Joséphine Sagna — German-Senegalese Artist Sends Message Of Positive Empowerment
Joséphine Sagna is a German-Senegalese artist and designer, born in Stuttgart, Germany, in 1989, who is now based in Hamburg. She incorporates her multi-ethnic identity deep within her artistic creations, centring her work especially around the multi-cultural, Black and female experience in a predominantly White society. On her website the artist defines her topics as follows: “Sagna’s art discusses and broaches issues of prejudices, everyday racism, reactions, different points of view, whether from the own eye or the eyes of others, intimacy and self-representation, yet also where Sagna sees herself amidst it all.”¹ Her pieces boast of vibrant colours and a vivid expressive style. Even though her painterly approach is rooted in a figurative tradition, she breaks free from any restricting ideas, allowing the abstract to rush into her creative process.
Sagna studied art and fashion design at the HAW Hamburg University of Applied Sciences and gained her Bachelor of Arts in Fashion Design from the Design Department in 2019. Even though painting has been her long-standing passion, the artist stated in an interview (full interview here) that she chose to focus her studies on design, because she thought it might be the safer option for her future. However, painting seems to have grown to be her primary means of expression. For the artist, spontaneity is essential to her creative process, in which she involves various painting techniques and tools: oil, acrylic and spray paint, markers, coloured pencils and chalk. The freedom to express herself freely is what draws her to painting. While working, she sometimes turns the canvas upside down or lays it on the ground in order to let the colour have a mind of its own and to let it run at liberty.²
As a multi-ethnic woman with Brown skin Sagna addresses issues that she herself and others around her have had to deal with on a daily basis: structural racism and the overwhelming presence of western beauty standards, which predominantly favour features of White individuals. The consequences of not fulfilling those standards and the resulting feeling of not quite fitting in is part of what Sagna expresses in her paintings.
With her work she does not intent to accuse or point a finger at anyone, but instead cares to draw attention to often overlooked problems. She chooses to stay on a positive note in her manner of creating awareness for the issues of people with Black and Brown skin and tries to push forward with a message of empowerment.
Her inspiration for motifs often comes from social media, from women who show themselves unapologetically. Women, who are not afraid to present who they are, even though they might not fit into their society’s beauty standards. But literature and music serve as inspirational vehicles to Sagna as well, especially on an emotional level.
While her earlier paintings were mainly held in acrylic paint, her newer works are mixed media canvases with a focus on gestural expressive painting and drawing. A very powerful large scale painting named “enough” from 2019, measuring 190 x 190 cm, displays two female heads merged together. It seems like the image shows two sides of the same woman: one face black with red big lips, the other one with equally voluminous lips and a lighter, pinkish skin tone. The painting suggests a split identity — maybe regarding multi-ethnicity or another internal conflicting aspect. Nevertheless, the image conveys confidence. The eyes of both faces stare straight at the viewer, thereby challenging his gaze. With her tongue sticking out and seemingly showing her middle finger, the female portrayed with the darker complexion seemingly states her disregard for something. These gestures might be directed at the normed beauty standards. Sagna paints the protagonist(s) in a quick, expressive graffiti-like manner, focussing on the contours. The painting remains with an unfinished look, due to the artist leaving parts of the faces incomplete. Dripping paint that is part of the background shines through to the foreground, thereby blending both levels. In the image’s centre, Sagna chose to create a stark contrast between the two faces by using the complementary colours red and green. This increases the polarity of the two, and at the same time leaves a strong impression in the observer’s mind.
Acknowledging the fact, that as a light skinned Brown woman she might lead a more privileged life than a woman with darker skin might, Sagna repeatedly addresses the topic of colourism. Colourism is as present in society as racism — favouring lighter skinned Brown over darker Brown and Black people. This concept of categorising people in terms of their outward appearance, especially their skin tone, is completely against Sagna’s belief.
With her work she does not simply want to create awareness for structural racism, that is directed towards herself. Instead, she says, “I see you” to all the darker skinned women, who might struggle even more with misconceptions and prejudices aimed at them.
Therefore, she shows Black women in self-assured, bold poses as in the work “not black enough” from 2020. It shows a woman sitting with her knees pulled up to her chest. Her body is turned to the side, but her head faces the viewer. Her eyes are covered with fancy green and red sunglasses, which make the figure look cool and easygoing. The woman is naked, not afraid to show her skin. Her head is crowned with tiny Bantu Knots, a hairstyle commonly used for kinky curly hair among Black women in several African counties and throughout the diaspora.
The painting’s background is held in pink and light blue, which provides the work with a positive aura. Several unfinished faces, or rather eyes, noses and lips are distributed all over the canvas, merging with the background.
A similar theme as in the aforementioned work, apparently speaks through the work “I care”, which is from the year 2020, too. The woman displayed here — only her head is visible — also wears the Bantu Knots hairstyle. Even though her skin is composed of many colours ranging from blue to lilac tones, the dark brown left side of her face, the big lips, wide nose and the hair, clearly identify her as a Black woman. Sagna likes to incorporate colours into her portrayal of skin, which cannot naturally be associated with it. Looking back to modern expressionist painting, the techniques of choosing unnatural skin colour in order to express emotion, for instance, is nothing new. However, Sagna’s motif is rather to declare skin colour as redundant — saying that the colour of someone’s skin should not be significant.
In red letters on a pink background, the artist declares her intention by literally stating: “I care”. As the Black body and common Black features have been deemed imperfect and not beautiful throughout the world’s societies for centuries, it is a notion that is difficult to eradicate. The Black body has a history of being sexualised. But for the longest time, it has not been recognised as aesthetic and attractive, especially regarding facial features as, for instance, broad noses. When tracing and following the beauty sector, it seems that many beauty and lifestyle magazines, designers, etc., have just recently discovered that the lack of representation of the Black body is extensive and needs to be addressed.
Sagna deals with this issue in her paintings, by portraying Black individuals, especially women in all their facets, thereby also contemplating perceptions and assumptions people might have, who do not look at the Black body favourably. To her, it is vital to give Black women space to be seen, most notably, as mentioned, because she is aware of her privileges as a lighter mixed-ethnic woman.
Her work “moments of laziness“ shows a Black woman, painted in various shades of blue, pink and brown. The title suggests that the figure in the work is in a relaxed pose. As the image only shows part of her upper body and head, the figure looks like she is leaning to the side, supporting her head on an imagined hand outside the picture frame. The woman wears her hair confidently short. An enormous earring in the shape of a triangle is dangling from her right ear. This kind of jewellery might suggest that the resting phase, stated by the title, comes before or after an outing. The eyes look somewhat dreamy, maybe tired. The multi-coloured figure stands out against a pale background of white, mixed with pastel colours. As Sagna works in a layered technique, the light background has been painted over layers of underlying colours. The outlines and features of the woman are drawn in mostly dark blue lines. Highlighting the outlines in this manner, exaggerates the features, thus making them more prominent. Therefore, her cleavage is noteworthy, too. Nevertheless, the explicit focal point is the protagonists face.
In an exhibition at the pop-up space “Millnertor Gallery”, Joséphine Sagna presented several works, which she installed on a background of written racist comments. Over the years, the artist and the people around her had heard so many phrases that revealed the speaker’s prejudices towards Black and Brown people or their racists sentiments that it prompted her to write them down. By broadcasting these phrases in big letters on a wall and setting them against the portraits of strong Black women, Sagna tried to inspire the spectators to reflect on the senselessness, ignorance and offensiveness of these words. Some viewers might have used these or similar sentences themselves before, without ever caring for or realising the extent of their impact.
“Do you speak African?”
“It doesn’t feel like you’re black!”
“Winter here must be tough for you.”
“Can I touch your hair?”
“Wow, your German is really good!”
“Du musst unbedingt Jean kennenlernen, er ist auch schwarz / You really need to meet Jean, he is black, too”.
“Ihr habt halt dicke Popos. / Well, you guys have big butts.”
“Kann man deine Haare eigentlich kämmen? / Is it even possible to brush your hair?”
These sentences and phrases might not seem brutal or harsh, but they are a reflection of ignorance and disrespect. In a written Interview with Joséphine Sagna (link here), the artist explains her intention and motifs for this installation further.
Sagna addresses another issue with her work “no more candy names”. Black women are often called pet names associated with sweets, especially anything with chocolate, coffee or brown sugar. The artist is upset about Black women being degraded by these dehumanising names and therefore uses her art to pinpoint topics, such as this, in order to raise awareness. The image of the painting is focussed on the individuals face, which is framed by a voluminous crown of white and peach-coloured hair. The literal centre of the square format painting are the portrayed woman’s rose-coloured lips. Her dark brown skin contrasts with the light coloured hair. The background seems diagonally parted into two sections. The upper right-hand corner is structured with alternating candy coloured stripes in red and pink. On the lower left side, the artist leaves more open space, distributing simplified flowers here and there.
Sagna’s bold, quick and intuitive brushstrokes evoke an aura of strength and power, despite the bubble-gum shades. In combination with her use of spray paint, which she allows to run over the canvas’ surface freely, the artist creates a strikingly dynamic image.
In her most recent works, Sagna seems to be all about dynamics. For these compositions the artist seems to scatter deconstructed motifs all over the canvas. While some newer pieces still show figurative elements such as eyes, noses and mouths, others are entirely non-figuratively abstract. The images appear wild and full of emotions — almost like outbursts of a multitude of feelings. Sagna applies the paint in several layers, thereby mixing various media. During her creative process she paints over areas that she has previously created, sometimes covering them partly or even completely and thus, often increases the image’s depth.
The work “all eyes on me” from 2020 at first reads like a study, in which the artists tried various compositions and motifs. It is an assemblage of facial parts, turned in varying directions without any coherent structure. Glaring eyes stare at the viewer transfixing the onlookers gaze. Literally torn into pieces, this motif seems to reflect a difficult emotional state. This piece seems to represent an inner struggle, similar to her works from the series “(art) therapy”, about which the artist wrote: “The paintings are expressions of the constant struggle between the want-to-be and have-to-be, between transcending fore- and backgrounds. The loud and colourful elements are the direct results of an intuitive process, expressive gestures and emotions.”³
Text is an element that is recurring in Sagna’s work and it is often loaded with a significant meaning or a message. In these abstract paintings, however, the text is reduced to bits and pieces of letters and words, which pop up throughout the composition, conveying no graspable meaning in their abbreviated state. Nevertheless, they keep the viewer wondering, which hidden message is yet to be uncovered in these tumultuous spaces.
Apart from her creative practice in fine art, her work as a designer is still an essential part of Joséphine Sagna’s life. Her clothing designs are statement pieces: they are loud, colourful and sassy — just like her paintings. Despite the artist’s focus on women regarding her painterly exertions, her designed outfits are unisex. Her jackets feature figurative motifs — often faces — their broad backs. Sagna composes the displayed figures and patterns from various monochrome coloured fabrics, which are sewn together, in order to create the image. Therefore the motifs have more texture and haptics than prints would have. Similar to her mixed media paintings, she incorporates different fabrics into her designs, using a wild mix of cotton, leather, satin, jersey and tulle.
Joséphine Sagna is not afraid to speak her mind through her creative work, whether it is in fine art or design. All her pieces seem to boast with energy, bearing the artists emotions and thoughts on their radiant surface.
¹ https://www.josephinesagna.com/about-left.html (06.02.2021)
² add art Hamburg 2020 — Porträt Joséphine Sagna: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h2FQQY2kdvM&feature=emb_title (06.02.2021)
³ Quote Joséphine Sagna: https://www.instagram.com/p/CIyJ8PVHBwG/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link (06.02.2021)
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