Barthelemy Toguo's Beauty and Road to Exile

“The Beauty of Our Voices.”
Barthélémy Toguo’s “Road to Exile” is set in a gallery that features walls covered with paintings, prints, and drawings from the Parrish’s collection. Jenny Gorman

During the summer months, the Parrish Art Museum becomes activated, sprouting legs and spreading out to far-removed off-site locations and bringing artists in to reinterpret its own Water Mill building and environs.

This year’s Platform artist, Barthélémy Toguo, has taken over a few spaces in the museum to present several works in an exhibition with the overarching title “The Beauty of Our Voices.” If the Road Show exhibitions take the Parrish to other places, this show  brings the world into its galleries. The result is magnificent. 

Central to the show is Mr. Toguo’s “Road to Exile,” a monumental installation dedicated to African refugees consisting of a simple but well-crafted wooden boat, chock-full of bags constructed from African fabrics, with dangling teapots and a red gas can. The boat is placed on green-glass wine bottles, a signifier of the water refugees and migrants must traverse to escape miserable circumstances in their home countries as well as the peril it will impart.

It is a powerful statement about a situation we are too quick to turn away from. Mr. Toguo apparently understands the amount of human suffering is too much to take in, so his approach is subtler, a big crisis addressed with an allegory and a delicate permanence. He lures viewers to the piece, compelling them to walk around it and see it from all angles. Engaged with its visual cues, they can allow themselves to witness the desperate efforts his work symbolically describes. 

Mr. Toguo was born in Cameroon in Africa and lives in Paris. As a Watermill Center resident, and its 2018 fellow, he spent the month of June there, building the structure and completing some other works in the show. 

The installation might have been striking just on its own — other iterations of it seem to have been presented as such — but here the walls surrounding it are decked out in paintings and works on paper from the museum’s collection reflecting a water or seafaring theme. The paintings are displayed in the traditional manner, spread out on a wall to be read horizontally. The drawings are mounted with a more-is-more aesthetic, a complex grid of small, medium, and large works assembled, intentionally or not, like bricks in a wall.

The artists span the 19th century to the present, and intermixed are some Japanese woodblock prints from a collection the museum acquired in 1961. They have very little to do with the museum’s mission but look spectacular in this context. Another outlier is a small James McNeill Whistler etching of a boat on the Thames. A video rendering of Bellport Harbor by Peter Campus represents the contemporary side of the spectrum, while Thomas Moran etchings anchor the 19th-century prints to the region, with others in between, such as work by Nicolai Cikovsky and Fairfield Porter, among others. It’s quite something to work with such far-flung sources, but the international character is fitting and satisfying alongside the installation.

Mr. Toguo doesn’t stop there, however. Just farther on in the hallway is an installation of some of his “Head Above Water” series of community art projects. In them, he asks people to share some part of their lives and hopes on postcards he designs and has sent back to him. In addition to projects in Lagos and Mexico, the wall displays “Head Above Water — Hamptons,” which invited young adults from area schools and the Shinnecock Indian Nation to answer a specific question: “Where do I fit in in American society?” The answers are thoughtful, poignant, and sometimes heartbreaking and hard to abandon. 

Another large gallery has been transformed into “Mobile Cafeteria,” Mr. Toguo’s interpretation of an African street cafe. He built the furniture and completed the space with his other art series, such as “Stupid African President,” in which he takes on the guise of corrupt politicians in large-format photographs. A series of drawings on canvas, “Black Lives Matter,” features his portraits of 10 African-Americans killed by the police over the past six years. Nearby on the floor, two large carved wooden guns lie as if they have been shot, then dropped and abandoned. Some of the paintings the artist made during his residency are also on display.

The cafe itself consists of a table and chairs, and there are African board games, soccer matches to watch, and information about a performing and educational center the artist began in Cameroon. The large space gives the cafe an open feel, helping the audience to imagine it out of doors as a lively gathering place. The woven rugs on the floor give it a comfortable feeling.

Everything the artist does here is transformative, not only of the space, but of the viewer’s understanding of this world he creates and the real-life one he references. It will remain on view through Oct. 14.

Barthélémy Toguo
"Mobile Cafeteria," an installation by Barthélémy ToguoJenny Gorman