"I'M A POLITICAL ARTIST" // an interview with Pauline N'Gouala
// by ak afferez


Meeting Pauline N’Gouala was an act of sheer serendipity. One day, my favorite bookstore in Paris tweeted that it would host the premiere of a young artist’s new painting series, which centered on LGBT icons. I was intrigued, and keen on interviewing the artist. I met Pauline in the studio where she worked, right next to the bustle of St Germain des Près, and we’ve kept in touch since.


So what’s the deal with you and the arts? Do you remember when you first came into contact with art, and how did that relationship evolve ? Like, was it a calling you felt from the very beginning, or did you have a revelation at some point?

I’ve been drawing ever since I was five - I used to copy my favorite cartoon and comics characters. I remember visiting Claude Monet’s house when I was very young, around four, and being really attuned to the beauty, the energy that exuded from this place. I later went back there again with my mother who never imposed anything on me but helped me discover museums and artists. She’d noticed that I liked drawing, so she bought me all kinds of paints and materials like charcoal and hard pastels… I had a lot of freedom in my childhood, I’d go play with my friends outside, I was really energetic, I did a lot of sports, I needed to move. Drawing and art in general allowed me to have a kind of space where I could channel all this energy while retaining my freedom. I liked to share what I created - putting it on display or giving it away as a gift.

 

Portrait of Pauline N’Gouala by Emilie Jouvet. Foreground portrait: Zozo Duduzile. Background portrait: Zanele Muholi. Photo credit: E. Jouvet

When I was 17, I started exploring how I could apply Chinese ink to drawing and I’d do poster portraits for my friends of people like Angela Davis, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Patrice Lumumba, or singers I listened to. When I was 25, people encouraged me to start painting, and since I’d already given acrylic a go, I went for oils. And that was actually a revelation because, even though I hadn’t quite mastered it at the time, I really felt it was something special, a powerful means of expression that made me want to keep going in this direction. Oil painting was a revelation for me in the sense that, through creating more and more paintings, I grew aware of my status as an artist and dared request spaces in which I could exhibit my work.


You’ve notably worked with Zanele Muholi. Can you tell us more about that collaboration - how did it start, what did you create, and what did you take away from the experience?

I met Zanele Muholi in 2013, during the Black Portraiture conference in Paris. We were introduced, and I showed her my first series of oil portraits. Zanele then offered to create a tribute to the victims of homophobic crimes in South Africa and Uganda. She sent me several photos, several of which had been taken by the victims themselves. I did four oil portraits, including one of Zanele, and I showed them to her. We ended up writing an article for their blog Inkanyiso. Then, she introduced me to the feminist activist Nawo Crawford (du collectif I will always be me), and I was invited to display this series, S.A. mort, at the Elles Résistent festival in Montreuil. Zanele was there, and during the festival, a soiree was dedicated to the memory of LGBTQI victims of homophobic crimes in South Africa. This collaboration brought me so much, both personally and artistically. I got to root my art in a political involvement, and that was the beginning of my activism against homophobia. Zanele has been a driving force in my career. Seeing her and others fight has given me passion. And as an artist, I started actively seeking out spaces to express myself and having an overtly anti-homophobia approach.
I had the opportunity to be a part of the Massimadi Brussels festival in 2014; the same year, a first article was published on Afropunk’s website that focused on my collaboration with Zanele Muholi, and a year later, I was exhibiting my paintings at the first AfroPunk festival in Paris.


Your latest portrait series, “A Queer Vision,” was on display in the Berkeley Books of Paris bookstore, and then the Mutinerie space. Can you tell us a bit about this series, its origins, and what it represents for you? And what made you feel like this bookstore was the right space to premiere your works?

“A Queer Vision” is an ongoing series, and it’s really something close to my heart. A first definition of “vision” is a mental image, and when I was younger, I lacked those mental images that could have allowed me to identify as a member of the LGBTQI community. So I feel like I’m trying to fix that, by paying tribute to everyone who’s helped me build my queer identity.
There’s this scene between Frida Kahlo and Joséphine Baker in the film Frida - I was 17 at the time and I think I’d never seen lesbians before that movie. I come from a small town and the intolerance of most of its inhabitants (back then at least) more or less forced the older LGBTQI generations to hide. So seeing those two women together in that scene was perhaps what helped me come out three or four years later. I’m also thinking of people like Pedro Almodovar, who’s included LGBTQI people in his movies since the 80s. I discovered his films when I was 13 or so, and my absolute favorite movie, even now, is still La ley del deseo.
So it was really important for me to pay tribute to all these people who have inspired me and have fought for recognition, like James Baldwin, or are still fighting, like Lady Phyll, who founded UK Black Pride and writes for DIVA Magazine. Since I’m free to be who I am, I felt it was important to integrate the rainbow flag into the portraits in order to try and give a vision of the whole community. But without imposing just one vision - it’s more about offering ways of identifying. If you take the example of the portrait of Antonio, a Black trans man: I’ve wondered in the past about transitioning, and as I was painting his portrait, I thought that if others were also wondering about that, they’d have a portrait with which they could identify, a kind of mirror where they could see a reflection of themselves.
The bookseller at Berkeley Books is someone I really like, and I hope there’ll be other art exhibitions there. She likes sharing this space and combining books with visual arts. It was a great experience, both esthetically and spiritually - I’ve felt so many good vibes, so much positive energy in this space. So, in the end, it was really my intuition that drove me to display my work there. I felt it’d be interesting for the very first exhibition of “A Queer Vision” and I wasn’t disappointed.

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A Queer Vision series, photo courtesy of the artist


What and who has influenced you, broadly speaking, in your art and in your life?

The first oil portraits I did were of Amiri Baraka (formerly known as LeRoi Jones) and Frantz Fanon, and I’ve also done two portraits of James Baldwin, always out of admiration, inspiration, and the desire to pay tribute to those people. I had the opportunity to see I Am Not Your Negro recently and I’ve been learning so much more about Baldwin and his commitments. His novel Giovanni’s Room really moved me, it was so captivating. It’s not always easy to be queer or queer and black in 2017, so back then…
Jazz influenced me in terms of the models I choose, and when I paint, I listen a lot to artists like Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, or Miles Davis. By painting people like Basquiat, Keith Haring, Modigliani, or Frida Kahlo, I wanted to show which artists have influenced me through their work or their life (or most often the two combined). How have all those people influenced my life? They’ve given me the strength to be who I am.


What does it mean for you, to be making art in France, in Paris, today? How does not being a man, or straight, or white, change your experience?

Being an artist today in Paris has become an act of activism, I feel, which I integrate to the need I have to express myself. I’m a political artist and that’s a structural part of my life. I’m not a part of any organization or group, but I do collaborate with movements and events like Paris Black Pride, and I have my work showcased in places like La Mutinerie Bar (that exhibition ran until May 12). So not being a man, or white, or straight - none of this is an obstacle for me. It’s my source of strength. I’m black, lesbian, androgynous, and I’m proud of that.


How do you see the future?

As long as I have things to say, I’ll keep on painting. I see a bright future ahead, because I’m fundamentally an optimist. With painting, you never know what might emerge in terms of production, or events and opportunities. It’s all unpredictable, and that’s the beauty of it.


Keep up with what Pauline N'Gouala is doing either on her blog, her Instagram, or her Twitter feed!