A dead and dismembered Jacaranda tree hangs eerily on the left wall of the first room in Cameroonian Barthélémy Toguo’s Strange Fruit exhibition, like something that’s been broken, without being cracked.
Hanging by strings on its sinewy branches are drawings on paper – haunting abstractions bedaubed with red ink.
They foreground the full terrible metaphor that fills up the entire exhibition: the precise and historic plunder of black bodies in transatlantic slavery, colonialism, Jim Crow’s South and apartheid.
These stains, these red marks on thin pieces of paper strung up on a dead tree, point to the fragility of black life in the modern world.
Black don’t crack … but it breaks.
That is, if we are to take Toguo’s metaphor to its conclusion and hold his work as a mimetic rendering of the black experience in the present, which the artist formulates as a continuous past that never passes.
Upon seeing this unnerving work, one’s psyche swings from the killings of black men and women in the US by police, to the killings of black women and black lesbians by black men in South Africa.
And along these strings, from the drawings on paper to the branches of the tree, are all sorts of violent, murderous regimes, bludgeoning the black body until a strange fruit yields.
The exhibition takes its title from Billie Holiday’s mournful song Strange Fruit, of course.
The song and the haunting imagery of its lyrics – “Southern trees bear a strange fruit/ Blood on the leaves and blood at the root/ Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze/ … The bulgin’ eyes and the twisted mouth/ Scent of magnolias sweet and fresh/ Then the sudden smell of burnin’ flesh” – remind one of the brutality, the insecurity and the insanity of those with power. Look at how quick power, with its attendant insecurity and insanity, turns the scene from “sweet and fresh” to “burning flesh”.
I would like to bring another lens to this quick, brutal turn of scene – to South Africa’s own femicide, which is prevalent in romantic domestic arrangements that begin all sweet and fresh before power acts as it is wont to act.
If I could afford Toguo’s work, I’d acquire it to constantly remind myself of how history has mangled my flesh and how power, although alluring, has transformed humanity, and men in particular, into absurd, insecure beasts, brutal and grotesque.
Let us not forget the word ‘flesh’ in Holiday’s phrase, just as we mustn’t forget flesh in Toguo’s paintings, which seems peeled away in order for the artist to delve into the anatomical and skeletal frameworks of the body.
It’s difficult to metabolise black pain and not to merely exhibit it for consumption.
So, instead of focusing on the immediate flesh and dark skin, Toguo abstracts his skeletal figures with railroad-like structures, which gesture to the Underground Railroad – the secret network of passageways and safe houses used by runaway slaves to reach the free North from slave plantations and slaveholding states in the South.
In this way he is able to speak of pain and hope – for the Underground Railroad was a hope of freedom – without being entirely morose or exhibiting black pain for popular consumption.
And so this exhibition tries to hold a delicate balance between revealing too much and preserving some of the nuances of the black experience, by using visual gestures that are able to speak to those in the know without alienating, completely, the unknowing viewer.
Strange Fruit is an insider conversation taken out to the rest of the world.
**Originally appeared in City Press.