French street artist YZ has begun a striking new series of portraits in Senegal. The project title, Amazone, refers to the Dahomey Amazons, a group of Fon female warriors who fought for the Kingdom of Dahomey (present-day Republic of Benin) from the 17th through the 19th centuries. The name “Amazon” was European-given, an allusion to Greek mythology. The Dahomey Amazons fought against the French in the First Franco-Dahomean War, which ended in Dahomey becoming a French colonial territory. YZ’s Amazone series portrays not only known historical figures, including some of the Amazones and Senegalese anti-colonialist Aline Sitoe Diatta, but also anonymous women — an homage to lost histories of female power.
Amazone is refreshing for its offering of powerful images of nonsexualized women in public space. Pictures of women in public these days usually come from advertising, which throughout the world tends to present them as stereotypical, sexy shells of persons, not as individuals. The positive message of YZ’s series is compounded by the historical nature of the portraits, complicating a notion of the past as simply the story of powerful men.
But Amazone also has less positive, more ambiguous implications: Senegal, like Benin, is a former French colony. YZ, a French artist, is portraying images of a pre-colonial history in Africa. Cynics could argue the “white man’s burden,” a rewriting of the French involvement on the continent.
One interesting aspect of the way street art functions is that many of the sociological realities of its existence are not immediately apparent in the same way as work hung in a museum, which is generally accompanied by both text and vague evocations of privilege and authority. But perhaps street art’s integration into the everyday life of a community gives it more power to affect a general public. One’s perception of a street artist’s duty to be sociologically responsible likely rises or falls depending on how one weights the power of the institution versus the power of a constant, in this case evocative, visual presence.
Where to begin with a project as awful as this? The scale and style are so at war with this environment that referring to the “white man’s burden” is letting it off the hook. This is re-colonization, pure and simple (here is what you should admire, this is what you should think). The placement of African images from before the colonization took full effect into the space where its effects are now complete is terrifying. Yes, the locals may have been paid for the use of their walls, but who does seeing these images really benefit? The people in the photos look like they are somehow managing to ignore them. But couldn’t YZ digitally accomplish whatever pedagogical purpose he may have (assuming a goal as benevolent as forcing the French to see what they have wrought)? Why must the Senegalese live with his misguided intentions? And Hyperallergic printed this PR (all photos provided by the artist)? Not good.
So is he trying to apologize for the colonization by sticking his nose in there again? YZ should stay in France and go paint a picture of a French woman on the side of the Louvre.
First off, the artist is a woman. Don’t let that interfere with your assumptions though.
Thank you. Obviously I didn’t realize that. The article doesn’t really state, unless I just missed it. I cut her slightly more slack than a male artist but still … Senegal does not need another great white savior.
I understand your point, and it certainly is subjective in that regard.
As photographs, I think they’re gorgeous documents. To me, the images appear beautifully integrated into their environments.
Everyone is entitled to their own subjective response, but it would also be interesting to hear your thoughts, aesthetic or other, on why and how the images seem “beautifully integrated into their environments.”
Did anybody ask what the descendants of the kingdom Dahomey living there now think of these? One can be hasty to judge from afar but they seem pretty benign. I liked the artworks and that there are integrated in people’s life as opposed to a Western world gallery. But dont worry, they will fade away…. Maybe to be rediscovered and cherished in 50 to 100 years.. But please only let the local decide their fate, NOT the $$$$ obsessed ART world…
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