Ludovic Nkoth has always made work in search of the idea of home. As he has moved from place to place from adolescence to adulthood, the one constant for him has been art, and his practice and desire to be present within a place reflects that. The artist grew up in Cameroon before moving to South Carolina at the age of 13. After attending undergrad at the University of South Carolina, he moved to New York to pursue his MFA. And after living and working in New York, he has spent the past year or so in Paris in a residency with L’Académie des Beaux-Arts. His experience of living within the African, then African American, and later European African context has been profound, relating back to the theme of what it means to call a place home.
In Paris, he was drawn to the Château Rouge neighborhood, with its large concentration of people from the African diaspora in Paris. He spent time at cafés, restaurants, barbershops, and markets—listening to people, stories, and music. Many of his resulting paintings from the year long stint in Paris reference the feeling and memory of what he absorbed there. Those works were on view at Francois Ghebaly in the solo show “The Is of It,” on view recently from Octobober 7 to November 11, 2023. As Nkoth described it, his work in Paris was not only informed by the people he was present with, but by the intense focus he put on developing his relationship to harmony in color and express mark-making. These new figurative paintings no longer ask permission of the viewer to exist. They hold their own it.
Whitewall spoke with Nkoth just as his time in Paris was wrapping up. He described the past year as an exercise in how creative one can be in a year, with an excitement to see how it all translates to his studio back in New York.
WHITEWALL: You’re in Paris right now as part of an artist residency with L’Académie des Beaux-Arts. What has that been like?
LUDOVIC NKOTH: I’ve been here since September of last year. I’m based in New York and had just moved into a new studio. What really got me sold to the idea was the culture here is a bit slower than New York. I knew that even if I was in Paris working, I was still going to be able to have a slower pace of life compared to New York.
It’s been unlike every other residency that I’ve heard of or done. It doesn’t require much from the artist. You don’t have a show at the end, you don’t give the venue works, they just want to be able to fund a space for you to create, a space for you to research, or even just a space for you to contemplate as an artist. They understand that as an artist, the making process is not the only time that you’re working.
So going into this space, I knew what I was going to do, but I didn’t understand how that energy was going to travel through me. It was fascinating to walk around a place Le Moulin Rouge, seeing these buildings that were painted by these artists that growing up I’ve seen in museums, and now I’m walking on the same soil.
Ludovic Nkoth Discovers Balance in Art and Life in Paris
WW: So how has this residency compared to the way in which you work in New York?
LN: In New York, I usually try to have a separation of my work space and my living space. But here, it was living and work space joined, so it was a first for me. I embraced it, and it was hard a bit to find a balance. Because you wake up having your tea, the first thing you think about is mixing colors. You go to sleep and the last thing you think about is what you did or what you can fix in the painting you worked on for the last eight hours. I think that allowed me to grow at such a rapid pace, which I don’t think I would have grown at if I stayed in New York.
It’s almost felt like I’ve been in this time capsule for a year, where I am reading, painting, going to see museums, inviting people to have conversations around the works, doing that every day and discovering so many things I didn’t know about my practice, my process, but also myself. I think my work now is a direct byproduct of my way of living and my life and my journey across this world.
WW: So how did that all result in the two shows you have this fall at Francois Ghebaly in Los Angeles and Maison La Roche in Paris?
LN: I wanted to be able to show what I was up to here. I thought it could be a beautiful way of closing such a beautiful chapter in such a new place. It felt like a yearlong meditation upon the self, in a way. It’s been very fruitful, I would say. I think I grew so much as a person and also as an artist. I’ve been loving living in Paris.
WW: What is Paris like for you? Did you have any expectations going in?
LN: I didn’t have any big expectations. Sometimes when you go into things with raised expectations, you are a bit disappointed, or you want things to go the way you planned them to go. You’re not fully accepting life and things to happen and the place to inform your everyday life and movement.
Growing up, I moved around a lot. I grew up in Cameroon, left Cameroon at the age of 13 to move to South Carolina, where I knew only a few people, barely knew the language. I had to figure out the space for myself, and after my undergrad, I got up again and left for New York where, again, I barely knew anyone. I did my master’s there and then created a sense of a home and a family there for myself.
Then again, I got the call from Paris for this residency and decided, “What could possibly go wrong?” For me, that excites me. The idea of diving into the unknown and trusting your instincts, trusting the fact that you’ve done this before, and your gut will never fail you.
Paris has been so giving. A lot of times, it’s hard to be present in the moment because I’m always thinking of the past or future. The present is something that happens, and I realize it after it happens. So Paris has been a good way to go to a café with a friend and sit over a cup of coffee for two hours. Things are happening because they need to happen, not because I wanted them to happen. I was trusting.
My practice shifted a lot here, and I’m in a space where I’m trying to go where the work wants me to go and just listen to that. Here I was not only productive, but I was very open to growth, to new experiences. I love the way I feel mentally and physically here.
Ludovic Nkoth Focuses on His Use of Color in a New Way
WW: Is there something in your practice that you can pinpoint that has shifted?
LN: So much. When I got here, the residency invited us for a private walk-through of the “Monet – Mitchell” [October 5, 2022–February 27, 2023] show at Fondation Louis Vuitton. It was mesmerizing to see two amazing artists of their time looking at the same things but at different times of their lives, having a crazy output, and seeing what they saw through different lenses. You have Monet, who was a bit more suave with his approach and created such harmony and such a jazzy flow with his color combination and his mark-making. And then you have Mitchell, who was a bit more gestural, had a bit more power with her brushstrokes. I paid attention to the way both were using color. I thought, “Wow, okay, I’ve been doing this whole thing wrong.”
Luckily, this was at the beginning of the residency! So it was a bit easy to pivot from the way I thought of color and the way I was using color throughout my works. I went to the exhibition maybe three times and just sat in front of these works for hours looking and filling up my cup. I went back to the studio and started breaking down everything. I wanted to have this harmony that existed in Monet’s work, but then I wanted to have this force that Mitchell had whenever she was making her marks as well. I think my work somewhat exists within these two, but then a bit figurative.
There’s a bit more confidence in the new works. There’s a greater understanding of color theory or color relationship. There is a willingness to explore things that I hadn’t yet fully explored within my practice. Being here, I’ve understood that it’s not about what you paint but how you paint it. I see that in the work so vividly now. Within my practice mobility is such an important aspect and every time I move to a new space it has a way of informing me. Something always shifts and grows whenever I move myself.
WW: It’s interesting that you are open to letting that experience come into the work. There has to be intention there in letting yourself open up, no?
LN: I’m trying to tell the story of the human condition, but also the story of the world. So it’s important that I process the world, that I allow myself to be a sponge wherever I go and regurgitate whatever I see or feel in these new spaces. Within the works, too, whenever I don’t know what I’m doing is when I discover the most. If I always approach the works with a full understanding of what needs to happen, it closes me off from a discovery.
WW: There is so much movement in your mark-making, it reminds me of rhythm and music. Does music play a role in your painting?
LN: Yes, definitely. I love to dance, so movement is such a big idea for whenever I’m trying to make these marks. I paint sometimes with such huge brushes you can’t fully control. You have to fully submit to the movement and let the music be a vehicle to follow. Whenever I’m listening to Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, a favorite album of all time, I just follow the saxophone. He’ll have these long notes, and I’ll try to follow as far the notes go. As soon as he lets go, I let go of the brush.
I think if there is color harmony plus harmony of movement, it makes for something greater. This is where music comes.
“I’m trying to tell the story of the human condition, but also the story of the world,” —Ludovic Nkoth
WW: What kind of paintings will be at Francois Ghebaly in Los Angeles?
LN: For the show at Francois Ghebaly, I wanted to investigate the relationship that exists between Cameroon, my home country, and France, because we were a French colony. We gained our independence in 1961, but we were still influenced greatly by the space. I wanted to see how these immigrants are coming from Cameroon to find an idea of home or an idea of place of solitude in this new world that colonized them. Within my practice, home has always also been a huge idea because I’ve always searched for home. What does home mean for different people around the world?
At the residency in Montmartre, I was close to this little square called Château Rouge which is one of the biggest concentrations of African immigrants in Paris. You have your African markets, your barbershops, your African restaurants, and everyone there is part of the African diaspora. I spent a lot of time there seeing how people were living, speaking with them trying to understand their stories, how they got here, how their families got here, or how their families live back home.
I wanted to be present with these people. They helped me understand where I was because I come from a space where, living in the U.S., I was existing within the context of the African American history. Before arriving to the U.S., I was an African. And now I arrive in Paris as an African European. So there is a dynamic that exists and a bit of nuance where I’ve been living in both worlds and am able to codeswitch. I was very interested to also see how that would affect me as a person.
With these paintings there are moments of intimacy, movements of discovery, and movements of me going through things I didn’t fully understand in that moment. With the paintings I was able to crystallize a lot of those moments and investigate them deeper. It also takes some forms of storytelling and tries to give ideas of narrative, almost like mystery solving. My past paintings were somewhat asking for permission to exist from the viewer. They required the gaze of the viewer to be activated. With these paintings, they exist within their own world and they hold their own space. They don’t require us or the gaze of the viewer to exist.
WW: That kind of desire to live in the present in a space makes me think of a past interview where you talked about how when you first came to the U.S. there was a language gap, so you found yourself at this young age forced into a quietness. You spent a lot of time with yourself before you were able to really engage others after moving to South Carolina. I wonder if there is a parallel there, going from New York to Paris, finding again a quietness to be with yourself and the work.
LN: I hadn’t even fully noticed that, but I think, yes, quietness has been a big part of my life. Being in touch with the self, I would say. And having to fully understand the landscape that I existed within and the context of things. I think this is where art has been such a big part of my life because within these times of quietness and solitude and not fully understanding where I was, art was the one thing that made sense to me and the one thing I kept using as a moral compass and a social compass to navigate within the spaces and to understand where exactly I’m meant to be.
When I look back, those were very challenging times, but without those times I also wouldn’t be the person that I am right now. We have to be shaped some way or another, and for me, this is how I know that I was put in this place to create. I was put in this place to feel and create things that ask people, “Hey this is what I see, this is how I feel. Do you feel the same? Do you see the same?” My story and my trajectory in life, it’s been so that I don’t think I could have a different output in life, other than just creating. Nothing else would make sense. Nothing else has ever made sense. I fully think I was put here to create.