Movement and Stories of Lost Dreams: Alexis Peskine at Dak’Art 2016 Biennale

Movement and Stories of Lost Dreams: Alexis Peskine at Dak’Art 2016 Biennale

Alexis Peskine's Dak'Art installation, reminiscent to Théodore Géricault's 'The Raft of Medusa,' focuses on the complexities of migration.

On July 2, 1816, a French naval warship by the name of Medusa sank off the coast of Mauritania, leaving behind a raft of around 150 people. Thirteen days later, when rescue parties arrived, only 15 of them had survived after enduring dehydration and cannibalism, and the survivors were taken to St. Louis in Senegal.

This incident caused international controversy and intrigued the French Romantic painter Théodore Géricault, who created an enormous painting titled The Raft of Medusa, depicting the event. That painting now hangs on a wall at the Louvre in Paris, where it’s immense sense of awe caught the eye of Alexis Peskine, and became one of his favorite paintings since childhood.

Peskine’s installation by the same title, garnered much attention on the May 3 opening of Dak’Art, Africa’s biggest bienniale of contemporary visual art. The multimedia installation occupies an entire corner in the main hall of the former courthouse, where the exhibition is hosted, and features video, sound, photography, as well as paintings on three dimensional objects (a carriage and a canoe) in his signature acupainture style.

The piece is without question about migration, and while ‘re-enchantment’ is the theme of this year’s show, Peskine chose to explore the antithesis of that, asking where the disenchantment comes from in the first place.

Photo of The Raft of Medusa courtesy of Alexis Peskine.

Anchoring the piece is a video playing on a screen placed in the middle of a broken canoe, with splintered pieces of wood dispersed at its base. Positioned in front of it is a staggered collection of golden, miniature Eiffel Towers. The beautifully rendered imagery tells parallel stories of black bodies on both European and African shores of the Atlantic.

We see shots of various characters on the shores of Dakar, walking around the streets of Paris—looking at the Eiffel Tower from a distance. Reminiscent of Géricault’s painting, there are many shots of migrants on a raft, depicting the journey in between. Choosing to forgo dialogue and instead inhabit a zone between film and visual art, the video tells these stories through multilayered symbolism.

Photo of The Raft of Medusa courtesy of Alexis Peskine.

“The costumes were made out of Sacs imigrés, and so I wanted to use that reference to talk about how disposable these people were…trying to get a better life but then generally finding disenchantment on the other side,” Peskine says to Okayafrica.

Another repeatedly recurring visual is the Eiffel Tower, both the real structure as well as miniature models of it that Peskine also worked into the costumes:

The Eiffel towers represent dreams of people going there, but also there is this crown of thorns made of Eiffel towers that can talk about crucifixion or sacrifice. You know, some people talk about the sacrificed generation of Africans that basically sacrificed their lives for the next generation, and to send money back to their people, so that was a reference to that…

The viewer is cued to consider the symbolic meaning behind the videography through shots of people looking at photographs of loved ones, close ups of eyes full of hopes and repeated visuals of the Eiffel Tower. Coupled with its hypnotic soundtrack, the video transports us to the realm of dreams—dreams of other places, dreams of a better life, dreams that perhaps, as the broken canoe suggests, never get realized.

After the looping video fades to black, observers begin to take note of the other elements of the installation, each one playing an emblematic or metaphorical function. Another canoe, created by a Lebo boat artisan in Son Beijoon, near Dakar’s fish market, is cut in half with each part vertically erected to simultaneously resemble both a tomb and a shrine. On the front of it are some of Peskine’s acupaintings—images he creates with nails that sit at different heights on wooden surfaces, providing yet another three dimensional aspect to his work. On each part of the canoe, we see the upper body of a figure standing upright in god-like majesty, their postures reminiscent of warriors prepared to enter a battlefield.

Photo of The Raft of Medusa courtesy of Alexis Peskine.

The last acupainting, positioned a few meters away from the canoe utilizes an equally familiar object from Dakar as its canvas. Peskine elaborates:

You see these carriages around Dakar, and there are people on horses, you give them 50 Franks CFAI [much less than a dollar] and they take the trash, or move things or whatever. And I wanted to include that to talk about the incentive to leave…why people think that the grass is greener somewhere else, and why they risk their lives to leave.

In this installation, Peskine is clearly focusing specifically on the French-Senegalese dialogue around migration. All of the references used are interlinked in a way that mirrors the historical and sociopolitical weaving of Africa and ‘the West.’ Perhaps this can be seen most clearly in the figure of Medusa and what she stands for in the piece.

“Medusa in the legend is this monster who turns people into statues,” Peskine says. “So at first, to me, Europe was Medusa. I was thinking of all these people who go blindly towards Europe and risk their lives and get turned into statues by giving the best years of their lives away…their spirits get taken away, their energy, their youth…”

Photo of The Raft of Medusa courtesy of Alexis Peskine.

But Peskine continues to recount another reading of the Greek myth, that Medusa was a beautiful priestess in the temple of Athena, who was devoted to a life of celibacy. But she was wooed by Poseidon, which enraged Athena who subsequently turned her into an ugly snake-haired monster who couldn't help but turn whoever she laid eyes on into a statue. But Medusa resisted Athena in various ways, which further angered the goddess, lead to her making a deal with Perseus to kill Medusa. The element of Medusa’s resistance captured Peskine’s interest.

“So then I started thinking that Medusa’s story is actually more interesting…and that Medusa could also be a metaphor for Africa,” Peskine says, “So it has this duality…you don't know if it’s Africa or Europe. And that’s our story—and by our, I mean people who gravitate between the African continent and the West, everything is intertwined now, you can’t dissociate Africa and Europe.”

One important point Peskine highlights about this relationship is the benefits that Europe garners from Africa’s resources. In the video, we see a regal African woman taking care of, and feeding a white baby. Here, Peskine is playing on the ‘nanny’ reference, since seeing African nannies taking care of European babies is a common sight in Paris. However, draped in vibrant fabrics, and wearing a golden crown of Eiffel towers over her majestically styled hair, the woman in the video is not a nanny.

“It’s the reason why a country like France [is] the fifth leading power. Without exploiting 14 or 15 countries in Africa right now, France would be like Portugal or Greece because it just doesn't have the resources…Yeah we can talk about migrants, and migration and “crises” but we have to be real about why these countries that should be rich are impoverished. Why are these people speaking French in the first place?”

Photo of The Raft of Medusa courtesy of Alexis Peskine.

Peskine’s installation resonates sharply in light of the many news stories about ships and boats from Sub-Saharan Africa sinking on the journey towards Europe. But even for those who make it, what do they find on the other side? While this piece explicitly deals with a certain type of migrant, it is relatable to many because of its emphasis on dreams and the painful in-betweeness.

Curated by Simon Njami, Dak’Art is open until June 3, 2016 in Dakar, Senegal. The biennale showcases 65 artists from around the continent as well as the diaspora. Njami invites the artists, as well as all of us to imagine new ways of re-enchanting the continent and the world.