It was with a mixture of curiosity and disbelief that I went along to see the work of French Guiana artist Tony Riga who has the privileged position of artist in residence at the Pompidou centre in Paris.
Tony has been creating a vast body of work for a number of years in the cavernous basement of France’s popular contemporary art and cultural institution. I was introduced to his work by a therapist friend of mine who suggested that I pay a visit to what he believed to be a talented and largely unrecognized artist.
Dressed in dentist-style white overalls, Tony met me at the entrance to the staff quarters just opposite the Stravinsky fountain. We made our way into the football pitch size open space on the ground floor, past the queuing tourists who ambled in and out of the gift shop, and through some double-doors into a restricted area reserved for the technicians and art handlers. We took the lift down to the second floor basement and went on a tour of the maze of corridors and workshops that make up the staff quarters. Final touches were being added to works ready to be packaged up for traveling exhibitions or to be put on show within the Pompidou itself. Amongst the electric saws, clamps and soldering machines were a host of semi-completed works by contemporary artists and a surprising selection of Man Ray photos stacked up willy-nilly against the wall. Some paintings were being restored, some reframed and a medley of technicians were busily working on a 10-foot-tall work of art using an elaborate system of pulleys, and scaffolding for 36o degree viewing.
It is in this disorderly but creative environment that Tony Riga has set up studio. Part exhibition space, part workshop and part bedroom, there is the sudden realization that the artist is inviting you into their own intimate world. The walls are adorned with pictures, postcards and scribblings and in the corner is a bed for daydreaming or sleeping depending on the time of day or night. Tony tells me that sometimes he gets so immersed in his work that he doesn’t leave until the early hours of the morning, if at all. The fact that the studio is at least 20 metres below street level does make it easy to lose track of time. The focus of his work seems to be on the body, whether it is portrait drawings, body moulds, or costume. Some paintings and nudes are also scattered around in no particular order. Rows of shelves line the walls with catalogues of the artists that have inspired him over the years, perhaps some that have migrated from the art shop upstairs. Pictures have been cut from magazine and newspapers including one which catches my attention of a brightly coloured ship decorated with the drawings of schoolchildren. A whole section is given over to a series of costumes he designed for a show at the Pompidou centre and a collaboration with artist Diana Sterbeck in creating what may have been the first meat dress, pre- Lady Gaga. There is also a moulded sculpture of a foot which tapers off to reveal a scorpion’s tail.
Tony was born and brought up in the French colony Guiana bordering Brazil and its cultural traditions seem to have suffused his work, such as the tradition of carnival in the extravagant and brightly colored costumes that tend to defy gender or easily identifiable cultural bearings. French Guiana is home for the most part to French speaking Creoles but also to minority groups such as the displaced Hmong farmers originally from Laos, descendants of the Maroon fugitive slaves and American Indians. The rain-forest in Guiana is also one of the most bio-diverse region in the world with a series of its own micro-climates and is the largest breeding ground of the leather-back turtles. It seems that Tony somehow draws inspiration from these rich and diverse surroundings to produce a body of work that becomes both elusive, exotic and highly unique, infused with the danger and unpredictability of the forest.
One of the first works he pulls out from the racks of paintings is of the the artist as a semi-clad African warrior. But instead of appearing mighty and fierce, his clown-like warrior looks more bored and dejected, only mildly amused at the sexually charged regalia dangling around his neck. It seems that Tony is more interested in the costumes than he is about making this warrior seem fearsome. Even if it wasn’t his intention,it falls into the same category as Velezquez’s Mars, which shows a rather average-looking chap with an oversized helmet drooping over his eyes. This is no god of war but rather a simple man embarrassed by his promotion to the realms of mythology. It is a painting much more about the here and now than it is about the heroism that was fashionable in the royal courts of the day. And it is as if Tony too is more interested in the texture of the huge blue fuzzy headdress and the blue reflections on the black skin than he is about the warrior in question. For all intents and purposes, this is a memento-mori painting.
Perhaps the most interesting project in this decade-long accumulated body of work was what appeared to be a series of voodoo miniatures. Buried beneath a mountain of sculptures and theatrical costumes, Tony pulled out two cardboard boxes that had been gathering dust. Inside were a series of sculptures using twigs, feathers, bits of bone and jewels, pieced together with glue. Gathered over a number of years in urban parks around Paris, it seemed that Tony was recreating a mythical world of his childhood populated by fairies and goblins. One by one, sculptures emerged of Chinese dragons, pirate ships, a palm-sized African bison and a medley of other creatures dreamed up in his imagination. I asked Tony if I could take photos as he handed each piece one by one for what felt like the classification of new species in a colonial-era scientific expedition to the Amazon.
Once the cataloguing had been done, we made our way back upstairs with Tony warmly greeting the people we crossed on our way with a casual handshake or slap on the back. It was as if Tony had gained the reputation of a minor celebrity within the wings of the Pompidou. Before leaving we took the staff lift up to the top floor which afforded spectacular views across the rooftops of Paris.
Even though I had spent the last few hours in the company of Tony and his art work, it still felt as if something eluded me. I invited him to lunch just outside the Pompidou by the Stravinsky fountain and questioned him on the whys and wherefores of his art. He started to talk more honestly and said he didn’t know what would have become of him if it wasn’t for art. It turns out that the creative process played something of a therapeutic role during dark times. Looking back at his work, it does seem that it has provided a framework for this fragile and uniquely creative individual, who is not satisfied with easy interpretations of what his identity should be. He tells me that he never had the chance to go to art school, which he says makes him feel that his work is amateurish. But on the flip-side, he is also aware that this is an advantage and gives him something that a lot of French artists are pining for – an edge.
We wrap up the meal with a brief chat about the future course of his work. He says he too would like to produce something akin to the Stravinsky fountain, a garden sculpture that would enable his imagination to run riot. Whether he could get such a project commissioned is unlikely, but as I cast a look at the fountain it occurs to me that it is often the most unbridled ideas which give a city its life and energy.
On returning home, I take a look at his website which emphasizes his costume design and involvement in carnival style street performance. It is clearly not high art but there is something touching about the fearless way in which he is prepared to embody his art and his beliefs. He doesn’t really care what other people think as long as he is able to inhabit the world he has created for himself. And it is a world of dreams and infinite possibility.
Whether he is able to harness some of that energy to create something that would impress the art world is unsure. Even if he did, there is the likelihood that it would lose in vitality. As is so often the case, some of the best work will go on being produced underground.
Keep up the good work Tony!