Camden Close-Up: Alexis Peskine

Alexis Peskine’s work has been featured in many publications, from books to prestigious newspaper such as the New York Times, Le Monde, O Correio da Bahia or Libération. His powerful portraits, literally nailed into wooden planks, pay tribute to the many individuals undertaking the dangerous boat journeys from North Africa to Europe. He drives in the nails at different depths to create a sense of relief and to introduce a third dimension. His solo show Power Figures is on display at October Gallery from 13 September to 21 October, 2017. Love Camden spoke with Alexis on issues of transcendence, identity, and the figure of the nail as a symbol of power.

Gerard Houghton describes* how Peskine, born in Paris in 1979 to a French/Russian father and a Brazilian mother, was exposed to questions of identity from an early age. His great grandfathers were a Litvak (an Ashkenazi Jew) who was imprisoned in a concentration camp during WW2 by the Nazi’s on the one side, and a Brazilian woodworker on the other.  As such, Peskine’s personal history is lined with a richness of cultural traditions, encompassing half the world and a variety of histories. Even now, Peskine harbours a deep suspicion of nationalist ideas and ideologies.

His own life has also been subject to political conflict and racism. Growing up in Paris and later studying at Howard University in the U.S., Perskine was faced with his own generation’s version of metropolitan racism, often being stopped and harassed by the police for being young, black, and somehow being labelled a foreigner. The absence of diversity in contemporary left ideologies, the lack of support for the struggles black people still face, in essence the engrained systemic racism that is still very much alive in Western society, instilled a deeply rooted interest in racial dynamics, politics of identity and the ‘Black Experience’.

LC: Tell us a bit about the partnership with October Gallery? How did it come about, what drew you to the gallery and what is the collaboration about for you?

AP: I have worked with many galleries before, but my friend and fellow artist Zak Ové introduced  me to Chili Hawes, Director of October Gallery and we clicked instantly. They were really warm and it just felt right. They were very open to my work, and when Elisabeth, the Artistic Director, asked me if I wanted to show at 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair, I didn’t hesitate. I had been dreaming about showing at 1:54 and then, boom!, they displayed my work at fairs in South Africa, and Paris.

So far I hadn’t really worked with a major gallery before. I always have this need to create, to express myself through art, but in reality you also need the opportunity to physically show your work outside of the studio, which then creates more incentive to create and express. Otherwise you just stack up stuff in your studio. In the end, you want the world to see your work. To me, the kind of gallery was really important: October Gallery understands my artistic approach and what I want to express in my work. I am talking about politics, the Black Experience, which can be pretty visceral. The difference with working with a major gallery like October, is the validation you get from the art world, and the fact that you get given a big platform to communicate certain ideas, frustration, injustices and questions, so more press attention than I had in the past.

LC: Can you elaborate on the role of the nail and mysticism in your work?

AP: I have been working with the nail for thirteen, fourteen years now and to me it is like an expression of all the frustration I feel, the pain, the anger – its a reflection of what we have been through historically, as a people – I am referring to Africans and African descendants. I had experimented with different visual idioms and techniques since college, but this one felt right in terms of language and what I was looking to express. It was the right material, the right reference and it held meaning in various historical realms: that of the Minkisi kondi (small statures from the Congo, believed to hold spirits or magical powers, ed.) and its practical use. Sometimes you work on something and it just feels right, you know? Later on you can intellectualise it more, of course: the more I use it, the more I know how and why the material came to me. That is how things work, that is how fate works: things come to you. It is like an energy.

The nails represent transcendence and pain: they go through the surface, they spike and ‘transpercer’. This ‘going thought’ or piercing is a kind of aggression, of course, but it is also a bonding, connecting and holding together previously separate entities. It is a deconstructive way of constructing something: you build by destroying, using an energy, like acupuncture. The nails presents the suffering of our people but also their resistance and resilience, their strength and our direction as a people. The reference to the Minkisi kondi also represents power and protection. They too have nails in them and this adds to their power. They are figures of protection that expel the bad eye, protect their owner and gives them strength against their enemies. Black people, people from African descent, they need power, they need protection. We need to rebuild and reclaim our own image.

LC: You speak of ‘being looked at’ in your work and the problematics of having ownership of your own image. In earlier interview about your work you have said that ‘from the black silhouette comes light’. How do visibility, blackness and sovereignty relate to each other in your work?

AP: There are two things at play here that concern ‘reclaiming’ the body. The example I gave referenced the problematics of the female body in the public sphere: it demonstrates how most imagery of female bodies are not produced by women, but by men. Similarly, the black identity is mostly represented by non-black photographers. So my personal idea of subjection or subjectivity, at least as far as images and identity formation go, is connected to the problem that 50 or 60% of the imagery of black people if represented, shaped, by the outsider eye which means their feelings and their stories are not actually on display.  I think it is important to reclaim that, to reclaim our bodies and stories through our images.

One of the things I have mentioned before if the fact that the black silhouette, in my works, do not give information in itself. I add the nails in order to ‘sculpt’ the silhouette using the light’s reflection and in that way, bring the subject’s story to the forefront by translating the light that hits the black shapes and it will appear suddenly into an actual image of the likeness of these bodies and faces. In the end, photography is light, and in some way I recreate the photographic process in real time. The trick to make the image appear is light. I studied photography at Howard University, where there was a mainly black student body. From the beginning I have been acutely aware of the inherent racism of the chemical photographic process (the fact that the chemical combination used in most commercial photography was unable to show black skin properly, often turning it blue or grey. ed.) The books I read about photographic science did not translate to the subject around me. It shows that science is used for art, but in a world that undermines certain individuals we have to recreate these processes for ourselves.

LC: What does the Black Experience mean to you and how has it played a part in your life and art?

AP: It has influenced me from a young age, seeing certain things and noticing how people interact around you, how certain assumptions are made based on the way you look. The ‘group’ society appoints to you. There are always things you can’t avoid or change: you can’t make people see you in a different way. But by making art you can open up the conversation, at least Art is visible, there are thousands, millions of ways of communicating through art. Art allows you to have a voice, it supports movements, militancy, and we have to remember that society changes and is never permanent. Art does not have to play by the rules. It is more acceptable as an artist to have a different opinion, if anything it is expected of you, so it is easier for artists to raise discussion without the threat of jail or punishment. Society goes easier on me. For example: I have a friend who is a black feminist. She sometimes gets asked to discuss racism and sexism, while being the only black female in a room of white men. That is hard. People in her position constantly have to fight against the establishment of ideas, but as an artist, I am expected to have ideas. When I am interviewed I am invited into a safe space because I have an audience.

Alexis Peskine holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Howard University, Washington, DC and a Master of Arts in Digital Arts and a Master of Fine Arts from M.I.C.A., Baltimore, Maryland, USA. He has won a number of prizes including the prestigious Fulbright Scholarship. Peskine’s works have been exhibited in the USA (New York, Washington, Baltimore, Detroit, Chicago, Hartford, Minneapolis), Europe (Paris, Luxembourg), Africa (Dakar, Johannesburg, Durban, Cape Town, Casablanca, Addis Ababa), South America (Salvador, Bahia, Brazil) and the Caribbean (Kingston). He has participated in many renowned international exhibits including the 3rd Black Arts World Festival in Dakar, Addis Foto Fest, Pulse New York, Casablanca and Dakar’s Biennales and Miami Art Basel’s Prize exhibit. Power Figures at October Gallery, London is his first UK solo exhibition.

* in the October Gallery guide to Power Figures

Entry is free and the gallery is open from 12.30 – 17.30 Tuesday – Sat.