In Holtingerveld reserve, in the province of Drent, in the Netherlands, Neolithic dolmens, known locally as hunebeden, have protected the remains of the deceased in their eternal sleep since 5,000 BC. Hervé Youmbi’s installation “Alo-alo” was initially conceived in dialog with hunebed #D54. Youmbi created an array of hybrid, brightly beaded iterations of the aloalo, the carved funerary posts that were traditional in Mahafaly territory in the south of Madagascar. Around 1.5 meters high, aloalo usually were surmounted by a figure or figures that conveyed the profession and general status of the deceased. The presence of several aloalo signaled the importance of the ancestor. The most prestigious aloalo have at their base a pedestal of piled stones, and the carved poles are enhanced with painted colors. For its first appearance, in the Netherlands, “Alo-alo” was surrounded by stones taken from the Neolithic environment.
In our age of global mobile phones, “Alo-alo” is unquestionably one of the most pronounced phrases in the world today, because it initiates so many telephone conversations. For Youmbi, alo-alo” is a homophone for the Madagascan memorials helped him focus questions of communication between systems of beliefs. He is interested in commonality between African belief systems as separated as the Sphinx of Giza and the Fang figures guarding reliquary boxes, or as similar as those that share the use of funerary poles—including the Kigango in Tanzania, Vigango in Kenya, Bongo in Sudan, Tsogho in Gabon, Konso in Ethiopia, Mumuye in Nigeria. Hervé Youmbi found inspiration in funerary masks from different regions of Africa (e.g. the Dogon, Kota-Mahongwe, Bamileke, Rigbo) and brought these into conversation with other sculptures as diverse as the moai figures of Easter Island, made between 1250 and 1500 AD, and colossal Olmec heads (c.900, Central America).
The long lineages of these various memorial sculpture traditions underscore humanity’s shared and enduring spiritual concern with linkages between the living and the dead. At the same time, Youmbi questions the impact of globalization and modernity on our various belief systems and their relationship to nature today. Do we have a poor connection? Alo, alo?
Youmbi’s sculptures are carved in Foumban, in western Cameroon, a center of traditional carving within African today, by specialized carvers, to the artist’s formal specifications—also bridging the world of tradition and contemporary, conceptual art. The forms are roughed out from massive blocks, and then carved from birch, which in its essence combines strength and lightness, and also provides a link to the birch forests of Europe. All the sculptures are sheathed in glass beads, by master beadworkers. Conceived to be installed in nature, they are fully covered by a translucent silicone mastic that consolidates the beads and allows them to be weather resistant. This mastic also protects the wood of the sculptures from bad weather and mildew. This technique has already proved its worth, particularly on the works in Youmbi’s outdoor installation, “Celestial Masks,” installed in Münster (Germany) for Münster Skulptur Projekte throughout the summer of 2017.
“Alo-alo” is also linked to “Celestial Masks” in its concern with contrasting African and European funerary practices. During the Neolithic, generally carvings in wood related to life, whereas art related to death was made of stone—probably it is from this practice that the use of stone gravestones in Western burial culture is derived. Unlike the dead in the West, often left alone under gray headstones in dark cemeteries, and also visible in Christian cemeteries installed in Africa since the advent of colonization, African ancestors are often invited to live in brightly colored masks and danced in crowded ceremonies. Masks, like funerary posts, are carved in wood, which is considered in most African cultures as having a life force or spirit, like humans, and is therefore a spiritual vehicle. In many African cultures, beads also have spiritual implications. Beads represent a magical transformation from one state to another (from sand to glass, from solid to liquid to a transformed solid), metaphorical of the transition from life to death to spiritual existence. Beads, like other “shiny” materials, such as brass, have apotropaic power, attracting good and repelling evil. Furthermore, the colors of the beads also carry symbolic value.