The large industrial door suddenly squeaks open, abruptly drawing my attention to the two gloved men and a tiny forklift pulling inside the studio Alexandre Diop has been working in at the Rubell Museum. I’m intrigued as they start unloading some pieces of Miami onto the studio floor. I am sitting with him and looking over at the newfound local wares to be added to the piles of wooden palettes, leather straps, cloth, pieces of metal, paint bottles, and even palm tree stalks scattered around.
I begin to imagine the destiny of that bright yellow Bustello coffee wrapper. Will it be someone’s hat or pants, and what may have made him choose that? Perhaps the perfect bright color, yellow, captured his eye. All of it is a beautiful mishmash of possibilities. Found elements will soon find themselves as a piece of culture inside a frame—a transference of time wrapped up like a jewel box in a fantasy created by Alexandre Diop. Time and skill will soon pull together something with such fantastical verve, making one covet what was thrown away. Diop is an expert weaver and storyteller spanning time.
To describe him is like depicting his splendid creations, bright, layered, unexpected, with a profound message. He has a charming, gregarious demeanor, smile, and energy one can feel in a room before seeing him—he radiates a gracious dynamism.
His art is enmeshed with narratives, dispatching both good and dire auguries. Agile, flowing outpourings of messages with characters being the observed or the observer, perhaps pensive and occasionally machiavellian. His art is filled with the energy of society from the things he places in it. He firmly believes that the scenes are his social responsibility to his viewer.
The way he pieces it all together is layered both mentally and physically. It is more than just repurposing to create something pretty. The objects become part of the saga or truth he narrates.
After interviewing him, I considered how to relate his ability to elicit the pull and response from people with his talent. How to describe that type of essence?
Would it be the same answer for every great artist? Alexandre has a story to impart. Moreover, he has a stormy, fierce intent. Via his art, he is cognizant that he is a messenger, which is a great responsibility. There is a deep awareness of integrity as a catalyst. I was once told a story describing integrity. One definition of integrity is something whole or complete.
The found things are given integrity by Alexandre’s careful placement and message, and what comes to life are reflections of society, intently puzzled together. His stories, jab the wooden stick in the spokes of a poorly running bicycle called society, of people being misled, lied to, and endeavoring to move forward.
His words are critical to his illustrated tales inspiring him to wake the viewer to the mass deflection given to them by society to act and think a certain way.
He is documenting a genre, a stamp in time, revealing the public sentiment of a place he has been but has not left behind.
DP- How did you start adding these elements to your work?
AD- Once, I was so frustrated that I decided to cover a painting with a piece of paper and thought this could be a solution; what I cannot do with my fingers, I can find something and mix things. I thought I was not made for painting; maybe I was made for sculpture. But then found this solution.
DP-Talk to me about the importance of connectivity between the creative and the magnetic pull of work. How do you achieve it?
AD-Some artists do not make it personal, and some artists do. However, it is a commitment you need to build trust with your public as an image maker. You need people to have enough time to go and watch your pictures, take them in, and understand them. It is also important not to consider any academics or story to be aware of the people surrounding you and to whom you want to speak. An artist is not just creative. They have a strategy within a society. They need to organize themselves to go as close as possible to their objective, which is to bring new possibilities of thinking. Is there a separation between the artist and the artwork? I think not. It is an extension. There is a piece of a person there. If it is not personal, it is not easy to relate to it. An artist is not only creative but aims to bring as many possibilities as imaginable. We do not need artists that repeat the manifesto of others. Why? One can only ask for food if one brings something new to the table. Do not ask for a plate if you are just here to consume. If it is about your ego, you can do something, but is it already done? It could be more interesting. This is where it becomes difficult; it takes work. Like in sports and politics, you cannot mess with the responsibility you have. This is a lifestyle, and it is why you can recognize fast an artist living his art and can deliver, but when you see the artist, it does not seem real, and there is a problem. There is a disconnect.
DP- You have a genuine connection to the social environment.
AD- I always try to be an influence in my society. I didn’t want to follow the rules blindly but to associate with mine. As a kid, I realized there were many things to respect, but other things I did not find necessary, so I saw art as a tool. When I grew up, I saw these musicians, these writers that would write of freedom and emancipation of self and understanding of your own life. So, to be an artist was the only way to live life. I always knew I wanted to be an artist. I did theatre when I was younger, then moved to sports, but the sport was a game to play. Then I studied dance. After that, I was a musician. I made electronic hip-hop music with synthesizer and drum mashings. Music is also present in my life, but art was always a tool to enjoy, express, go into a trance, or experience another kind of life. It is a tool to navigate and go further, to grow as a man, and to be in discussion with my surroundings.
DP-What was the first big canvas? Do you remember that moment, and what made you do it?
AD- The first canvas on wood was about three years ago. I was already painting, and then I found this technique with objects. I was working with a wooden board I would find in the streets. I still like working on wood because it is a certain frame and context. Then one day in Berlin, a friend called me and said, Hey Alex, there is this big studio I think will be perfect for you. So I went to find the studio and organized myself, saving some money on the side.
DP-You grew up in Paris?
AD- My father is from Senegal, and my grandfather was German. So I lived in Paris until I was 18, then moved to Berlin for six years, and then to Vienna two years ago.
DP-You said you played Football. Where?
AD-In France, I was a professional footballer and made the selection for the french team. I was good enough to play on a professional level. With life, I shifted away from it because I discovered dance; to be a professional, you need to respect many things. So contemporary dance, and conceptual dance, I went to the University of Kunst in Berlin. They have a bachelor’s program, so I did that. Then I started painting and moved to The Academy of Fine arts in Vienna.
DP-Do you dance and perform music when you have an opening? Do you like to create more of an experience?
AD-I like to create a culture, a vibe to bring a rapper or a writer from the underground scene. I have a collective called the Black Sheep, trying to promote outsiders in different Genres to create different experiences. My paintings are a tool to create a vibe with an adventure, so the day we show, I like to have music around a certain atmosphere, lighting, and particular presentation. It should be more than just a decorative thing.
DP-What is the best reaction you have ever seen to one of your paintings?
AD-Someone collapsed? He laughs. I do not know. I’ve never seen it. The most beautiful reaction is to relate to it. I want them to feel it is for them so they feel like they get something from it.
DP-What are those ambitions?
AD- To give new power to minorities and change the disposition of people holding the decisions of the people in our society to reshape the values. To rethink the democratic way of arguing with elites and stop being manipulated because I think we are manipulated every day by a small minority of people. Nowadays, you need money or a diploma to get respected. It should not be like that. We all deserve equality and to be respected for that, especially women and children, and people of color, disabled people. There are so many things to improve in this society, so it is problematic that an artist pretends everything is good. No, If you are an artist, there are many things to fix, improve, and maybe rethink. We need people like me to advance and to go there and make people understand. There may be things people will realize through art because this may be one of the only possible fields. However, it is also a speculative field. Artists should be careful to keep this topic from being used because the bigger you become, the more you can separate from your original path.
AD- My mother is white with Blue eyes. My father is black-with brown eyes, and voila! My parents never saw the color. If they did, they would not be together. We should be kept from being manipulated. These people are trying to tell you you are black, you are Chinese, you are a communist or capitalist. Whatever you are, you can respect others and think what you want. Still, you can also believe we are all from the same family anyway, which is a reality. There is no one truth.
DP- You’re very deep; where did you think that comes from? Depth within ourselves is through events that let us reflect.
AD- I had the chance to have wonderful parents who educated me in the best way possible. My mother is a social worker, and my father is a filmmaker. Both of my parents come from quite humble environments. My grandparents were butchers on my mother’s side, and my father came from a fish family in Senegal.
So when I grew up in Paris, I traveled a lot and have seen a lot in my life. I have seen birth, I had a friend who died very young, but I always had everything I wanted in my life. I have a little brother. It is a privilege of good people around you. You know, in minority culture, there is a lack. People work, the parents work, there is a lack of education, and there is no support. Of course, these people need to get this depth. I have the chance to meet really interesting people every day. Voila, it allows me to be curious and humble in a certain way. I believe in humility even if I have a big ambition and a big mouth and can be arrogant. I believe in respecting elders. There is a difference between someone seventy years old and a twenty-six. A person who is twenty-six should respect and listen. That is how I got raised.
It is important to give young people respect so they can grow up with that confidence and give that in return. Respect is a reflection of one’s self.
DP- You do not define anyone, but you define yourself by how you treat others.
AD- Yes, it’s what my father always told me. It’s important to respect yourself to respect others. For example, he would not let me go dressed a certain way, and I would ask him why, and he would say, “Because you are my son, respect me (laughing); respect yourself!” He would be funny like that. So I would ask, is it for me, but then it’s for me, or for you? Because if you respect me, then respect you. If you respect yourself, then you respect me. Do you understand?, he says, smiling.
DP- You give your work much respect. It’s obvious. Things are carefully and lovingly placed, and there are many objects to consider, big and small. So how do you decide what is going to go where? Does it just come to you?
AD- It’s like cooking; you learn from experience. If you put something here, you must put something else there. So I put yellow, I put red, and it’s like a game. It is definitely like doing a puzzle.