YZ is an Anglo-Guadeloupean artist whose personal identity and pursuit to understand her Guadeloupean roots have taken her to Senegal, where she is currently working.
Her latest project, Amazone, pays tribute to women fighting against invaders and persecutors in the 19th century. With wheat-paste and attentive placement, she juxtaposes these heroic warriors to today’s Senegalese women, which she discusses here with Street Art Paris.
Have you always been interested in Africa?
When I was 20 years old, I came to live in Senegal searching for my roots, to build my consciousness. Having several identities, I had to understand who my ancestors were to write my own story. Africa came up naturally because of my Guadeloupean origins. Culture here is very strong, I could definitely relate to the people here. Since then, I have been traveling to many countries in Africa.
And with your mother being English, are you interested in exploring your English roots as well?
After traveling to Senegal, I went to London for two years to experience my English side. I guess you need to know where you are coming from to know where you’re going to.
Tell me about the exploration into the African roots. Was your father proud of this connection to the African descendants who ended up in Guadeloupe ?
Yes, he’s an artist too, and his research concentrates on Guadeloupean history. For example, in Guadeloupe, you have a lot of Indian descendants, so he had been doing work on Indian imagery, which is very minimalist. But I felt that I wanted to go to Africa because it was really inspiring, and I think it was really related to my story, so it came naturally.
Is your connection to Africa purely through the stories your father has given you about your family history and heritage ?
Yes, I think it’s a bit instinctive. I felt I had to go to Africa, because I had something to do with this continent, to those countries. I had one picture of my grandfather, and when you see a picture where your grandfather is black and you’re white, you need to have answers. I wanted to proove to myself that I was also from this side of the family. I wasn’t only English, or French, but I was from Guadeloupe.
And what has been your experience so far on that search, having now moved to Senegal ?
I feel I relate to the different ways of living. For example the family and the way they are settled here ; the family is very strong, and very big, so maybe this is the common element that I’m living in my personal experience and I that can find here.
Comparing your life now in La Somone to your life in Montreuil, Paris, what are the differences in how you feel connected to your community there ?
The people. They are more friendly and free with you. They are not so concerned with material things and care about others.
Have you noticed having an impact on the way you live and the way you work ?
Well no, because I’ve always been sensitive about this. I’m not into consumerism. So this is the way I was living before, and I continue to. I was living there twenty years ago, so I knew Senegal, I knew how it was. I’ve been coming for years, so it’s quite natural. It’s not like “wow, I’m going to Africa !”
How does your day-to-day life in La Somone affect what you produce in your work ? Is it different, or is it stil just the same kind of thing you were doing in France?
I work the same here as anywhere else. The stories, the people, and the energy that I feel here are different for sure. I get inspired by the culture and the strong history of Senegal. Usually, I try to work with what I have around me and tell a story related to the places I live and work.
“Back to the Roots,” Paris
What are the new stories that are coming up in your new situation that are feeding into the work?
Well my project Amazone talks about women from the past. Women nowadays in Africa work in all different industries and are crucial to the economy of the country.
Are you talking about women from Senegal, or women from all of Africa?
I get inspired by different stories from Benin, Angola, Nigeria, Sierra Leone to other African countries and of course Senegal.
Who are the subjects in the Amazone series?
One of them, Aline Sitoe Diatta, a Senegalese woman from Casamance, fought against the French colonialists, she died very young at twenty four years old, but stays in the history of Senegal. Seh Dong Hong Beh was the leader of a 6,000 women army int he Dahomey. They fought with lance, sword, and arrow against the invaders. Also I have been using portraits of unknown women from the 19th century wearing traditional clothing remember custom from different African countries.
And in terms of the materials to create the work in the Amazone project, are you pasting it, or are you painting it directly onto the wall ?
I used indian ink on silk paper, and then pasted it on walls. What’s interesting with silk paper is you really get the texture of the wall. The pasting needs to fit perfectly to the wall as if it were there for ages.
How long does it typically last on the side of the buildings ?
It depends, for example I pasted one two months ago and it’s still there, but here there are a lot of the children who come and take it off, so sometimes it only stays for an hour. But this is paper, I like the idea of it being éphémère.
And what is the purpose of adding it on the side of a building ? Why not just put it on a canvas and put it somewhere indoors ?
Because when I work on a project, there’s kind of a triangle. There’s the place, the inhabitant, and their stories. There’s always this triangle. For Amazone for example, I’m thinking about those women, their history, and the way they’re related to women today. I am putting their portraits on the streets, especially on the houses owned by women because I found it interesting to have this parallel between women of different centuries. I have no interest in putting a portrait on a wall that’s all white and has no meaning.
I can see from your pictures that the esthetic value of where you’re putting into the work with the architectural shape of the buildings and the textures of the walls, but what about the narrative of the person who inhabits the building ? Are you inquiring about that ?
I am, definitely. Usually when I go in a place, where there’s a woman outside, I ask her if I can paste my work there. And then I spend a bit of time with her, talking with her. There was another city close to mine where I went in several times until the people got used to me, and until they knew what I was doing.
See more of YZ’s work here.