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

Max Lyonga is a painter from Cameroon. But he’s more than just a Cameroonian painter.

Lyonga served as Carleton’s artist-in-residence from Sunday, January 27, to Saturday, February 9. He plans to return to campus in April. In addition to an artist talk, office hours and class visits, Max spent much of his residency painting—completing five works in the course of two weeks. 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 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 America.

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 quickly found out, it’s hard not to be.

Lyonga and I meet for an interview in the lobby of Archer House. As I begin asking about his background as an artist, Lyonga pauses my stream of questions for a clarifying moment.

“I’m a universal artist,” he says. “People like to say, ‘He’s coming from Cameroon, so he’s an African painter.’ But that’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 this distinction as a universal artist, Lyonga carefully retains his identity as a self-taught one.

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

A school teacher noticed Lyonga’s early talent and encouraged him to pursue a career in painting. At age 14, Lyonga attended classes hosted by French professors at Cameroonian cultural centers, where he learned basic techniques and was exposed to new materials.

Those classes were the limits of Lyonga’s formal artistic training. To present day, Lyonga maintains that his natural passion and artistic eye have been the primary drivers of his career.

“My art is still self taught. And a self taught mind is primitive,” he says. “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.”

This independent nature is present in many signature aspects of Lyonga’s work.

The incorporation of unconventional mediums is one such aspect: the likes of plantains, toothpaste, stale bread and soil have all found places within Lyonga’s work. When mixed with acrylics and primers, these materials impart new textures—and meanings—into paintings. And Lyonga 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,” he explains. “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.”

Another staple of Lyonga’s artistry is his signature. While most artists sign off with a date of completion, Lyonga signs his work with a range. If he finishes a work today, he might sign “2019-3000” rather than “2019.”

“I’m the only artist in the world that signs like that,” he says. “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.”

At his artist talk, Lyonga highlighted a work 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 I was already an artist when I was born. Then in 2006, I showed the world.”

I commit a faux-paus just as the interview wraps up. I ask him about meaning of his paintings. The question is 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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