Interview with Giovanni Lista on Bobi K.’s artistic work by Antonio Furone.
A.F. : You have recently displayed great interest in Bobi K.’s paintings. Can you tell me what characterizes her work and particularly what sparked your interest?
Giovanni Lista: I believe she is in tune with the best and most recent events in the art world. Her paintings offer an abstract form of art that deliberately ignores the historical or contemporary codes of European abstraction. As such, it immediately creates a favorable context for genuine intercultural dialogue. Apart from a few exceptions, art abandoned explicit communication for a long time, limiting itself to strictly formal explorations and averting any claims to convey messages, transmit ideologies or share any political content. Contemporary artists follow this direction, delegating the plain enunciation of an idea or message to other, more direct art forms belonging to the cultural realm of mass-media, whether or not they be related to advertising. But a current trend in contemporary art, and abstract art in particular, seems to be to try and restore art’s enunciatory function via a new communication strategy.
Bobi K.’s work is in keeping with this tendency because all her paintings, although abstract, advocate for learning about others and promote dialogue between cultures. I am obviously referring to the strong ethnographical connotation of her paintings. On the one hand, her work fits into today’s social and artistic reality; on the other hand, its aesthetic significance requires that the viewer be ready to accept otherness and to discover new means of expression. Her paintings do not seek to disturb or provoke. Much rather, they suggest the enormous potential for renewal and rejuvenation brought by drawing formal elements from other cultures to create a new artistic expression. Her art effectively points out how fruitful any cultural crossing can be, similar to a pollination process that summons the achievements of other civilizations or other visual cultures.
A.F. : According to you, by ignoring the codes of recent or historical European abstraction, the basis of her expression is genuine cultural otherness. Do you think that the abstraction in her paintings owes nothing to European culture?
Giovanni Lista : Absolutely. This abstraction is radically different. It is important to remember that the history of modern art, at least from Paul Gauguin’s 1891 trip to Tahiti onwards, cannot be grasped without this exchange between Europe and non-Western cultures. This is precisely what made it possible to reject the stale classical tradition and deeply renew the conceptual foundations of Western art, and perhaps even European artistic culture. The first phase of this exchange has long been recognized: the insight with which European artists like the Fauvists, Cubists, Cubo-Futurists, Expressionists and Primitivists assimilated the vigorous plastic language of masks and traditional African, Oceanian and Native American idols.
Some twenty years later, the second phase of this exchange occurred. Artistic techniques and stylistic models then spread from Europe to Africa through trade. This outreach of European culture as a phenomenon initiated a multifaceted, contradictory process, which marked both the evolution of African art and the ideological positions adopted by Africans themselves. The emancipation of African culture coincided with the decolonization process that began at the same time, in the late 1950s. At the time, traditional African art was perceived as original and authentic, but was still associate with the concept of ‘primitive art’. This sparked the need for an indigenous awakening and, in Africa itself, for a clean break between tradition and modernity. The awareness of this need brought on several attempts to establish a modern African art, the idea of which was based on the model of European art. You only have quote Aimé Césaire and Léopold Sédar Senghor – two of the great figures of this cultural awakening – to understand this historical process. The creation of the Dakar Biennale in 1989 opened a third phase which led to the discovery and success of new African artists, freed from any cultural complex. Today, African artists show their works in major galleries and in international exhibitions. They belong to what is called the world of “contemporary art”. Bobi K. is rightfully part of this new world which has chosen to ignore the past and to express itself from the standpoint of contemporary African culture, from its otherness.
A.F. : Regarding this topic, you spoke of a “strongly ethnographic connotation of her paintings”. Can you clarify what you mean by that?
Giovanni Lista : While asserting herself as a contemporary artist in her own right, she also qualifies as an ‘African artist’. As such, she thus both owns and magnifies her cultural affiliation. I believe that part of her work works consists in transcending the multiple color patterns on textiles recognized as the most popular signs of African, and even Congolese culture: the ‘boubou’ fabric and the craft technique known as ‘batik’. The ‘boubou’ is known in all African markets as the basis of both female and male clothing. Perceived as a mosaic of shimmering colors, today the ‘boubou’ has become an identity-related symbol of African daily life. Conversely, ‘batik’ as a craft technique, which is Bobi K.’s other cultural reference, consists in applying color, covering it with melted wax to create blank spaces, thereby forming repeated patterns and contrasts. I think this is why her work displays this extreme variety of textures, each of which is compartmentalized and surrounded by a thick black outline. I believe the end result of this technique is known as ‘wax’ fabric.
Bobi K.’s approach is clearly based on transfiguration as it does not use these materials and techniques per se, in a direct way. She radically reinvents them, since the textures and patterns of her paintings are her own. However, while completely singular and new, their interwoven textures and abstract chromatic patterns inevitably evoke their origin and the complex history they bear. They thus become simultaneously identity-related and contemporary. Beyond these color choices, her paintings are also characterized, on a formal level, by winding or wrapping lines, which seem to evoke a wild and immediate identification with the intertwining, triumphant and luxuriant foliage of the African jungle. This is undoubtedly the result of a personal mythology of an imaginary, dreamed-up Africa. Ultimately, the visual culmination of her African imagination is expressed partly though a hallucination of bright colors, partly by interwoven shapes that she renews with each painting.
A.F. : Could you talk about some of her paintings so that we can understand your analysis better?
Giovanni Lista : First, let’s talk about the overall characteristics of her work. For instance, she chooses to work with even color planes that emphasize the flatness of the composition. She never uses gradients or relief to convey a full and autonomous existence to isolated shapes. She also favors square formats that immobilize the viewer’s gaze, and designs all her compositions according to the two-dimensional surface of the canvas: this reveals its double nature: as a material object and a piece of craftmanship.
Her approach to art and creation also includes a whole set of variations and modulations, and this attitude stems from her initial passion for photography. In fact, in her early days, she practiced photography for a few years. She then came to realize that the mechanical nature of this medium was a hindrance to fully expressing herself. She therefore diverged towards painting, while keeping the photographic practice of enlarging and zooming into details within a bigger picture. Once she is happy with a painting, she likes to consider it as a model from which she can multiply details and patterns, reproducing them on a different scale to create new paintings that she nevertheless considers unique, self-standing works in their own right. This is also an opportunity to vary her textures. So in paintings like A Mystic River or A Poetic Frenzy, she gives center stage to black and white in meticulous graphics, by constructing images with a dense, grainy appearance, which in my opinion evokes geological strata. In Ebadia Salmon or Most Hearts, on the other hand, she chooses contrasts from a wide range of radiant colors, alternating curved lines and small, thick, elongated segments.
When she alludes to tribal culture, like in Tribe Kinshasa or Xoxo Chenilles, she tries to find a balance between graphic structure and chromatic composition. But when referring to the organic structure of living matter, like in Velvet Fever and especially in Most Hearts or Ebadia Salmon, she readily leans towards informal art and surrealism, occasionally substituting her usual small dappled brushstrokes with a proliferation of eyes or a swarm of insects, or even an unexpected stretch of small tentacles, thereby giving her compositions a disturbing force. In fact, she always seeks ambiguous, ambivalent and even enigmatic effects. The decorated areas either seem to stand out against a plain, almost monochrome background, or surround more neutral, usually white areas, or even a central void which invites sexual connotations or simply opens onto a realm beyond our own… For her, ambiguity means vitality, as does the hybridization of forms and creative mixtures.
Some of her titles, such as Velvet Fever or Yellow Insomnia, demonstrate that she also draws from physical or emotional sensation. Taking into account her states of mind and associating her paintings with music or a poem undoubtedly allows her to trigger the necessary atmosphere for her work. She loves jazz, a form of music born from a cultural blend, because it is an evolving melody based on improvisations & variations which impose continuous inflections on the sound material. The prolific, triumphant vegetation of the African jungle, which is one of her favorite patterns, displays the repetition of multiple, endlessly intertwined shapes. This coiling movement is a precise metaphor in her paintings.
It is what binds all the world’s heterogenous and continuous elements together, since matter is nothing but an infinity of folds, containing neither voids nor gaping holes. This continuous pattern is interrupted only by folds and winding patterns because straight lines do not really exist in nature and are merely an abstraction of human reason, just like points are merely an atomization of the world. Thus intertwining shapes became the principle of her formal organization. Proof of this is the absence of visual metaphors for the force of gravity in her paintings. There is no horizon to separate the top from the bottom, the earth from the sky, light from dark, spirit from matter. There is no stacking between top and bottom because everything is united in a sinuous rhythm – the internal structure & texture of matter, with folds as the primary elements of an intimately intertwined world, unique yet containing infinite variety.
A.F. : So the main feature of her abstraction would be this curling, convoluting movement, contoured by a thick black line…
Giovanni Lista : Yes, I am convinced that she begins her work with this thick black line that she draws freehand, by imperiously entering the visual field of the canvas’ surface while it is still blank, so white. This thick black line, which unfolds in a sinuous pattern with irregular curves, organizes, distributes and outlines the various zones within the composition. This is the structuring role she assigns to it. She then chooses the areas that she will treat as solid planes of saturated color, and others that she will instead fill with various graphic patterns, alternating speckled motifs with repeated interwoven lines, small curved or straight lines, which can be parallel, vertical, horizontal or oblique. The impression of a composition with holes, blank spaces, like in A Poetic Frency or other paintings, is also a product of this thick black line that she draws more or less spontaneously or instinctively on the blank canvas.
Another thing: she favors a mixed technique using acrylic, sometimes with very thick brushstrokes, India ink, gouache and Posca felt markers with retractable tips. This allows for the virtuosity and diversity of her layered, mosaic-like graphic style. This big black line is clearly reminiscent of the paintings of Keith Haring, or even Miró, while the dotted lines and the small spiky lines can remind us the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat. But the thick black line is the initial gesture that structures and unifies the composition by creating, through arabesques, cells and volutes, a feeling of sinuous convolutions, even enclosing shapes. Then she juxtaposes micro and macrostructures made from a concentration of lines, studded or jagged planes, creating a wide variety of graphic solutions and using a range of saturated colors for the monochrome areas treated in solid planes. This is how she always obtains the overall impression of a powerfully organic tissue.
A.F. : I understand your enthusiasm. You have just explained to us that by calling herself an African artist, Bobi K. not only honors African culture in its most contemporary features, but manages to develop a true visual mythology of the very origins of life.
Giovanni Lista: yes, that’s exactly it, her art is deeply original. It succeeds in exalting contemporary African culture and at the same time offering a true celebration of life.