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Nú Barreto

L’imparfait et l’impératif
April 15 - June 12, 2021
Cloître St Merri II, Paris

Galerie Nathalie Obadia is delighted to present Nú Barreto’s third exhibition, after Homo Imparfaits in 2019 in Brussels. Born in 1966, in São Domingo, in Guinea-Bissau, Nú Barreto has lived and worked in Paris since 1989. After trying his hand at photography, he soon turned to drawing as his medium of choice. His reflections on contemporary Africa are also expressed in powerful mural installations. Selected to represent his country at the World Exposition in Lisbon, in 1998, Nú Barreto now enjoys an international career and incarnates a notable figure of contemporary African art.

The exhibition L’imparfait et l’impératif presents a group of new works on recycled paper, which are part drawing part collage, and a 42-drawing polyptych conceived as a sort of logbook for these months of pandemic. A striking demonstration of graphic eloquence put to the service of a bitter vision of reality, these works illustrate the suffering of the African people and the human condition, via the theme of confinement. Under the artist’s sharp and lively draftsmanship, life is seen as a high-risk exercise. When he thinks of his native country, a former Portuguese colony, Nú Barreto recalls the grueling march toward independence, followed by political and military instability punctuated by numerous coups. Today, the artist looks at the current situation in Guinea-Bissau with lucidity and acerbity. He sees the ever growing socio-economic disparities. More broadly, what shines, figuratively through his work, in the form of his ‘homos imparfaits,’ is the complexity of the issues that determine relations between the different African states and the Western world.

Drawing, to which Nú Barreto had already turned during his troubled adolescence, is where he airs his daily suffering and the stigmata of collective memory. But this graphic work inscribes itself in an approach that is becoming increasingly sculptural, where collage, the play of materials, the imported elements all acquire as much importance as the represented motifs. In these large works on paper that look a bit like murals, the artist turns to raw, inexpensive materials, such as cardboard, recycled paper (made by the artist using supermarket pallets), scraps of fabric and pieces of torn wrapping paper. The way he composes them into an anarchic patchwork seems to evoke a type of precariousness, the poverty of the urban fabric, makeshift dwellings, social misery. In fact, certain decoupage motifs suggest sheet metal, while the hesitantly drawn lines that awkwardly structure these works denotes a certain fragility, imbalance. And perhaps also a questionable aspiration to the excesses of the Western model. The added inscriptions, news clippings or fragments of posters add to the authentic and expressionistic dimension of this work that is resolutely anchored in reality.

However, the particularity of these drawings by Nú Barreto resides in the spaces that seem to float, devoid of reference points, in spite of the allusions to urbanity that bring to mind jungles. The upside-down silhouettes look like they were brutally thrown into existence, adopting acrobatic or stooping postures and garish expressions that evoke Munch’s Scream and reveal the pain that resides inside these works. Omnipresent in Nú Barreto’s drawings, the gesticulation of several figures that appear to be tumbling down echoes the fall of the Damned as depicted in medieval and Renaissance scenes of the Last Judgment. As the title suggests, the artist insists on the deeply imperfect nature of humans, who are now submitted to an unheard-of collective effort, the “imperative” of confinement. With natural empathy, he uses metaphors in every little detail of a particularly arresting iconography. Thus, several men are imprisoned like messages in bottles thrown at sea, reduced to resignation, to being tossed around, to silence – an image that also refers to the feelings brought up by the current lockdowns. Another recurring motif that is subjected to the same disorientation: the ladder, whose usefulness always seems vain or implausible, and that illustrates the illusion of social climbing as well as the misleading mirage of consumeristic lifestyles. Conversely, the chair signals “the person who won his place in the sun.” These works are also imbued with symbols that originate from indigenous West African cultures.

Violence is present as well, above all in the colors the artist uses to sketch these unfortunate existences. Red: the blood that permeates the earth and determines our personal trajectories; the still raw scars of a region marked by war and violence.“Funguili black”: a veritable social marker, synonym of poverty; it is the grayish, chalky tint that black skin takes on when it is dehydrated or a victim of deprivation.

Paradoxically, a certain lightness emanates from these works: the artist’s airy handwriting, which almost resembles Joan Miró’s abstract compositions, counterbalances this blackness and allows us to digest the burden of anti-establishment with which it is endowed. Something like a dream, like poetry, like hope is thus deployed in these compositions, intensified by a palette of colors that are increasingly diversified and optimistic.

What’s more, these representations distance themselves from their subjects, thus acquiring a universal scope: they portray a humanity in which Nú Barreto conserves an unwavering confidence. The products of consecutive lockdowns, these recent works experiment with plasticity, a new materiality that attests to a creative passion that is constantly evolving, despite the circumstances.