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.
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.