Europe as a humanistic promise and not sterilized by its colonial past

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Racism is currently everyone’s issue, says the Beninese artist Roméo Mivekannin, who is currently exhibiting his series’ The Souls of the Black People ‘in Abidjan, which takes its title from WEB Du Bois’ founding book.

That black bodies are subjects instead of objects of Western painting is the claim that the plastic artist Romeo Mivekannin (Benin, 1984) reflects in his series The souls of the black people, which is exhibited, until November 28, at the headquarters of Abidjan (Ivory Coast) of the Cécile Fakhoury gallery.

The title of the exhibition is inspired by the book that the African-American sociologist and activist WEB Du Bois wrote in 1903 and which was a foundation stone on which part of the thinking about blackness in the 20th century was based. Hence the evocation of the Beninese artist, who investigates the masculinized and Eurocentric gaze that reflects the representation of black people that appear in paintings such as the Sale of the slave by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1873), Olympia by Gustave Manet (1863) or the portraits of the colonial monarchies of the late nineteenth century, among others. Eroticized or anonymous figures are part of the landscape of oil paintings and photographs, on which Mivekannin has intervened (in acrylic on tinted canvas), embedding his own face and thus lending them an identity – his – to warn us about our ways of seeing.

What follows is part of the dialogue we had with the artist who currently lives and works in Toulouse (France)

Question: In his canvases he quotes classics with whom he dialogues about the representation of black people. Who have he paid special attention to when choosing the works?

Reply: I am interested in the representation of subject bodies. Given the place that black people occupied in Western societies, at every moment, the works in which their bodies are present are what inspire my work. But, beyond the representation of black bodies, I am mainly interested in invisible bodies through the history of art.

For example, I worked on Las Meninas by Velázquez. Velázquez himself had a slave named Juan de Pareja (1610-1670), an Afro-descendant born in Seville. He was not allowed to paint, but he practiced in secret, without the knowledge of his teacher. You might think that this is an anecdote, but they are details that interest me and bring special interest to a painter or a work. In Las Meninas, this famous painting that represents the family of Felipe IV, Velázquez shows us the role that the king’s painter could play, which has been much commented, but also the role of the court dwarfs, who were buffoons, entertainers or companions.

By substituting my portrait for that of the dwarf woman, I question the relationship with my own body and impose its alterity on the viewers. Velázquez gives the dwarfs a special place here, in their own right, and thus brutally reveals to us their social function, reduced at that time to recreation and fun. Their presence in the royal courts could almost be seen as the beginning of monster fairs, which would pave the way to human zoos. In general, we note that oppressions and oppressed bodies share a common experience and history.

Regarding the choice of canvases, I don’t know if I can say that I really choose the works that I paint in the rational sense of the term. During my career, in my visits to museums and exhibitions in Europe, certain paintings especially marked me. They are images, faces and compositions that have been fixed in my memory and in my imagination, and that have haunted me ever since. Some paintings became a motif that I repeat in my work, such as the canvas of Madeleine, by MG Benoist.

P: WEB Du Bois wrote that the situation of black people in Europe was not the same as it was in the United States, during the 19th century, but you are inspired by his book to evoke the situation of Africans in Europe …

R: I agree with WEB Du Bois: the situation of blacks in Europe was not the same as in the United States, then, and it is not the same today. The colonial past of European countries obviously has something to do with it. But I don’t think we can limit the fight against racism to a border, to race or gender. It is about harmonizing humanity, so we must all move forward together. WEB Du Bois said that the great issue of the 20th century would be the color barrier; without a doubt, he was right and, in the 21st century, the issue is still valid. In fact, I envision my own Europe as a promise to humanity and not as a land sterilized by its colonial past.

P: This is your first solo exhibition, on African soil, do you find any differences with the experience of exhibiting in Europe?

R: Precisely here in abidjanYes, it is symbolic, because, although I am Beninese, I was born in the Ivory Coast, and these images that I work on were produced by the dominant actors of culture in Europe and have been seen very little, or not at all, in Africa. For centuries, our story has been told for us and above all it has been told from a Western perspective, resulting in the way the world views our bodies. My work is decolonial: participate in the deconstruction of these stereotypes.

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