Artist Ludovic Nkoth takes on Le Corbusier
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Maison La Roche, a purist villa designed and built in the 1920s by Le Corbusier and his architect cousin Pierre Jeanneret, is an early example of what Le Corbusier would later call his “five points of new architecture” – a manifesto delineating pillars, a roof garden, an open floor plan, long windows and open façades. Commissioned by the banker and art collector Raoul La Roche, the house is divided into two parts: a gallery where he displayed his collection of works by the likes of Picasso, Braque and Léger, and private apartments.
Despite its openness and optimisation for natural light, its dual purpose still makes it complex to navigate. The artist Ludovic Nkoth is well aware of this as he welcomes me in. “Come with me, my friend,” says Nkoth, a warm, charismatic 28-year-old. “Let’s get lost together.”
Though Nkoth was only introduced to the villa recently, it already feels familiar to him. In October, he will unveil a solo show entitled What If – becoming only the second living artist and the first black artist to have an exhibition in the space. It is one of three that Nkoth is presenting this autumn, opening 10 days after his solo show The Is Of It at François Ghebaly in Los Angeles and also following a single-work presentation at Massimo De Carlo’s Pièce Unique in the Marais. All feature new paintings Nkoth has completed since relocating, temporarily, to Paris from Brooklyn in September 2022 as the recipient of an inaugural residency run by the Académie des Beaux-arts and Cité Internationale des Arts. The residency came to an end in June, but Nkoth – raised first in Cameroon, then South Carolina – has decided to stay in Paris a little longer. “Although now my English is better than my French, it is still my first language and part of me feels French,” he says in his velvety accent, a melange of francophone and Charleston.
I follow Nkoth through the labyrinthine arteries of Maison La Roche. In one room, his painting A Day’s Weight, depicting a figure reclining on a wooden day bed, is mounted on the wall. “I have been thinking about what life was like for people of colour when the house was built,” he explains. “The work in the show contemplates how it would look if a family of colour lived here.”
There is also a small study of a smiling woman cradling a newborn; another shows an infant in a romper. Nkoth’s subject matter often centres on reclaiming a sense of power, self and black pride. “I painted so many babies that when people visit my studio they ask if I am thinking about having kids,” he laughs. “When you arrive in a new place as an immigrant, you seek to establish real roots, you start a family and it forms this idea of hope – your children are going to pick up from where you left off. So these babies are symbols of hope.”
Nkoth was raised in Yaoundé, Cameroon, by his young mother; his father moved to Spartanburg, South Carolina, when Nkoth was an infant. When he was 13, his parents decided he should go to live with his father; overnight he went from being an only child to the eldest of four, with a new stepmother, and from being African to African-American. “No one cares where in Africa you are from in South Carolina. You’re just African-American,” he says. “My journey has seen me go from one home to another, and from one family to another, and create my own ideal chosen family along the way.”
Nkoth met many of the subjects in his recent paintings while frequenting Château Rouge, an area known by many Parisians as “le quartier africain”; it reminded him of his West African roots. “We talk, we share meals and ideas,” he reflects on encounters with street performers, barbers or restaurant owners. “It’s not easy to come to a country such as France or the US as an immigrant.”
He has melded these observations with the research from the Le Corbusier archives, which comprise some 400,000 items including plans, photographs and drawings, with many of the documents stored adjacent to Maison La Roche at Maison Jeanneret. Although Le Corbusier never cited West Africa in his writings, scholars have made the case that a number of the architect’s projects epitomise Afrocentric architecture. As he pored over the archival materials, Nkoth was drawn to any possible precolonial African influences in Le Corbusier’s work, while the colour-coordinated documents informed his palette. The architect’s politics were notoriously controversial, but Nkoth prefers to focus on his own story. “I don’t see the exhibition as reclaiming the space, but rather shining light on the direct link between Le Corbusier’s whole practice and Africa. As an African man with a direct history with the continent, it is important for me to highlight my traditions.”
According to the artist Kehinde Wiley, “Ludovic’s work achieves a dual feat by pointing at the beautiful and terrible parts of the world, but also pointing within the self to address personal vulnerabilities and aspirations.” Wiley and Nkoth met in 2019, when Nkoth was in the final year of his MFA at Hunter College. Since then their friendship has grown and Wiley has introduced Nkoth’s work to new fans such as supermodel Naomi Campbell. “When I look at Ludovic’s work, I instantly understand what I am looking at and feeling,” says Campbell. “I want to jump into the canvas!”
Nkoth’s artistic growth is mirrored in the market’s appetite for his work. The price bracket for the autumn shows is between $12,000 and $70,000; however, in June, his painting Identity of the Moment sold at the Phillips 20th Century to Now auction in London for $80,500 – 27 per cent above mid-estimate. Lebanese entrepreneur Tony Salamé has bought several of Nkoth’s paintings that now hang at his Aïshti Foundation on the outskirts of Beirut. “What struck me about Ludovic’s work when I first saw it was the texture, the vivid colours, the technique,” he says. “The brushstrokes are very delicate.”
For Nkoth, it’s all about learning to navigate things, like the corridors of Maison La Roche. “I have always tried to be in control of the situation, or, in the case of a painting, in control of the material, because I was never in control of my life growing up,” he says. “For a long time, I tried to find one place I could call home, but now I’ve let go of that and I just embrace the place I am in.” The title of the show, What If, speaks to this. “Sometimes you need to let go and just jump.”