‘Back to the drawing board’: A meeting with the Franco-Beninese painter Leslie Amine

By Jane Roussel
Posted on Wednesday, 11 May 2022 14:46

French-Beninese painter Leslie Amine © Courtesy of Anne de Villepoix

The AKAA contemporary art fair, which showcases 14 artists, is on at the Manifesta gallery in Lyon until 24 May 2022. We had the opportunity to talk to Franco-Beninese painter Leslie Amine about her work.

Last November, Also Known As Africa (AKAA) returned to Paris’ Carreau du Temple under the theme of “Back to the Drawing Board”, following two years of the Covid-19 pandemic. Since 6 April and until 24 May, a reduced selection of 14 artists have been showcasing their work at the Manifesta gallery, a former silk workshop located in the heart of Lyon. We came to discover Franco-Beninese artist Leslie Amine’s work. She tells us how the fair came about.

Two red-toned paintings hang side by side in the large room of the Lyon gallery. They have been signed by Amine and form part of the “Conversations” collection. The painter plays with transparency, studies the material’s fluidity and superimposes acrylics as well as inks. The eye takes in the layers of her technique and the story she tells. Both illustrate discussions against the backdrop of a dreamlike landscape, where the palm trees contrast with the sunset, as the sky takes on the colour of blood. As is often the case in her paintings, Amine’s brush depicts anecdotes, the search for oneself, travels and memories of Africa, according to the fair’s artistic director Armelle Dakouo.

Search for identity

Amine was 18 when she discovered the continent through her father’s country, Benin. She went there alone and met up with some of her family who still lives there. It was as if she was searching for her identity. “I really wanted to go there, I imagined a lot of things, it was a slap in the face and I started to research my origins with this trip,” she says.

Amine grew up light years away from this reality, in Saint-Étienne, “a town where there were not many black people, I was presented as such, and where I suffered from racism,” she says. In Benin, against all odds, she was known as “la Blanche.” Her multiracial heritage makes her question her place in the world: “Who am I in this world where I am always the outsider?” she asks many years later when she looks back on that time. In fact, Amine’s work explores the great question of miscegenation and identity.

After working for 15 years as an artist, she has found some kind of answer to her question. Today, it is “integrated”, she says. She pauses for a moment. “People often ask me why I only paint black people.” Perhaps the quest continues? The painting hanging on the left wall of the Manifesta gallery depicts two men in the foreground, while on the right side, a man and a woman are talking. All of them are indeed black. “Why am I interested in them?” she asks, before beginning to answer. “I think I need this representation, to illustrate the black body, as a second search that is bigger than myself, than my questioning of who I am.

These bodies come from her travels, notably in Haiti, Benin and Cameroon, where she has ties through her husband. But also from the many street encounters she has had in France, where she photographs the black-skinned people she meets. “There is a whole phase of my work that is based on representing the diaspora, those in the picture on the right posed for me in Grenoble,” she says.

Diving into a postcard

Between the palm trees in the painting on the left, a shell emerges, that of the Shell petrol station. Amine likes to include in her paintings symbols from Africa’s big cities. When I took the photo that inspired this work, I focused on this sign, it seemed so significant in the landscape, so imposing.” The painting on the right depicts a pair of Stan Smiths in the jungle. These encounters – which can sometimes create “strangeness, or forms of anachronisms”, but are familiar to us – make her smile.

Amine leaves the viewer free to interpret everything “without any particular claim, without labels, open to possibilities.” She is fascinated by these exotic landscapes, which perfectly illustrate her idea of “elsewhere.” Her backgrounds always give the impression of diving into a postcard. She works from photographs taken during her travels, “not on the spot”, even though her style of painting has something very instinctive that gives the impression of jumping into one of her memories. Her superimpositions of materials and stories are reminiscent of “the bricolage and the layout of the streets” that she often sees in Cameroon. She says she will soon run out of subjects for her paintings. Another trip is therefore surely on the horizon.

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