A talk with Agnès LALAU
What are your references, not necessarily artistic, but also theoretical? Which books, authors, people etc. have influenced you?
When I truly started thinking about my project on black femininity and became engaged in a more consciously political practice, I was very much influenced by the African-American artist Kara Walker. The discovery of her work was pivotal because of its political and poetic qualities. Her work really spoke to me, as she was talking about slavery at a time when I was interested in the history of colonization and I was constantly making connections between these two subjects.
On a theoretical level, I have been very much influenced by the book, Léopold Sédar Senghor: l’art africain comme philosophie (Riveneuve, 2007) by Souleymane Bachir Diagne, a Senegalese author. He talks about African art as a philosophy; he develops Senghor’s ideas in this regard. Diagne addresses the Western perception of African art and notes how African creative practices have been poorly addressed, and considered systematically in ethnographic or highly aesthetic terms. He deconstructs this to return to the source, the soul of African art objects. This thought has been a reference for some of the work I have been doing lately.
This was the case for what I presented a few months ago at the cultural center of La Louvière. For this work I departed from a piece of Kuba fabric; the Kuba are a people from the Congolese region of Kasai. I really departed from these textiles, questioned my perception of these patterns as well as the way in which they are generally presented in the West today, i.e. in very “design” interiors accentuating their decorative aspect, or in museums where these pieces lose their lives. These loincloths are supposed to be seen worn during ceremonies and not presented in such a disembodied manner. I made a series of large drawings that I have entitled Mbal, after the word for ‘raffia’ in the Kuba language.
Do you have a favorite medium?
Initially I was mainly drawing, then I did a lot of painting and for the past three years I have been engraving. I navigate between these techniques, but I always work on paper. My explorations used to be especially in colour, but nowadays I tend to opt for brown or black and white. I choose my technique in relation to what I want to express. My choice very much depends on my subject of study.
My work is sometimes figurative, sometimes abstract and full of symbolism (as in the Wild Nature series). At the moment, I am using video; I animate my drawings from engravings by working with fades. I am currently making a film with this kind of animation. It’s the most intimate work I’ve done so far. It’s about a conversation with my mother about the Tshiluba language, my mother tongue that I don’t speak. Although it’s not yet finished, this piece already seems to me to be the most emblematic of my work.
What is the thematic field in which your work is inscribed?
Transmission, as in what we choose to transmit or not; memory, and more particularly what emerges unconsciously. All these questions are recurrent in my work and touch on culture, identity. My projects testify to my personal path, in the field of Afrofeminism, via my research into the history of colonization. The fact that I take up these questions gives much more meaning to my work as an artist. Added to this is my discovery and desire to reconnect with my Congolese culture, which I know little about. My origins, Belgian and Congolese, shed light on my questioning of identity. It is a hybrid identity and I can ignore neither one nor the other. Where does one feel at home when one has one’s feet between two countries? One feels the lack, the emptiness when one lacks access to one’s culture. Home is an experience that must be built. This is what nourishes my universe.
On a professional level, I work with people who are dealing with the same kind of identity issues that I am also struggling with: people with immigrant backgrounds, without papers, who are waiting to receive their new nationality. This makes me think about decolonization, especially since I myself spent my childhood in Burundi. This experience has influenced me in the way I approach these subjects. My field of research also reflects what is currently happening in Belgian society. For a long time, colonization was glossed over. Thanks to the decolonial movements, this issue is being returned to public debate, and there are more and more initiatives in this regard. Today we are discovering many Congolese and Afro artists, and this is very exciting.
— LALAU Agnès interviewed by CONDEROLLE Maéva,
transcript and writing by Prof. dr. BEKERS Elisabeth.