Author: Joycelynn Okezie
I had the great pleasure of interviewing Mr. Kossi Aguessy. It was much to my surprise to hear of his untimely passing. To honor the legacy of Kossi, here is a re-share of our interview.
Hello, Mr. Aguessy, thank you for having this interview, I am a big supporter of your work.
Good Day to you,
It is a true pleasure spending this moment with you and share a parcel of life.
First thing first, thank you for supporting.
How is your day going today?
I love that question, I wish I had it every morning.
My day, as usual, hectic, full of solutions to find, challenges to tackle, questions and answers, some accurate, some others less, but beyond all, my day is enlighten – a miracle I am thankful for and work for copy and the past to tomorrow.
At what instant did you know that designing would play a major role in your life?
The right question should be: at what time I did know art would play a major role in my life.
Because design is just a part of what I do. I am first of all a visual artist, who happened to have certain capacities as an engineer. This melange led me to design, that I do consider a medium, as sculpture or painting, although it has it own specific constraints.
I never really chose to be an artist. I have the feeling, and this feeling had been lasting from the very instant I started to have a conscience of what I am.
But let’s get back to your question: I can exactly replace that instant in history. Because the role design played in my life had been a decision;
In 2002/ 2003 I was mainly focused on painting, yet had been working on solution-based designs, for the sake of research. The first edited works I have had then were a couple of perfume flasks I’ve been hired for designing.
My decision of making design the core of my production for the next decade came from there.
It was part of a cold blood plan and paradox, a reaction to my environment.
The fact is, back in the days, despite the fact one of these early works became a serial award winner, I was constantly told in the Parisian creative sphere I should give up on design because “African descents are not really trustable when it comes to industry”. The claim was clear to me. Because I was African, I wasn’t capable of conceptualizing highly valuable and accurate items.
Funny thing is, unfortunately not for me, the same sphere trying to convince me of my “natural incapacity of intellectual sharpness” was the same one hiring me for half a dime to create objects they’ll never give me credits for, objects and concepts they’ll simply make theirs. Being told that there is no valuable dark skinned person in design as justification to these behaviors from another era was no justification to me. I couldn’t just go “well yes if these are your rules…” I just couldn’t.
I had two choices: accept the perpetual rules of this shameless slavery, or settle my own private ones. From this very moment, I knew I had to invest the design field.
I’ve chosen the second option because the first one was simply unacceptable to me.
And I’ve made two promises to myself: the first one, to splendidly ignore what others were doing in the design field and settle a competition with only one person, myself. The second one, to reach excellence whatever I work on.
This is what I did for a decade, and although every little step was a nightmare because you literally feel you are not welcomed on a field you are not supposed to explore, if history has to be repeated, I will be doing it again.
I did want to settle a precedent, abolish these undercover rules I – as millions of human beings as myself – never validated. Somewhere, I did, and it is maybe one of the sole achievements I am proud of. Yet, I am far from being a fool and I know the war is not over.
Who are some artists that have inspired your craft?
My answer will be simple: none. For I’m not inspired by artists, especially in the visual arts field. I mean, what would be the point of being inspired by someone’s work while there is a whole world around and within us to get soul food from?
I am inspired by Nature, Human included, the infinite universe we are part of inspires me, in fact, I am amazed by life and its various facets. The living is another source of inspiration. History thrills my mind. Philosophy, mathematics, sociology: these are sources I drink from. I can spend hours watching a leaf in a forest. You have more chances of finding me reading a book, focused on one archaeological doc than trying to find inspiration from another artist work. It is not an attitude, just a fact.
Yet, there are people I do admire as persons. The first name coming up my mind is Leonardo Da Vinci. He was, and forever will be a game changer and simply one of the greatest minds this planet gave birth to, and these minds shape what we commonly call Culture, our most precious asset.
Do you tell your life experiences through your artwork and designs? If so may we have examples of some pieces that are relevant to your life?
My work IS a reflection of my life, every single one of my artworks or designs tells a part of it, from personal life experiences to more global concerns, they are shortcuts to my life.
Painting my Leo De Medio Rubi (“Leo from the bush”) series was literally like writing a biography, each painting representing a period of my life, my interactions with my environment as well as with my fellow human beings, things and stories I couldn’t or chose to not speak up till then.
Working on the Newbian collection, was a way to express my concerns about the place given to contemporary African design artifacts, and beyond the very concept of evolution when it comes to Africa, arts, and design.
My I-Dolls sculptures question spirituality today, something which is naturally part of us, and yet turns out to be considered as a dirty word nowadays.
These sculptures are my personal Elements-turned-Idols. The Sun, the Earth etc…I do believe we should step back to the essential, realize where we do come from, what we are part of, have a conscience beyond material for defining a brighter way to future.
Beyond these specific cases, everything I do is about settling a new reality, either it is about providing a solution through design or expressing feeling and thoughts with art pieces. This reality is simple: we are not our history; we are what we make of it. We do have one life and it deserves to be enlightened.
It is about digging love, hope, and life out of whatever our history had been.
It is about shaping today and tomorrow with our own rules and tools and shaping it in a splendid manner.
Being that Africa is the motherland and the source of all, how has it impacted or shaped your perspective?
You know, I usually define myself as a Nubian, a word that means a lot to me.
It means first that I am African, with a capital A, and second that I am global.
I am African because this continent is my motherland, this continent had fed mentally and shaped the person I am. Yet, I am certainly the “sort” of African the western fantasies had shaped through centuries. If you are looking for some victim to project some paternalist schemes on, I must confess I’m not that kind. If you are looking for a speech made by complaints and call for help, you won’t find it with me either. And I do believe there are millions sharing my mindset.
I come from a continent with the biggest potential on earth, one incredible energy, a youthful population, and incredible resources, but yet I’ve been constantly shown through medias and our common education in the west, images reflecting nothing of this reality. Images and information, which subconsciously build a map of this continent in our imaginary, a sort of fancy fantasy of the African, incapable of getting through, incapable of building the present, and at best forced to claim a brilliant History for justifying a call for respect.
What Africa thought me as a child is the following:
A conscience of that brilliant History, the conscience I do not need anyone assistance for building my present and future despite the lack of material assets, that I do not need anyone’s fantasies for defining what and who I am.
Africa thought me how to be fearless, to accept the fact I was a human being among human beings, with a role to play and a message to carry, my native land thought me how to overcome obstacles and how to find the light within my own self for enlightening darkness when it comes.
And last but not least, Africa impacted my very notion of pride. As an African and afro-descent son, I have been thought I can’t be proud of my origins, this will be compensatory to the shame these origins are in the eyes of the one broadcasting our “natural inferiority”. This continent thought me to be proud of my or our achievements, our values, the place we make for ourselves in mankind and our capacities as women and men to design and pave new roads while we are denied the right to use other’s and to pave them better than our fellow’s.
That is what I call a Newbian: having this conscience of where I do come from and what it means to me and those of my kind, yet knowing I am part of a bigger and global scheme called mankind, then work and address it.
What’s a day in the life of Kossi Aguessy like?
This is the part everyone gets bored and very disappointed. Good lord, why on earth did you ask this question? Can’t we just let the effortless, fancy life of mine’s fantasy last forever?
Well, well, well, my days are pretty simply manufactured: I wake up early, around 4 AM, whatever the moment I went to bed, I usually take advantage of this peaceful moment for having what I name My Orange Vibe Music instant, generally one hour spent assembling and listening to my dolly track list, then I reply to my emails and messages, then I’m out for a running or a boxing session before hitting the studio and start my daily work, which varies from design process, technological researches to pure artistry moment like sculpting or painting. These are moments I spend usually on my own, with the less external disturbance possible, generally with my iPod as a sole companion.
My meetings are generally settled between 12 and 2 pm, and as I’m not a long meeting person, they generally last about half an hour for each topic, if longer, I cut them off and leave – if we can’t find a solution to a problem during the first 30 mins of a meeting, means to me either we did not work enough on the subject, or we are incapable of dealing with it: needless in both case wasting time in arguments. Then I go back to conception or handiworks depending on the current works.
I do work pretty late, usually finish around 11/ 12 pm unless I do have some extra work.
Sometimes I have a break for cooking which is a pleasure of mine, a vegan cuisine I must precise, or reading or watching a doc or hanging out with friends.
See, I told you it is a very boring routine when you remove the travels, the events, the exhibitions, the launchings and the media’s parts.
When people read about you, they will find that you’re a very well-rounded, cultured and accomplished man, but do you feel there are some barriers you haven’t reached or shattered as a black man?
Now that is a question I do thank you for.
In fact, when people read about me, they are confronted to the finality of a permanent struggle, the result of a still live happening and a social experiment I’ve settled a decade ago.
If that question had been asked only a year ago I would have skipped it, because I’ve given myself a precise duration time for completing that experiment and delivery its result. 2005 – 2015.
It’s history now, and a block of a history:
In 2005 somebody in the arts/design world explained to me why there shouldn’t be an African descent person in the design field: “They” were not used to or not meant for industry, which unlike painting necessities a high level of mathematical projection. Well, my answer was “what about me?”. “You should consider another path”
Instead of considering another path, I’ve gone through listing one by one all the reasons and justifications provided for supporting such a splendid theory.
1 As a Black person, I seemed do be lacking intelligence for claiming design, yet according to my interlocutors IQ test, I was rated beyond Albert Einstein.
2 As a Black people, I could not understand the matters of solution providing, yet according to queries from the same interlocutors, I was asked constantly this service for products ending up with other persons, who happened to be leucoderms, signature on.
3 As a black person, I could not have access to one academic education, as every, absolutely every attempt I’ve made back in the days was unfortunate.
You know it when you send 2 files, one with your real name, and another with an Anglo-Saxon or a French one, and when you have a thrilling wowed response to the last one and no reply at all to the first.
4 As a black person, I could not fit in, as “the system does not trust Africans” or “Our brand does not do ethnic, nothing personal”.
5 As a black person, as everyone knows, I was looked with suspicion, my intentions were questioned. It couldn’t be only for the sack of evolution and arts, I should have had some undercover goals.
I’ve listed all of these and many more and responded one by one to them, because for the sake of the 25 millions years of evolution bringing us to the instant we are, we cannot just sit our asses down and let some people decide of our path and destiny in the name of a so-called supremacy they do everything but reflecting.
I’ve decided then to settled this experimentation, and believe me or not Michael Jackson inspired me.
I mean, this fellow had to go through whitening and “Europeanization” for been recognized for the real value of his talent. We won’t talk about it and we won’t break the taboo because it is disturbing, so we are constantly serving the most improbable reason for explaining the metamorphosis. Or when we do bring the subject out, we discuss the evil of him doing so instead of asking the right question: WHY? Why would a human being be forced to go intentionally through such a painful journey?
Maybe because it seemed clear to him, as it is to me that without this he would have been forever a “black entertainer” according to our male-heterosexual-European-centered-misogynic shaped society.
This is where we stand, I’ve seen my mother doing the same, for been even lighter than she was original because lighter is better. I see everyday women and men of my kind covering their hair with chemicals and being convinced this is a plain personal choice, and not one inducted response to their environment.
I did the same, not physically, that was out of the question, but symbolically, and for the time being I’ve decided, as a way of showing up the vertiginous stupidity of that system.
Was I too African? I’ve brought up my Brazilian mother. And then of a sudden, I became acceptable, because of Brazil. Although no one said it clearly, Brazil means mixed, and mixed means having a certain percentage of white blood, which can justify the fact you are good.
The reality is, yes I do have Brazilian blood but from my grand grandmother.
I even have German blood from my father side. But this Brazilian grandmother had no impact on my mother, and despite the fact my grandmother’s name is Chaold, she couldn’t feel and be less African than she was.
From the very moment I’ve started purposely that experiment, I could literally see. To fight the barriers my origins brought, I’ve responded with being raised up in New York, and of a sudden, people became less concerned by the fact I was too intelligent, or too talented for being an African. I was a western product, their honor was safe; I could be part of their game. I’ve met very few people in the west, these past years I felt like exposing what I was really doing to because the majority embraces this hypocrite and damageable rules, which serve their interests. And those who dare question it one bit, either they’re colored or not, are called names.
I recall Thibaut Perrin-Faivre, now vice CEO of Burberry London telling me 7 years ago: “ you are probably one of the most brilliant creative minds of this century”. Not that I needed his validation for being aware of my own possibilities and work them out, but it was one of the rarest moment I had a Caucasian from the creative field clearly putting words on a fact without directing the focus on my origins, color or whatever else their fantasies are.
The fact is, I’ve been raised in Africa, which I left as a teenager, sent in exile for the simple reason I’ve told my parents I felt more attracted to men than women, a fact that was unacceptable for the social brightness of my family.
The barriers were steel made and still are, on a field, which we may consider as progressive and open. I’ve understood one thing in my journey; this primitive racism in disguise is the reflection of our society globally and has nothing to do with color but everything to do with power. When you fear to loose the power you hold, for centuries, especially when you perfectly know that your possible challenger is, in fact, better than you are, you play bluff and you work on them psyche for convincing them you are almighty, so they won’t even think of challenging you.
The problem with me is that I never even consider this almighty, I never believed in a race, the silliest concept since the earth was flat, I consider not challenging myself first and my environment second, because if I may recall this is the fundamental principle of evolution.
I am even inclined to consider anyone’s supremacy, but please, let’s be serious, not because they’ll explain to me they are, deprive me of tools and possibility for being part of their game, but in playing a fair manner, and winning with dignity and honour. Unless it is done, I will have a vicious pleasure demonstrating to these fellows real supremacy does not know colours or origins but cares only about capacities and hard work.
And this 10 years experimentation was exactly about that, sending that message to everyone, we do not have to refer to what had been settled without our consent, we are not what anyone decides but us, and without feeling obliged to justify who and what we are, we have the right to bring up the best of us and to work it out with excellence without finding excuses in our History.
I’ve been through child abuses, rejection and leaving in the streets because of my sexual orientation and the shame it was for my family, I’ve to face the suspicious, shameless look of racism and barriers because of my origins and colour, yet there is one thing I know, I am no victim, I chose and design my path, I am thankful for the gift I had, I work and will work beyond strength to bring it up to the summit because this is where it belongs, there are no unreachable barriers, there are only our desire of being the change we want to see around us.
What kind of music do you like to listen to? Can you name a few artists playing in your iTunes right now?
Oh boy, that is a tricky one, as I change my playlist every morning:
Ok, for today I’m dealing with Amel Larrieux’s latest album , Ice Cream Everyday, a gem, Anoushka Shankar’s duet with Karsh Kale, Bella Bellow, probably one of the greatest singers Africa had know, Smell the D.A.I.S.Y from De La Soul, Franck Ocean, Lokua Kanza, a Congolese artist I love, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Bsement Jaxx, The Dandy Warhols, Diane Birch, Prince, Jill Scott, Nik West, Asgeir, Asa, Jay Z, Beirut, Jhene Aiko, Labrinth, Puccini, Rachmaninov and Stromae, with a pinch of Timbaland.
What advice would you give to young people aspiring to be in your career field?
Do you mind if I quote and reshape UB40?
“The great flood of tears that we’ve cried
For our brothers and sisters who’ve died
Over four hundred years has washed away our fears
And strengthened our pride, now we turn back the tide
We will no longer hear your command
We will seize the control from your hand
We will fan the flame of our anger and pain
We will fight for the right to be us
And we will build our own society
And we will sing, we will sing
We will sing our own song »
Whatever the obstacles, always recall these words, sing your own song, and sing it splendidly, more than your right, it is a duty, for tomorrow’s sake.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
Anywhere, everywhere, I’ll be content, as long as a river runs through it.
Thank you for your time Mr. Aguessy!
Most Welcome and thank you for wasting yours with me.
originally on TucMag.net
rest in paradise KOSSI AGUESSY