Artist Kamel Yahiaoui on Africa, slavery and love
As part of the Contemporary African Art sale organized by Cornette de Saint Cyr in Paris on December 14, artist Kamel Yahiaoui is presenting the work Once Upon a Time on Île de Gorée. Half of the profits from the sale will be given to the Île de Gorée museum, a memorial to the Atlantic slave trade. H A P P E N I N G met with the artist ahead of the sale.
Could you describe the work you are auctioning off at Cornette de Saint Cyr this Thursday?
The sculpture is from the series Once Upon a Time on Île de Gorée. I wasn’t planning on offering it at auction, but the director of Kalao Panafrican, the gallery I’m working with, noticed it in my studio and suggested to sell it as part of this auction. I thought about it twice, and I only accepted when we agreed that half of the profits from the sale will go to the Île de Gorée museum.
I created this work when I returned from Senegal in 2014, after taking part in the Dakar Biennial. I started working around the history of slavery in 2001 with the ongoing series Déchaînement des Mémoires. [The Unleashing of Memories] For me, slavery is a universal evil, indissolubly linked with the history of Africa and its present as well: there’s still slavery in Africa in the form of political regimes, and this needs to be eradicated. Men and women should enjoy equal human rights. This work, as much of my production, was not created for the sale; on the contrary, it responds to a desire to revolt against certain issues, which will outlive me and carry on existing after my death.
Kamel Yahiaoui, Once Upon a Time on Île de Gorée
Why are you donating half of the profits from the sale to the Île de Gorée museum?
As an artist, I believe that the art I create does not belong solely to me — it also belongs to the subjects that inspire my work, especially when I am exploring themes such as memory or the human condition. For this reason, works such as this sculpture should contribute to support and help the subjects they incarnate. Once Upon a Time on Île de Gorée is a work about memory, a work that attests to the difficult history of Gorée Island and its relationship to slavery. It’s a work that helps us remember, and it also works as a reminder that the evil of slavery can never again repeat itself in Africa.
What is your relationship to the history of slavery?
As an African, I have a very close bond to all the inhabitants of this country: it’s my ancestors who were deported. My skin is pale, but my scientific, geographic and cultural anatomy is undoubtedly African.
Should all artists be politically engaged?
I do not know how to answer to this question and I’m not sure about the definition of political commitment either. In certain countries, painting a face, a landscape or a flower can be dangerous. Creating in itself is already a commitment for me and what’s fundamental is to defend free expression whatever the subject is. Every artist has its own definition of political engagement; as for myself, I practice the art of the human condition, I am an artist very much rooted in the present.
Where’s the balance between artistic intention and political engagement?
The intention is in the works I create. The creative process always takes me a long time; I destroy a lot before creating. I’ve only just finished working on a project that I started seventeen years ago.
You are right in speaking about balance — often, my issue is to find an equilibrium. I’m almost a funambulist; I often fall, but I get back up until I am confident about my work. My creative process requires a lot of concentration, solitude and work at night. That’s how I find my own balance.
What drives you to create?
I respond to the most basic human drive: love. I’m in love with everything, I hate hatred.