INTERVIEW with the artist Saïdou Dicko (born in Burkina Faso, lives and works in Paris; AFIKARIS gallery)
Dear Saïdou Dicko,
Many thanks for this interview! I am pleased to have been able to get in touch with you for a number of reasons. I have been following your work for several years. You started as a painter by drawing shadow contours in the sand. You later photographed the shadows of animals and people. Today you are also known for your installations, which incorporate various media and materials, like wood and fabric.
I was recently especially impressed by your watercolour and ink drawings, which I saw for the first time on Instagram. Did you produce these during the first lockdown in Paris?
Initially, yes. I grew up in the north of Burkina Faso, where I started drawing at the age of four as a young shepherd. I was generally very impressed by shadows, so I began to recreate the shadows of my animals and of the shrubs. I really began to draw at the age of nine, when I arrived in Ouaga [Ouagadougou/Burkina Faso]. Later, in 2006, I began to take photographs. That was in Dakar. I have always used a camera. However, I don’t define myself as a photographer, but instead as a sculptor or image designer that works or paint with a camera. I say paint here, because I have chosen photographic image areas within the painting process, in order to use these as backgrounds or as a painting surface.
And, as you already correctly guessed, I began to produce watercolours shortly before the first lockdown. It is in fact a return to the beginnings of my creative work because it is the drawing that brought me to photography. And now it is photography that brings me back to drawing. This time, my drawings are inspired by my photos. These watercolours are inspired by photos of a current series entitled “THE SHADOWED PEOPLE”, for which I paint on the photos. I began this series only two weeks prior to the first lockdown and then continued to work on it during this time. An exhibition in Paris with the AFIKARIS gallery was supposed to be prepared. This exhibition became a virtual exhibition due to the contact restrictions.
I recently discovered that you were able to present an artistic work on the surface of an aeroplane. I was touched when I saw your work flying in the sky in a documentary and thought about the various aspects of aviation.
We had already gotten used to having the possibility to fly with an aeroplane. However, this possibility was used for quite different reasons: for business reasons, to maintain distant family relationships, to gather new experiences or even to start a new life. Now, because we are in the midst of a pandemic, some people are suddenly demonstrating more often the extent to which they reject aviation for ecological reasons. However, these arguments have long been familiar. I am guessing that these arguments are now being used to find helpful and placatory arguments for the frightening lockdown months this year. This is because it was in fact an illness, a virus, that forced us to stay at home and prohibited us from even thinking about travelling, from meeting friends and family abroad or even from starting a new life elsewhere. Personally, the experience of a global travel warning and the compulsion to remain within national boundaries is a frightening status.
Do you as an artist think that cultural life is in particular danger, or do you see new possibilities arising for artists from the experience of 2020?
Like in the work I produced for the aircraft, the rugs of my childhood play a major role: les tapis Peulh [FR Peulh/EN Fula (West African ethnic group)]. They fascinated and inspired me greatly in my work, especially when painting my photos, in which one can see a kind of cross again and again. It is a symbol that I have derived from an existing fabric of my childhood – a Fula rug.
When I was offered the project to apply a drawing or a collage to an aeroplane, I immediately thought of the rug and that it would in this case be a kind of flying carpet. However, not influenced by magic, but instead by technology. Magic and technology are on the one hand contradictory, but it is also fun for me to place these contradictions in a relationship to one another. In this case, modern objects are used to upgrade especially beautiful traditional objects. That was the idea for this project with the aircraft.
In fact, with the pandemic restrictions, Europeans are at the same time also discovering the daily life of thousands of thousands of people, who also don’t have the chance, even without a pandemic, to travel freely, only because their passport doesn’t allow for this. Even if they could afford it, these people are limited in their mobility. This form of restriction is in fact what some people experience every day. I experienced this situation with my passport when I began to work. It was very, very difficult to travel, even on the African continent, and even more difficult in Europe. It was extremely complicated, and when I travelled, the fact that I had several visas and travelled often made things easier, but it was otherwise not easy!
It is not easy to be cut off from the world, cut off from family, but now one must adapt to the situation. We hope that this will soon be an old story we tell our children and grandchildren that will soon be forgotten.
Of course, this situation is also not easy for culture, but it is impacting everybody equally. Fortunately, there are social networks. We artists continue to exhibit in order to present our works. Nothing has changed on this side. There are collectors. The commercial side is affected, but not so much, because there are still possibilities for virtual presentation, communication and transport. The gallery is managing to sell works and send them to collectors, despite difficulties.
What is missing, however, are the openings, the salons where we meet our friends. Where we have a good time with one another, moments of sociability. Because this describes the actual wealth: meeting other people and being able to travel. I would also say: the most important thing is missing. The business side is still operating, but the most important thing is the personal and human side: sharing and learning. In that we travel, we discover other countries and cultures. We learn because we see and experience ourselves. Our own experiences are more important than those talked about by someone else. Even when two people see the same thing, their experiences of them are different, because everyone has their own perspective.
In the subtitles of your work presentations, you emphasise that your photographs have not been digitally retouched. Why is it important to you to treat a photo as an “original” and process it? Why is it important to you that the viewer perceive your revised photographs as originals?
I insist that I am not a photographer, but I like to use photography in the work process. I would also like to point out that my photos are not elaborately retouched. There are no contrast or colour changes. Even when several images are superimposed in the work process, they are always the photos that I originally took. They were taken in the automatic mode and, because I am not a photographer, this often takes place with my mobile phone. I then only process these individual images later in Photoshop because I can place several images on top of one another in order to achieve an effect like in a photography studio(1). I often use the photos as backgrounds or painting surfaces for my portraits.
I also discovered photography for myself during my work on backgrounds as painting surfaces for representations of people. I can find a photographic background, for example, in nature, but it can also be the skyscrapers of New York. It can be a traditional fabric, or the decoration of a house. I superimpose these images and create my canvas from them.
I can photograph someone in Ouaga and bring him to New York in the work process, in that I collage my spontaneous photos. My material is always from photos I have taken myself. I don’t use any outside material. I mix these images and edit them digitally. I make a collage as if I would cut with scissors by hand, but it is created digitally. The process is more environmentally friendly than printing out several paper photos and cutting them out. There are simple processes that are more difficult by hand than digitally – for example, working with the printer and so on. However, all this only describes the technical side, and this is ultimately not particularly important to me. It is especially about passing on an idea. Just because one presents them in a digital way, doesn’t mean the idea is changed by this operation.
Here at the end of our conversation, I would like to present a poetic description that I wrote down while working on my “THE SHADOWED PEOPLE” series:
Je suis un être humain transformé en ombre par un artiste qui a eu la chance de voyager dans plusieurs pays. Il a fait des photos dans lesquelles il intègre mes photos du quotidien ou pas. Il transforme mon corps en ombres dans son studio photo en perpétuel mouvement. J’espère (Hope) que j’aurais aussi la chance de voyager autant que mon ombre.
[I am a human being transformed into shadow by an artist who has had the chance to travel to several countries. He took photos, into which he integrates my everyday photos or not. He turns my body into shadows in perpetual motion in his photo studio. I hope that I will also have the chance to travel as much as my shadow.]
(Interview december 2020)
1 Here we are reminded of the studio photography of African role models like Malick Sidibé and Seydou Keïta, who often used interchangeable backgrounds for their photos; fabrics, paintings, photographs, wall paintings.