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Artist-in-residence Max Lyonga explains the “universal artist”

Max Lyonga is a painter from Cameroon. But he’s not just a Cameroonian painter.

Lyonga served as Carleton’s artist-in-residence from January 27 to February 9. In addition to an artist talk, office hours and class visits, Max spent a great deal of his residency painting—completing five works over the course of two weeks. He has plans to return to campus in April. Meanwhile, his exhibition titled “Art Without Boundaries” will remain on display in the Weitz Hamlin Space until the end of February.

Carleton’s relationship with Lyonga stems from his role as an art instructor and a host for Carleton’s OCS program in his native Cameroon, which ran twice: in fall 2016 and fall 2017. Due to increased violence between Cameroon’s Francophone and Anglophone populations, the program was cancelled this year. Carleton worked in collaboration with Dickinson College—where Lyonga is currently in residence—to bring him to the United States.

Scott Carpenter, Director of Carleton’s Center for Global and Regional Studies, helped coordinate Carleton’s side of the joint visit. Carpenter had met Max once before in December 2017.

“I was impressed with his work, his passion and the simplicity with which he spoke of art,” Carpenter recalled. As I soon found out, it’s hard not to be.

Lyonga and I met for an interview in the lobby of Archer House, where he stayed during his residency. As I asked about his origins as an artist, Lyonga paused my stream of questions to take a clarifying moment.

“I’m a universal artist,” he stated. “People like to say, ‘he’s coming from Cameroon. He’s an African painter.’ But it’s downgrading because it’s limited. When people see my art, they only see Africa. That name is true—I am from Cameroon—but not in the artistic way. Because I take all the opportunities here in America, in France, in Germany and in Belgium, and I try to put them on my canvas. People should see that it’s universal.”

In addition to his status as a universal artist, Lyonga carefully retains his identity as a self-taught one.

“I started drawing when I was 5,” he explained. “In school, if they asked me what one plus one was, I had to draw two pictures. My books finished so quickly because I had to draw everything.”

Lyonga’s early talent was clear. A school teacher of his noticed it, and encouraged him to pursue a career in painting.

When he was 14, Lyonga was able to take advantage of French professors visiting cultural centers in Cameroon, where he learned basic techniques and was exposed to new materials. However, it was still his natural passion and inclination towards art that primarily drove his career.

“My art is self-taught. And a self-taught mind is primitive,” he stated. “It won’t just copy. It will ask to try things. That is what I teach my own students: that we should accept that our teachers are teaching us, but we should also make an effort to create what we have within us.”

It is this independent nature that informs signature aspects of Lyonga’s work.

One such aspect is the incorporation of unconventional mediums: the likes of plantains, toothpaste, stale bread and soil have all found places within Lyonga’s works. When mixed with acrylics and primers, these materials impart texture and meaning into paintings. Lyonga noted that he is constantly looking for new materials to try.

“I adapt to what I see. Wherever I go, I try to look for local materials and use them. We need to do a lot of research every time to see if new materials will resist climate conditions, but it is worth it. Your art should should not just stand still. Each time you work, you should try a new method,” he explained.

Another staple of Lyonga’s artistry is his signature itself. While most artists sign their works with the date of completion, Lyonga signs his with a range. For example, if he finishes a work today, he might sign “2019-3000” instead of just “2019.”

“I’m the only artist in the world that signs like that. In Cameroon, my friends thought I was a mad person. But I made them understand that I’m not making my paintings for this generation. I am giving an opening to other generations to see what I can’t see right now,” explained Lyonga.

During his artist talk, Lyonga highlighted awork which he signed “1969-2006-World”: “I painted this work in 2006, but I decided to sign 1969 first. I was just a year old then, so, it means when I was born, I was already a artist. Then in 2006, I showed the world.”
I committed a faux-paus just as the interview wrapped up: I asked him about meaning of his paintings. The question was met with a kind laugh.

“To be realistic with you, all artistic things that we do are nonsense. People change nonsense into meaning in their heads. If you buy a painting, I’m not the one that has to interpret it. It’s in your home. My work is done.”

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