Artist Alexis Peskine (b. 1979) focuses on questions of national and racial identity, the black body experience, and universal emotions. Peskine moved to the United States to attend Howard University in Washington, D.C., where he received a Bachelor of Fine Art degree in 2003 and a Master’s degree in Digital Art in 2004. He then enrolled in Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) on a Fulbright Scholarship (the first foreign student to be awarded this honor), where he completed his MFA. His influences are wide-ranging, including Kara Walker, Takashi Murakami, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Banksy, as is his approach to art-making and his chosen materials.
Peskine’s most recent work surrounds what he calls the “third step in an artistic practice: activism.” He has been teaching and working with urban youth in Brazil, encouraging them to make their own work and bringing them on as assistants in his own practice. Three of them traveled with him to Paris to meet and collaborate with youth in the Bobigny section of Paris. Peskine is currently developing an artist studio for youth in Brazil and is working to bring the Bobigny youth to Australia to work with aboriginal populations. For Peskine, these relationships and the resultant work area methodology for working and an artistic medium itself.
Of the work created while living in the States, Peskine states that the focus was more on bridging racial dynamics between the United States and France. Upon returning to France during Nicolas Sarkozy's presidency (2007-2012), Peskine became more involved with protests and supporting movements against racism and xenophobia, which were on the rise. He sees his work as questioning the concept of an ideal French identity, summed up in the common French phrase, “France eternal.” His first exhibition in the United States, French Evolution: Race, Politics and the 2005 Riots (Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts [MoCaDa], 2007) featured large and immersive works examining the intense racial-political terrain of France.
It was during his studies at Howard that Peskine began his nail pieces. Using nine sizes of nails, he uses the nail as brushstroke in a technique that brings to mind screen printing, Pop Art from Warhol to Chuck Close and Lichtenstein, and African Nkisi sculpture. He drives in the nails at different depths to create a sense of relief and introduce a third dimension. Critics have noted a connection between his technique and voodoo and crucifixion. There is a tension between simple materials and technology, of ancestral themes and modernity, of art and craft.
His subjects are always black and always bold, at times bordering on aggressive. Peskine used pop culture icons, such as the famous Franco-Belgian comic book character, Asterix, Mister Clean, Aunt Jemima and Delacroix’s iconic image of Liberty in Liberty Leading the People (28th July 1830). “They are characters, not victims. In Désintégration (2011), Asterix is erasing the woman, but she’s bigger and can take control.” In the nail pieces and his photographs, the models hold a strong, unwavering presence. “I am trying to diversify images of the black body, a sort of visual affirmative action.”He combines political or advertising slogans, visual puns and references to universal themes with a hint of humor, all towards a vigorous social commentary on the black body’s experience. He cites as an aesthetic inspiration Jean-Paul Goude, a well-known French graphic designer and illustrator who has had a lasting influence on French advertising. Peskine now says he is moving beyond the pop culture icons in a return to the “pure, simplified” nail pieces. His growing interest in Afrofuturism and travel are leading him to “depart from the black body” and head into unknown territories.
Martha Scott Burton is a former Studio Museum Curatorial Intern.