Thu, 25 Aug 1994

Biazin paintings offer hopes from Africa

By Kunang Helmi Picard

PARIS (JP): The Clement-Marie Biazin painting exhibition in Paris offers a welcome note of optimism from Africa while world headlines are constantly reminding us of the tragic events in Rwanda.

The opus of autodidactic Clement-Marie Biazin, translator of the African oral storytelling tradition into paintings, is currently being commemorated in a comprehensive show at the Museum for African and Oceanic Arts in Paris.

The Central African painter was born into a modest family of the Yakoma tribe in 1924 and died while being treated for leprosy in France in January 1981. During the relatively short span of his life, Biazin was able to document traditional and modern aspects of African life during a period of history when many citizens on the continent were caught up in far-reaching changes.

Biazin received a very brief education in a missionary school from which he was expelled for indiscipline. He was consequently educated by listening to his grandmother's traditional tales while helping her to make soap and mineral salt in his grandparents' household. These stories became the basis of his knowledge of the African tradition of oral history.

The adolescent Biazin then decided to walk around Central Africa between 1946 and 1966. These walkabouts took him to Uganda, Rwanda-Urund, Cameroon, Spanish Guinea, Gabon, Congo- Brazzaville and Congo-Kinshasa, among other countries. Here he took on any available jobs like house-boy, harvester, photographer or construction worker and continually noted his experiences which he decided "to conserve in paintings" when he returned to Bangui in 1966.

Biazin's travels resulted in his first series entitled Itinerary. This series consists of lists, in French, of the names of people and villages he encountered and his adventures.


Driven by the desire to express his African experience, and not daunted by the prohibitive cost of paints, Biazin taught himself to draw and paint. He developed an unique, personal technique which resembles modern comic strips and ancient illustrated medieval manuscripts.

His style is also vaguely reminiscent of the naive manner of the Young Artists of Ubud, Bali guided by Dutch-born painter Arie Smit in the fifties. Biazin's colorful and striking work was soon discovered by Robert Seve who organized his first exhibition at the French Cultural Center of Bangui in 1967.

Questioned by Robert Seve about his attitude toward those who merely wish to record reality in a mechanical fashion, Clement- Marie Biazin responded, "They surpass me because of all their equipment, but then, I surpass them, because I do not possess any mechanical equipment. My equipment is produced by the movement of my thumbs and my fingers.

Thus that basic difference caused by the fact that they possess the technique due to their machines, whereas my technique finds its origin in my memory and the movement prompted by the impulse of my memory."

Soon afterward, through Seve's efforts, Biazin's paintings came to the attention of the renowned French ethnologist and writer Michel Leiris as well as the acknowledged French expert on African art, Jean Laude. These too were struck by the authentic African atmosphere of Biazin's work which surpassed a naive painting style, or "art brut", while continuing the tradition of oral storytelling.

The figures in his work carry out daily tasks and ancestral traditions such as hunting, fishing, farming, food gathering and tool making. Modern marriages, births, war and peace, cars, rubber plantations and long highways with titles such as Black African Mythology, The Story Before Us or The First Truck also catch the viewer.

The strength of Biazin's work lies in his dynamic, handwritten captions, which present a visually dramatic and graphic impact, and in the whimsical and vividly colored illustrations, each a complete story.

As an example, his story about rubber plantations and their origins in Africa revolves clockwise around the central theme of rubber tree cultivation and selling the produce to French colonial plantation owners.

Among the various successful exhibitions, two landmark shows stand out: one at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, Netherlands in 1979 and another at the Kunsthalle in Dusseldorf, Germany in 1980. To these two, we can add the current exhibition in Paris which runs to late September.

Clement-Marie Biazin's work, fittingly presented in the museum's imposing domed hall with its finely preserved art deco murals depicting the five continents, has not lost any of its direct appeal and will surely not be forgotten by posterity.