Interview with Serge Diakonoff

Interview with Serge Diakonoff ―artist for his upcoming exhibit at Art Dynasty

He was born in Geneva and has lived most of his life here. He is perhaps the modern Swiss artist who is most well-known after Hans Erni. He was the first one to make body paintings, and has travelled all over the world exhibiting his work. He has been commissioned to do many theatre decors, paintings and sculptures. We met him here in Geneva just after his eightieth birthday. Now we will let Mr Diakonoff speak, who, despite his age, still has a lot on his palate …

Q: Some people consider your artworks to be in the sphere of surrealism. What do you think?

Compared to surrealism there are other elements that have been added to my art. Today, we are well aware that we are just a grain of dust in the universe, so I think that’s part of it. The artist today is highly influenced by these ideas. In fact, I see that I am very influenced by all these ideas that I acquire in bulk through journals, newspapers and what I see on TV. I know that it has been stored in my subconscious.

When I draw or paint or work on an artwork, the crux of my work, either the portraits or sculptures and other things that I do, is the human being. When I represent people, it sometimes might look as if they are inhabitants from another world ‒‒ from outer space. This is not really what I am trying to represent. What I really want to express through these characters, these mutations, is our mental consciousness. I do not want to make the physical likeness of a man today, but his mental portrait, the one which is composed of lots of bits and pieces of knowledge and where everything is permitted. This is the reason why I do not think that it can be compared to surrealism. Of course, I was influenced by surrealism, but there is far more to it. I have acquired a way of expressing myself, and the aim is to show not the human being himself but the consciousness of modern man.

Q: In your long career, what is the event that has given you the most personal satisfaction?

I have one great capacity and that is the ability to forget. Obviously, I have lived through many hundreds of events that could be considered as important in my life, and it is perhaps easiest to draw attention to the most recent ones. As I always to live in the present, and possibly in the future, and as my life path is coming closer and closer to an end, I must say that even today I keep very little of what I have done. I have distributed photos of the things I did, like the theatre stage sets that I made, photos of my painted faces, etc. I may somewhere in a drawer have photos of some fifteen or twenty theatre sets, but these are certainly not what I consider the most important things among my work. Others exist in the archives of theatres for which I worked and some have been published in books. But otherwise, I am someone who does not live with my past but rather with numerous memories, and within these memories, my professional experiences are less important than my memories related my travels, people I have met, etc.

They are even more important in that they are related to my encounters with others. Of course there are friendships that one keeps, but fortunately we also the ability to make new friendships. I have this taste for travelling and the fact that I’m stateless contributes to this desire. As you might be aware, I grew up and will most probably die stateless, although I was born and grew up in Geneva.

When I was younger, of course, it bothered me a little. I considered it as a way of being marginalized and I did suffer some injustice. I had difficulty in obtaining my papers, visas, travel authorizations and I always had to request some extra documents. The result of this is obvious ― you are not as free to travel as others. So what do you do? Well, you travel much more than anybody else! I must say that if I had been obliged to obtain a visa or a passport, I certainly would not have travelled as much as I have actually done!

Q: You said that you are reaching the end of your life, but you are very busy. What are your plans?
Whenever I make a drawing, a painting I think I’ll hold a show ― that I’ll exhibit it here or there. That is to say, I cannot undertake large projects unless I know it is to be presented within an overall framework.

I also have writing projects. There are things that excite me, that I have just discovered, and that I would like to write about. For instance, I would like to make a book about colonial Africa, because I have all the necessary documentation, original photographs from the 1900s up to 1940, and I can link them to my previous books on African art. And with a film director friend, we have fifty-two hours of film that we have made on African art work. So I would like to complete the film editing and to have the financial means to carry it out. I have very clear ideas on how this should be done: documents in black and white; make a montage; include the artworks in the context of these documents ‒‒ that is to say, at the time when these artworks were made.

I think it would be interesting to show these images ‒‒ the structure of a village, the landscape, and to show images of the objects that were being created there at the time. There are heaps of things to show, and I have original pictures from 1900 to 1940. Many of the major Western photographers were in Africa at that time, and there was also a flourishing production of postcards, which are a great source of information.

Talking about the Fulani in Guinea, for example, would be great. They do not have sculptures as they were Islamized early on, but you must see their beauty, the wonderful hairstyles of the women, their jewellery, their houses, etc. African art is always related to agrarian populations. In fact, you have to be sedentary to produce art. The nomads take with them what is required, the basics, and therefore these groups do not produce much art. If we talk about Africa, we must be aware of different ethnic groups.
Q: How can people see your work?
I know there are a lot of things to be found on the Internet. In fact, I do not take care of all this, and even the photos that are on display have not been taken by me.
As of 21 September 2017 I will exhibit my artworks in Geneva, at a beautiful art gallery in the old town, people will have a chance to discover my latest artworks.
Serge Diakonoff
From 21 September to 31 December 2017
ArtDynasty Gallery
Grand-Rue 23,
1204 Genève
Phone: +41 22 310 21 03

Serge Diakonoff wroks