Visceral, visual and wearable art by Diana Ejaita
If the essence of knowledge is self-knowledge, then knowing your roots is vital; when those roots span two dramatically different cultures, the search for answers can become complex. Diana Ejaita employs a range of research, curating her curiosity into a collection of visual and wearable art. Combining the secrets of ancient Nigerian symbology within the present Europe, Diana is travelling the world stitching together truths about past, present and self, with silkscreen as her mental map.
In what ways does travel inform your art? How did your recent trip to Senegal inspire you artistically?
I travelled a lot as a child with my mother – to South America for three to four months each year, and then around Asia. I love travelling; it gives me the chance to view things from different points of view, it refreshes my perspective. Africa is a new chapter in my personal travel. I was recently in Senegal on the Waaw Artists’ Residency for 3 months and it was one of the best trips of my life. I ran silk screening workshops in girls’ schools and will be running a similar project in Nigeria exploring themes in a more socio-political direction.
Is there a reason why you’ve chosen to go to girls’ schools in particular?
Women who engage in Art Studies are frowned upon from what I’ve observed, with the ones who pursue fine arts professionally almost treated as outsiders. They’re also more closely bound by parental input and family life than boys are, so attempts to be independent can lead to rejection. I think silk screen is a powerful method of communication that gives girls the chance to share ideas, stories and information where they might otherwise not feel empowered to do so. And as it’s so cheap and easy it can be done at home, for either artistic purposes or even as a small-scale industrial production for those who want to make an income from it.
You have a clothing line called Wear Your Mask – how did this come about, and what does the name mean?
I started to print on textiles but had never studied fashion design – once prints were done I had no ideas what to do with all of the fabric! So I decided to make clothes, exploring Nigerian Nsibidi symbology throughout the process and trying to find a balance in between African and European influences. Nsibidi is an ancient writing system that was used in South Eastern Nigeria during pre-colonial times, and the Nsibidi symbols are printed onto what is known as Adinkra cloth as a method of storytelling. Each symbol has a meaning, so I wanted to incorporate those meanings into the first collection, contrasting the African origins with a European cut and design. The second collection was a range of traditional boubou garments – very long, loose shirts with matching pants. The collections were shown at Saint-Louis du Sénégal Fashion Week and feedback has been excellent; the show itself is growing and is set to do great things.
Do any of the symbols you’ve discovered have personal significance to you?
Yes, I have a few of them tattooed on me. One looks like the letter ‘I’ representing the masculine element; the feminine is depicted by the same symbol with a little bubble representing a pregnant belly. Together they are my own version of yin and yang – I also use this as the logo for Wear Your Mask.
You’ve talked about your use of duality in art, conveyed through contrasting dark and light, warm and cold. What is it about the theme of duality that compels you?
It’s connected to being from both European and African culture, this feeling of always being in-between; I’m trying to bring the two together and create my own story, sharing my experiences of both.
There is a book by Abdoulaye Sadji called “Nini, mulâtresse du Sénégal”– the protagonist is called Nini; the word itself refers to the mixed race children born in colonial times, ‘Nini’ meaning ‘not one or the other’. It’s a theme I’ve just begun exploring, and in some ways I can relate to it. Looking through a collection at a photo-tech in Saint-Louis, where the story is set, I chose some photos of beautiful traditional costumes and hairstyles and made a portrait out of it, my own depiction of what Nini would have looked like.
I’ve grown to approach my art in that same research-based way when exploring the stories behind my own mixed origins – through wanting to understand myself more and using research to learn more about the places I am from, I apply that research to life experience, then try to fill in the gaps through the practise of art. A piece I did called Born In Exile is a tribute to that feeling of displacement. It took a lot of time for me to go back to Africa and demystify what I had learned about it – my father never went back, never told me about his home, so I felt born in exile, missing part of myself, trying to interpret that homeland from far away.
What does the Belle Face Lotion picture refer to?
I developed a project about pollution and litter inspired by the tonnes of garbage in Senegal that the authorities are trying to clear. You can learn a lot about a place by looking at its waste, so I studied the garbage – yes, I know it’s not the most conventional form of research! I got a lot of strange looks, but it was worth it – and found many empty skin-bleach bottles; ‘Belle Face’ or ‘beautiful face’ is a brand of skin lightening cream, and in the piece I altered the logo, using a silhouette reminiscent of vintage beauty products. In many African countries women and men are using dangerous chemical products to lighten their skin – the slang name for them in Senegal is ‘yellow taxi faces’. It’s a dramatic, huge global problem and a very nuanced subject that I want to spend more time exploring.
You did an illustration for the World Policy Journal on the Black Lives Matter movement. What is the movement like in Berlin and Italy?
Demonstrations have been happening regularly in Berlin with several activists engaged; the movement there has built a consciousness that isn’t yet present in Italy. My contribution to activism is usually through art; the image I created for the journal has a reflective, pondering look about it that’s charged with energy but calm at the same time – it holds this quiet confidence of knowing we will make a change, a steady and focused sense of self-assurance. I feel this moment in history present a huge wave of awareness; it’s a very special moment for people with African origins to speak out and challenge stereotypes. I don’t want to miss it so I’m working with what I have to keep the ball rolling.
What do you get from art personally? How does being an artist contribute to your life experience?
I couldn’t live without art. Everyone has their own way of expressing themselves – some people are good speakers, some are very expressive with the body and are great dancers, others are talented with music and so on. Visceral art is my much-needed method of self-expression – it’s a source of life and at the same time it’s a cure, my own essential way of working through issues and understanding the world. Being an artist is of course challenging at times but I really believe in it enough to keep going, to keep telling stories that open up the different parts of me. There is a lot of work still to be done, and for that reason I carry on.
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