Larry Tchogninou is a 21-year-old Beninese multidisciplinary artist with passions that intersect architecture, poetry, photography, filmmaking and design. He finds it boring to do just one thing and believes it is important to be a generalist. In 2014, Tchogninou left Benin and moved to France to continue his education in architecture, before relocating to Chicago, Illinois where he currently resides. Earlier this summer, he was handpicked by Virgil Abloh to participate in an 8-week creative residency at the Nike Lab Chicago Re-Creation Center. This program welcomed ten Chicago-based creatives for an immersive experience with Abloh, and other mentors, giving them the opportunity to refine their skills and expertise within their practice.
I had the chance to talk to Larry about his various projects, defying brand stereotypes and working with Virgil Abloh. Here’s our conversation below.
**This interview has been edited for clarity**
Crystal Anokam for One Tribe: You are a very versatile artist. You have done quite a bit in the poetry world, when did you realize you were smooth with words?
Larry Tchongninou: I have always liked expressing ideas with words from a young age. Writing essays in school was easy for me. I didn’t believe that I could write poetry until I discovered Jacques Prévert and Aimé Césaire. These writers gave me the courage and desire to write verses. After months of consistent practice, my writing got better.
What motivates you to keep writing?
There was a period in my life, where it was so important to tell what was happening to people, without being judged. I realized that it was easier to tell things to a white sheet of paper. My sheet and my pen wouldn’t judge me. That activity helped to make my heart less heavy. Writing became therapy for me. Each pain, each feeling, each thing now becomes a subject for my poems.
You released a poetry book titled L’Exil, what inspired the creation of this collection?
Leaving Benin to go to France was a big transition for me. France was a very different place, and that affected me a lot. Having to leave Benin made me very sad. I felt lost and empty at the same time. After I heard the song “Irruption” by Gael Faye, I was inspired to start writing poetry. To me, it was a simple form of expression. I discovered that with poetry, I was able to express myself in a few sentences. Stories of immigrants and refugees inspired this book. L’Exil reflects the joy and sadness of immigrants and refugees. It describes a burning issue in our society. I want readers to understand that we are all in an exile. We are all from somewhere and are living in another place. The principal message is that immigrants don’t leave their country because they want to. They are forced to leave them because of political problems and poverty. People wouldn’t leave if everything was fine.
Leaving Benin and your family behind was very hard for you, was there a moment in France where you felt exiled?
One day, I went to the prefecture of Evry in France to renew my resident card. There were several other immigrants and refugees who also came. Some to renew their cards, and others who were applying for their first resident card. The ceiling of the waiting room was so close to our heads. I felt very oppressed. I felt like I was in a cage. In the room, I felt the misfortune of all the men, women and children in there. It was very hard for them. To me, life forgets us. All of us were lost in this new country that looked very different from our home countries. I decided to name the book “L’Exil”, which means “The Exile” in English to express what I felt that day at the prefecture.
How did you get started in designing?
I started designing because of my studies in architecture. In architecture, we analyze and design buildings, however, the designs focus on big scales. Coming to Chicago, I realized that smaller scales were just as important. I started designing logos and t-shirts for Enfants du Benin Debout (EBD), a basketball association in Benin. Ahmed Taofik, founder of EBD and my mentor trusted me with many of the design projects which as a result helped me to get better. Projects after projects, things became bigger. It was through these projects that I was able to build my understanding of how design is seen everywhere–it is a reflection of each piece of our daily life. I will say it is because of Ahmed and EBD that I started to design things like basketball jerseys.
RUPTUR is the name of your company, what inspired its creation?
Firstly, RUPTUR is not a company or a brand. I don’t even want to create a brand. That’s not my goal, and it is too easy to do that. Everyone has a brand these days. My question is, does your brand have a way of thinking or re-imagining the world? Sometimes, the answer is “No.” If I delete the graphic behind those t-shirts, there is nothing behind these brands. There is no philosophy. RUPTUR, on the other hand, is a way of thinking. It is harder to think and apply concepts to pieces. My creations are not products, they are “reflections.” RUPTUR was created out of frustration. I needed to express that we can still think and create new approaches. I want to reject the pessimism that past generations created. My reflections are based on 4 points: (1) Be Colorful (2) Bold and Crazy (3) Oppose uses to create others, and (4) Be a means of communication. I apply those 4 points to all the reflections that I approach. That is the spirit of RUPTUR. It is a break with the past that wants to prove that we can still create new things and not re-approach each other’s work.
Your work was featured in Virgil Abloh’s NIKE show, how did that come about?
It all started with Ju Working on Projects camp in South Side Chicago in 2018. There, I learnt new things. I worked all year to improve my skills, and try to be better. This summer, Virgil selected me and 9 other talented creatives of the city for 8 weeks program with mentors that he also selected. At the end of the program, we exhibited projects that we prepared. For my final project, I decided to create a furniture collection that I called “The Bridge Collection”. From Benin to the world, I needed to show that I am a bridge between cultures, people, generations and disciplines. In this exhibition, I had three key objects: the lamp (003) symbolized Benin, Africa where I was born. That light represents my roots and origins. My country illuminates my life. The shelf (004) represents Paris where I spent 4 years, and discovered new things, new disciplines, and new people. Holes on the shelf show how knowledge came to me. It also creates a beautiful light effect. The Cable Chair (005) represents Chicago where I am established. As a result, you have three Objects, three Continents, one Collection, one Human. This was the idea behind it.
Virgil and Jerry Lorenzo visited the exhibition, and I think that they really appreciated the work. I was very glad and proud of that.
What is the impact you want your work to have on the world?
1960 was the year of African country’s independence. We were supposed to be ourselves and more powerful after that, but to me, nothing happened. We are still dependent on several points. 2100 is the next appointment. I believe in numbers, and in 2100, Africans will represent 40% of the world population. In just one word, Africa is the next China in terms of demography, economy, development, opportunity, etc. I am working for that new appointment. I want my work to inspire the next generation of creatives who will elevate the continent. I want to prove to them that it is still possible to start over and re-imagine all the things; to show them that it is important to be a polymath and that they have power. This is the final goal of my work. This is a great time to be African.
It is never a dull moment with Larry. I’m excited for what he has in store for us in the future. To stay up to date with Larry Tchogninou, follow him on Instagram.
All images used are courtesy of Justin Connor.