Sachi Yanari-Rizzo, Curator of Prints & Drawings
After seeing Alexis Peskine’s screenprint, Soua, for the first time, it didn’t take us long to make this purchase. Born in Paris, France, Peskine came to the U.S. with the intention of playing basketball through a Nike Camp scholarship; instead, he earned a B.F.A. in painting and photography from Howard University. He continued his education at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, graduating with an M.A. in Digital Arts and an M.F.A.
While Peskine works in photography and video, his mixed media pieces from the Power Figures and Fire Figures series relate most closely with his screenprint Soua, now in the FWMoA collection. For the works’ support, Peskine begins with wood planks or pallets. He stains them with earth and coffee, and in later works with the reddish hues of hibiscus and other spices, to make the surface look worn. Peskine drives nails of different gauges at varying depths into the wood, reminiscent of the surface of a topographical map. At the end, he applies gold leaf onto the nail heads, suddenly giving life to the form. His monumentally scaled faces are sourced from photos of people from around the world.
Likewise, in the Fort Wayne Museum of Art’s screenprint, Soua, his subject is a pensive woman who radiates strength as she directly engages the viewer. Her close-up originated with a flat silhouette. Facial features were translated into a halftone dot pattern made up of minute pin pricks to small dots. From a distance the eye optically blends the pattern into subtle values and the face and hair coalesce. The halftone process was commonly used in commercial printing and by pop artist Roy Lichtenstein.
Peskine left a section of paper unprinted that casts a halo around his subject. Artists often choose to print on a white or off-white paper, but Peskine selected an unassuming light brown handmade paper, the color of a common lunch bag. Yet, if you take more time to look, you notice plant fibers and slight tonal changes.
The rich, black ink was infused with coffee and printed over gold leaf, which peeks through the dot pattern. “’The darker you are, the less likely you are to be seen as beautiful,’ he says. ’There’s not one place in the world where being darker gives you more power. I personally see extreme beauty in the dark skinned body.’”[i]
Peskine’s experiences living in France and the U.S. and traveling throughout Africa and Brazil (his mother’s original home) encouraged him to reflect on art through a global lens. His interest lies in exploring humanity through refugee and Black experiences in history. Although individual in appearance, Peskine says that his portraits represent millions of people and their stories, explaining: “They are not actually portraits because a portrait is a depiction of someone with that person’s life story. . . They’re for us, for Black people in general. What’s important is that they come from all across the world. They’re Black people of many different backgrounds because we’re not a monolithic group.”[ii]
His choice of materials is thoughtfully considered and intentional to create metaphors. The ordinary nail is actually an evocative object and can raise associations with the Crucifixion or even acupuncture. Peskine, however, is largely inspired by the Nkisi N’kondi protective nail figure from central Africa. Made by Kongolese artists and spiritual specialists, these personal, carved sculptures were identified in English as power figures. Although the process of nailing can feel like an aggressive act of destruction, nails are also used to build. Peskine transcends what could be a metaphor for unjust pain and suffering with arresting images of strength, self-assuredness, and resilience.
Peskine evocatively marries his medium with the message. Are the wood planks recalling docks to signify points of departure? Combine this with his choice of using earth/soil and the works reference the land and, potentially, the transatlantic slave trade or migration of refugees. Gold and coffee are products that are valued, but at what cost? Mining and plantations are historically dependent on the exploitation of laborers, including enslaved people and refugees.
Peskine’s works can be found at the Columbus Museum of Art, Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and Rhode Island School of Design.
Visit Sachi at the Print & Drawing Study Center Tuesday-Friday, 11am-3pm, or by appointment to view more of FWMoA’s works on paper.
[i] Sarah Huny Young, “French Artist Alexis Peskine uses nails like brush strokes to illustrate the global Black experience,” Pittsburgh City Paper (7 May 2019), https://www.pghcitypaper.com/pittsburgh/french-artist-alexis-peskine-uses-nails-like-brush-strokes-to-illustrate-the-global-black-experience/Content?oid=14923879
[ii] Fay Janet Jackson, “Alexis Peskine: Collective Ambition,” ART X Lagos (November 2021), https://artxlagos.com/alexis-peskine-collective-ambition