Born in Dakar, Senegal in 1987 and raised in Ivory Coast, Sydney-based artist Kevin Diallo explores the relationship of Blackness to the future. His projects are rooted in post-colonial discourse and race politics, and investigate how institutionalised ideas of Black and African authenticity can be deconstructed and challenged through a variety of mediums.
In 2018, Kevin was accepted into the Master of Design (Research) program with the University of Technology Sydney. He currently holds a Bachelor of Design (Honours) in Photography and Situated Media. Most recently, he was awarded an Art and Creativity Grant by the Northern Beaches Council. He has worked in the Australian media industry since 2011. During 2020, he was a resident artist at the North Curl Curl Creative Space managed by the Northern Beaches Council in Sydney.
I reached out to Kevin to learn more about his views on the art produced by Black artists, his upbringing in Ivory Coast, what he thinks about the prevalent idea of Blackness in advertising, and much more.
Hi Kevin, great to have you here. I came to know about your practice through “Blue” at Artspace, Sydney. I found it really refreshing. I like how you transform the ocean—as an element associated with Black suffering (reference to the Atlantic Slave trade and the death of African migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea) to a source of freedom, joy and opportunity. I do think such powerfully positive expressions are uncommon.
While is it very important to talk about past tragedies and current racial injustices, it is also necessary that Black artists be able to shed/transcend the weight of historical trauma and have more independent futuristic visions. Do you think that there are enough Black creatives around with an approach similar to yours? I’m personally very interested in seeing more Black art that shows Black people just being themselves, living as normal human beings without always referring to oppressive systems. What are your thoughts on this?
Thank you for making it to “Blue”, I am glad you liked it. It’s funny this project probably opened at the worst time this year. It was literally the last opening before all the galleries had to shut because of Covid-19. Thankfully, Artspace gallery graciously extended the show until the end of July once everything started to open again.
“Blue” deals with past and current tragedies, just not in your face, the audience has to read between the lines. In my practice, I often reappropriate signifiers and give them a new meaning. There are plenty of artists with a similar approach to mine. My work has been highly influenced by artists and writers such as Martine Syms, Kara Walker, Jayson Musson, Tabita Rezaire, Aria Dean, Hamishi Farah, Arthur Jaffa, Mendi + Keith Obadike, Zina Saro-Wiwa, Wagenchi Mutu, Yinka Shonibare, Kehinde Wiley, W.E.B. Du Bois, Frantz Fanon, Tina Campt, Kevin Young, Fred Motten, James Baldwin, Christina Sharpe to name a few, who utilise the same decolonising techniques and methodologies. Their work is really approachable and digestible but nonetheless highly critical and political.
Every artist needs a starting point. I guess I would like to discover and see more artists and works that celebrate African pre-colonial era as their starting point. I think it is important to recognize that before slavery and colonisation there were thriving African civilisations. There’s important work to be done to remember that our history does not start with oppression. At the present time though, all black expression and narrative has its importance and a role to play in the broader conversation—whether it is rehashing old trauma or imagining a future.
I think it is also important to acknowledge that the art world, curators and art institutions have a role to play. Often these forces have an agenda and preconceived ideas of what “black” art should be doing and what it should look like. When art is made by a black artist that doesn’t fit the idea of black art or can’t be put in a box, it is often misunderstood, disregarded. Institutions love black artists that make what they can call “black art”, art that deals with race and oppression.
What kind of environment did you grow up in back in Ivory Coast? What made you want to become an artist? And when and why did you choose to move to Australia?
I was actually born in Senegal, my mum is from Martinique, a French island in the West Indies. I moved to Ivory Coast when I was one year old, I lived there until I was 15 and visit quite regularly as my mother still lives there. My childhood was great! I grew up with a single mum and she worked hard to provide, we were very lucky and lived a privileged lifestyle. The area I grew up in was a working class neighbourhood, where you grow up knowing everyone on your block, everyone is up in your business constantly, you call the adults Auntie and Uncle and you respect your elders. Because I am a French citizen I went to an international school so I could learn the French curriculum which is more widely recognized by French universities than if studying the Ivorian curriculum.
There were a lot of really wealthy people in my school so I guess I have always been conscious that we were not poor but there were people with a lot more money than us.
Going to school with wealthy kids made me access a world and gave me experiences that my family could not afford. I think I would not have had access to certain things if I did not have friends from a higher socioeconomic echelon. It made me understand what was achievable (even if I do not think you should chase money as a priority in life). I was very much an in-betweener living between both the African elite and working class people.
My nice childhood was abruptly interrupted by a coup d’etat in 1999 and the beginning of the civil war when I was 12 years old. At the time we had a lot of military presence in Ivory Coast, we lived under a curfew for several months. The country became politically unstable and I ended up moving to France where I was sent to live with my sister. I hated France at first I wanted to go back home, I did for a while but my school in Abidjan was burnt down by militia so I went back to France to complete my studies.
I moved to Australia in 2009. I guess it was the classic love story. I met an Australian girl in London, we worked in the same restaurant. We started dating but she could not stay in Europe (visas, etc.) and I wanted to travel the world so I planned to visit Australia for 3 months after I went backpacking through south-east Asia. All my friends in London told me I should make the most of my working holiday visa and stay in Australia for a year so I did exactly that, but never left.
I always love art in any form and shape but I didn’t grow up thinking I wanted to be an artist when I was older. I think this is also due to the fact that in a lot of African societies your parents want you to be a doctor or a lawyer, they want you to have some prestigious career. I think the generation of our parents don’t see art as a valuable career choice so it’s not even an option. We did not have big art institutions.
I really loved music, I still do. I guess as a kid I wanted to learn the piano but I was never given the opportunity to do so. I am self-taught at guitar as a but I can’t read music. Then I fell in love with photography when I was in high school in France, I used to skate and hang out at the skate park and I would take photos of my friends, I guess it is how it started. I decided to go back to uni to study photography (I wanted to be a photojournalist). That is when I realised that there was more to photography and I started to take a serious interest in art. I also started finding documentary style/travel photography quite problematic. There was this voyeuristic aspect to it that did not sit well with me. I got more and more interested in fashion so I started shooting a lot of fashion and worked as a fashion photographer while studying.
“Blackness Forgive Me For My Scenes” Video
In 2018-19, you worked as a model and observed, as an insider, the way Blackness is constructed, understood, circulated and experienced in popular media and advertising. (This led to “Blackness Forgive Me For My Scenes”.) What were your biggest realisations?
I guess I started observing it as a photographer. At the time I was shooting for an online retailer and for the entire first year that I was working there, we did not use any black or brown models, not one! Thankfully, it’s all changed, quite fast actually. If I remember well, it coincided with the first wave of the BLM movement. A lot of companies wanted to be seen as inclusive and diverse (especially in Australia) and all of the sudden we could clearly see more and more black people on TV, magazines and billboards. Everytime we had a black model, though, we were using them for active wear brands or street wear, but never for business attire or high-end brands, for example.
I observed how black bodies were utilised and how the black cool aesthetic was manufactured, maybe this was quite specific to an Australian context and don’t get me wrong, I was happy to see people like me getting a piece of the pie and being placarded on billboards and in TV advertisements, but it killed me to see how the industry had already modelled black bodies to fit their narrative and gave them really specific places within the fashion/advertising hierarchy.
I had this discussion with a black Australian model friend of mine. I wanted to know how she felt only being casted for sport brands, because she could dance, or because they were selling Fendi, Ivy Park or some tropical flavoured consumable. She told me that she was aware of it but she felt like she had a role to play because she did not see people like her on TV when she was a kid and that it was a pretty lucrative business. Long story short, we have to start somewhere. As a joke, she added you would do killing modelling with your dreads, saying that my look was quite unique, at least in an Australian context. This is when I had the idea for the work. I did not really know what the final piece was going to look like but I knew it would be interesting. I ended up signing up to an agency, which was surprisingly easy and ended up modelling for a year or so.
A lot of brands want to be seen as diverse and progessive but I don’t think it goes far enough. I think the idea of using diversity in their advertising is a diversion scheme. I am more interested in what is happening inside some companies. Who has the means of production and who takes executive decisions? Most of the time, unfortunately, we are not invited to the big boys’ table, we are used to selling products. Essentially, I feel like “diversity” is used as a gimmick and it is just another way black bodies are being exploited.
There are countless examples of this hypocrisy. Louis Vuitton has Virgil Abloh as their creative director. I remember being denied entry in the Louis Vuitton store in Paris, and I still hear similar stories on social media. So, on one hand you use a creative director that brings street wear to your brand and essentially, his consumer base but you do not accept youth in your store wearing street wear because the bouncer you employ at the door is prejudiced.
It is also about access and opportunity. Are we getting the jobs in those companies? Do we have access to these brands? Does the backbone, the practices of your company reflect its advertisements? Or are you just exploiting the black cool aesthetic? Is there diversity inside your company or are you just shaping our image and exploiting us, our aesthetic, our culture so you can make more sales. It is also important to understand that it is essential for the younger generation of Black Australians to be able to identify with people of all walks of life.
In “All The Things I Should Let Go”, you have framed little items like a love letter, ticket, money. What is the deeper meaning behind this project?
This work was about memory, longing and belonging but also growing. I guess at the time I had big urges to leave Australia and return to live in the Ivory Coast and I still do. I felt like a part of my identity was disappearing the longer I stayed in the West. The work is about the choices I make and really being torn between by what W.E.B. Du Bois calls my twoness. I guess I was approaching 30 and thinking too much about it. The work embedded a lot of things from my spending habits to not knowing if I could still claim the “local” tariffs when I am in Ivory Coast.
Does Ivorian heritage play a role in your work? If yes, in what way?
My Ivorian heritage definitely plays a role in my work, I think it informs the way I think and the way I see the world. I guess it is my starting point. I usually choose signifiers from my heritage and see how they translate or how I can juxtapose them to signifiers from my current life in order to create new meaning. My upbringing in Ivory Coast clearly provided a sense of self and made me comfortable with who I am. I don’t let anyone define me by their standards, and I think it translates in my work.
“Neo Bogolan” shows cyanotypes depicting glitched photographs of African decorative art objects printed on mud cloth inspired cotton fabric. It is about the relationship and tensions between African art memorabilia (sold in Africa) and authentic African art (determined by Western art institutions). Tell us more about this issue.
I had a problem with this notion of African art authenticity. If we talk about old African artefacts and the purpose of their creation, it was not for art. A lot of these objects had clear functions and were used in day-to-day life or for rituals and ceremonies. These objects became art once they were stolen during colonisation and brought back to Europe and exhibited as objects of the “uncivilised world”.
There’s now a disconnect between objects that are being created to serve an art purpose by African artist to cater to the Authentic African Art Market today; and their access to the very same Authentic African Art Market. This is because they do not have the authority to decide if the art they make is considered as authentic African art by Western art institutions. Above all, it’s an issue of power, sovereignty, authority and the art market’s mechanism of appraisal. This has had ramifications on how art produced by an Afro descendant is classified, circulated, appreciated and boxed as authentic black art, etc.
Neo Bogolan is also about the strategies black artists could employ to gain more visibility in the art world through exploiting certain aesthetics.
Which artistic/cultural aspects of Africa seem most precious to you—that you believe the world must explore?
Africa’s diversity. Africa is a big continent with 54 countries that have their own cultures and within these countries you often have different ethnicities and tribes who all have different customs and art forms. Africa is still a misunderstood place, it would be great to see people being more specific when talking about the continent.
Art production in North Africa is very different to what is happening in West Africa. There are traditional art forms in dance, pottery, storytelling, etc/ that are very specific to each region. On the contemporary side of things, a lot is happening too. There is a lot that is also being done online that people often overlook.
What projects have you planned for the coming year?
I have a couple of projects planned for next year. I have been awarded a grant by the Northern Beaches Council and I am planning to start a photographic archive of people of African ancestry that now call Australia home. The project aims at surveying Australian Africans in all their diversity utilising the wet plate collodion process.
I have also started a video work inspired by the work of Camille Herot’s “Grosse Fatigue” and Arthur Jafa’s “Love is the message, the message is death”. This project is an expansion of the work I have started with “Blue” and will explore Blackness’ complex relationship with the ocean by intertwining news footage of the migrant crisis, grabs from documentary exploring Mami Wata, the African water spirit, the effects of slavery and segragation on Blackness’ relationship with the water, and the significance of hip-hop artists displaying lavish lifestyle on boats in their video clips and on social media. I’ll also be part of a couple of group shows in Sydney and Melbourne.