Thierry Oussou: Impossible is Nothng.

Thierry Oussou describes his current practice as “social archaeology,” exploring the relationship between contemporary art and the ethnographic object. Through his artwork, he questions authenticity and visibility in relation to cultural heritage, and proposes a decolonised way of thinking in a postcolonial world.

Impossible Is Nothing is a multi-media installation that documents a 2016 archaeological excavation in Allada in southern Benin. In collaboration with archaeological students from the University of Abomey-Calavi, the excavation unearthed pottery fragments, a blade of an axe and a hoe, two musical instruments, a water jug, an empty gin bottle – and the 19th-century royal throne belonging to King Béhanzin of the Kingdom of Dahomey. The discovery of the throne leaves the students somewhat embarrassed because the original throne has been in possession of the French state since the 1890s, when the Kingdom of Dahomey (present-day Benin) was colonised. The excavated throne is a replica produced by the sculptor Boko Elias and had been buried into the ground by Oussou himself one year earlier. Oussou’s throne obtained a certain authenticity as a work of art insofar as it became embroiled in a political dispute involving the University of Abomey-Calavi and the government of Benin, who have been asking the French government for the restitution of their original throne.

The artist also presents four drawings that reflect Oussou’s observation of his immediate environment, such as the charcoal wall doodles made by playing children, chalk markings by his grandfather in Allada and graffiti in Berlin where the drawings were produced. He is interested in everyday drawings as universal and ubiquitous human behavior, a shared mode of communication capable of overcoming the differences of cultural or educational backgrounds. In his pictorial work, Oussou considers the connection between past and present, and foresees drawing working as a repository for the future. 

Born in 1988 in Allada in Benin, Oussou has been familiar with drawing and painting since he was a child. When he was nine years old, he came across the artist Edwige Aplogan drawing in a public square, which was his first encounter with fine art. He recalls that he attempted to touch the surface of the drawings but was stopped by Aplogan, which made him wonder what these drawings were. Oussou participated in a workshop organised by Aplogan, after which he soon started to apply for art competitions and organise art clubs at school. He explains that his own artistic language was developed through the interaction with artists such as Ernest Houngbo, Meschac Gaba and Hermann Pitz. When he worked as an assistant to Gaba and Pitz, they recommended that he apply for a residency at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam. Oussou was successful and later would be awarded the first Jacqueline van Tongeren Fellowship and nominated to the Dutch Royal Award for Modern Painting in Amsterdam Royal Palace. Oussou recalls, “I studied a lot at the RA. I worked on performance and the development of my painting and sculpture, and how to create a solid discourse. This is mostly what I talked about with my advisors: how to have a solid discourse, how to build an artistic concept.”[1]        

The “social archaeology” of Oussou’s pictorial work digs through the visual culture of present-day society, unearthing the memories that are common to human beings and function as a tool for exploration. In a 2015 interview with Inga Lace, Oussou says, “I have a desire to document the vanishing before it is completely gone, to keep the trace of the tradition, the imprint of the past in the future.”[2] The subject matter of the drawings such as children’s doodles, chalk markings and graffiti shows their function as a universal human endeavor and form of communication.[3] According to Oussou, even when people do not intend to make an artistic drawing, but simply to mark lines for counting something, for example, it is still an act of communication. He observes these everyday mark-makings and transforms them into his own drawings as if he is an archaeologist who observes the field of everyday life and excavates artefacts from its strata. 

As the drawings in this exhibition demonstrate, Oussou works exclusively on black paper and often in large-scale formats. He highlights the fragility of paper as being akin to the physical quality of the human body, which is as vulnerable as paper. Observing that the human body records the memory of interchange with others throughout our lives and can be hurt like torn paper, Oussou elaborates, “Suffering feels like coals that burn on your skin. That’s what I do with paper. I paste multiple layers of different types of paper onto each other and then I burn holes in it with coals.” He goes on to stress, “Remember, without suffering there is no happiness.”[4] Although his drawings demonstrate his distinctively gestural style with drips, scratches and splatters, the burnt mask that is repeatedly used in his pictorial work embodies an individual human figure in which spectators can recognise something which they can relate to. He explains, “Everyone can hide behind a mask. I don’t know your past or present, but perhaps there is something in my pictures that you recognise in yourself. Each mask is a person, an individual composed of several layers. Maybe you can identify with some part of my drawings.”[5] Oussou’s consistent foregrounding of materials and motifs allows spectators to explore their memory beyond the boundaries of time and place. 

In Impossible Is Nothing, Oussou excavates the colonial legacy that remains in contemporary Benin. In his view, “Africa is empty of its riches,” and Oussou stresses that most people in Benin cannot access the artefacts of their own history within their own country. The way of viewing the replicated throne of King Béhanzin of the Kingdom of Dahomey in Impossible is Nothing is through a small hole made on the surface of the enclosing white box is an effective metaphor of how the Beninese can barely access the original throne today. They cannot see the artefacts of their own history unless they can to travel to France and are granted authorisation to see it.[6] Today the original throne is stored at the Musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac in France, and although Oussou has requested to access it, he has not received any response from them. “So I don’t have access to this sculpture,” Oussou says, “I tried to take it positively, but it still hurts. It hurts historians too, this absence. But another era is opening up. Objects may be gone but memory lingers. We can use this absence to create something new. My project was in dialogue with this. Absence can be a source of inspiration.”[7] We can see this process in Oussou’s method of painting, in which he produces multiple layers of paper and then makes holes going through the layers, thereby generating an alternative artefact.   

Although the reproduced throne was sculpted from iroko wood – the same material as the original throne, it acquired a certain authenticity not only because of the materiality but also through the narrative produced by Oussou. In Benin, there are numerous copies of the original throne produced by traditional sculptors like Boko Elias, which are distributed as gifts or sold to tourists. However, the throne commissioned by Oussou was buried in the ground, excavated, documented and exhibited, which constitutes the historical layers of the throne. Speaking to such layering, Walter Benjamin has written, “The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmittable from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced.”[8] Thus, a copy of the throne is transformed into a work of art through the artist’s interventions. After Oussou’s performance, there are now literally two originals that have different histories; with the new original functioning as historical evidence of the absence of cultural artefacts in Africa by virtue of its origin as a fake. Moreover, the existence of another original caused political conflict; the head of the archaeological department of the University of Abomey-Calavi requested Oussou to confirm that he would not exhibit the throne as an original but as a replica. Thus, through this conflicted process Oussou’s project politicises the original throne in France without having to physically access it.

Impossible Is Nothing could be described as a radical reconsideration of the relation between colonised history and the present conjuncture. For a number of decades, artists have enthusiastically engaged with critical considerations of contemporaneity and the problem of race and colonialist oppression. For example, in his 1992 work Mining the Museum,commissioned to produce an exhibition using the collection of Maryland Historical Society,[9] Fred Wilson “mined” the museum’s collection to challenge traditional institutional narratives, such as through the juxtaposition of silver repoussé vessels with a pair of slave manacles, which helped bring to light the racism implicit in the museum’s objects. As Darby English explains, Wilson contrasted the experience of the people who lived as slaves with the institutional representation of single and privileged group in the community.[10] In a similar vein, with Impossible is Nothing, Oussou unsettles the colonialist legitimisation associated with possessing cultural heritage from colonised worlds: in this case, by exhibiting the copy as a representation of the present absence of cultural artefacts in Benin. While showing the installation’s distance from the original object and the institution possessing it, the throne’s “fakeness” testifies to colonial oppression and its legacy in the colonised world.                                                  

By producing the replica and contextualising it through the performance and exhibition, Oussou also points to the absence of the social bond that emerged during the period of Kingdom of Dahomey and would have continued to the present-day Benin if the country had not been divided by the coloniser. He observes, “Chairs and sears often feature in my work – they are a symbol of power and of one’s place in society.”[11] The absence of the throne from Benin and its possession by a French coloniser suggests the colonial looting of power and its representation by a colonised society. Simultaneously, its possession in a museum collection reduces the sacred object to an artefact. About the historical artefacts under the restitution request of Benin to France, Oussou remarks, “I wouldn’t want them to be made into sacred objects: they have been desacralised already. There’s a discourse there that has been erased by the coloniser, so a new discourse would need to acknowledge them as major works in a new way.”[12] He goes on to explain, “I have already made a project out of this, which now has its place in the discourse of contemporary art. That’s my way of reinserting the memory of this king into our society.”[13] Alongside his documentation of the symbols and marks that enable communication among people in drawings, Oussou emphasises the traces of Benin’s cultural absence and uses them to recover people’s connection to their history and territory. 

The possibility of recovering social bonds is highlighted in a very practical way in Impossible is Nothing. The excavation performance functioned as an educational opportunity for students to learn the methodology underpinning excavation work, documentation and photography. The findings of the excavation in 2016, in fact, exceeded what Oussou had buried, insofar as the students discovered numerous pottery fragments that are original to Benin from the ground of 2 square meters. He says, “The location I chose could well be part of Beninese heritage, but it’s not. No one thinks about that. This was partly an investigation for people to open their eyes to our cultural values.”[14] What Oussou points out through the project is not only the colonial legacy, but also being denied the opportunity to know cultural heritage in present-day Benin. He suggests the possibility that archaeological studies by Beninese people will encourage them to rewrite or to elaborate the history based on the artefacts located in the territory of Benin. By juxtaposing fake and genuine archaeological findings, Oussou advocates a decolonised historiography. 

Moreover, what Oussou documents in his large-scale drawings constitute people’s universal communication in any given historical period. As archaeological documentations he conveys them to the future, after the original marks and doodles disappear and are long forgotten. For Oussou, human production in visual culture, including archaeological artefacts, contains the possibility of communicating with people beyond the boundaries of a specific historical period or situation. By undermining the colonial legacy and re-instating a connection to the history of resistance against colonization, Oussou also proposes visual art as a measure for universal communication through his pictorial works. 

Oussou’s “social archaeology” explores the relationship between history and contemporaneity, as he archives his findings for the future. He uses visual art as a way of archiving the found artefact, because they can communicate universally with people about everyday life. As Walter Benjamin concludes in his 1932 essay ‘Excavation and Memory’, “… genuine memory must therefore yield an image of the person who remembers, in the same way a good archaeological report not only informs us about the strata from which its findings originate, but also gives an account of strata which first had to be broken through.” Oussou’s drawings allow spectators to explore the relationship between memory and everyday life, and simultaneously, the installation Impossible is Nothing encourages spectators to experience something that approaches what contemporary Benin is going through. While addressing the consequence of colonial rule today, he proposes the possibility of a new historiography produced by collective experience in the present. The title of the exhibition and the installation, Impossible Is Nothing encapsulates Oussou’s hope to make for a better future through art. 

By Miharu Hori

MA Curating course, School of Philosophy and Art History, University of Essex

September 2019    

Bibliography

Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” In Illuminations, edited by Walter Benjamin, 217-42. New York: Shocken books, 2007.

Foster, Hal. “The Artist as Ethnographer.” Chap. 6 In The Return of the Real: The Avant-Garde at the End of the Century, 171-204. Cambridge, Mass ;London: MIT Press, 1996.

“No Happiness without Suffering.” Africanah.org, 2016, accessed 30 June, 2019, https://africanah.org/thierry-oussou/.

“Thierry Oussou: ‘I Would Like the Discourse That I Am Developing in My Work to Educate People – to Make Them Think Differently’ Interviewed by Anna Mcnay.” Studio International, 2018, accessed 30 June, 2019, https://www.studiointernational.com/index.php/thierry-oussou-i-would-like-to-make-people-think-differently.

“Artist Thierry Oussou: ‘If You Take the King’s Throne You Take Their Place’.” Financial Times, 2018, accessed 30 June, 2019, https://www.ft.com/content/a7a9715a-f8af-11e8-8b7c-6fa24bd5409c.

“Thierry Oussou: Before It Is Completely Gone.” 2018, accessed 30 June, 2019, https://www.stevenson.info/exhibition/2714.

Wilson, Fred, and Howard Halle. “Mining the Museum.” Grand Street, no. 44 (1993): 151-72. https://doi.org/10.2307/25007622. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25007622.


[1] “Thierry Oussou: ‘I would like the discourse that I am developing in my work to educate people – to make them think differently’ interviewed by Anna McNay,” Studio International, 2018, accessed 30 June, 2019, https://www.studiointernational.com/index.php/thierry-oussou-i-would-like-to-make-people-think-differently.d.

[2] “Thierry Oussou: Before It Is Completely Gone,” 2018, accessed 30 June, 2019, https://www.stevenson.info/exhibition/2714.

[3] “No Happiness without Suffering,” Africanah.org, 2016, accessed 30 June, 2019, https://africanah.org/thierry-oussou/.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Oussou and McNay, “Thierry Oussou: ‘I would like the discourse that I am developing in my work to educate people – to make them think differently’ interviewed by Anna McNay.”

[7] “Artist Thierry Oussou: ‘If you take the king’s throne you take their place’,” Financial Times, 2018, accessed 30 June, 2019, https://www.ft.com/content/a7a9715a-f8af-11e8-8b7c-6fa24bd5409c.

[8] Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Illuminations, ed. Walter Benjamin (New York: Shocken books, 2007). 221

[9] Fred Wilson and Howard Halle, “Mining the Museum,” Grand Street, no. 44 (1993),https://doi.org/10.2307/25007622, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25007622.152

[10] English points out that Wilson’s challenge in Mining the Museum was the problem of public or community museums that often reflects the privileged social group’s point of view.  Quoting Miwon Kwon, English describes that Wilson tried to elaborate the claim by social groups of the marginal and underprivileged classes. Darby English, How to see a work of art in total darkness, (2010).  153-154

[11] Oussou and McNay, “Thierry Oussou: ‘I would like the discourse that I am developing in my work to educate people – to make them think differently’ interviewed by Anna McNay.”

[12] “Artist Thierry Oussou: ‘If you take the king’s throne you take their place’,” Financial Times, 2018, accessed 30 June, 2019, https://www.ft.com/content/a7a9715a-f8af-11e8-8b7c-6fa24bd5409c.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Oussou and McNay, “Thierry Oussou: ‘I would like the discourse that I am developing in my work to educate people – to make them think differently’ interviewed by Anna McNay.”

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