Professional creative director, and humbly self-proclaimed amateur photographer, Toufic Beyhum connects with his surroundings through the camera lens. Whether on his daily commute in Berlin or attending Friday prayer in London, he is candidly observant, in search of behavioral and sociological patterns and trends. Beyhum deliberately refrains from intervening in his environments, as to allow his viewers access to an honest, reportage-like account of secrets that lie in the cultures that he encounters. Since relocating to Namibia, Beyhum continues to follow his natural urge to observe and report. While he did experience a unique culture, he noticed that influences of digital communication have made their way through the fabric of society, in which Namibians too, are speaking the universal language of emojis.
Considering there are infinite variations and combinations to communicate with emojis, Beyhum took interest in exploring the dialect created in Namibia, and Africa in general. He conducted a casual survey to characterize emoji preferences and digital behaviors, which developed into the concept, Amoji - or simply African Emoji. He found that everyone he spoke to is familiar with and uses emojis, with the exception of a few who refer to them as expressions; the majority choose black emojis as opposed to light or neutral colored ones; and finally he concluded the most popular are: smiling face with heart-eyes, face with tears of joy, grimacing face, pleading face, winking face with tongue, crying face, and grinning face with squinting eyes.
To visualize this phenomenon, Beyhum chose a comparatively primitive approach, in which rather than confronting it digitally, he made it tangible and focused on capturing natural physical gestures that occur behind the mask of a particular emoji. He collaborated with two local artists to create six emojis in the form of wearable traditional African masks, made from locally found material. In the following months, he drove around the country with the masks in a trunk and at random stops, presented them to people and requested they select one for a picture. Through his process, Beyhum not only identifies the power of iconography, but also identifies the pivotal role that African tradition plays in contemporary visual culture. Much like it inspired revolutionary art movements in the past, it maintains a robust connection to visualizing human emotion and expression, even in the digital age.
Flexed Biceps is faceless yet instantly recognizable. Captured in daylight, the image shows in detail the exterior anatomy of an arm with tense, flexed biceps. The arm pokes through the centre of the backdrop, a stretched, honey and blue hive patterned fabric. In the emoji world, the icon connotes physical and mental strength. While that interpretation is true to the image, Beyhum extends the meaning by contrasting elements from classical Western and African art. In that, historically, Western Art placed significance on accurate realism and physical perfection, while African Art focused on symbolism, cultural beliefs and functions. It is a particularly interesting combination because most relate to the symbol of strength in the image, and so it asserts the richness of African heritage and how it has become a major pillar in today’s global visual experiences.
In Amoji, Beyhum materializes universal digital icons into physical objects inspired by Namibian culture. Toufic Beyhum exhibition Amoji will open at The Project Room on the 9th of February.
View catalogue here.