised by the New York-based painter, each of these paintings centres a much softer, happy-go-lucky vision of the Black experience, an aspect that, even today — if not completely omitted — tends to be widely overlooked in the trivialising portrayal that the media and entertainment industries give of African and African-American individuals. Still, if there is a leitmotif recurring throughout the canvases of What If, that must be the pensive, frozen-in-time essence of Nkoth’s figures. Brought to life by Black subjects of different ages, the artist’s offering faces the public with a series of people intent on contemplation. While some of them are tenderly illustrated within domestic settings (A day’s weight, Suddenly…, 4 pm, Wavelength, The Moon Whispered… I’m Ready), including bedrooms, living rooms and moonlight-graced gardens, others are depicted up close against strikingly coloured, or neutral, backgrounds (System (Orange), Light’s Shadow).
When taken out of their “home” framework, Nkoth’s subjects are suddenly atemporal. Painted in thick, velvety brushstrokes, their energy is equally akin to that of the faces lensed in Gordon Parks’ powerful documentation of 1950s’ Black America as it is to the aura of the protagonists of contemporary artists Lynette Yiadom-Boakye and Amoako Boafo’s most compelling works. Having relocated to South Carolina from Cameroon at the age of 13, Nkoth leverages his craft as a means of exploring the reality of diasporic heritage. Conceived as a vessel for the multiple histories that came to define his outlook on life, the artist’s oeuvre looks up to and aspires to channel an understanding of Blackness that not only dignifies those who recognise themselves in it but also treats them with grace and kindness, in What If, Nkoth plays with the architectural and anthropological spaces of Maison La Roche — a white man-made avantgarde construction — to exasperate the contrast between belonging and alienation, utopia and reality. What comes to the surface from the colliding of these two worlds and its resulting rift is an alternative universe where Black is synonymous with peacefulness, communion, love and beauty.
Words by Gilda Bruno