It’s safe to say that the stunning images of ‘black skin’ by Gabon photographer Yannis Davy are more than the sum of their immediate beauty. Yes, we see a stunning model luminescent in their black skin but more significantly each image represents a small chip at colonial ideas of black being ‘ugly’. Yannis Davy juxtaposes black on backgrounds which accentuates said ‘blackness’. In turn Yannis Davy evidently challenges stereotypes formed when colonialism ran amok like wildfires in the midst of summer. Significantly of course while these ideas were given validation in that colonial period the ideas are alive and in some places thriving.
In Yannis Davy’s work the challenge to those ideas is clear- ‘black is beautiful’ resounds audibly through his work.
Tell us about your formative years what were they like and how did they help lay the foundation for the arts firstly?
I was born in France but I grew up in Libreville, Gabon. Growing up there laid the foundation in terms of appreciating the culture and the people that surrounded me, which later one ended up greatly influencing my work.
Can you name a moment, artist or image which helped shape your interest in photography?
The work of Mert and Marcus, their composition and especially the way they use colors greatly shaped my interest in photography early on.
What does identity mean to you and how and indeed why do you explore that in your photography?
We live in a world where your identity is decided for you as soon as you are born. Being aware and proud of your identity is important in the world we live, because many have been told that they were inferior because of who they are. Exploring identity in my work is a way to celebrate it and highlight those identities who have been told they are inferior.
This idea that everything coming from Africa is inferior still thrives today and it is something that could not be further from the truth.
Some say dark is ugly and indeed we are aware of these negative connotations from outside and within ‘black culture’. What makes these opinions from outside and within so destructive-how do you counteract that in your work?
These kind of opinions are destructive because they ultimately end up displaying black and African people as inherently inferior which is then used to excuse things such as slavery and colonization. I counteract these ideas with my work by boldly displaying this dark and accentuating it with color and light. I embrace dark skin in my work to its full extent and therefore try to highlight it in a way that accentuates its beauty.
It’s old ground but how different are Western ideas of being African/black to the reality?
Ever since they “discovered” the continent, Europeans have inaccurately depicted it by putting forth ideas that Africa is the primitive land in need of guidance, while simultaneously disregarding all the inventions, the knowledge, artistic and cultural capital they had by treating it as inferior. This idea that everything coming from Africa is inferior still thrives today and it is something that could not be further from the truth.
We saw a video regarding the role of photography in Africa on your site-can you talk a bit about that?
In the TED Talk, I talk about the historical relationship between Africa and photography. I start first by talking about how colonial photography helped perpetuate a false narrative of a primitive and underdeveloped continent to the rest of the world. I also discuss the new narrative that many Africans are telling by reclaiming photography as a way to tell their own stories. Being African is a very important to and I have decided to focus my work on the complexities and diversity of African identities.
Technically your colours are vibrant almost like a fashion shoot.
I use a lot of colour in my work because I am interested in exploring the contrast between one’s skin and the environment. In terms of fashion I am inspired by the work of many fashion photographers and magazine editorials. These were the main type of images I was exposed to, so it has ended up influencing my work a lot.
The last conversation you had about photography that had an impact on you. What was it about and why did it have an impact on you?
The last impactful conversation I had regarding photography was about this idea that nowadays people’s intentions when creating images have largely shifted to how people are going feel about them on Instagram. Photographers to an extent do not create/take images just for the pleasure of it. Instead they search for validation through social media (and Instagram specifically) which I think is unfortunate.