The Covid pandemic has forced many of us to be confined at home and take stock of our life. The dos and the don’ts, the many questions we ask ourselves are taking different shapes today, those we are usually aware of but we often tend to push back because we feel it’s less effort to keep up with our life rather than stopping and challenging ourselves. A few days ago I met Brooklyn-based photographer and visual artist Delphine Diallo via skype and I got really excited for her when she said she had been thinking about relocating her studio in Senegal, Dakar, next year.
Born in Paris to a French mother and a Senegalese father, Diallo’s career in the visual world spans 20 years, resulting in a blend of different styles and media that give her work the shape of an ever-ending circular process centred on womanhood, blackness and marginalized communities.
Her work appeared in many publications including The New York Times, Essence, Vogue Portugal, Aperture, and she exhibited at Dakar Biennale (Senegal, 2012), at ReSignifications Imagining the Black Body and Re-Staging Histories (Florence, Italy, 2015), at Paris Photo (2018), at Art Basel Miami – No commission (2018) to name a few.
Whether she’s shooting a black and white portrait, making a collage or a 3D project, Diallo’s voice and works speak aloud. Her need to stay true to her principles and values and to empower women and people of colour is a mandatory yet spontaneous mantra she has developed during the stages of her life. It reflects both her vision and social activism, her healing process connected with spirituality, the Divine Feminine and Yin and Yang energy—French and Senegalese identities—combined together.
Aware of the progress made within the visual industries in terms of diversity and representation, Diallo feels the need to take the conversation to a challenging level, to elevate our critical thinking to a point where a greater diversification of the narrative surrounding the black body is fundamental, as well as the construction of a more consistent legacy for the works produced by artists of the African diaspora, especially those from less known areas.
GRIOT: Maybe this situation was like an inner call, like: “Your time in NY is finished. You must move to Senegal.” It’s a big change in your life. When did you last go there?
Delphine Diallo: Yes, it was like a sort of teaching. I have been to Senegal once in my life, when I was twelve. My dad felt so bad for not sending me to visit the family before, to let them know me. On that occasion I met my grandmother for the first time and I felt beautiful feelings within me. I was never familiar with her. I remember all the family used to get in a line to talk to her. I used to do it too. As a kid who’d grown up in Europe I had no idea what a matriarchal society was. My grandmother was that kind of woman, full of wisdom.
I moved to New York because it was the only place in the world to give me the chance I was looking for. Since I started my journey in the photography world, I worked with very talented people and organizations. That would have never happened if I had stayed in Paris.
I’ve reached a certain level now in New York. I had a great mentor, Peter Beard [he passed away on April 19, 2020], and it was the fastest, most effective teaching I’ve ever had because he only spoke the truth, especially the hard ones when it came to the fashion world. That’s why when I started I got ahead pretty fast, it only took me two years to define my vision. I was not trying to ask for the industry’s approval on any level: neither from the art industry, nor from the entertainment or the commercial one. I was like: ‘They have their photographers, they don’t need a black woman. I need a vision for black women.’
Your work is indeed centred on black women. As an artist and a woman, have you seen any fundamental changes take place in the representation of blackness and black women since you’ve started your career?
Yes, of course, there has been an evolution, it has become so obvious. But everything is very slow and the visual industry has yet to realise that the oppression of black women is still present and it is based on gender. And it’s time to speak out, because that is the story of colonization, and even beyond that.
Even if the industry is more open than before, now it’s like if we—black artists—are in competition and only a few of us will win and have the doors opened. It’s like denying the existence of a diverse black photography scene, as if we don’t control the narrative. That is what annoys me. The way the art world sees us and wants to get you in for me is still problematic and it is not going to suit me.
The abusive misunderstanding of black women to me is still prominent. Because of the very few examples of greatness we have, it can be tough for a lot of black women. Of course we have Tony Morrison, Maya Angelou, but if you check in history, those women were like lone warriors. And I don’t want it anymore today, that’s why I shoot all my peers and I put black women in my work and also in my life.
In a recent conversation you said “I’ve become a better person, believing in women”. It’s a powerful message. What was your perception of womanhood while growing up?
My relationship with women started in sports environments. I grew up with my brother, we were best friends, and when I was six my mum made me do Ju-jitsu. We were a bunch of girls, we loved each other, but womanhood really started when I discovered volleyball. I was in a team, we were 11 women, training four times a week and doing competitions at the weekend. We spent a lot of time joking, sweating, winning and losing together. It was the best time. The energy, the adrenaline that I had were because of those girls.
After this period I put my womanhood and my understanding of relationships with women in general aside, because at sixteen I started a relationship that lasted for 14 years, until the beginning of my adult life. When I broke up, I found out that there are women who consciously decide to hate other women, and it really hurt me because I had no hate coming out of me.
When I moved to New York in 2008 I rented this apartment with two friends [Diallo showed me her large studio apartment], but in ten years I’ve lived with 10 different roommates. Most of the time it was good, sometimes it was bad, but if I had to do it again, I would because by living with them I realized the insecurities that women feel for not having a man, and how this pushes them to behave nastily with other women. If we are a community of women, we can give love to each other. Women can create an amazing world but they can’t see it, they can’t find ways to help one another. This notion is very present in African countries, where there is less money and women know how to deal with womanhood: with principles and rules. Women living in Western patriarchal societies completely forgot what womanhood and collaboration mean. It took me 12 years to understand women’s relationships.
You used to photograph your girlfriends, but in the Women of NY project you shifted to another level by photographing women you didn’t know. What was the journey like from shooting people you had a strong relationship with, to shooting with people you didn’t know at all? How much impact has it had on you?
It changed my relationship with women. When I did the Women of NY project I photographed 140 women and it taught me the power of one picture. I really had to reconsider the way my work was evolving and—first of all—I had to see its limitations. Because it was limited to only people I knew, I realized that I needed to expand my art to other people, but at the same time I didn’t want to judge when selecting who to get involved—there’s something about the masculine energy when I select—so I realized that the only way to become more honest with my work was to photograph women I had never imagined I would photograph.
I had a dream about it, so I did this women’s call and the answer was pretty amazing, I got 140 messages. And something happened when I put those images on the wall, one by one. First of all, I realized there were as many white women as black women coming forward. I felt the work was being understood outside the race issue, and the fact that I photographed so many women that I had never imagined I would photograph—because of my own aesthetic—opened up a completely new aesthetic. I also videotaped them, asking them about their relationship with New York, talking to them, sometimes listening to someone for an hour. So it was a very honest, beautiful, sensitive, emotional expression of women that I had never seen this way.
What I learnt from this project is to become more empathetic, because I was ready, and also to understand a lot better the beauty within any single woman, literally. For me art is an excuse to really talk about my life experience, so hopefully people who admire artists would be more inspired by their life experiences.
You mainly shoot in black-and-white. Is there a special relationship with these two colours?
As an artist, I couldn’t do colour when I started because it distracted me from finding the form of my work. If I show you all my works in black and white, you see the form. You can recognize it’s me. So, if I had started to work in colour, I would have had a hard time defining my form. The first 10 years allowed me to find my form, and I’ve been doing colours for 2 years, because I’m ready. I’m actually studying my palette now, it’s a slow development because it’s hard to process your world.
My black and white style sometimes was rejected because of an interpretation that black and white is Malick Sidibé, Seidou Keita, and the work of black people should not be black and white anymore. But it is a bad interpretation of what Africa is. This is not about my work. Photography is a very different tool. If I shoot in black and white is because I see something outside that I imagine in black and white, because in my heart I see a form in black and white.
So, I discovered my psyche, my dream state, my vivid dreams, and then I recognized the mysticism within them. My interpretation of my works is connected with my dream state, and the dream state for me has no colour yet. Thus all the works that you see, like the woman as a white painting, is because I’m stripping out ancient knowledge of the feminine archetype—that isn’t actually dormant in me anymore—that all women have.
The energy and the feeling of that is something that many in the art world don’t understand, they don’t understand what I’m doing in my work which is not just healing black women, I’m spiritually transforming the oppression that women of colour went through centuries ago. When I’m doing my work the process is very intense, I’m not trying to follow any trends.
Women of colour are still my subjects, but the next step is to pass on to the level of dealing with healing, energy work. Actually, I would love to have a work of legacy in 10 or 15 years, works that in my intention have to heal the space and women of colour. Because if you heal women of colour, you heal the world.
Healing is linked with spirituality, which reverberates in your work. What does spirituality mean to you in your daily life?
I practice my own school of spirituality, it is a customized practice because everybody has a different spirit. Creative spirits don’t like to be controlled, so finding discipline was important also for my art. I couldn’t have become an artist if I didn’t have discipline. And I wanted to find my narrative, I had to study a lot. I was addicted to reading books—Comparative mythology, Eastern philosophy, religions—and practicing martial arts, kung fu, Qi gong to understand where my narrative would go. The first question I asked myself when I became a photographer was: ‘Where is the subject and why does it matter?’ So, spiritual growth was important. I couldn’t do my work without spiritually understanding people first. The work of exchange, discussion and also listening a lot to my peer sisters, their issues, helping them, supporting them physically. My first thing is to find people who are reaching the destination of their spirituality in a different way.
In the last 10 years, women have grown a lot and few men have understood the women’s growth. Some of them are with you because they see what’s happening, they’re listening, they are accepting it and they are partners in crime that know that this world should shift to a more feminine energy. But most of the rest don’t understand. So, it has started to affect my work right now and I don’t want to be deceived by men. I think there are good men in this world, but I’m deceived by culture, by society and that’s why as an artist you have to find a space for your own transformation.
The woman is already a spiritual being. She doesn’t know it but she is, because she gives birth, she gets periods, she is connected with the moon and she’s more in touch with emotions. And when I got my period I kind of isolate for three days to focus on the emotions. These emotions that you channel from the period are not just yours, they’re the emotions of the entire planet within your state of consciousness. That’s why it is very painful for women today, because we have to deal with a lot of the energy of this madness from all around the world. We’re doing it, that’s why it’s a necessity to have a spiritual practice.
When will you move to Senegal? What do you expect from this new important change?
I’m going to make sure people understand my shift because I decided to move to Senegal next year just a week ago. I need to have active movements, things that people can see on my Instagram in real time. I love involving them, seeing the changes, and the meaning of that is witnessing the change. My photography is going to evolve into installations and I will finally be able to support my Senegalese craftspeople community between Dakar and St Louis.
I think it’s a need for me to move my work somewhere else because my work might even be deeper if I can create meaningful objects with the photography itself and extend the narrative to the African continent.
Also, I feel I need to slow down now. I want to take my time. My work will not grow unless I change my relationship with space and time. I’ve become wiser and calmer, and actually during this pandemic there is more quiet time and now I finally have great conversations with friends, we get conscious about this and people take time. You are not on vacation of course, you are in a pandemic, forced inside your house, but you cannot deny that even when on vacation you don’t ask yourself these kinds of questions. The flow that we are living now is melting, like Dalí’s clocks. We are living in Dalí’s time.
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