Alexis Peskine 

“It’s really weird to be in a space where you get love and you have to be mad; you almost feel like a fraud."

“The reception I received in London was beautiful,” says Alexis Peskine,“I got all this love.” The French-Brazilian artist is reflecting on his debut solo exhibition in London, Power Figures, which ran at the October Gallery between September and October. “Not that people in Paris don’t give me this warmth, but it felt like people in London were listening, trying to understand my point of view and respected it. I felt that.” 

We are sat in the café of the October Gallery; two hours have passed since the exhibitions final showing. Dressed in a tweed blazer, brown shirt, bow tie and orange trousers, Peskine looks more like an academic than an artist. He sips on a glass of red wine and soaks up the silence in the room.

“It was a very draining project,” he says, “physically and mentally.” 

I tell him that the reception makes it worthwhile. Grateful as he is for it, he worries about how it will affect his work: “It’s funny you have all this anger but after a while, you get all this love and it’s like you try and stay connected to that anger and the people who are in the struggle {black experience},”he says, with his eyes fixed on mine. “It’s really weird to be in a space where you get love and you have to be mad; you almost feel like a fraud. But you have to wake up and feel connected because it’s still happening. You can’t forget the struggle. For me, it’s important to go back to what’s going on and the injustices.” 

"It felt like people in London were listening, trying to understand my point of view and respected it. I felt that.”

Born in France, to a Franco-Russian father, the son of a Jewish refugee, and an Afro-Brazilian mother from Bahia, Brazil, Peskine grew up in a multicultural family, of which he is deeply proud: “To grow up with so much culture to me was a richness. My father is French and Russian, but he lovedBrazilian culture. That’s where he met my mother. He spoke Portuguese well and was interested in the culture. They taught it to me, and I harboured it. They represented it and I wasn’t ashamed of it.”

Peskine’s multicultural identity is something which has informed much of his work, with the concept of identity a recurring fixture in his projects. His latest project, Power Figures, explores identity and the Black Experience of people in Congo. Using nails as his central medium, Peskine produced large scale portraits of Congolese people, alongside photographs of children. The use of metal forced into the wood refers to the Minkisi “power figures” of theCongo Basin, whose function it was to keep evil spirits away. The portraits are stunning. Peskine captures the beauty of the black skin in a truly remarkable way. ‘The Architects of New Djenné is perhaps the standout portrait amongst the set, with the gaze of the figure conveying a sense of both tranquillity and frustration.

This pride in his culture did not come easily. The second of four children – all boys – Peskine grew up predominantly in France but visitedBrazil often. Reminiscing over his childhood Peskine admits he faced “uneasy episodes”, having to deal with discrimination and racism in France. In Brazil, he faced a country where the standards of beauty were overwhelmingly white and Eurocentric, despite possessing the largest black population outside of Africa.

Did being mixed-raced make it easier?

“It’s easier, but it’s funny because people  misunderstand. A lot of white folks will say ‘you’re as white as you’re black’. Yes, on paper, but in the experience, it’s not as simple as that. I could go into the black community and black people could see me as black, I would be welcomed as a black person. Now, if I go running around saying I’m white everybody is going to look at me like I’m crazy. So, this is not the truth.” 

He pauses momentarily.

It’s a sensitive subject. “When I was a teenager, getting ID checked by the police violently, getting racist insults, I couldn’t be like ‘Oh hey I’m half-white take it easy’. Maybe you get discriminated less than if you are darker, but when you’re in a racist situation you can’t pull out the mixed card. I have to acknowledge colourism. I’m aware of it. It’s real. But that doesn’t take way from the {black} experience.”

"I have to acknowledge colourism. I’m aware of it. It’s real. But that doesn’t take way from the {black} experience.”

Peskine’s understanding of the Black Experience growing up was chiefly informed by his parents: “I was fortunate enough to have parents who despite not being the most educated people on the question of Blackness, knew certain things and educated me the best they could,” he says. “They took me to marches against racism, gave me the books on Afro-Brazilian culture, we watched Roots.”Despite being grateful for his parents’ efforts, Peskine admits it wasn’t enough. “They gave me what they had in their hands, which was good and better than a lot of people, but I knew some people who were fortunate enough to know about African history before colonialism. I didn’t have that.”

At the age of 17, he was spotted at the Nike camp and moved to America to play basketball. This helped get into Howard University where he majored in Painting and Photography:“I naturally went to that because I’ve always been interested in that field. My whole family is in the arts, so I kind of grew on that.” Being in Howard, Peskine’s understanding of the Black Experience changed immensely as it helped fill the gaps of what he knew growing up. “I was blessed to have gone to HowardUniversity, it’s a school full of teachers that teach you black history. I learnt a lot of stuff.

An important lesson Howard taught Peskine was how to treat the black skin in shoots: “In our photography class, we would talk about the grey card, but would mention that it’s not for us {black people}. We used it like everybody else but being in an environment where (who) you’re going to shoot is black, you have to learn how to shoot them. I was aware of that as soon as I learnt photography because I was in that school.”  

Having lived in America and spent time in the UK, where race issues are in the spotlight, Peskine is frustrated that this is not so in France: “InLondon and a lot of American cities, even with the racism that occurs, people are much more open to talk about racial dynamics and acknowledge the discrepancies, compared to France,” he says.

“France is hypocrisy at its height. I think we might be the country with the biggest black population in the whole of Europe, and still, people don’t want to address these questions. They do not want to acknowledge race-based discrimination. They are fragile.”

He runs his hands through his hair. “A lot of people think they are open-minded, but they are not. You have a lot of people who think of themselves as liberal or intellectuals who will be advocates for white supremacy and will not confront that. People see it as either you’re the KKK or you’re open-minded, but it’s not like that. You could be open-minded, have gone to school, have friends of all colours and sexualities, but still say ignorant things or not acknowledge people’s pains. That is what is done a lot in France. They don’t understand those dynamics. It’s very much swept under the rug and it’s very frustrating.” 

Peskine’s biggest frustration with France is its efforts to prevent minorities from building communities. “Whether it’s the UK or US, they have cultures based on communities and understand people need communities. Whereas in France it’s seen as threatening the norm of whiteness. When you’re in an environment that is fully white and discriminating against other people, thus performing the biggest act of communitarianism. But they don’t call it that; even though the biggest act of communitarianism is whiteness.”

"You could be open-minded, have gone to school, have friends of all colours and sexualities, but still say ignorant things or not acknowledge people’s pains."

Peskine is worried about coming off as ‘an angry black man’. In this situation, however, there is no other way to feel. Conversations on racial issues in France have been slow, with the Constitution banning the collection of race statistics. This has made it harder to shed light on racial issues inFrance. It would be wrong to suggest that data could help remove racism in one swoop. But it can at least point the light in a direction. It can be used to inform decisions, policies and fight denial.

The government is, he believes, only making things worse. Their spreading of misleading information is leaving him worried about the future.“France is still exploiting some countries in Africa, making themselves rich, yet complaining about migrants coming. The government acts a certain way and then the media who work for government defuse certain information to the masses and make them think a certain way and not to be honest,” he says. “People don’t have time to deconstruct the information they are being fed. They see TV and media as the gospel. The news is the truth; so, if they are lying most people are living on a fake truth. These altered truths cause people to act a certain way, especially in times of crisis and find a scapegoat.” 

Is it the role of the artists to counter this? Should we expect artists to point people to the truth? “I can’t say what other artists’ job is, but I decided that it is for me. So, I’m trying to do it. My job as an artist is to try and be honest. I’m not going to force people to talk about conscious things ‘cause that would be fake. It has to come from within,” he says. “I think as human beings it is our duty. We have a duty as a society, and society is a bunch of individuals, so as individuals we should do that. It’s true as an artist I have a platform and can influence a lot of people, but we should all do it.

He pauses.

“I can’t judge someone who wants to escape from it {racial issues} and enjoy a moment without being beat over the head with race. But, it’s like being in a war zone and trying to walk over dead bodies like they are not there when they are.”

Carefully he sits up and looks at me reflectively. “All humans try tobetter themselves. We can all mess up. We can all do or say the wrong thing. Ihave done and said things that are wrong. The thing is to fix yourself afteryou make a mistake. To reassess yourself. To not do it continuously. Try andunderstand what you did and why it’s wrong.” 

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