Building on his own heritage and personal experiences, Alexis Peskine’s relief and multimedia work addresses the complexity of themes impacting people from Africa and its diasporas. His signature artworks, large-scale mixed media ‘portraits’ known as Power Figures and Fire Figures, are rendered by hammering nails of different sizes into treated wooden planks, materials reminiscent of those handled by multiple generations throughout his family history. In this conversation with The Art Momentum, Alexis reflects on what it means to be a humanist, the collective ambition that the figures in his work represent, and the inherent superpowers present in the ways he expresses his distinctive visual language.
As what one would call a global citizen – the idea that one’s identity transcends geography or political borders and that responsibilities or rights are derived from our common humanity – what role has your heritage, upbringing, and subsequent travels played in your work?
My upbringing brought me values. There are two things with values; there is your character, who you are, then it’s mixed with your family values, what your family brings you. I would say I’m a humanist. I like the term humanist because it talks about positive human traits. I don’t know that being human is necessarily the most positive thing if you look at the planet and what we’re doing to it and to other species but, from what I understand about being a humanist, it’s wanting justice for all and being on the side of the oppressed. No matter what background or culture you are from, the idea is to be on the side of the oppressed and to study the situation and listen.
The fact is that I’m watching the world with many eyes, not only from traveling, but living in different places. When you live in a place and when you grow up in a place, you also have values from that place but you don’t realise it because, in your mind, the whole world thinks that way. Living in different places actually shows you that and humbles you in that respect. You realise people think differently depending on the place that they’re in or that they evolved in. That brings you perspective, and I think it’s very important.
How do you believe your work responds to current events at a time when awareness about police violence and racial inequalities in the justice system is heightened? Does it form an extension of the ways in which you advocate for the oppressed?
These events are not new. These events, to me, are frustrations because they have influenced my life since I was a kid growing up in France, even being harassed by police myself. These events are not new and that frustration is not new. I have been talking about it for as long as I could express myself.
It affected my life. It affected people around me. It affected how I thought of myself, how I thought of the police, how I thought of our society, how I think of my country. It naturally came up in my art. When I did my solo show at the MoCADA in Brooklyn, The French Evolution: Race, Politics, and the 2005 Riots (2007), which was curated by Kim Gant, it talked about racial dynamics in France and created a bridge between what happens in the States and in France, because not that many people knew about what was going on in my country. I wanted to put a light on that, to create a bridge and see, on a Pan-African level, how we could have a bigger voice.
I’ve been talking about racial injustice my whole life. The difference during the lockdowns was the fact that we were forced to watch not just George Floyd’s murder, but also the death of Ahmaud Arbery at the hands of white men and countless others who were beaten or abused by police, simply because they were Black. We saw the way the police treated white people picnicking, distributing masks to them while beating Black people who were just getting air on their porches in their own communities. The double standards were crystal clear.
It really affected our mental health. The images are not even the most violent part. The violence is in the lies behind it, the system that lets off the police officers who commit these racially motivated injustices, or the comments that you hear in society – especially in France, in the French media. People try to minimise our experiences, try to trivialise or criminalise the people who are victims of police violence. It’s constant. Théo Luhaka was beaten and raped by the police and the newspapers and “responsible” media are still asking questions about him and his family, trying to find illicit things on him, trying to show that maybe there is a link. There’s no link. The police do this to us all the time.
In Power Figures, I wanted to show our transcendence. It was more still, more calm, showing our greatness throughout all the adversity, while Fire Figures demonstrated the fury I feel within. You have to exteriorise the violence. I’m striking back in my work. Either you punch back or you get even more calm, and you observe, and you’re still, and you get deep and intellectual. There are many ways to react to the violence. Lately, I have felt like going violent in my expression. Why are you trying to be intellectual and not shock people? When, really, what you have seen is shocking.
Who are the figures in your portraits? Are they known to you, do they play significant roles in your life?
Whether it’s me or other sitters whose spirits and physical traits I have borrowed to create the Power and Fire Figures, I believe we are only vectors of a bigger, more powerful expression that I don’t even grasp or understand fully yet. As artists, we are also vectors of this broader expression, of something that is often spiritual, universal, or divinely inspired. The people who are in the work, it’s not them. It’s their spirit. It’s the collective. My ambition is collective. It’s for us as Black people to rise up. It’s for us to get justice. It’s for us to prosper. It’s for us to have abundance.
They are not actually portraits because a portrait is a depiction of someone with that person’s life story. They are not about the sitters. This is bigger than them. It’s bigger than me. Some of them I know. Some of them I came across on social media and asked them if they would sit for my work. Some of them are friends. What’s important is that they are not portraits of these people. They’re for us, for Black people in general. What’s important is that they come from all across the world. They’re Black people of many different backgrounds because we’re not a monolithic group.
You have people who are Afro-Brazilians, you have people who are Afropeans of Senegalese origin, you have Senegalese people, you have people who are Xhosa, you have people from the Caribbean. The only thing that I keep from them is their language, their maternal and paternal languages. I translate the title in their language. It’s what I honour from their identity.
Can you tell us more about your multimedia, photography, and video work and how it expands on your distinctive visual language?
Ever since I was in college, I wanted to have my own visual language. I wanted to have a style that defined me, how I viewed things. That would be my language, my idiom, and I would be recognised for it. I played with different materials and got to the Power Figures and the Fire Figures with the nails, but even those images came from photography.
I minored in photography and I majored in painting at Howard University. Before painting, I did fashion merchandising, because that was also something that interested me, and all of this informs what I do. I might use paint, but it’s not painterly. I had to learn how to paint flat and how to do pochoir and stencils. I always liked a graphic style of work. I liked bold, simple, poetic imagery. When I discovered printmaking, I was heavily influenced by silkscreen pointillist techniques in which equally spaced dots of various sizes create an illusion of detailed images with tonal variations. I replaced those dots with nails in my Power Figures series, transforming the flat, detailed image into a photorealistic relief work made from raw and natural elements, including nails, gold leaf, wood, coffee, earth, and hibiscus, among others.
I spoke about originality and having my own language but, with photography, it’s different. Every photographer takes photos. How do you create your own language? What differentiates you? You have an expression and you have things that you want to express. For me, it’s the Black experience. How do I express my metaphors through photography?
What makes my work my own is the fashion in it or the metaphors I create using material and the clothes that people are wearing in my work. It’s a recurring theme. For instance, in Aljana Moons (2015), I used the Dieg Bou Diar tomato cans that the Talibé children in Senegal beg with and the rice bags to make their clothes. In Raft of Medusa (2016), I used the little Eiffel Tower curios that the Senegalese Bana Bana* sell and made a crown of thorns with them. The Boubou attire of the main character and the sail of the raft are also made from recycled market bags. Basically, I create metaphors with objects and by incorporating those objects in clothing. That is how my visual language is expressed through the stillness of photography.
How does your choice of materials inform your investigation of identity? Your grandfather was a carpenter – did this influence your selection of wood and nails as your primary medium?
I think, subconsciously, I realised that later. After doing it, I realised my great-grandmother on my father’s side had a hardware store in Lithuania. Then, my grandfather on my mother’s side was a carpenter. My grandmother on my mother’s side was a seamstress. My grandfather on my father’s side was an engineer, but he also did film and photography and worked with metal. There’s this thing with metal and with wood and with being artists and artisans that runs in my family. That is the heritage of what I’ve received.
Film, photography, those are things that interested me and perhaps that I saw around me. Music is also a big aspect of my family’s heritage on both sides. Both of my younger brothers, Adrien “Gystere” Peskine and Anthony Peskine, are musicians and visual artists who do video and photography. My father had a camcorder to film family things, and he would let us use it. I remember especially my brother, Adrien – it’s funny because that’s what he does now – the way he would do animations, cartoons, and stop motion using the camera when we were kids.
I would say that is the gene that was passed down to me and the heritage of what my people did. You have to use that power, that superpower that you got or not. A lot of us got these superpowers and we either use them or we don’t.
* In Wolof, a language native to Senegal, “Bana Bana” means “businessman” and describes modern African entrepreneurs.
An interview by Fay Janet Jackson for the ART X Lagos 2021 artpaper