Article and Photo: Fiorella Ruth Kibongui
Her origins are often mistaken and the only sure data she has is a DNA test that traces back some of her forefathers in Tanzania
Suspended between a past in the States and a present in South Africa, Ayana Jackson uses photography to describe the complexity of the Diaspora identities. Starting from her sociology studies, she’s shown the faces of black communities that, after the transatlantic trade, settled in Latin America and other parts of the world.
After meeting professor Katharina Siedverding, committed to an academic path that follows the role of the woman and portrait art, she understands that mixing media like photography, video and art performance, is the right key to portray what she wants.
She’s inspired by the works of Carrie Mae Weems, Lorna Simpson, James Van Der Zee and, in these weeks, she presents at the Galleria Primo Marella in Milan her latest work called Leap Frog (a bit of the other) Grand Matron Army. In this series of self-portraits, the artist portrays nine archetypes of what has been the Black woman’s role in America starting from colonialism. The frog position recalls an imagery in which sexuality is power and, at the same time, the idea of an imminent jump represents the desire to overtake the previous model.
Often our story begins with our name, what do yours mean? Do they represent you?
Ayana is an Ethiopian name that means beautiful flower. Vellissa comes from my mother, I’m not sure what it means exactly but it has something to do with beauty and happiness. My last name, Jackson, comes from Georgia, even though it has spread widely. My parents strongly wanted for me to have a name with African origins as to maintain a relationship with the history of our family. I used to hate them when I was little, I wanted to be a Lauren or a Cynthia, but, growing up, I realized how important it is to have these names.
Why did you choose to put yourself as a model in the heart of Leap Frog (a bit of the other) Grand Matron Army?
I started with portraits of others, then I asked myself about the concept of your own identity and on the representation of it, and from there my work started to take different directions, given from the complexity of diasporas. The communities I’ve met are not as static as they’re often portrayed. I found myself in Paris, in an empty studio that I was supposed to fill with projects and I decided to use myself as expressive object, aiming to crumble the idea tied to the identity of the Black woman. This latest work, though, actually began as a video, which I’m still producing, in collaboration with Cameroon artist Pascal Obolo. We’re the main protagonists and we jump on each other, representing the female empowerment, obtained thanks to the work and sacrifice of other women. It’s a metaphor on how this concept has evolved from the pre-colonial period to today.
It’s not the first time that you’ve work with video-artists. In the past you’ve collaborated with Marco Villalobos for the project African by legacy, Mexican by birth...
Yes, Marco is a writer, besides a video-artist, and traveling together throughout Mexico with him was exciting because he represented the Hispanic Diaspora and I the African one. What I like about collaborations is that the roles are well distinct and separated, but, at the same time, the exchange of thoughts and the development of the work brings you very close together.
On the subject of African Diaspora in America you’ve developed a project that involved the hip-hop scene in Ghana, where many artists make references to US personalities, like a true American lifestyle. Tracing the steps of the genre in the US it is evident that there is a search for African roots. How did you see these two aspects coexist?
On one hand, interviewing different artists, I saw how the image of famous African Americans is copied with pride in Ghana. It’s like as if they were giving back something, a sort of family bond is established, like “We’re Black, just like you”. And when I asked them why they were so inspired from that kind of aesthetics, many pointed out the desire to appear according to new and different standards, according to a new idea of Blacks and Africans. There’s also the desire to be recognized as part of a global community.
Which other Diasporas would you like to investigate?
I’m interested in the migration of East Africans towards India and the Middle East. Long before the slavery forced by the Portuguese and the Dutch, there had been the Arabian one that forced many people from Kenya and Tanzania to move to India. These communities are called Hanshi, from the Abyssinian word. I’m trying to develop a project around this but it’s not easy, they’re truly socially excluded.
Your projects have a strong political meaning, is that in your intentions?
The director of the Momo Gallery in Johannesburg met my approval when speaking about me he said, “Ayaba is not only an artist, she’s an activist”. My work is very political, I try in every way to establish a connection between form and content, but I celebrate in particular the complexity of the Black experience in the Diaspora.
Dress codes have a strong importance in every culture, but are there certain communities in which you’ve felt this trait even stronger?
I think, in general, clothing is a code of presentation. It’s hard to say if there is a place where I’ve felt it more strongly, but in South Africa there is a great interest towards vintage items and the cultural mix translates into eclecticism even in clothing. Mods, Afro Chics, Hipsters: there’s lots of freedom about it. From the less formal situations to ceremonies, the important thing is to show a side of your self. In Ghana, instead, hip-hop is much more trendy, developed according to one’s personality. Perhaps South Africa remains my favorite spot, though, in matters of clothing, it recalls New York, there’s everything!
What relationship do you have with your image?
I often speak of third space identity. I was born in the States, I’m Black and now I live in Africa. I have a double knowledge and all dualities in my life are very crucial to the vision of myself. It’s an essential part of my work. Every day I’m different, even in the way I dress: I like to celebrate everyday the different aspects of myself in this way, and never be trapped in a static identity. I think that clothing is a unique element to describe plurality. Even in Leap Frog (a bit of the other) Grand Matron Army I used this method to describe different aspects. The work does talk about the conquest of female empowerment, but also of how the body deals with this potential. I wanted to underline that both during colonialism and nowadays there’s always, and there has always been, an interest of the woman to manage the complexity of her image.