Interview with Amina Toure-K

Studio Visit

Manuela de Leonardis: The definition of “story teller” is associated with your practice.

Amina Toure-K.: I consider myself a “storyteller” because I try to capture quite common scenes and situations experienced within diaspora communities. For me it is the opportunity to tell those stories that are behind it and the very reason that led me to approach it. The feeling of distance experienced by African peoples, how the sense of "home" is experienced, their way of relating to new spaces but also how they are seen by people from outside. There are good and bad points of view, but above all there is the will to show what our lives are like away from home.

MDL: In 'Making Home', 'A traveler's dilemma', 'Mama, where are you?' and in the other works on display, created between 2021 and 2022, you painted in oil and acrylic interior scenes in which the people portrayed seem to have an intimate relationship with you. Is that so?

ATK: All the subjects portrayed are my friends and come from different parts of Africa. I’m from Ghana and I found myself in a university environment which welcomes students of different nationalities. Many of them are disconnected from their culture and find themselves in new spaces where, essentially, they are looking for a way to exist. In the sense that they are confronted with a new culture, the American one, and try hard to enter a system that is very different from the one in which each of us grew up. For this reason, everyone tries to find their own way to feel at ease in this new space. There are Ghanaians, Nigerians, people from Senegal, Benin and other parts of Africa, everyone comes from a different culture, but when we are all together we are African and we share our values which, in their diversity, also have many similarities. We subconsciously find ourselves in this community where we support each other because we know we are alone, because our families and friends are far apart.

MDL: Can the way you described the different characters, the physical features or the clothes they wear also be read as a metaphorical vision of the different "Africas"? In the West there is a tendency to consider Africa as a single large country, not as an immense continent with peoples belonging to different cultures, each with their own language, religion and traditions.

ATK: Exactly! I think this is a very important point. I remember that, when I started working on this project, one of my professors told me to be careful not to push the narrative in the direction of a single African country but, by bringing together individuals from different African realities, approach the discourse from a broader point of view. In fact, different cultures are reflected in these paintings. In Game night, for example, there are people ready to play a traditional Ghanaian game called oware. The lady playing is my friend from Gambia, Fatou, while she is learning this board game, the other characters are from Ghana. It is one of those situations where there is a willingness to share African cultures that are not necessarily familiar to everyone. In the painting For the love of Ataya, on the other hand, in which we see a group of men having tea, there is a description of a very common moment in Gambia and Senegal, in which above all men sit together and chat for a long time while drinking a very strong tea called ataya [Chinese green tea, mint and sugar, Editor's note]. We also practice this culture in my school, whenever we get together or for a party, even if the girls don't like it very much because it is a drink full of caffeine. It's beautiful because it's a moment of sharing, of love. In this painting, then, there is also another level of sharing, because all those men come from Gambia. The man in the center, the oldest, was the teacher in their village and all the other students were his. But now that they are in the US there is no difference between them. They are university colleagues because he himself is studying for his PhD, but in spite of this one perceives the respect with which he is treated by other people.

MDL: In 'Behind the scenes' there is a reference to the stars and stripes flag.

ATK: I have tried to bring together many stories, in which there are very traditional and specific signs of belonging linked to Africa, in an equally specific space. The man wears the typical Nigerian male hat known as aso oke and a garment with kente fabric against a backdrop that is that of the US flag. But if you look carefully, you see that the flag is made of plastic strips with the woven pattern of the popular "Ghana Must Go" bags. Large bags that have become the symbol of emigration and that I cut into strips and glued them to the canvas. Indeed, in the 1960s many Ghanaians emigrated to Nigeria in search of work, but in the 1980s over two thousand of them were forced to leave the country. There are no documents. It was a political operation, perhaps in response to something Ghana had previously done to Nigeria. At the time those bags became very popular, as they were used by Ghanaians to carry their goods with them.

MDL: There is a very photographic approach to your way of portraying the characters and scenes: photography itself is "mentioned" in the work Mama where are you?

This story is particularly dear to me because I wanted to capture the state of mind of the subject. As far as photography is concerned, my work is based on this technique which allows me to tell stories as close to reality as possible. Some situations are picked up randomly, others are recreated based on my experiences. In Mama where are you? I speak of loss, not in terms of death but of distance, disconnection. That woman, like everyone else, has left her home to go to a place where she feels alone, disconnected from her own culture: she is looking for a way to survive. This is my cousin Aisha. She is married and has a child, but she felt the need to change something in her life. Studying for a master's meant having prospects for a better life for himself and her family. It took her three years to figure out that she could actually do it, because she didn't want to leave her child behind. It was very hard for her. The photographs I painted in the background represent just that sense of loss. Photos of the family, of the husband she is still married to, of her son, of the life she has left behind. Her son keeps asking "when is Mommy coming back?", "Mom where are you?". If you look at her gaze, it's not clear what she's thinking. Is she happy? Is she sad?

MDL: Bags that are "made in China": this consideration also introduces the theme of globalization that you refer to in your paintings.

ATK: Yes, there are many elements in my paintings that refer to this process, from the United States to Ghana to Nigeria… elements that come from different realities. The scenario itself shapes this sense of globalization with students from different parts of Africa sharing the same ideas.