"Artivism" and humanism with Pauline N'Gouala
The lack of role models around her spurred this Paris-based artist to create her own, through her art. Pauline N'Gouala shares why her identity, activism and art cannot be separated from each other.
You are involved in different causes : afro-feminism and the fight againt homophobia. Have you always been an activist and where does this drive come from?
Before doing oil painting, I used to draw iconic figures such as Angela Davis, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X or Patrice Lumumba with Indian ink. I was a teenager then and I needed to express my interest in panafricanist ideas. Then, when I started doing oil painting, I met [South African artist and visual activit] Zanele Muholi who suggested that we collaborate in 2013. I think that my life as an activist for the black and LGBT+ communities started then.
How does your activism and your identity feed your art and vice-versa ?
I like to be able to find myself in my art and have the feeling that I can find pieces of me in people that are different from me. I identify as gender fluid. I’m a black androgynous person who didn’t have any role model to look up to. So in a sense, my art is a way for me to create those models. And if people connect with the portraits that I paint and it helps them figure out who they are, then that’s a great motivation.
You live in Paris, one of the world capitals of art. How do you enter that circle when you are a black, LGBT artist?
Great question… I’m very unapologetic about my work and proud of the ideas that I defend. Sometimes it’s well received, like during my latest artistic residency with Jour et Nuit Culture. I was able to use one of their studios to create my series Queer Vision.
And the events where I show my art take place mainly within the LGBT+ community. I also exhibit at events that fight against any type of discrimination, like Afropunk Paris.
What are your artistic influences ?
I like Modigliani’s portraits and I’m fascinated by the paintings of Kehinde Wiley. Black & white photography influences me because I start from photos when I paint, I study their composition and the play between light and shadows.
How would you describe your style ? What’s your creative process?
I learnt to draw on my own and at first I would try to reproduce cartoon characters. And today, I draw first and then I paint. You can see a bit of this comic book style in my paintings. I work with pencils and draw the portrait in black and white blends and then use bright colours for the background.
In your portraits, you pay special attention to the eyes of your subjects. Tell us more about that.
I’m fascinated by the eyes. They reflect the soul and show the emotions that are buried within us. I can draw a peaceful glaze, or an anxious one, show a shy personality or an extroverted one. You can show so many things with the eyes and viewers are automatically drawn to them. It’s through looking into the eyes of the person portrayed that they feel something.
Tell us more about your portraits of James Baldwin, Jimi Hendrix and Basquiat. What connects you to these big icons of African-american culture and what is the common link between them?
All three icons were instrumental in helping me find my own identity. When I was in high-school, I used to listen to hip-hop and punk rock and Jimi’s music made me feel less alone. I was made to feel as if I wasn’t really black because I enjoyed listening to punk or rock. Thanks to Jim Hendrix, I could show them that you could be black and be into that type of music.
I discovered Basquiat when I was 21, through the movie of the same title. They don’t really explore his queer side in the film but I was nonetheless inspired by his personality and his free spirit. I drew his portrait 4 years after seeing that movie and I consider it as one of my best pieces.
As for James Badlwin, I was extremely moved by his novel Giovanni’s Room. I admire his work and his activism for the black community and more specifically the black LGBT+ community.
What would you like people to take from your art ?
If I can make them feel something, then I would consider my job done. If I can make them embrace my humanist point of view, then that’s another success. And if I my art is viewed by someone who has a negative opinion of the LGBT+ community and it makes them reconsider their views, then this would a phenomenal victory.
Pauline's cover image (c) Denis Manuel, Afro Punk Paris 2015
Pauline's picture in the interview (c) Emilie Jouvet