The French Cameroonian artist discusses the themes of time, personal history and womanhood that run through her work

I’m at The Treehouse (Wura-Natasha Ogunji’s experimental exhibition space in Ikoyi) and enjoying a breezy birds eye view of the Lagos landscape from its 8th floor balcony. Inside, a LagosPhoto talk has just wrapped up featuring our host, artist Charlotte Yonga and curator Eva Barois de Caevel. Their’s was a delightfully informal discussion about the joys of still lives, pet snails and home cooked meals, which revealed the perfect fit Yonga made for LagosPhoto.

“I met Charlotte a few years ago so I know her work well and was looking for a special occasion for it to flourish,” Barois de Caevel tells me. She co-curated this year’s festival alongside Wunika Mukan, Valentine Umansky and Charlotte Laghorst. Yonga’s work spoke to her personally because they are both concerned with post colonial identities and were both born in France to African fathers – Senegalese in Barois de Caevel’s case and Cameroonian in Yonga’s. “We have an intuition and relate to each other because of our backgrounds. It’s something we’ve discussed as friends so I was interested in how it could be explored when curating her work. I felt like we could have some good experiences here. The three other curators immediately said yes, so it was easy.”

“When I make a portrait of someone I take a slice of the essence of that person and I can keep it in my box of treasures forever”

Born and raised in Paris, Yonga studied at the National Art School of Paris-Cergy and has developed a photographic portraiture style that employs subtle staging and a deft eye for form and framing to give her subjects an air of respectful elegance. Also working in video and sound installations, the artist has lived and exhibited everywhere from Tangier to Barcelona (her current home) but she confides that her practice is most alive when focused on her father’s homeland.

“I always felt I was missing a side of my identity as a young girl so when I was 21, I went to Cameroon and it was a relief to discover the country and the people. Now most of my work is done there, which is an opportunity to connect to my roots,” Yonga says. “When I’m there I’m interested in portraits. Faces are one of my passions. I’m interested in the distance between myself and the ‘other’ and through the lens I can capture that distance and understand it. I also want to make a collection of treasures. When I make a portrait of someone I take a slice of the essence of that person and I can keep it in my box forever.”

At LagosPhoto she presented Bito Ba Mundi (Women of the City), her recent portrait series of women in Douala. “I chose the women by intuition – in the streets, in the bars, at the university, at the market. I just had a feeling about them and wanted to show a palette of different kinds of Cameroonian women, each with a unique attitude and sense of self. I asked them to pose and wanted to give the images a touch of fashion influence, to make my subjects icons of contemporary West Africa.”

This body of work also speaks to the theme of this year’s festival, Time Has Gone. Whether referring to the magic of the photographic medium, which captures moments as they pass as much as it can conjure up an imagined future, or to our human experience of time, memory and mortality, or indeed to the Time’s Up feminist movement, the curators’ embraced the mercurial and ambiguous nature of time to allow each artist to express themselves. “I was thinking about the complexity of time and photography and the way we maybe want to capture pieces of time,” says Yonga. “When I make photographs I always feel in a hurry, so I appreciate the theme. To me it symbolises the challenge of being a photographer and trying to show the world that time goes.”

In one of her film documentaries from Cameroon, Ku'tchub, the quality of time in a small rural community is vividly felt. Its subject is The White Queen, a European woman who married the polygamous chief of Yonga’s father’s village and even now after his passing, remains there and lives off the land. “I met the White Queen on my first visit to the country and now she’s like my grandmother. I admire her a lot – she’s powerful and impressive.” Here life is slow and farm work is all done by hand. The film shows the laborious and almost ritualistic processes involved in milling and sifting corn. “This is a very isolated and simple place. I plan to go back and take some more intimate pictures of the people and the nature. I want to make quiet, contemplative work, feel the life in the bush, of the every day, so that you can feel its slow rhythm.”

What the film, or her series Co-wives - portraits of the wives of Chief Nayang Toukam from the Bamiléke people - don’t do is comment upon on the traditional beliefs and practices still in force here, such as polygamy. “I don’t want to have any judgement. What I’m interested in the interconnectivity between the north (Europe) and the south (Africa). I get that polygamy is an issue in the West but these women are proud of themselves and very beautiful so I don’t want to show them as victims. And maybe the principle of monogamy isn’t so perfect either. I’m not saying either is right or wrong but we shouldn’t assume that we have the monopoly on right thinking.”

Nataal would like to thank the British Council’s West Africa Arts programme for its support of our Nigeria editorial focus

Visit Charlotte Yonga

Visit LagosPhoto

Published on 29/11/2018