The Nail, Transcendence and Reclaiming Black Identity
Alexis Aliocha Peskine was born in Paris, France in 1979. A 2004 Fulbright Scholar, he holds a BFA from Howard University, as well as an MA and MFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA). Early on in his life, Peskine was exposed to questions of identity: his grandfathers, Boris, a Jewish engineer survived a concentration camp, and Antonio, an Afro Brazilian carpenter raised his family in the inner city of Salvador, Bahia.
At age 15, he was the youngest student to enrol at the Apprentice Center of Formation for the Graphic Art in Paris, and subsequently worked for Crayures as an industrial designer for clients such as Roland Garros, Malterre and Fly. Peskine also served a stint as creative director for Burrell Communications in Chicago. He bridges the gap between graphic design and fine art by using the same design aesthetic to appeal to the masses, as his work often touches on the ideology of consumerism and mass consumption. In addition, it is thematically linked to the ‘Black Experience’ and has been featured in many book publications and influential newspapers. Using several sizes, Peskine employs nails as brushstrokes, driving them in at different depths to create a sense of relief and introduce a third dimension. For him, the nail represents transcendence. Alexis Peskine also explores the use of graphic and commercial images in fine art, informed by his early start in graphic design. In this interview with Omenka, he talks about his most recent body of work ‘Power Figures’.
Congratulations on your recently concluded exhibition Power Figures at October Gallery. When did you decide to become an artist?
I have always drawn since I was a child. My father gave all my brothers and I, pencils and paper, and we used to draw each other from a very young age, with rigour and love. I developed an artistic sensibility after that. When I was in high school, I strayed from the regular system because I was bored. Consequently, I went to a vocational and technical school for art and later through a scholarship, to the United States to play basketball. I ended up choosing a major in fashion merchandising, but switched to painting and did photography. I made art naturally because that is what I love. It was always there for me, and even while at school, I was almost doing what professional artists do, I was already kind of in the circuit.
Can you please elaborate on the role of the nail and mysticism in your work, what is your underlying philosophy?
The nail in my work represents transcendence. My work is about the Black experience; I wanted ways to evoke certain aspects of it, like the suffering and the pain. I referenced the Nkisi N’Kondi sculptures of the Congo, the fetishes with the nails and their power figures, which protect them from evil eyes. I thought that one thing different Black people of the world need, is to protect themselves. This is because for all kinds of reasons, throughout history, Black people in different cultures and countries have been offended. Whether in the United States or in the fight against exploitation and colonialism in various countries on the African continent, or in Brazil, we need protection. So the idea of spiritual protection was interesting. The idea of the nail represents suffering, it stings but you need it to build things. I like this metaphor and I also like the idea of metal because it rings a bell with chains and slavery.
What does the Black experience mean to you, and how has it played a part in your life and art?
There are many Black experiences, depending on the culture or country that one lives in. I think they all stem from the same root of exploitation and white supremacy. For instance, we have been racialised; race exists biologically but today it exists sociologically because it has been built upon for centuries. Whether through slavery or colonialism, the idea of eugenism, phrenology and white supremacy has been instilled in everybody’s minds in our society. From that stems in different countries, different dynamics which Black people have to deal with and fight. Racism in my own experience growing up in France and having an African mother was police brutality, which I experienced. It was racism and inequality to see people not getting jobs, being refused an apartment or literally cursed at out in the street. In addition, there was the invisibility on television and in the media, as well as the stereotypes. Though we are a people, millions of us are unable to say who we are and are seen by the society in a certain way, the image of which is difficult to get rid of. No matter how you portray yourself, what you convey or what you have accomplished, when you are a stranger to people, they always see you in a certain way because of the image that society has given you. That is part of the Black experience in France; it could be the same in Brazil or in the United States, where they sometimes happen to be more lethal. Last year in France, we lost Adama Traoré on his 24th birthday at the hands of the police, as well as Theo who was raped with a baton, also by the police. There are other things besides police brutality, everyday things like micro-aggression which are also racist. Though not as lethal, we are supposed to cope with them. Everywhere I go, I study Black experiences because I’m interested in the dynamics that are mostly based on race. My art is an expression, and an escape at the same time. It is also a voice, and when I show my work, someone might be interested in knowing more about it, then have a voice too. I am also able to voice my opinions and express my frustrations in the media about things that are silent.
In an earlier interview about your work you said “from the black silhouette comes light.” How does visibility, blackness and sovereignty relate in your work?
The invisibility of Black people in France is again related to the fact that we are invisible in the media and have images defined by others. It is just the simple fact that we are not in movies and everything else, so in my work, I try to reclaim us. My figures are often looking at you. Their gaze is intimate, so you can’t but ask questions about yourself and the society, rather than question them. There is a sort of power and spirituality you experience when you look at their faces, much like the concept of light and the idea of resplendence. It’s also like the idea of the beauty from our bodies, which stems from the need to reconstruct because we have been dismissed as not pleasant or beautiful. So it’s about me showing this powerful beauty, and then anybody who looks at my works can do nothing but witness our splendour.
Your most recent body of work ‘Power Figures’ also explores the issues that arise from complex themes impacting people from the African Diaspora. Please tell us more about this.
Basically, ‘Power Figures’ is again about the idea of reclaiming ourselves. It is also about power because once the Europeans got involved in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, a whole bunch of problems appeared to us, and we’ve been racialised again. Stigmas have been placed on anybody that is of darker hue. We are also removed from economic equality and put in a system where it is harder for us to prosper and be equal to everybody else. I don’t like the idea of power, because it is egotistic, little and brings a lot of inequality in the world. However, because of what people have done to us in history, we are different and need to reclaim that power. Those pieces are like shrines of peace and spirituality for us; they are places to meditate, gain inspiration observe our grandeur (our greatness) and the strength and resistance that we have. I have titles like The Architect of New Djenne, which for me is an interesting concept in departure. Djenne is a city in Mali, a place of great civilisation and history. Unfortunately, our histories have been erased; in France or in the United States, everything about African identity is negative, or not related to history, economy, culture, or building. So the idea behind The Architects of New Djenne, is for us to reclaim and construct our image regardless of what outsiders think about us. It is not for outsiders but for us and our youth to understand, and then people who see us in a certain way will eventually understand they are obsolete and have to get on the programme to recognise what we’ve been through, what we’ve achieved, as well as our greatness. This world is much like rebuilding, and the key words are deconstruction and reconstruction. My work is a kind of personal spiritual shrine, but I hope that through it other people can be inspired, to realise it’s time for a new era, and that we are right in it. I also see it on social media, and think there’s a very important question of Pan-Africanism which existed for decades. Within that idea, there have always been misconceptions or a lack of knowledge perhaps from the way African-Americans or Afro-Brazilians saw Africans. It was the same way Africans misconstrued knowledge about Black American, Afro-Brazilian and Afro-European histories. It is very important for all of us as different Black peoples to teach each other’s history and link together, to empower ourselves on a global level.
What role does cultural hybridity, identity and migration play in your work, considering you grew up in France and now live in the United States?
I don’t live in the United States but I go there often. I’m in France, Brazil and Senegal a lot. I have mentees and two of the most important things I teach them is traveling and learning because you get to see the world with different eyes and gain a broader understanding of different cultures. For instance, you understand the idea of identity on a level of human dynamics and the ways that humans operate. Though you can actually then move more fluidly, you will be frustrated at the dynamics. It is therefore, very important, as well as empowering to find out that your problem is not local but happens in many different places in the world. In addition to this, you need to understand history, what happens in the world, as well as what led us to where we are right now, to see how we can move on and empower ourselves. It is very important to me, as I couldn’t have understood the fact that I was French if I was just living in France. French people know they’re French but are always asked ‘where are you from?’ Even when one is born in the French capital, you are always asked where your parents are from as if that is where we are from. When I went to the United States, I realised I was really French because people saw me as French not mattering that I was Black. It is therefore very important to be yourself. You have one self, where you are right now but you might be different somewhere else, and so get a bigger picture of who you are, and a bigger picture of the world.
You have participated in biennales and festivals within Africa. What can you attribute to the increasing global interest in African art, as well as the rising phenomenon of art fairs all over the world?
It is positive that there are many art fairs on the continent. There are also fashion weeks, music festivals and other cultural things burgeoning all over. I think it also helps in rebuilding. The next step is to build an economy around these; we have the talent, and are definitely creators. Though I may be biased, my opinion is that African artists and Afro-descendent artists today create the best body of work. However, we don’t own the works, and our collectors are few. It is much like the often talked about problem of traditional or classical African art, or processional art that went into European collections and museums, because they were stolen. Nowadays, our art is legally acquired and it is okay for other people to buy it. It is also important for us to have a hand in our own collections, and to gain from them though we have been stripped of our economic power. Importantly, however minor we are, there are still many of us that are rich. There will also be more collectors and more people interested in contemporary art. I’m very excited to see these biennials but there are certain little problems that have to be professionalised, like works returning. There is also an internal problem when people always say, “oh yeah, but it’s like this”, “this is Africa”. I don’t accept excuses because it’s first an insult to say that about millions of people on the whole continent whenever there is a problematic situation. It might be only two to four incompetent people or bad apples in the system that actually mess up the experience of the whole event, but then people will say “oh yeah”. I think the same way that African and Afro-descendent artists strive for greatness and create strong, beautiful and mesmerising work, is how we should organise biennials, exhibits and shows. We have to do them with the same dedication artists put in their work, so that we can be complementary. We artists gain exposure from these fairs, and this is why we need to receive the same amount of respect and finesse we put in our work.
Is there any future project you would like to share with us?
Yes, I’m now thinking of my next project. I’m still in the reflective process of reading, thinking and getting inspiration. It is probably like my next film The Architect of New Djenne, a short art film cum photo series. I have different languages, the nail is one of them, others are photographs and films. I started doing films again in 2014 and perhaps this will be my third. The first one was Aljana Moons, and the second was Raft of Medusa, which is about migrants and colonialism. With the third, I’m considering doing something more autobiographical that talks more about my experience as an Afro-French citizen, as well as my different identities including the fact my grandfather came from Russia in Eastern Europe. It will be about Blackness in France and Europe and the several places I’ve seen. It is going to be quite abstract but where I want to go is about childhood, because it is the very formative years. I think I am going to work with child actors. I want to talk about the frustrations that I had as a Black or mixed person. I can’t say too much about it now because I want more time and freedom to find that film and find myself in it. When I create films, it becomes a film cum photo series, so this will be the next volume of work.
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