For his new exhibition in Abidjan, the photographer François-Xavier Gbré continues his reading of the history of the economic and urban development of the Ivory Coast, a long-term research initiated in the early 2010s. In this new opus, the coastline, the forest and the land are mixed with architecture, in the strata of the eventful history of a country that recently celebrated sixty years of independence.
As an introduction to this new chapter in the work of the Franco-Ivorian photographer, the installation Emergence, Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire (2013-2020) is a visual study of social and political changes through the built environment, and offers a poetic reading of the Abidjan territory. Wandering through the city, the artist takes fragments, looks at the ordinary and questions its coherence.
In the large body of unpublished photographs that the artist unveils in the exhibition La Nage de l'Éléphant (The Elephant's Swim), the city of Abidjan still holds a symbolic place, so much so that it is the showcase of the power in place. Gbré criss-crosses and captures the city in its various facets, in its moments of grace, such as the view of the Plateau under a curtain of bluish rain; but also in the midst of serious events, such as La Vierge aux gravats, documented in the aftermath of the 2015 evictions in Adjouffou.
Nourished by displacement, the walking photographer's investigation creates an encounter with a hybrid nature in mutation, in a palette of subtle sensory variations, made of red earth, smoke, powdered ochres, scum, corrosions, where storm clouds exhaust the concrete and the sun dries up the wood sections, in a fundamental tension between man and nature. These evolutionary phenomena are deployed in the image Strates where François-Xavier Gbré captures a layer of materials, an organism where concrete, yellow earth and green grass are mixed together. L'Éclat, a monumental and quasi-fantastic work, illustrates the strange evolution of modern building materials put to the test of the equatorial climate.
As everywhere in the world, economic development has led to a profound change in the natural environment, in a Côte d'Ivoire that has been both admired and exploited for the richness of its resources and the vitality of its flora and fauna. A territory (re)named not exactly after an animal, the elephant, but after ivory. A paradox that François-Xavier evokes in the title of the exhibition La Nage de l'Éléphant (The Elephant's Swim), a metaphor for the country's progress, between achievement, clumsiness and even absurdity.
This same symbolic elephant appears in the photographic archives methodically presented by François-Xavier Gbré in relation to his contemporary research. In the exhibition, François-Xavier presents history not in chronology but in resonance. At intervals of decades, current photographs and archives echo each other, and the investigation sketches out cycles and repetitions that culminate in a monumental fresco entitled La Grande Illusion, a composite work in which extracts of images dating from the colonial period, independence and the Ivorian miracle, among others, are mixed together. Amongst the yellowed prints and other iconographic material, found on second-hand stalls or on the internet, the figure of Louis Normand and other photographers from the same period such as Jean Carval appears. Active in Abidjan since the 1950s, their photographs resonate strangely with François-Xavier Gbré's own research in their desire to document pivotal moments in architecture, urbanism and landscape. These archives seem to foreshadow the upheavals that would shape the Ivory Coast of today.
A large part of the recent photographic corpus was produced during the period of the pandemic, when the artist sometimes finds it difficult to navigate between the Ébrié Lagoon and the Marais Poitevin, his two home ports. François-Xavier Gbré explains: "Photography is rooted in the trials of life. Pain and doubt are at the centre of the landscape. Mutilated trees or the scars of the heart, a stranded boat or the loss of freedom of movement, a wall of flames in black smoke or the annihilation of any positive vision of the future, a collapsed bridge or the difficulty of creating a link. This intimate and personal opening amplifies the evocative power of all the works presented. It brings the viewer closer to the message of the exhibition at a time when everyone is affected by the march of events. By giving a human face to environmental issues, François-Xavier Gbré reminds us that collective history is made up above all of a multitude of personal stories.