Life-size human busts sculpted from Iroko wood sit on the top, third step of six identical ladders. Images of boxes used to ship bananas, a recurring motif in Barthélémy Toguo’s installations, for intricate patterns on the floor, from a distance resembling carpet. #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, and other protest movement hashtags are emblazoned onto bases of each bust, performing as calls to action. Iroko, a large hardwood tree from the west coast of tropical Africa that can live up to 500 years, amplifies the human strength celebrated in the artwork.
The Cameroonian artist, who lives and works between Paris and Bandjoun in his Central African homeland, devised the initial concept for Urban Requiem in the 1990s when he realized that his passport was stamped by customs agents from around the world, while his colleagues in the European Union had blank pages. He created the first iteration of Urban Requiem for the 2015 Venice Biennale, All The World’s Futures, curated by the late Nigerian curator, art critic, writer, poet, and art history educator, Okwui Enwezor. Urban Requiem has since been featured in multiple solo presentations of Toguo’s work, and continues to underscore the protest movements it references.
The Armory Show in New York and Champagne Pommery chose Galerie Lelong & Co.’s presentation of Urban Requiem as the winner of the fifth annual Pommery Prize. Judges, led by Vranken-Pommery Co-Owner and Deputy CEO Nathalie Vranken and Executive Director Pauline Vranken, selected Toguo’s installation for the $25,000 prize, shared between the artist and the presenting gallery.
“I am very thankful for the invitation from The Armory Show and Eva Respini to exhibit in Platform which gave a new visibility to my work, Urban Requiem,” said Toguo. “The honor of the Pommery Prize is unexpected, and I am moved that the work caught the attention of the jury and spoke to them of the continuing struggle for human rights and equality world-wide, especially in the Global South.”
The Pommery Prize recognizes an exceptional presentation of large-scale artwork from The Armory Show’s Platform section.
“This is a very emotional piece, where the artist brings a strong question of humanity to the entire world. The piece is made from many different origins of wood, which I feel reflects our human nature and the many facets of human life. It asks a lot of difficult questions,” said Vranken.
Galerie Lelong & Co. Vice President and Partner, Mary Sabbatino, said Urban Requiem “seemed the perfect inclusion when curator Eva Respini and Nicole Berry of The Armory Show invited us to consider a work for Platform.” Respini is deputy director and director of curatorial programs at the Vancouver Art Gallery, an art museum in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
“The interwoven themes of human rights, equality, recognition of marginalized communities, remain fundamental and urgent. The Pommery Prize’s recognition of Barthélémy’s long focus on these issues is inspiring and we are grateful that the work can touch many,” Sabbatino added.
In November 2022, the divine political playfulness of Yoko Ono’s Painting to Be Stepped On (1966-1988) caught my eye at the Galerie Lelong & Co. booth at the glitzy Benefit Preview of the 33rd edition of The Art Show organized by the Art Dealers Association of America (ADAA) and benefiting Henry Street Settlement, one of New York’s leading social service, arts, and health care organizations. While preparing for a 1989 retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Ono’s live-in companion at the time, interior decorator Sam Havadtoy, convinced her to recast her old pieces in bronze.
Last year’s Pommery Prize winner was Reynier Leyva Novo’s presentation of What it is, what it has been (2020-2022) presented by El Apartamento. I first met Leyva Novo, one of Cuba’s leading conceptual artists, and encountered their work at the June 2019 press preview of Landlord Colors: On Art, Economy at the Cranbrook Art Museum in Bloomfield, Michigan.