Roméo Mivekannin deconstructs the history of the visual representation of the Black body in art

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The Souls of Black Folk, Roméo Mivekannin, courtesy the artist and Gallery Cecile Fakhoury.
The Souls of Black Folk, Roméo Mivekannin, courtesy the artist and Gallery Cecile Fakhoury.

Roméo Mivekannin’s solo show « The Souls of Black Folk » is a haunting, visual, and archaeological excavation. He dwells at specific historical junctures to examine anthropological pictures, paintings such as Manet’s Olympia and Benoist’s iconic portrait of a Black woman with an exposed bosom. Although these visual materials are usually buried in archival libraries and art history books, their legacies still linger in our collective memories. Mivekannin deconstructs the history of the visual representation of the Black body in art by subverting the codes of visual imagery.

For the show, the artist recreated contemporary versions of these memorable art history images by substituting his body and face for those of the original Black characters. With each artwork, Mivekannin appears to be relentlessly asking: what does it feel like to be seen through and defined by the eyes of others, particularly white males? What does it feel like to inhabit a body that has been objectified and commoditised for centuries? The exhibition is a visual rendering of W.E.B. Du Bois’ concept of « double-consciousness.» It’s a notion the sociologist and activist elucidated in his 1903 book «The Souls of Black Folk,» which denotes a perpetual feeling of duality: « A negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings. »

Mivekannin expands upon the sociologist’s investigation, adding his Beninese sensitivities. Instead of striving for Du Bois’ « merger » of these two visions of self, the artist elects to proceed to a redemptive cleansing. The creation of these contemporary and alternative images amount to a “voodoo ritual” aimed at freeing these bodies from the shackling gaze of subjugation, a redemptive act of artistic healing.

The show echoes the blockbuster exhibition Posing Modernity: The Black Models: From Gericault to Matisse that traveled from the Wallach Art Gallery (US) to the Musee D’Orsay in Paris in 2019. But in this case, though, it is significant that this visual act of reclamation takes place on the African continent, in Abidjan, where an African audience can engage with these poignant visual artworks.

We have asked the artist to give us an insight into his creative practice and what led to the emergence of this stirring body of work.

Obatala: Roméo Mivekannin, congratulations on your inaugural exhibition in Abidjan. How was the show “The Souls of Black Folk” perceived by the public?

Roméo Mivekannin: The exhibition raised a lot of questions, and people make the works their own. There was a genuine engagement, and the exchanges we had with each other were fascinating. This is all the more important to me as these images were created by those in positions of power in Europe, and they have seldom been seen in Africa, if at all.

The Souls of Black Folk, Roméo Mivekannin, courtesy the artist and Gallery Cecile Fakhoury.
The Souls of Black Folk, Roméo Mivekannin, courtesy the artist and Gallery Cecile Fakhoury.

O: Your exhibition goes back through centuries of representation that objectified the Black body. Why was it important for you to revisit that long history of biased representation?

RM: According to an African proverb, “until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” For centuries, our story has been told for us, and it was told from a Western point of view (eurocentric perspective), which has ended up shaping the way the world looks at our bodies. My work is decolonial: it contributes to deconstruct these stereotypes and recount another story, different from the Manichean version told by those in positions of power. Their power can be political, economic, and above all, symbolic. Beyond the representation of Black bodies, I am foremost interested in bodies rendered invisible through art history.

O: These representations were powerful ways to articulate Black people’s alterity and disseminate the notion of “primitive,” why did you choose to insert yourself into that narrative (even if it’s on your own terms)?

RM: It is both a cultural and political choice. It’s political because it is related to the construct of my identity in relation to the notion of alterity. It is a submissive, terrorised, stereotypical, commodified, dominated body because it was the object of subjugation.

I was wondering, how could I live with this body, which automatically reflects an image that is not mine? How do you keep on living with the knowledge that who you are doesn’t match the image that you project, reflect, and represent? How do I live with this identity, which is not me?

About all these Black people in art history that you find in my works, I was looking for ways to alter the destiny of these people who had certainly not chosen to be there. How to help them set free their meandering souls?

By placing my body and painting my face in their places, I set in motion a voodoo ritual aimed at freeing the souls of these men and women from the oppressions that entrapped them here on Earth. They must be able to leave to let us live in peace. My gaze is fixated on those who come to visit me. Consequently, the dominant-dominated relationship changes, and we are on an equal footing. I feed myself; I fill myself with these gazes and reconstruct a new identity.

The Souls of Black Folk, Roméo Mivekannin, courtesy the artist and Gallery Cecile Fakhoury.
The Souls of Black Folk, Roméo Mivekannin, courtesy the artist and Gallery Cecile Fakhoury.

O: There is an ongoing debate about the use of some of these archival images. For some, there is an unfinished business of deconstruction that needs to be pursued, whereas, for others, they represent a continuum of trauma, ceaselessly renewed. What is your take on that?

RM: I don’t have lessons to give to anyone. There are several sensitivities, and that’s good. Therefore, I do not promote my position as being necessarily the right one. In my case, it was a necessity to work from these traumatic images. It is a process of redress. And this process involves reclaiming a particular narrative in order to deconstruct it subsequently. It is a necessity, like a catharsis.

O: Your paintings mimic the visual effect of archival imagery. Can you talk to us about your creative process and how you select some of the images or paintings you work with?

RM: For the background of the paintings, I use old sheets from French families’ trousseau, intended for young brides. These sheets, stamped with the initials of the women who would go on to lose their maiden names upon marriage, also evoke a specific era, a form of representation and systems of power. I macerate them for a long time in so-called restorative elixirs, used in voodoo rites practiced in the Kingdom of Dahomey, former Benin, where I am from.

These sheets are akin to shrouds that I paint in the hope of triggering a process of deliverance, which begins with a tribute to the victims, these humiliated beings. Let’s think of those exhibited in human zoos, in Paris, Hamburg, or London, photographed, and inspected like animals.

About the choice of paintings or original photographs, I don’t know if I can say that I choose the works that I paint rationally. Throughout my journey, my studies, my visits to museums and exhibitions in Europe, some paintings or images have particularly marked me. And I naturally return to them in my creative process.

The Souls of Black Folk, Roméo Mivekannin, courtesy the artist and Gallery Cecile Fakhoury.
The Souls of Black Folk, Roméo Mivekannin, courtesy the artist and Gallery Cecile Fakhoury.

O: The show “The Souls of Black Folk” deals with compelling and, at times, violent imagery. Did that affect you on a personal level?

RM: These are images, faces, and compositions that have left an imprint on my memory, my imagination. And I have continued to obsess over them since then. These are what I call “revenance.” (a form of constant remembrance).  Sometimes they come back like a pattern that I repeat several times. You cannot remain indifferent in front of these images. And the creative process allows me to deal with the power and violence they give off.

O: You trained as an architect before becoming a visual artist. What caused the switch, and how do you see your role as an artist?

RM: I wouldn’t speak of change. The essence of architecture is everywhere in my work. I examine time and space. I am building a theatre of memory, made of images, looks, forgotten corners, postures, and symbols. It is a theatre made to be inhabited, invested by our contemporaries, and transformed into a lively place of debate.

The exhibition “The Souls of Black Folk” at the Gallery Cecile Fakhoury in Abidjan will conclude November 28. Mivekannin’s paintings will also be exhibited at the upcoming edition of Art X Lagos (Nigeria).

The written interview was translated from French.

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