German-Senegalese artist and designer, Joséphine Sagna, has joined me for a written interview about her work and her experience as a mixed-ethnic woman in a predominantly White society. Sagna studied art and fashion design at the HAW Hamburg University of Applied Sciences, Germany, and gained her Bachelor of Arts in Fashion Design from the Design Department in 2019. Sagna, who was born in Stuttgart, now lives and works in her city of choice Hamburg.
With her work she wants to raise awareness for issues Black and Brown people face on a daily basis and to evoke empowerment.
Ashinedu: Why did you choose to study design instead of fine art? Do you still want to pursue both artistic paths or do you think you might choose one route in the future?
Joséphine: Like probably many people, when it came to choosing my direction of studies, I thought that it might be difficult to earn enough money with freelance art to be able to live on it at some point. I am somehow quite a safety loving person.
The fashion design degree seemed like a good compromise. I hoped that I could always get a job somewhere, in case I needed it, and thus be somewhat financially secure AND creative. I think at that time I also had the feeling that I didn’t necessarily want to work freelance.
I definitely want to continue working in both creative fields. I have the feeling anyway that when I do one of those, the other always resonates. In the best case scenario, I want to combine both fields perfectly at some point and not have to decide at all.
You have mentioned Instagram, literature and music as sources of inspiration. What inspires your work the most? Which literature can be inspirational to you?
Joséphine: I can’t say exactly what inspires me the most, because I find it difficult to compare these sources of inspiration.
Instagram inspires me a lot visually but also in terms of content, because it also connects me with so many interesting people.
Music inspires me much more subconsciously and in a more emotional way, for example because music puts me in a very special vibration when I paint.
With literature, I pick up on themes that I encounter while reading. These can be fictional stories as well as non-fiction, but also travel guides, poems or whatever. It’s basically everything I read.
I think I can summarise that in general terms: In the end, everything I encounter, everything that surrounds me, is consciously or subconsciously inspiration.
Ashinedu: Are there any artists whose work you admire especially or who have influenced your work?
Joséphine: Yes, there are many artists I admire and who certainly influence my work: Tschabalala Self, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Adébayo BOLAJi, Tesfaye Urgessa, Chris Offili and many more.
Ashinedu: You were born in Stuttgart and raised in Ulm, Germany, by parents from two different ethnicities — A German mother and a Senegalese father. When did you realise that you did not fit the typical beauty standards of the society around you?
Joséphine: I think it was around the time, when I got into kindergarten. I was 3 years old and was always mistaken for a boy. Because I didn’t have long, straight hair, but rather relatively short and frizzy hair. In any case, this experience led to me not liking my hair for a very long time and even as a child I dreamt of having straight and long hair “like all the other children“.
Ashinedu: How did you deal with the lack of representation of multi-ethnic or Black people in, for instance beauty magazines and with the general lack of diversity in the media? How is that reflected in your art?
Joséphine: I think that when I was a teenager, I just accepted the fact that people like me simply didn’t appear in the media and tried to somehow conform to the image I knew from the media. I straightened my hair, chemically and with heat, and wore clothes that were definitely not very advantageous for my curvy figure and used make-up that was far too light, for example. Simply because I knew nothing else.
When I discovered YouTube beauty tips for myself and my target group, which must have been around 2010, I finally started to wear my hair naturally and feel more comfortable in my body.
It’s exactly this feeling of being happy with showing yourself just as you naturally are that I try to capture in my pictures, among other things.
It is also very important to me to show Black women in all their facets and thus contribute to overcoming exactly this lack of representation of Black women in the media, in art, etc. I also want to show Black women in all their facets.
Ashinedu: At the Millnertor Gallery in 2018 you created a background of racist sentences and phrases around your paintings. What was your motivation to present your work in this way and did the idea have a specific trigger?
Joséphine: I just wanted to show what I (and the Black people around me) have to deal with every day. To create awareness for it.
The trigger for this idea was an unpleasant situation with my boss at the time, who bluntly said racist things to me at lunch with colleagues. Furthermore, her reaction to my drawing attention to it, but also that of my colleagues who witnessed this situation. I just really didn’t want it to go on and on.
It was so good to get rid of all this baggage by integrating it into a work of art.
Ashinedu: Some might say that you are still privileged as a light skinned Brown woman. What is your opinion on statements like that?
Joséphine: It is absolutely true. Because I am mixed and have a lighter skin tone than other, darker women, I enjoy privileges. I think it’s very, very important to be aware of that and to continue to raise awareness in society and the community that these differences in treatment exist. I find it at least as important to take a back seat in some situations and to give space explicitly to dark skinned women.
Ashinedu: Do you have a future dream project you would like to work on?
Joséphine: At the moment I’m just dreaming of hopefully being able to work with other artists again soon, on any kind of projects. If that’s possible again, without restrictions, that will be great!
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