Arts & Culture

‘Everything is linked’

Artist Jean Michel Dissake of Yaounde, Cameroon (center) talks with sculptor Jim Adams (right) in the Cameron Gallery at The Scrap Exchange.
Artist Jean Michel Dissake of Yaounde, Cameroon (center) talks with sculptor Jim Adams (right) in the Cameron Gallery at The Scrap Exchange. The Herald-Sun

Jean Michel Dissake outlines the shape of a bent vine that forms his sculpture “Kaya Ngona Wu Ba.” The vine to Dissake represents many connections — between people and nature, between technology and nature, and people of different countries and beliefs.

“Everything is linked,” Dissake said while showing his work in the Cameron Gallery at The Scrap Exchange. Those many connections “are very important to me” in his work as an artist who uses found objects.

Dissake is from the Pongo village on the banks of the Mongo River in Cameroon in west Africa. Born in the capital of Yaounde, Dissake has an economics degree from the University of Douala. With encouragement from his family, he began studying visual art. In this exhibit, titled “Cameroun: L’Elan Vital” (”Cameroon: Force of Nature”), Dissake has sculptures made of vines, wood, termite dust, metal and wire. On the wall of the Cameron Gallery are several prints he made on pieces of sheet aluminum.

Visitors to The Scrap Exchange can watch Dissake work on a sculpture with materials from the reuse store, which will be unveiled at a later date.

Dissake credits Durham artist Anne Gregory with getting him The Scrap Exchange exhibit and residency, his first in the United States. Gregory met Dissake in 2015 while she was in Cameroon doing an art project. “I knew I was in the presence of something incredible,” Gregory said of her first impression of Dissake’s studio. “The floor was full of scraps of shoes, paper, wire.” Dissake had produced “all these magical structures from the detritus of Cameroon.”

In the Cameron Gallery, Dissake told the story of how the forest near his home inspired his art. When he was 10, he went into the forest and saw a man cut a vine and drink water from it. He threw the vine on the ground, but Dissake picked it up and took it to his grandmother’s kitchen, where it was preserved. That experience drove home his spiritual connection to the forest, and the need of humans to understand their connectedness to the planet. “There is no difference between the forest and us,” Dissake said. “Because of that, I need to protect the forest of my village.”

He is trying to raise $8,000 to buy the forest land so that it will be preserved. His grandfather is the chief of his village, and supports Dissake’s goal. (A fundraiser to help buy the land will be announced later, Gregory said.)

“It’s in the forest that I had my first inspiration,” Dissake said. He also sees the connections between nature and technology. “We need our planet, but we also need technology.”

The work on view at Cameron Gallery fuses found objects, natural and manufactured. “Kaya Ngona Wu Ba” is a female figure. In addition to a vine, it has sheet metal, and machine parts and wire that make up the face and other body parts. Repurposed license plates and engine parts are even more prevalent in the sculpture “Tcha Tcha,” but Dissake points out the natural elements — termite dust and bark from a coconut tree.

Dissake makes his sculptures and prints by hand, using minimal power tools. In his aluminum prints, he “sews” pieces of metal together with wire. He bends all of the vines by hand. For his sculpture in progress, he has hammered old pots and cookware into different shapes.

“You must love what you take” from the earth, be it termite dust or vines, Dissake said. “Found material gives you exactly the color of where you live [and] the real color of who I am.”

Go and Do

WHAT: Jean Michel Dissake exhibit, “Cameroun: L’Elan Vital” (”Cameroon: Force of Nature”)

WHEN: Exhibit is on view through April 15

WHERE: Cameron Gallery in The Scrap Exchange, 2050 Chapel Hill Road