Filmmaker and mixed media artist Penda Diakité uses collage and watercolours to create mesmerizing pieces of artwork. Her artwork is inspired by thoughts and experiences from her birth home of Oregon, USA and Mali where she spent parts of her life growing up.
In an interview with Penda Diakité, we learn about her influences and discuss her award winning book, ‘I Lost My Tooth in Africa‘ which she penned at the age of 12. View the interview below.
As a visual artist, what inspires your art?
I am always creating imagery that reflects my thoughts and feelings as a woman of color that has grown up between Mali, West Africa and Portland, Oregon. Some of my mixed-media art is more ‘serious’ than others, and dives into history, pain, racial stereotyping, and how that affects an individual as well as our society. However, many of my pieces are just light and fun, reminiscing about African folktales that I grew up hearing, mixed with bits and pieces of my life in both countries.
You were born in Oregon but you spent a lot of time growing up in Mali? Would you say that both locations have any influence on your style of work?
Since that is what my work is inspired by for the most part, I would say yes. I grew up surrounded by art, as both of my parents are artists, and Mali itself is such an artistic culture. Whether it be music, dance, architecture or even the fabrics that are worn daily, it is undeniable that art is a big part of the Malian culture. I would say the colors and patterns that I use in my work unconsciously come from Malian culture itself, as I see the culture as vibrant with so much movement, color and expression.
When I look at ‘Temptation’, I see tidbits of art and popular culture references. What is the concept and inspiration for this piece?
‘Temptation’ is one of my favorite pieces. It is a complete reflection of how popular culture can so easily feed into stereotyping, and how that can affect the ‘stereotyped’ as well as our society on such a deep level: how we see ourselves, each other, and how that inevitably affects our culture and way of life. The piece also touches on my thoughts on popular media’s constant hyper-sexualization of women of color, and how our bodies can be portrayed these extreme ways — almost a grotesquely, as this can have such a negative affect on our self image and self worth.
Is there a reason for the use of wildlife (bugs) and nature in a lot of your work?
It is funny because I am not a fan of live bugs…. But I find them so beautiful at the same time. If you look closely, they are really a work of art in themselves, as so many of them are colored and patterned with such vivid detail and uniqueness. My art pieces that use bugs are of a much lighter and playful subject: simply the conflict of my feelings of attraction verses fear of bugs.
How do others describe your work versus how you see it? Do people understand it or do you feel like you constantly have to explain it?
What I really love about art is that no two people will read an image exactly the same. Whenever I create my work I have a story, feeling or reason behind it that is very clear to me – however there is always someone that reads an art piece completely differently than I intended it. Often there is no way someone would know the whole inspiration behind a piece because it is telling a unique story. But that is the beauty of art! We can uniquely interpret what we see and learn about each other endlessly through it. I often like to leave my art up for interpretation, because who is to say my interpretation of my work is more valid than the viewers’?
Are there any artists that inspire you?
Wangechi Mutu. She is amazing and my absolute idol! I discovered her work in one of my black studies classes in college, and instantly related to her art. I am first and foremost a filmmaker, and so much of my film work consists of layering and compositing – very much like collage. Ever since, I have been inspired to create a more ‘tangible’ collage version of my video work.
I recently found out that you were the author of the acclaimed children book, ‘I lost my tooth in Africa‘. A book that you published at the age of 12. How did that come about?
I always journaled throughout my childhood when traveling between my two homes in Mali, West Africa and Portland, Oregon. One winter in Mali, my little sister was loosing her teeth like crazy – something I had actually not gotten to experience in Africa. I could not get over how cool our Malian tradition was when it came to children loosing teeth. Instead of putting your tooth under your pillow for money, we put the tooth under a gourd and it is replaced with a chicken. What an amazing trade-off for a tooth! I wrote all about it in my journal, and ended up writing a short story about it later that year in school, which I ended up being picked up by Scholastic Press and turned into a children’s book.
The book has won several awards and is recommended to elementary school students by the American Library Association. How does it feel to know that you book is still a staple in many US schools.
It is so encouraging to know that this type of children’s story is valued in our schools and libraries! We can all benefit from learning about different cultures and traditions throughout the world, and the young age that my book targets is a perfect place to start. Reading and writing is definitely a gift that allows us to teach and learn about each other and the world through different world perspectives and experiences.
Can we expect any more books in the future?
Yes. I have recently been hard at work on a new children’s book. I cannot reveal too much about it, but I am focusing on my experiences as a youngster in Mali that I think will culturally enrich and hopefully educate more young minds about different cultures.
Besides creating art and writing books, what other things interest you?
Besides my mixed-media collage-work I have always been a filmmaker at heart. Very much like my collages, my films have a lot to do with cultural awareness. I am very into documentary film; my Documentary I finished a few years ago ‘Tanti and the Neighborhood Kids,’ followed a young four-year-old girl named Tanti and her friends in Bamako Mali. It is simply a closer look into the lives of these young Malian children and their daily experiences. You can check view the trailer for this at: vimeo.com/pendadiakite/tanti. Currently I am working on a new documentary titled ‘Skin,’ that centers around the writings of poets from the USA and Africa, and how the concept of skin and skin color has shaped their world. Besides documentary, I am also very interested in this ‘video collage style’ I have created throughout my time studying film and video in college. If you can imagine my mixed media collages coming to life and moving, this is the best way I can describe this style of video. I am constantly expressing my experiences and feelings as a female of color in Mali and the USA in my video work.
How can readers learn more about your work?
Check out my website at: pendadiakite.webstarts.com
Image Source: Penda Diakite