Lamyne M. talks to Gary van Wyk of Axis Gallery about his series entitled Corona curius, made during the Covid-19 crisis.
May 13, 2020
“Since the French government’s decision to quarantine the whole country, I’ve decided to make a mask per day in response to the geopolitical impact on 167 countries of contamination with Corona virus, which I artistically title “Corona curius.”
The biggest surprise in the world has been the incapacity and collapse of the West, incomprehensible even to occidentals themselves witnessing the scenes of chaos here in France, but most dramatically in northern Italy and New York City. Western countries have the best doctors and hospitals, the most sophisticated health systems in the world, as they show us very often, yet they have all been jostled, overflowing, bewildered by the new penetrant from China called Covid-19. No supply of protective masks and testing impossible because all the factories have been relocated offshore, muddled decision-making, no international coordination in Europe (even though that just seems normal)—this catastrophe has shattered the illusion of supremacy, which was partially propped up on the image of a technologically advanced society with more transparent government than elsewhere. The United States is paying a very high price for its denial and nationalistic aloofness; she, too, counts her masks like everyone else, and discovers her vulnerabilities.
This situation has left us understanding that new powers are emerging. That hard-hit Europe received help from China, from Russia, and even from Cuba contrasts with Europe’s simple inability to get to the end of this crisis. Does this not predict the decline of those powers that in earlier times won the Cold War, and created standards that spread around the world? Perhaps China is telling us that the time for change has arrived? What lesson to learn? Immunity, right? But also, stepping down from the pedestal can have virtues…”
GvW: Why did you choose the title Corona curius for the series?
LM.: “Corona virus” has become part of a universal vocabulary. You only have to say “Corona” and anybody anywhere in the world will add the “virus” and take it to refer to Covid-19, which is in fact just a novel 2019 form of corona virus, of which there are many. I switched up the spelling of “curious” to suggest also the global fixation on the virus during the pandemic: universal curiosity about the virus itself and all the circumstances surrounding it. So little was known about it at first, there was constant discussion about it— 24-7 coverage—on TV, radio, and social media—what is it, where is it, who gets it, etc. And suddenly there were many instant experts. I made a “fantasm” of it.
GvW: In English, a “phantasm” is an image or a representation of a real object—and here you are representing not merely the existence of Covid-19 but pointing to a series of conditions and contradictions that it has made palpable, brought forth into the light of day. Covid-19 is no more singular than “Corona”—Covid-19 has different infection rates in different places, different classes of people are more vulnerable than others.
LM.: As I said in my statement for the project, the contrast between the Occident’s continually projected sense of superiority in medicine, in technology, in efficiency, in administrative transparency, in tactical challenges—all that being the best in everything has counted for nothing with Covid-19. It is not true that the West has the best of everything. The West has been laid low by a little organism and the whole system has been mobilized to combat it and solve this problem. But we in Africa, together with many populations in the Third World, in French territories—for example in Guadalupe, which is French territory—and even within the West in underprivileged communities, such as the immigrant communities that are a focus of my work, have been born into and have suffered many deadly diseases that are much easier to eradicate that Covid-19. These illnesseswould be stamped out if the world mobilized like it has for Covid-19. We are born into it, it is in our blood. Poor people all over the world are still dying from far lesser challenges than the Corona virus pandemic. So, now Covid-19 has leveled the playing field, the West is sitting down at the table with us. Corona doesn’t only kill poor people, it kills everybody.
GvW: Your artist’s statement for this project, and what you say about global health issues calls to mind a Fidel Castro speech where he says Cuba does not have nuclear weapons, or chemical weapons, or biological weapons. Instead, Cuba has educated doctors and dentists to help other countries even “a los mas oscuros rincones del mundo”—in the darkest corners of the world. These medicos are Cuba’s “smart weapons”—targeted altruistically, not to kill remotely and anonymously, but to use knowledge and ability to help and to heal. Some of your Corona curius masks integrate medicines. Are you, like Castro,commenting on access to medicine?
LM.: Exactly. Cuba dealt with Covid-19 via science; in the West we have tried to deal with it via technocrats and bureaucrats and economists—putting the health experts to the side. But those who have access to masks, to good doctors, and to medical care have a better chance. Still, Covid-19 can kill anyone. Yet, within the pandemic are curious differences in mortality rates. For the first time, the West has learned the arbitrariness of dying of disease. In other parts of the world, populations have lived with—and died with—this arbitrariness for a long time. If you are White you live; if you are Black you die. When ventilators were in critically short supply in Europe, if you were aged over 75, White or Black, rich or poor, you were left to die. In recent times, the West has not had to confront this type of social discrimination. However, at the same time, irrespective of age, differences between rich and poor are still playing out. In France, if you presented yourself for treatment, you still were asked your profession; “Where do you work?” What is the relevance of that? People got the sense that they were being selected for the equipment. This is not democracy; rather, it shows democracy is smoke, it’s an illusion. Corona has shown us that in many parts of the West we are not living under democracy, and many countries have used the pandemic to arrest and crack down on opponents.
GvW: The corollary of which is being selected to die.
L.M.: We were turned into a little village by a little organism.
GvW: What do you mean by that?
L.M.: We were all in the same boat, immigrants and non-immigrants, rich and poor, all focused on the same threat. You had only to switch on the TV and you were on a world tour.
GvW: Why did you choose to make masks as your response to the Covid-19 pandemic?
L.M.: The mask is at the heart of this problem. We will only be saved if we have masks. It’s a lie that it is not necessary for everyone to have masks—that is a story that has been put about because there are chronic shortages of supply. We have seen different countries of the world, and different states and provinces, competing to buy masks, driving up the price and making them harder to get. The situation in Italy showed how fragile the EU is—Europe couldn’t help Italy, Italy had to rely on China to send masks. Europe couln’t even save one of its own core members. Yet, people could make their own masks to protect themselves—provided they are told it is necessary to have masks, and encouraged to make them. But still most Western officials are not telling people that clearly. In the West, he administrative decision to make some people wear masks was made too late, because we were following political and economic expediency instead of logic—the logic of public health. France even delayed imposing lockdown until after scheduled elections. I decided to make a mask each day also as a dedication to, a remembrance in honor of, those who have died, those who are in danger, those who are dying because they don’t have the privilege of isolating. And I mark time with the ritual of creating a new mask every day.
GvW: Did you set yourself specific parameters or rules to follow?
L.M.: To make each mask from what I had immediately to hand. I decided to wear a head cover, which is a political issue in France targeting the immigrants who wear them. It identifies segments of the population, whereas on me the hoody obscures my personal identity. Covid-19 is like a person with no identity, no ticket, no visa, no passport, but free to go wherever she or he wants, to all five continents.
GvW: A bit like an infiltrator… The hoodies you wear, I notice that they are yellow and blue. Is this significant?
L.M.: The yellow is significant in Cameroon, where I come from, it is the color of the desert, of lack: lack of water, lack of knowledge. The blue in the French tricolor la bleu du courage.
GvW: Contrasting with the implication of the head cover and its association with discretion, some of your masks were made from women’s panties.
L.M.: Yes, it is a dramatic element, a bit of a joke, but it also suggests that we can be inventive and creative, even those who don’t have masks, or can’t afford to pay for them, or feel that they shouldn’t have to pay for them because public health is the duty of public authorities. Many people around the world know how to make do with what they have at hand, whether it is delicate and expensive lace panties or a mask made out of a vegetable or plant.
GvW: Why the fruit?
L.M.: Friends in Africa sent me pictures of people there making masks from fruits and vegetables. Even though I could buy as many masks as I want, or make as many as I want with the fabrics I have in my studio, I put myself in the shoes of those who don’t have anything. I don’t forget where I come from.
GvW: With lace versus pineapple, you are reflecting on your privilege?
L.M.: I am fortunate to have creativity. Many people have none, they would have no possibility to fashion a way to protect themselves. Some have both creativity and means, and utilize both just for themselves and their family. Then there are those who have nothing yet do their best to help others. My son, for example, is going round to tower apartments, taking bread to people who can’t come out, leaving it at their door, calling them on the intercom to collect it. This pandemic has not only taken from us, it has also given back. Social solidarity has returned. Being with family, sharing, coming out from behind our jobs, coming back to the reality of our lives. This is positive.
GvW: Did you contemplate your Covid-19 masks in relation to African traditional practices, specifically masking traditions and the work of the marabou?
L.M.: My masks are completely separate from the ceremonial role of African masks, although the element of isolation that is sometimes required in making and performing masks could be a link. In ceremonial masks, often they undergo ritual invocation, such as being breathed on or spat on, whereas my personal ritual of Covid curius masks concerns the opposite: guarding the breath, one from the other, cutting the interrelation between people. Traditional African masks address thetradition itself and spiritual concern, binding the community and linking it to the past and projecting its practices into the future, whereas I am addressing a global contemporary moment, and my ritual is personal. On the other hand, I am very interested in how marabouts in Africa are dealing with Covid-19, and I am already in communication with some of them, and I hope to take up a residency in Africa where I can go down that path.
GvW: When we can move safely again… Covid-19 crosses borders in a way that immigrants cannot and, ironically, the lockdown has halted many refugees and prospective immigrants and trapped others in limbo. Would you care to comment on how you see your Covid curius series relating to your earlier bodies of work concerned with immigration?
LM.: I am interested in the free movement and acceptance of people. Covid-19 has been a double-edged sword for migrants. in some places, Covid-19 has increased xenophobia against migrants. For example, I am hearing about Africans in China being targeted, taking refuge in the Senegalese embassy in fear or their lives, because in China people are being told that Africans brought the disease—or that it was from America. We don’t get that news. Yet, if you travel on the Metro in Paris you can hear French people targeting Asians, calling at them, “Ooooo, Corona.” Disgusting!
On the other hand, in Italy, which was both Europe’s epicenter for Covid-19 and is Europe’s hotspot for trans-Mediterranean migration from Morocco and Libya, the Italian government has expedited work permits for migrants. Italy recognized migrants’ need to work as soon the economy opens up again, so Covid-19 has created a new attitude to migrants. In France and in many other Western countries, it is immigrants that are doing the hard work on the frontlines of the Covid-19 crisis. Many immigrants work in healthcare, and do the menial work, like garbage collecting. The Uber drivers, the grocery delivery services, the supermarket staff—mostly these are immigrants, many doing that work without masks, and hoping to become legal. For the first time in France we have gone months now without hearing negative coverage about immigrants. People are realizing the reliance on immigrants from this type of work; now we know they are important.
GvW: Yes, in the US too there seems to be a new appreciation for labor. Hedge fund managers are utterly useless to us, but we need our grocery workers and our garbage collectors.
LM.: Some immigrants have stepped forward prominently with initiatives, showing their civic dedication. In Brussels, for example, a group of women originally from Kigali have been making fabric masks and sending them to hospitals—whether they are legal or illegal migrants makes no difference, just as it makes no difference to me. I am a French citizen, a legal resident, but I will always remain an immigrant, and there is no relevant difference between me and my fellow countrymen from Cameroon or other parts of Africa living here in Europe. Same color, same origin, what’s the difference? We are here, we are stepping up. I’m also making cloth masks that people can use for protection, finding people who need them, calling them to say that I will drop off the mask at their door.