Azankpo is a self-made man and a self-taught artist. He had to learn to fend for himself early in life, doing all kinds of jobs to make ends meet. He worked as a welder and metal worker, as a real estate agent - advertising homes for rent from posters on poles in the street, as a sign painter, and as a serigrapher.
His artistic career was launched in 1997 with Les Épouvantails des Champs (The Fields’ Scarecrows), a land art installation for which he mobilized the nearby youth. On more than 2.5 acres of rugged terrain north of Lomé, Azankpo erected life-size sculptures made with wood and recycled materials. The first of its kind in the subregion, it attracted visitors from beyond Togo’s borders.
Since then, Azankpo has established himself as an innovative mixed media artist whose trademark materials are the enamel basin and the metal box. On a layer of plywood, he assembles and stitches, with iron wire, pieces cut from these materials and carefully chosen for their motifs, themes, and colors.
The enamel basins were originally acquired by women or given to them for their aesthetic appeal and the symbolism of their motifs - fruit, fish, peacocks, hunters, political figures, flowers, tigers, symbolizing prosperity, luck, and individual or collective affinities. They were a critical part of their owners’ history – they carried dowries, bathed children, held food shared among families, and transported goods sold at the market. Their importance in women’s lives was similar to that of wax prints. Although made in China, India, Nigeria, Eastern Europe, or Spain, they became part of the national culture. Today, they’ve been replaced by plasticware. Azankpo’s seminal work with this material is a 10 x 72 ft long “curtain” built over seven years, and exhibited at the Benin Biennale and at the Ouidah Voodoo Festival in 2010. This incredible archival work, where so many motifs existing on metal basins can be found, represents the divides between people, divides that Azankpo bridges through his work.
In 2020, Azankpo started incorporating pieces cut from metal boxes in his work. Found in hardware stores or on the second-hand market, these come from all over the world. They held paint, solvent, or glue, chocolates, video games, crayons, baby powder, Nivaquine, or champagne… you name it! Some of these products are still being commercialized today, some have given way to more modern versions. The metal containers originate largely from multinational corporations, based in Asia, Europe, or America. Azankpo chooses them for their motifs, their symbolism, and the story they tell. The resulting artworks can be read like a book, each element a part of the narrative.
Bringing together these uniquely selected materials into complex works, Azankpo describes his art best: “Symbol of the past, the enamel basin contained lives; it was present in every household. Beyond its practical use and its aesthetics, it carried a personal or political message. The metal box reflects our current times, and what sustains us… food, medicine, entertainment. It mirrors our choices as consumers, choices which are dictated by our vulnerability to advertising. Both remind us of the disparities between rich and poor, and between high-income and low-income countries. They also remind us of the fact that multinationals often manufacture and sell their products in countries where the majority of the population cannot afford them. Basins and metal containers, coming from the far reaches of our world, are symbols of globalization and meet in my work to tell universal human stories, as well as convey my hope for a fairer and united society.”
Azankpo’s artworks have layered meanings and chronicle the past, capture our present and comment on the future, but they also provide room for interpretation as the artist believes that each viewer will read his work and messages through their own lens. Driven by his reflections, his interaction with the material, and his search for perfection, Azankpo tirelessly innovates with each new series.
In spite of the covid-19 pandemic, Azankpo created Espace Azankpo, an exhibition and residency space located one hour from the Togolese capital in the countryside. There, artists have the opportunity to work in contact with nature. Azankpo is pouring all his energy and enthusiasm into this ongoing and ambitious project.
In the Media
Togo: Lomé, le musée à ciel ouvert de Camille Tété Azankpo, Jeune Afrique, November 2021