‘Contexture’ is key: An interview with hypermedia artist Emo de Medeiros

Based between Paris and Cotonou, hypermedia artist Emo de Medeiros knew what he wanted to be from a young age. Paraphrasing Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas he admits “As far as I can remember, I always wanted to be…an artist.”

As a teenager growing up in Benin he would draw, write, compose music and experiment with a wide range of artistic mediums, all present in his hypermedia works today. After travelling, studying and working in various cities across the world, Emo has come to be known as one of the leading ‘Afrofuturist’ artists, a genre he also has a few things to say about. His work is built upon a single concept: contexture, which consists of holistic interconnectivity, remixing conceptual art, sculpture, video, traditional crafts, photography, electronic music, reverse painting, performance, along with interactive objects and media to create intense participative experiences.

We first got to know Emo’s work when we were gearing up for this year’s THAT ART FAIR where he exhibited as this year’s Invited Artist. Now we’ve caught up with the artist to find out more about his work, his thoughts on the role of technology and audience participation in art, and what he had on show at TAF. Read the interview and look through some of Emo’s various works below. 

Vodunaut
Vodunaut

When did you first begin toying with the idea of combining a variety of artistic mediums in single pieces?

I think it came very early on, in same way I went quite fast, musically, from playing the saxophone to producing electronic music. I always wanted to incorporate more elements in my work, to be able to try combinations and explore directions a single media, or instrument, could not allow me.  

Tell us a bit about the selected works from All Things Magic you recently exhibited at THAT ART FAIR.

The work I’ve shown in TAF belongs to four different series of mine. One is the Vodunaut series, the name of which is composed of ‘Vodun’, the South Beninese traditional religion, and ‘Astronaut’. They are helmet-shaped sculptures covered with cowrie shells, that incorporate video pieces. They are both hyperpower inducers and hyperspace navigation interfaces. The second is my Electrofetishes series, that consists of ritual statuettes (bocio) that I charge with artistic and spiritual energy, and which communicate with the ‘spectactor’, sending them good luck via an exchange of energy between their smartphones (or digital extensions) and NFC tags included in the works. The third is my Surtentures series, that are fabric pieces, and essentially a remix of the most characteristic form of art from Benin, the appliquéd cloth hangings from the kingdom of Danhomè, a tradition that is three centuries old. I also added NFC tags to them so that they also send messages that help the spectator interpret the non-linear narrations that they contain. The fourth is a photo series based on my project Kaleta/Kaleta, that stand in between photography and painting. The common point between these works, besides the fact that they all point to a fairly personal universe, is that they are a result of my quest for innovation, my attempt to bring something new, to imagine and create things that have not been done before. That’s one of the reasons I often incorporate technology in my work: they mark it as belonging to this century, and not to the previous one, and they allow interactions, perceptions and the elaboration of a language that couldn’t exist before. I often use two examples to illustrate that: without the technology of the piano, there can be no Chopin’s music, without the electric guitar, no Jimi Hendrix’s music.

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Kaletakaleta
Kaleta/Kaleta

What’s the idea behind your ‘electronic canvasses’? How do they come together?

With the e-canvasses I wanted to achieve two things – first, I wanted to encapsulate, without freezing them, intense moments and visions, that’s how I came up with the concept of ‘instensity’, intense instants of infinite duration. The second thing was to formally achieve something that was in between photography and video, but based on a painterly treatment of different subjects. On top of that, I like to present them in a series of at least three, because they are also meant to be portals/vectors for mental teleportation.

Much of your work relies on, and makes use of participatory experiences. What changes in the process of viewing an artwork when the audience participates in the work? Does it change the art itself?

I believe art in and of itself is participatory, it is just a question of the level of participation. Even when simply gazing at a painting or a photograph, for instance, the spectators are not inactive: there is a network of ideas, representations, emotions that they project onto the medium, that shapes their perception of the artwork. I just happen to sometimes push the level of participation a little further. Here are two examples: people who become performers, whether they want to or not, in my performative installation Kaleta/Kaleta, discover something about the nature of watching others and being watched by others, about what it means to wear a social mask or a real one, about what protection or disclosure is offered by each one. People who interact with Eletrofetishes, beyond the purely aesthetic experience, are led to examine, and to measure their good luck, and see whether it is increased, and how, thus departing from something purely artistic, and entering something wider and more spiritual. 

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How much do the various artistic mediums you use influence one another and what is your process in this regard?

My essential concept is called contexture. It is a word that describes a holistic and massively interconnected structure. Sol LeWitt used to say he was making structures: I make contextures. From this stems the fact that I have a hypermedia approach: the different media that I use are either responding or corresponding to each other within a contexture. The simplest example is my use of musical and video synchronisation, where the tempo of the music and that of the images are identical. However, I’m not sure that the media I use influence each other per se. Rather they communicate through the series’ or the piece’s main concept, and establish connections that hyperlink them. 

What are your thoughts on Afrofuturism in both South Africa and Europe?

I think Afrofuturism is a movement gaining a lot of momentum because it is essentially about imagining a different future that is going beyond a traditionally ethnocentric and ‘expected’ viewpoint. It has very little to do with African people in spacesuits or spaceships, as some people mistakenly seem to think. The idea is that in the same way concepts, representations and sensibilities originated in Asian cultures, ranging from Yin/Yang to manga aesthetics or yoga have shaped, and continue to shape our global, planetary culture and vision, including that of the future, the same is happening with African cultures and their diasporas. But this is just my perception of something that is quite diverse and complex. And besides, I define myself as much an Afroglobalist as an Afrofuturist.

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Kaletakaleta
Kaleta/Kaleta
'Mempo'
Mempo II (Nuriel)
SISyphes
SISyphes

As the move of art from traditional gallery spaces to the online realm increases, what do you think the future of technology and art will be?

My deepest belief is that our generation has the incredible privilege of witnessing the dawn of a new civilization where the material and the immaterial, the tangible and the intangible are starting to enter a quantum circulation. I think that in a millennium from now, humanity will look back at our current times and view it in the same way as we view the times where the stone tools were invented. The consequences for art are that this new era calls for a new art, and new ways of enjoying art that unavoidably involve technology. Even on a very simple level. Until the early 21st century and the advent of the Internet, access to art wasn’t all that easy. Of course, there were privileged individuals that could go for a “Grand Tour” as early as the 18th century, or buy expensive art books with high quality images in the 20th, but now anyone can view online (even though, of course, viewing an actual artwork differs from seeing its two-dimensional image) the masterpieces from hundreds of different cultures, get inspired by them, experience their intensity and enter the universe they give access to. So for me, art and technology are bound to be more and more entwined, not only on a creative level, but also on a broader economic level. The true reach and power of art is being unleashed through technology. Cliques and ‘claques’ (which in French is a word that refers to the practice, during the 19th century, of paying audience members to applaud at theaters) will be more and more losing their grip, and people will be more and more able to decide for themselves what they think is great art, instead of being fed – and sold – prepackaged opinions, discourses and made-to-order artworks. I think technology is an invaluable asset for art.

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With so many mediums being juggled at once, you must always have something on the go. What’s next for you?

In a few weeks its Art Paris art fair, then the Dak’art biennale the month after, then an exhibition in Johannesburg and one in London. As a transculturalist (as opposed to being a multiculturalist) I’m extremely happy that I am going to work and show my work in 2016 on four continents; Africa, Europe, America, and most likely Asia. I’ll keep on working on my existing series, but have started quite a few projects, including photography, new sculptures, paintings, films/videos, and some music too. It’s going to be a very busy year, and I wish I could clone myself (preferably several times) to do more, but I’m definitely looking forward to it.

Catch Emo’s work at THAT ART FAIR, on until Sunday 6 March. 

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Surtentures
Surtentures

All images courtesy of Emo de Medeiros. 

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