Hervé Youmbiʼs Totems to Haunt our Dreams plays on stereotypes about Africa, creating contemporary “totems” that comment on global consumer fetishism.
This consumption extends to the branding and consumption of art through lionized artists and famed institutions. African artists are largely excluded from this elite club, yet they desire admission, and some institutions, in turn, seek to incorporate them to legitimate their own cosmopolitanism. Youmbiʼs totems are made from plastic shopping bags often used by Third World traders to transport goods across borders. Their sides are emblazoned with logos from the art world. Observing the forest of totems are portraits of African artists, each wearing a pair of sunglasses also emblazoned with an art icon—each sitter could choose from several options.
Ironically, several of these artists’ works have been purchased by the institutions that own the logos! Another irony is that to meet these artists, Youmbi generally had to route his journeys from his home in Cameroon via Paris or some other European capital, underscoring how isolated African artists are from each other within their own continent.
For Youmbi, forging these African links with other artists is a vital aspect not only of this installation but of his practice in general. It has led to many interesting interactions and collaborations, including with William Kentridge. It is as if the African artistʼs gaze is bounced back from the surface of the logo-sunglasses,returned to its African source.
This witty installation, available in variable scales, has been shown in several African cities, the Dakar Biennale, and the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art.