Seventy-seven is the number of black busts thatmake up Ethiopian, the monumental sculpture by Carine Mansan Chowanek featured in the exhibition Memoria: accounts of another History. Seventy-seven, like the number of times Biblical tradition tells brothers to forgive one another, and black, like the beloved of the Song of Songs. Generous in its references to the Judeo-Christian tradition, this story-work—which sounds like a requiem in memory of a missing mother and whose numerous biblical occurrences imbue the whole series with spirituality —is at once a journey to the heart of the intimate and the sacred, an encounter with the other, with God and love, and the transmission of traditions and values.
The journey in Ethiopian is first of all the different materials (clay and bronze) that the artist explores in realizing her busts and which, combined with the abstract style that she adopts, give spontaneity and
freedom to her creative process and sensitivity and authenticity to her work.
Ethiopian is authentic through its author’s rejection of a universe of conventional representations, symbolising the Virgin as an immaculate Madonna. Rather than this smooth image of a perfect but inaccessible woman, the artist prefers a darker model, close to the chthonic1 divinities: a Virgin of the underground, black and human, black and beautiful!
“A Virgin of the underground,black and human, black and beautiful”
To meet her muse, the artist reconstitutes, almost like an initiation, the journey of long and painful maternal agony. It will take her to where it all
began, to Rocamadour, a centre of Marian devotion in Europe.2
In the silence of the crypts where she meditates, in the darkness of the naves where she kneels, the artist can brave the painful memory of mourning by recalling the years of past suffering. At the end of this religious pilgrimage to the sources of pure Catholic tradition, the artist, finally cured of her bruises, can then be reborn to life and love. After taking this step, the quest begun twenty years earlier, in pain, is still not complete. Reinvested with new requests, the artist then embarks on a personal and artistic return to ancestral sources, in Africa, in an aesthetic journey that she herself defines as discontinuous, never closed, still a work in progress.
We find an echo of this demanding process of purification and self- realisation through ordeal in the lost wax-casting technique, chosen by the author in a constant quest for artistic excellence. This is how the seventy-seven bronze busts of the Ethiopian series are born through flame, fire, and melting. Beyond the search for better quality and the repetition of creative gestures, the many occurrences of the figure of the Virgin present throughout the work, like rosary beads being recited, encourage inner meditation while inviting the discovery of the
cult of Mary.
Inspired by ancient customs of veneration of reliquary figures, subsequently recovered and Christianised, the Marian cult celebrated here refers to a system of representations and values whose transmission is achieved by women, both in the medieval society of the Christian West in which it was developed and on the arid lands of burnt faces (Aithiopia) where the eponymous work originates.
But Ethiopian also affirms, through the geometric assembly of female effigies in a single monumental structure, the universal condition of women. Now united in the vast movement of international sisterhood, due to the countless struggles waged throughout history against various forms of oppression, women—regardless of their social realities—find in the bonds which shared sufferings weave between them shared challenges to be met and similar aspirations; the resources necessary to face their unique destinies. A solidarity that the author’s figurines convey in their own way, through the similarity of their bare skulls, the pyramid-shaped alignment of their busts, the uniformly tormented and silent expression of their faces in the face of unspeakable pain which overwhelms them all. We are also tempted to see in the omnipresence of the color black—the only chromatic range chosen to create
all the sculptures—an attempt by the author to abolish the generational, cultural, geographical, and social boundaries which, while dividing women, single them out.
For Carine Mansan Chowanek’s Virgins are singular too. Whether sculpted, painted, or drawn, they reflect, thanks to the specificity of each of their facial features, the diversity of aspects of femininity across ages and cultures: all black from the burns oflife and beautiful, each in her own way.
Written by Nadeige Laure Ngo Nlend
This text is an extract from the catalog “Memoria Yaoundé”, published to coincide with the exhibition Memoria: récits d’une autre Histoire, presented at the Musée national du Cameroun from 10 February to 31 July 2023, as part of the tour of the exhibition of the same name presented in 2021 at the Frac Nouvelle Aquitaine MÉCA, Bordeaux, and in 2022 at the Musée des cultures contemporaines Adama Toungara, Abidjan.
The catalogue can be downloaded free here: Memoria Yaoundé
1 Greek deities linked to the earth, to the underworld.
2 The Black Virgin is found in the chapel of Notre-Dame de Rocamadour.