My name – as you may have surmised accurately already – is Les Artisans Du Champ, and I am an English-Cameroonian artist living and working in the USA where I moved to in 2016, escaping political persecution. In addition to painting, I am also a writer, actor, and photographer. As such, I often introduce myself as a “professional storyteller”. Though my career began in 2014 with my first group exhibition in Cameroon, painting has been a longtime companion of mine. My grandfather was a painter himself and he made a living – with my grandmother’s input of course – selling woven cane furniture he fashioned, painting houses, and supplementing his income with sales acquired through the purchase of his graden’s produce. It was my grandmother however who first discovered my passion for art and nurtured it into what it is today.
Art for me is a cathartic release. It is my story, my song, my fears, hopes, dreams, and fantasies. Though primarily abstract, I refuse to box all my creations into one type of governing characteristic. I work by investigation; often I am confronted with a problem, a solution, an action, or an idea I desperately want to represent, then I rush to my studio and extract the information out of my mind in the best possible way I can. Sometimes a line helps, other times a spontaneous burst of color does the trick. To inject a little bit of order to the chaos that is my world, I work in series each usually centered on a specific theme: religion, politics, philosophy, sheer beauty, color, texture, shape, form, etc. However, what happens within each series is entirely haywire. In fact, I have made paintings before from dreams I had about a religious issue I kept obsessing about.
I work primarily in acrylics, though I have sketches and a few paintings on which I employed charcoal, oil, and paper clippings. My artistic influences range from other great artists such as Rothko and Twombly to prolific writers like Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky. All in all, I would say the principal objective of every artistic venture I undertake, is to move one step closer towards finding inner peace. Each day in my studio makes that hope a little more real.
Were there any defining moments that shaped the person you are and therefore the artist you are today? And, what personality trait do you have that has been most helpful in your art career?
Les: My life up until this point as I ponder upon it now has definitely brought with it its fair share of defining moments. My untimely and rushed exit from my country of birth Cameroon will be a good example. Seven years of boarding school is another. However, I surmise that my grandmother’s passing may be the most significant. Nothing hit me harder. I was a troubled child and for as long as I can remember, she was my haven. When she passed on Christmas Eve of 2010, the bought of depression I went through afterwards was so severe, profound and prolonged that my world and my work turned incredibly dark and melancholy. But as I learned to cope with her absence, I saw that my tolerance for anguish and the woeful unexpected began to increase dramatically. I started appreciating life’s little joys a lot more: an evening walk here, a cloudless sunrise there, the smell of fresh paint and what have you. Everything I had previously taken for granted now occupied my central focus, and I see it translate into how I work. I think losing her also pushed me harder to actualize the potential I know she saw in me.
I would say my most helpful personality trait is a healthy dose of annoying stubbornness. I rarely have Plan Bs. Once my mind is made up about a path I intend to take, nothing can move me. When I eventually arrived at the decision to become an artist, I faced tremendous push back from my family and some friends. “You’re wasting your brains” they said, “You’ll die poor”. All this is not to denigrate these people because I know their intentions were pure and they wanted nothing short of the best for me. However, had I listened to naysayers I would not be doing this interview. I have decided to steal as many souls as I can before my jig in this life is up, and so help them God, who think they can convince me otherwise.
Can you share a usual day in your life, and what a day in your art studio is like… we love the details, and what music would you listen to, and do you have any pets accompany you?!
Les: I wake up at 5 am, whether it is a weekday or not, then I go through my to-do list for that day. It usually includes weird points like “Touch the bathroom door downstairs” or “Stare at the kitchen window for five seconds” in addition to the more important things I have to get done. These quirky additions make my to-do list more exciting and give me that extra helping of dopaminergic satisfaction when I cross them off. After skimming through my to-do list, I shower quickly to wash the sleep out of my eyes and energize myself. Sometimes I skip breakfast, but that is a bad habit I am slowly overcoming. After breakfast, I head to my studio and immerse myself in my work till I become too hungry to paint properly straight lines; which usually takes about eleven hours or so. This is the highlight of my day: it involves a lot of staring, squeezing, washing, bending over, stretching, squinting, and nodding in satisfaction. I recently moved away from overusing my headphones to protect my ears, but I cannot work without music. African legends like Sarkodie, Yvonne Chaka Chaka, Davido, and Jovi crowd my go-to playlists, however, the English side of me inevitably demands a few interruptions from Queen and The Beatles. I am a weird one when it comes to music really. I listen to anything that sounds amazing, regardless of genre. “Shades” by Tchami, “Jealous” by Fireboy DML, “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe” by Kendrick Lamar, you name it. I do not discriminate. After supper, I read a book or work a few chapters into my own book still in writing. Other activities I might do before bed include taking a walk, re-watching random episodes from The Office, or having a go on my piano keyboard. Yet surely by 10:30 pm, I am exhausted and ready to close my eyes for the day. From this exposition, you can accurately assume that I do not fancy social events as much as the ordinary person. I would much rather spend my weekend nights in my studio than go out with friends. I do not have any pets for now, but I have given some amount of thought into getting a dog. As beautiful creatures as they are, I am scared to death of dogs because one literally tried to eat me alive when I was five (even my father said that was not an exaggeration). However, I think having one would help me grow out of that phobia. Maybe add a cat too. I love those sassy little furries.
You say some of your ideas stem from dreams you’ve had about a religious issue you kept obsessing about. I wonder if you can expand on this idea?
Les: You will never hear a story like this anywhere else. By my seventh and final year in a catholic boarding school, I was utterly convinced I was an atheist. The irony! Our Principal, like his predecessors, was a priest and a very strict one too. Furthermore, in those seven years, I had read the Bible from cover to cover no less than eight times and had attended over six hundred masses. Looking back, I think my decision to abandon the faith probably stemmed partially from a strong inner drive to rebel against the school authorities (or overzealous tyrants as I saw them at the time), but my inability to marry common sense and the Laws of Nature with scriptural passages led me to the convenient assumption that I was not the problem: the passages were.
“No bloody way Jonah survived in a fish for three days”.
“Noah fit a pair of every living species on the planet into a wooden boat? I call bullshit.”
“So you’re telling me, that there is a guy up there whom no one alive has ever seen, who can speak matter into existence? You must think me incredibly thick.”
Three years later, I stumbled upon this brave, uncanny Canadian professor whose lectures effectively destabilized the very foundations of my atheistic principles. Was I really intellectually superior to stories that had survived tens of thousands of years or had I barely scratched the surface of wisdom so unimaginable that my brain had created these elaborate evasions to justify its incapacity to comprehend any of it? After pouring over his words, I began to wonder where I had gone wrong. What was I missing? How could I be so ignorant and childishly passive? So I went out and purchased copies of Enuma Elish, the Tao Te Ching, the Pyramid Texts and the Bible, hoping that rereading them would provide the answers to these burning questions I had.
On the night of March 8th, 2020, I had a nightmare. I must have been lucid dreaming because I was aware none of it was real, yet I was paralyzed. I was back in boarding school, sitting on the lawn that surrounded the school library. Then this figure strode up and casually plopped itself on the grass next to me. I turned to take a good look at him and I saw…well, me. Except I looked nothing like my regular self. I was all black like I was steeped in tar and my stomach was abnormally huge. I had these lines of light running on my body and every time I opened my mouth, letters, snakes, and white smoke poured out. In addition, my hair was on fire. I was terrified of myself. Whatever I was looking at had my face and my voice, but that hideous thing was not me. It could not be. The black disfigured version of myself asked me what I was doing there, sitting on the lawn looking dejected so I gave him an answer I thought was appropriate.
“You’re lying,” he replied.
This went on for the entire duration of my dream; he would ask me a question, I’d answer and he’d sigh and look me in the eye and reply, “You’re lying.” I awoke from that dream sweating and shivering. For no particular reason, I decided to sketch the figure I had seen.
The next day, I drove to the art supply store after breakfast to restock on canvasses and paint. As always, I put on a podcast on religious interpretation before I got on the road. While I maneuvered my vehicle between traffic, the podcast host something said which almost stopped my heart.
“…because when you confront the chaos of potential with truth, you create a reality which is good.”
I realized instantly what my dream meant. The white vapor, the snakes, my pitch-black coloured skin, everything. I understood what the Creation story was all about. I saw what I had not seen before but had been in front of me that whole time. When I returned home from the art supply store, I hurried into my studio and began working. About seventeen hours later on March 10th, I completed a painting of the sketch I had made the previous night and called it, “The Birth of God.”
How has Fyodor Dostoevsky’s literature influenced your art?
Les: I was introduced to Dostoevsky’s literature by Jordan Peterson early in 2020. A few days into reading “Notes From Underground” I ordered the remainder of his works. Everything he wrote after his stint in prison comes densely packed with meaning which I am yet to fully unveil. Dostoevsky, much like Nietzsche, has this prophetic element to his writings which I find utterly fascinating. His work is rife with twists, turns, and lessons that dig deeper than ordinary reason. One series I am working on which he (in addition to one other) heavily influenced is my “Yarden Is The Son Of Peter.” I tried to avoid anything shallow or obvious as I meshed my work with symbolic connotations. Every mark I made, every line I drew, every word I wrote, every colour I used had more to it than met the eye. I wanted to create this series like Dostoevsky would write a book; to almost glimpse, the secrets of the universe as I sweep across the canvas with my brush, parallel to the paranormal epileptic seizures Dostoevsky had when he wrote. Whatever it was I was doing, I did for the one who looks beyond what he merely sees; for the one who takes a step further into the shadowed recesses of her mind to uncover hidden truths.
What memorable responses have you had to your work?
Les: My friends are quite supportive. Before I had my first international exhibition in London, I would email them pictures of my work and they would send the most heart-warming feedback. My best friend once told me that my “astonishing use of colour” ultimately convinced her that abstract art was indeed real art – what a beautiful thing to say. There were other non-verbal responses too which struck a chord with me, like this charming curator who changed her profile picture on Instagram to a picture of her posing in front of my work. However, I believe the most memorable response I have received so far, came from my younger brother. I just wrapped up a painting I titled “In Sterquiliniis Invenitur” so I called him into the studio and showed him the finished piece. He took one look at it and said with a straight face, “Man, this thing doesn’t look nice at all”. My ego wasn’t even bruised; I just burst out laughing deliriously. Till today, I still crack up every time I think about it.
What is the best way to reach people that are interested in your art?
Les: There’s my website “www.lesartisansduchamp.com” which has listed on it my contact information in addition to generalities about me and the work I do. I am an email junkie. I never ever leave work correspondence untouched. Unless my spam filters somehow trash an email before it ever gets into my inbox, you can be sure that if you email “email@example.com” about my work, I at least opened it. I have also had people contact me via Instagram at @artisansduchamp because I popped up on their Explore page. I always reply to Direct Messages, but email is the way to my heart.
What’s the most challenging part of your artistic process? And how do you overcome it?
Les: Doubt or self-deprecation is undoubtedly the worst part of any artistic process. I am not the best sketcher and most certainly not the most prolific realist around, so there are times when I watch someone paint something so spectacular and amazing that I begin to wonder why at all I even sully the world of art with my inferior creations. But I have found that it is incredibly helpful to set my sights on why I do what I do in the first place and focus on that entirely. I do not paint to entertain anyone. I do not create to be liked. I tell these stories because I have a duty to the world and to future generations to ensure that these stories are told. It is an act of service and I am the only human alive best suited to the task. I tell myself that should I chase perfection, I would spend my entire life running. That is not to say I am comfortable settling for less, but after I give a painting my all, I lean back and smile knowing that I have maxed out at the point from which additional effort only introduces negative returns. Honestly, self-doubt obliterates everything in its path.
What is the latest piece you’ve enjoyed working on the most?
Les: A few weeks ago, I watched a video on the BBC about my country of birth Cameroon, in which a group of soldiers took two women and two children out into an open field near their barracks in the North region of the country, blindfolded them, and executed all four of them by way of firing squad in broad daylight. One of the children was a little boy, too young to walk on his own so his mother had tied him to her back with a loincloth. The other was a young girl holding her mother’s hand clearly oblivious to what was about to happen. Before the soldiers took aim, their mate who was doing the recording focused on the young boy and remarked in French, “Little man this hurts us but your parents gave us no choice.” A bullet to the head did the child in instantly and the little girl was shot again at point-blank range when it was discovered she was still breathing.
Around the same time, I happened upon another video from Aljazeera about Cameroon – this time in the Southwest region – detailing a very gruesome scene. A group of attackers dressed in civilian clothes stormed a primary school in a town called Kumba with firearms and machetes, killing six children aged between 9 and 12. Blood and brains were splattered everywhere. For the entire duration of my stay in the United States, my country of birth has been engrossed in this kind of turmoil. Four thousand have died, and about nine hundred thousand remain displaced.
“Six Thousand Miles Away” is a painting I did to commemorate these four years. I painted three cultural artifacts from tribes located in different parts of Cameroon and heavily employed crimson to signify all the blood spilled. It took weeks to complete, but the result was almost as satisfying as the process of creating the painting itself. Though the circumstances surrounding the painting’s genesis are beyond heart-breaking, I enjoyed every second I spent in my studio working on it. It was quite meaningful.
Who are a few artists/people that really inspire you right now, and why?
Les: Titus Kaphar is currently doing a lot through his organization NXTHVN to promote new and emerging artists. It warms my icy heart to see that there are still those who measure their success in relation to the success of those who surround them. I’m also smitten by that geezer Matthew Burrows who founded the Artist Support Pledge. Thanks to his initiative, thousands of artists around the world have managed to pull through the economic and financial disaster that is this COVID-19 pandemic by pledging their work online for sale and subsequently purchasing the work of other artists too. What a decent guy!
What’s next for you?
Les: I have absolutely no idea. I had all these elaborate plans to get my work in front of renowned critics and curators, but those schemes have since gone out of the window. I have grown quite fond of the unknown recently; the petrifying process of relinquishing control. I may end up dead in a ditch somewhere or presenting a solo show at the Gagosian. Who knows? Till then, I’ll continue creating art, telling these stories to as many people as possible, and paying close attention to where that takes me. That is the thrill of it all right?
Les Artisans Du Champ
November 19th, 2020