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A West African Artist in Paris: An Interview With Yao Metsoko

Picture of Maria Angelíca Maia
Maria Angelíca Maia
Updated: 14 November 2015
Living in a globalized world, West African artists have developed an entirely new form of visual expression, nurturing themselves and their work on tradition, modernity and their personal experiences. Despite the notable influence of the geometric, broken lines of African aesthetics on modern European art (eventually leading to the birth of cubism) ‘Primitivism’ is just one of many sources of inspiration for the West African artistic diaspora. In the artworks of West African artists we can see elements of street art, surrealism, post-minimalism and the Italian Renaissance, to name just a few. This is the rich artistic heritage that Yao Metsoko received from his forefathers, in both Africa and Europe, which is redefined in his work today.

Three pieces of Yao's work.| Image courtesy of Yao Metsoko and Sabine La Nechet
Three pieces of Yao’s work.| Image courtesy of Yao Metsoko and Sabine La Nechet

Yao is a diaspora artist born in Togo, who has lived in Paris for 30 years. This physical distance from his homeland, instead of alienating him, acted as a catalyst for his creative process by helping to consolidate the generational ‘key markers’ used in his personal narrative, as well as his relationship with both his ancestral homeland and his adopted country.

Yao’s art is divided into two forms: painting and sculpture. He explains that his colorful, sunny paintings are a reflection of his exterior life, his joyous personality opened to the world like waves breaking on the shore. In contrast, the contorted, disturbing forms of his sculptures are the reflux of this tide – they are the result of the forces of tension that grow inside of him.

Yao expresses his most profound self in direct relation to the ancestral form: his sculptures are made from materials that resemble the primal earth. Men, women and animals seem to be made of clay as if they were the firstborn in one the many myths of creation. In Yao’s ambiguous perception the invisible world becomes concrete and intersects with the evanescent visible world. You could even say that he is a ‘magic realism’ artist; like Gabriel Garcia Marquez with a paintbrush.

This very personal element in West African art is our main point of reference nowadays. As Yao says, “We cannot think in contemporary African art, but in art of contemporary Africa”. We cannot limit ourselves to the knowledge of Dogon (an ethnic group from central Mali)cosmological art, for instance. Each artist has their own personal and irreplicable style; they are known by their names, not by their ethnic origins, religious group or language. In a continent that has long been divided by a plethora of classifications, this is somewhat revolutionary.

This is the case of Yao and this is his vision for art education that he’s promoting in Togo through his cultural centre. It will be a multidisciplinary space for artists, institutions, schools and residents, and a working partnership will be developed to make it a true artistic and cultural hub for the region. Yao’s is a beautiful story of how a soul shapes itself and continuously flows across the boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’, all through the universal language of art.

The Culture Trip’s Maria Angelíca Maia interviewed Yao Metsoko

We invite you to discover more about his story and opinions on art.


THE CULTURE TRIP: How do you define art in Togo today?

YAO METSOKO: “It’s hard to define Togolese art. However, I have a few observations. The art in Togo takes on two aspects: borrowing from the ancestral traditions that are found in many forms of artistic expression, like masks and sculptures, narrative frescoes of scenes from the life, music, dance etc … and a more contemporary look in the work of Paul Ahyi, for example. I can also cite the living and rich art by major artists like Sokey Edorh, Kossi Assou, Leopold Ankudé, Pierre Segoh and many more. These artists create works that show a strong and unique identity. It should also be noted that many Togolese women make art, and in all artistic disciplines. So it is a living art made free, coping well with technical influences from outside. However, in order to grow and be more fruitful, Togolese art needs further support from local institutions.”

Yao Metsoko | Image courtesy of Sabine Le Nechet
Yao Metsoko | Image courtesy of Sabine Le Nechet

TCT: What does it mean to be an immigrant artist in Paris?

YM: “Any artist who arrives in Paris is surprised and lost at first, and they must adapt like everyone else; he [the artist] is surprised by the immensity, and lost by the difficulties, of the status of the artist. Thus, it’s a simple equation to be solved: satisfying both economical subsistence and the artistic vocation. It is at the end of a long journey that these artists, the determined ones, finally join the business and live exclusively from their art. Therefore, being an artist in Paris is a big struggle.”

TCT: How do you reconcile the influences of both countries – France and Togo, in your art?

YM: “After 30 years of living in France, I’m now a French-Togolese artist. I try to draw through my art a link between France (the West) and Togo (Africa). Through my paintings I assign to codes that have educational value in facilitating communication with the world. By revisiting the history of art in the West with my artistic language, I open gateways of dialogue between cultures.”

TCT: Who are your favorite artists?

YM: “I love the work of the following artists: Marc Chagall, Clem Lawson, Oussman Sow, to name just a few. I appreciate the poetry and grace in Marc Chagall, the technical excellence in Clem Lawson and the deep sense of humanity in Oussman Sow.”

The works of Yao Metsoko can be seen at the Galerie Goldenberg in Paris, under the curation of Madame Laura le Corre, and in his atelier at Bateau Lavoir, also in Paris.

Yao Metsoko’s personal website: yaometsoko.com

Mme. Laura le Corre: lauralecorre.arkaval@gmail.com

Centre des Bateaux Lavoirs, 1 Quais du Square, 93200 Saint Denis, Paris, +33 1 48 20 72 82

Galerie Goldenberg, 140 Boulevard Haussmann, 75008 Paris, +33 01 4562 1309. Opening times: Monday to Friday, 11am to 7pm.


Yao Metsoko and other African artists will be discussing the role of women in peacebuilding at‘L’Art pour la Paix’, an UNESCO exhibition in Paris, from 29 June until 3 July.

La chute d'lclare by Yao Metsoko | Image courtesy of Yao Metsoko and Sabine Le Nechet
La chute d’lclare by Yao Metsoko | Image courtesy of Yao Metsoko and Sabine Le Nechet

By Maria Angelíca Maia