“In the subjects I deal with, some of the tension comes from the use of the material. The gradual degradation of the work gives it a certain poetry and depth. This is why the intention of the project will always prevail in my aesthetic choices. Tissue paper makes no concessions to this state of mind: if I wet it too much when I want to stick it on and there is wind, it tears and is immediately destroyed.”
How did you become an Urban Art artist?
I started painting in the streets when I arrived in Paris in 1999/2000. I first worked with spray paint, painting mainly faces, before discovering stencil.
How did the Open Your Eyes project mark this turning point in stencil?
I quickly wanted to explore another way of intervening in the city, so as not to use it as a simple gallery. The Open Your Eyes project was born out of a desire to think more about the context: the idea was to work on a visual, then to place it in different places in the city so that once they were linked on a map they would reform the image created. The city and the work were then intimately linked, the urban space becoming meaningful according to the places chosen. This project also pushed people to look at the way we live together in a different way and encouraged them to further explore what is visually proposed to them in order to develop a critical eye. In this way, the city gradually emerged as a material and subject for work.
You worked a lot on the portrait and the look, like in the series The eyes are the window to the soul.
The choice of the name Open Your Eyes came from the fact that Eyes or YZ were diminutives of my first name Yseult, but also that my work at the time was mainly related to the gaze. I used the phrase “Eyes are the window to the soul” a lot, and these early frontal portraits thus directly questioned the identity of each of us, what we are through our roots and our life experiences.
Roots and identity
Your work has often served as a starting point for a quest for personal identity.
I have several origins: my mother was English, my father French from Guadeloupe. I always needed to know where I came from, because it was an issue that my father often addressed. In fact, long before I began my plastic work, I already had this process of searching for identity. I travelled a lot, went to live in England and Senegal, then returned to Guadeloupe afterwards to question my roots. Even today, living in Abidjan is an extension of this search. All my projects are linked to this journey.
This universal dimension is found in your work.
I’ve always been a bit nomadic, having been lucky enough to have parents who passed on this openness to the world to me. But I think street art is a very international practice in itself, if you take into account the way artists are led to travel in order to bring their projects to life. For me it’s one of the particularities of this movement to have international artists.
You often use a projected image that you rework.
I do a lot of photomontage work beforehand. I take my photos and rework them to exploit several of them. The overhead projector will allow the plastic representation of my idea.
How do you choose the materials you use?
I work in the studio with materials that have an organic and natural aspect. That’s why I use ink, wood or paper. When I don’t use these elements, I use recycled materials, trying to adapt them to the creative context. For example, for my Empress series, I hunt for objects in the place where I live because they already have a history and bring an extra dimension to the work.
Your use of ink and wash gives an aged look to the work, which gives it a different long-term impression.
I started to make washes using Indian ink. They allow me to paint my shadows and lights more simply.
The choice of paper is also an important part of your approach, allowing you to optimize the effect on the chosen wall.
In the beginning I used kraft paper, before turning to tissue paper. It’s an interesting material, because it reveals the support on which it is glued. It creates a slightly outdated look and the passing of time adds an extra poetry to it. Like a good wine, the work then gains in depth and value over time.
How important is it to you where the collage is placed?
I’m not interested in sticking on a white wall, I’m looking for places that make sense. The Amazons project in Senegal, for example, was based on huts run by women. Travelling allows me to develop long-term contextual work inspired by the place, its inhabitants and its heritage.
The context then takes precedence over the visibility of the work as such.
I am not particularly looking for visibility: when I paste a poster, I don’t know how long it will last. I have had collages torn off after half an hour, when they were not yet dry. From the moment I take the photograph of my work I mourn it, it goes on with its life and I am no longer attached to it.
One of my first pieces had been toyed with two days after it was posed. It had touched me a lot but I understood that I had to work for myself first and that the image would serve as a testimony. Urban space is collective, everyone has the right to reappropriate it. What bothers me are the people who steal the pieces in the street to take advantage of them.
Among all the techniques used in the street, collage is certainly one of the most ephemeral.
This great fragility interests me. In the subjects I treat, part of the tension comes from the use of the material. The progressive degradation of the work brings a certain poetry and depth to it. This is why the intention of the project will always prevail in my aesthetic choices. Tissue paper makes no concessions to this state of mind: if I wet it too much when I want to glue it and there is wind, it tears and is immediately destroyed. Its fragility contrasts with the themes that are sometimes harsh, whether we are talking about Amazonian women warriors fighting for their territory, empresses or minorities fighting for their culture.
FEMALE GENITALIA LEGACY
You said before that you didn’t want to be defined as a woman in your work. How do you feel about that today?
I’ve been painting in the street for seventeen years now and I’m still evolving throughout my life. At the time of Open Your Eyes I found it interesting that people thought it was a man. For other subjects, like Lost in the City, it didn’t matter.
I deal with subjects that are viscerally part of me. The history of the Amazons of Dahomey fascinates and inspires me as a contemporary woman. It’s important to create referential universes so that everyone can make it their own, especially young girls. I’ve been inspired by women’s journeys to build myself, especially Miriam Makeba and all her struggles. It is essential to talk about these women, these personalities who fought and made history.
Research around these figures is therefore a very important part of your work.
There are projects that require a lot of research, like Amazon for which I worked on different personalities like Yennenga, Nadte Yalla or Aline Sitoe Diatta: queens, princesses and other heroines who fought against the colonists. Knowing the subject allows one to emancipate oneself from it to portray these women in a different way. I also worked with an antique gallery owner – Galerie Mémoires Africaines – who lent me antique accessories from different ethnic groups in Africa.
For Empress, I do a lot of work on the importance of headdresses and their significance within different communities, whether they are religious or serve to define a gender, an age, a social status. A project therefore sometimes takes several months to develop. After a year and a half of working on it I am still in the embryonic stage.