Paris street artist / Artiste Parisienne: BauBô (Part 1)
(Une traduction française de ce blog va suivre éventuellement. All translations from French to English here are mine, or, in the case of quotes from Françoise Héritier in the section taken from BauBô’s website, primarily hers.)
This is the first in a series of posts about some of the great street artists whose work I encountered in Paris in fall 2012 and continue to follow via the internet. Each post will take me a while to write and they’ll almost certainly all be long, but I promise that they’ll be about really awesome artists, and rife with photographs.
The first artist I want to look at closely is BauBô, she of the brightly colored masks and Pacman vs Tetris, both of which I’ve written about several times now. (FYI: all links to articles on BauBô’s site point to pages translated into English.) I want to start off by thanking her for her incredible grace and (extreme) patience in responding to my barrage of questions, giving me permission to use photos from her website, and allowing me to take a few of her masks off walls (don’t do this without the artists’ permission, kids. From what BauBô tells me and what I’ve read/watched, they know their art is ephemeral, but street artists post their work publicly and many, maybe most, want people to able to see their work as long as possible; some artists even see removals as theft, which is understandable given the degree of care taken with many of these artists’ pieces, some of which are irreplaceable because there are no other copies). But anyway: much gratitude goes out to the delightful BauBô herself!
BauBô, I learned in extended email conversation with her, has been pasting her work on the walls of Paris since August 2012, when fellow artist Némi Uhu took her out into the streets. (I got there just in time to catch her beginnings!) She tells me that she had read that 80% of the artists featured in the difficult-to-enter gallery world in France are male, and that after some thought about this incredibly depressing fact, and some examination of the possibilities, she decided that she would make the streets her place of exhibition. I first encountered her work in the 11ème in mid-November, in the context of what I later learned was a collaboration with the duo known as Le Soldat Inconnu (“the unknown soldier”):
I was immediately struck by the bright colors of the masks, their complexity, and the precision of their placement, as well as by the juxtaposition with the life-sized soldier figures. BauBô recently wrote to me that she had done a great deal of research on masks from around the world; the care and thoroughness of this research can clearly be seen in the sheer variety of the masks and their myriad visual references. Her masks have actually been referred to as Lucha libre (Mexican wrestling) masks on flickr streams and on sites like Paris Dans Mon Oeil (in English), but she tells me that, though she studied U.S. wrestling masks, she doesn’t particularly remember reading about Lucha libre. She writes (via email, Dec-Jan 12-13) that she considers herself primarily influenced by Chinese Opera masks, African masks, and Native American design/tattoos. As one can see, however, her influences run far and wide.. BauBô, perhaps like all of my favorite artists, finds inspiration in countless things, including during her balades in the streets looking for good “canvasses;” even an interesting ad can serve. But all this taken into account, the originality of BauBô’s work is never overtaken; her style is a strong and distinctive one, immediately recognizable despite the breathtaking range of her mask creations.
Influences aside, to quote her in an email, “En fait les gens y voient souvent avec leurs références et leurs cultures et comme j’essaie d’ouvrir au maximum mes références du coup tout le monde y trouve quelque chose qui lui parle; c’est plaisant”; “Actually, people often see [the masks] with their own references and their cultures, and as I try to collect as many of my own references as possible, everyone finds something that speaks to them; it’s pleasant” (email, Dec 31 ’12). Very true. A really great element of the masks is just how much one can find in the individual masks, not just in their groupings with each other or with other artists’ work. Each mask, as a complex work of art in its own right, holds wonders. This contributes a lot, in my opinion, to what amounts to an incredible depth in BauBô’s mask groupings. The masks are also meant – this is explained in English on BauBô’s blog – as representations of the infinite facets of the feminine, in what I think is a pretty radical way. Continuing her above quote, BauBô goes on with the wonderful observation (I think very important to her work) that “C’est ça le féminin n’est-ce pas, un immense espace où piocher ce que l’on a envie d’être”? [“Isn’t that the feminine – an immense space where one can dig up /work out what one feels like being?”]
Speaking of bringing one’s own references to a work, I saw in the above a hint of the Maria-robot from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, though I’m told the resemblance was not intentional. A good example of the way art so often propagates itself silently, digging its way into people’s heads…
The above one, with its motherboard-reminiscent lines and bright colors, reminds me of Tron, only a lot cooler. It’s one of my favorites (though it’s hard to pick favorites when there are so many different masks.)
As you can see, the masks very wildly in color, design (and size). They do have something major in common, though – somewhere, somehow, in every one of them, no matter how deeply hidden it is, there is a stylized uterus. (BauBô’s artist name is the French version of the name of the Greek mythological figure Baubo, which is no coincidence.) BauBô is a seriously political, deeply feminist artist working on gender, and I’ll quote here from her on her “démarche,” her way of working and the thought process behind it:
For several years, I have been exploring the relationship that women and men have with the feminine all around the world. To develop the idea of changing the relationship of masculine and feminine is to up-end our deepest intellectual assumptions, developed over milleniae. Through my creative work and its mise-en-scene of the feminine, I devote myself to demonstrating the absolute necessity of giving back to the feminine its place in this world, such that each man and each woman can be complete. […]
[The anthropologist Françoise Héritier] has also written that “even as frozen as societies seem, they are in constant evolution. They can change thanks to realizations that lead to “the arrival of what is emotionally conceivable” for a majority of the population”. My creative work situates itself within this new emotional space in order to reach a point where the masculine and the feminine, because of their equal worth, cancel each other out and leave space for human values.
To speak of the feminine, I’ve chosen to work with the symbolic pattern of the uterus. This symbol, through its harmonious and poetic design, could speak to each of us, human beings of either female or male sex. […] The foregrounding of my ideas takes place through this repetition of the design and its decorative mise-en-scene. I can thus, on one hand, render the feminine visible, and, on the other hand, show its multiple facets instead of only what there is in the tiny little drawer offered by our world.
(BauBô, Ma démarche / Why I do what I do)
I introduce this now because it was fascinating to me to learn what BauBô’s theme/idea/goals were beyond arranging beautiful masks in patterns. Artist intentionality doesn’t stop us from interpreting things the way we want, of course, but it does throw interesting light on what’s happening here. I had not realized the collaborations with Le Soldat Inconnu were collaborations at all; now I can think about how BauBô’s concepts of the masculine and the feminine were at play in those collaborations (perhaps to some extent on the side of Le Soldat, too; I notice that in the photo above, the soldier nearest the masks is painted pink and the next one over is splotched with that color).
Anyway, the same day I saw that first spray of masks, I found another collaboration by BauBô and Le Soldat a few blocks away:
Since I didn’t know yet that these were collaborations I wondered how they’d happened, as you’ll see if you look at my one of my first street art posts. I had assumed “the mask artist” (as I thought of her then) had pasted up her work onto Le Soldat at a later date, but it turned out that BauBô’s covering the face with a mask was in agreement with the two artists of Le Soldat. Here we have the feminine, in a range of masks meant to show the possibilities of the feminine, actually laying over and changing a symbol generally associated with masculinity (despite the ranks of female soldiers). On that note, as Paris Dans Mon Oeil put it in an enthusiastic article, Le Soldat “porte quelque fois un masque de BauBô, référence aux femmes souvent oubliées lorsque l’on parle du ou des soldats” (“the Soldier sometimes wears a BauBô mask, a reference to the women who are often forgotten when we speak of the soldier [as a concept] or soldiers”).
There have been other collaborations between BauBô and Le Soldat which I haven’t seen in person but which look great; check out this page at Paris Dans Mon Oeil for photos. The juxtapositions are interesting – where the masks have been placed vis a vis the soldiers (who are sometimes even cradling them), etc.
But BauBô, despite occasional collaborations, does most of her work alone. She tells me that at the start of her Masks project she wasn’t really sure where or how (in terms of visual grouping) to place her masks, and the early works show this uncertainly while also showing BauBô’s consistent knack for canny use of the space around her pieces (marks on walls, crumbling stone, odd angles, etc). She tells me this piece was crucial as she begin to hit her stride in the quest to find her organizational style:
Baubô’s early work often involved placing the masks within frames offered by the surroundings, such as in the example above. Here’s another particularly cool example (photos of many others are on her site) of using architecture as a literal frame — here a frame of concrete and sky, which, as Baubô has pointed out in an email to me (Jan ’13), is reminiscent of the female sex. Of this piece she writes: “et puis ce beau ciel bleu à l’intérieur du sexe féminin, cette sensation d’infini, ça ne fait pas rêver ça? ça ne remplit pas d’espoir?” [“And this beautiful blue sky inside the female sex, this sensation of infinity, doesn’t that make one dream? Doesn’t that fill one with hope?”]
The artist, always in search of more beautiful ways to arrange the Masks series, started to hit on the idea of using arched, fluted sorts of organizations – the curves that have become typical of her organization – with this one, a personal favorite of hers, in which the unevenness of the wall seems (to me) to literally push the masks, the feminine, out towards us, catching our attention perhaps even more:
She began playing more and more with this sort of “spray” of masks and in an email to me compared this next one, another personal favorite of hers — and of mine, even though I’ve only seen a photo — to a wing (perhaps a particularly apt symbol to paste on the somewhat forbidding gated outside wall of a military school):
In other early works we can see the beginnings of what would become BauBô’s current big mandalas as she arranged things in flower-like patterns, searching out emplacements that would add something in themselves. Here we have a crumbling building with rusting struts serving as a compositional frame, a frame filled with ripped-up concrete tumbling its way to the stained wall, all of it acting as a foil to the masks in their freshness and their recall of the natural world:
After this, Baubô moved on to her current huge mandalas. But this post is getting quite long, so I’ll continue with Baubo’s more recent Masks work, as well as her Pacman vs Tetris, in Part 2 (to be posted asap). Watch this space!
In the meantime, here is this great interview I just found conducted with BauBô by Mcwp, where you can also find posts on Rubbish Cube, Fred le Chevalier, Sebastien Lecca, and other artists (in French).
Continued in part 2