Hervé Youmbi’s latest project, Les Trônes Célestes (“Celestial Thrones”) 2019, interrogates notions of governance through contemporary reinterpretation of the aesthetics of classical Bamileke thrones from Cameroon.
Trônes consists of five carved seats embellished with colorful glass beads, each floating above a mirror-covered base. Sculpted in the manner of low ceremonial stools traditionally made as objects of status for African chiefs, the seats resemble five different animals: a tortoise, panther, buffalo, rhinoceros, and elephant. With the exception of the tortoise, Youmbi has deliberately chosen animals whose grandeur and ferocity are traditionally attributed to political leaders. The tortoise, however, as a symbol of patience and wisdom par excellence, is a deliberate divergence from its four zoomorphic companions, serving as a reminder that these qualities are equally indispensable in the practice of good governance. The political symbolism of these seats is further highlighted by proverbs inscribed on the bottom of each base, made visible by their mirrored reflection.
Trônes is featured at the World Bank’s 10th annual art exposition, Aujourd’hui, curated by Simon Njami, on view from June 21 to September 20, 2019 at the National Museum of Cameroon. Formerly the residence of colonial French and then the newly-liberated Cameroon’s first president, the National Museum currently serves as the country’s principal display of art and culture. Its history serves as inspiration for Youmbi’s site-specific work. When the exhibition ends, Youmbi will give the seats to five chieftains, becoming not only objects of aesthetic appreciation but functional ritual objects in their own right. As the sculptures move between sites of contemporary and traditional power, Trônes continues the artist’s longstanding interest in unsettling frameworks of art that pervade exhibitions of African art in Western contexts.