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The Masked Expressions of Delphine Diallo

The French and Senegalese visual artist challenges notions of race and gender through her collage and masked portrait series.

Marina Garcia-Vasquez

Morning Drawings. Image courtesy the artist.

On Instagram, the visual artist Delphine Diallo posts collaged works daily. From the series Morning Drawings, a magazine cutout of Naomi Campbell gets a layer of sinewy white painted lines to punctuate her skin while dried rose petals frame the composition. Chris Rock himself contacted the artist to purchase the piece.

As a French and Senegalese artist Diallo challenges traditional notions of gender and race through photography and mixed-media collages. Diallo is on the rise, having been published in The New York Times, named by the Smithsonian as an emerging photography star, and lauded by a comedian who cares about race representation. Her portraiture embodies the rich cultural presence of Africans and African Americans, especially in a climate currently lacking in the representation of people of color across the industries of cinema, television, fashion, and art.

Highness with painting by 
Laolu Senbanjo. Image courtesy the artist.

Diallo’s most pronounced photos are a celebration of the female form, concurrently uplifting sensuality and spirituality. Her portraits offer an important patina to the lives of the women she documents, capturing their true essences and powerful spirits. She tells The Creators Project, I wanted to create a new photography world where all my subjects are connected with their soul and match a more universal idea of beauty. Not one imposed by the media.

Recording unbridled beauty and spirit is a value Diallo learned from the artist Peter Beard when she assisted him on a Pirelli calendar shoot in Botswana in 2008. That experience was a life-changing moment for her, as she worked with Beard to assemble compositions with a photographer's eye, but also become integrated in iconic frames with elephants and other wild life for her natural beauty. It was the first time she was recognized as both a photographer and a muse.

Highness in collaboration with Joanne Petit Frere. Image courtesy the artist.

Diallo’s mother was herself a painter who would give her daughter new artists to learn about every morning. In college after growing up in Paris, Diallo studied graphic design and animation at the Académie Charpentier School of Visual Art. She took to photography while traveling to meet her Senegalese family because she wanted to document their existence. She wanted to see that part of her identity on film.

Inspired by Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth: Masks of Eternity, Diallo creates new mythologies with her works, combining traditional photography with a modernizing take on her subjects' identities through masks, regalia, and spiritual symbols. In the series, Highness, Diallo incorporates the braided headpieces of Joanne Petit Frere to make images of new heroines. 

Delphine And Masks by 3dbrooklyn on Sketchfab

Diallo is interested in how she can translate ideas of mythology for the future. She began to collaborate with Nate Kolbeck, founder of 3D Brooklyn, to find ways to incorporate 3D-printed objects into her practice. Kolbeck works with artists to bring new life to the objects he makes using 3D printers. He says, “Artists are fearless. They embrace new ideas and see potential much faster than society as a whole. Working with them helps us expand our own vision for the future.”

Diallo and Kolbeck decided on a series of 3D-printed masks in line with the Highness headpieces. Employing Kolbeck’s printers, the results became a project titled Ritual, a new photo/performance series with Diallo and a cast of dancers in 3D-printed masks. Four white masks were designed based on themes of spirituality using a Projet 660 Pro 3D Printer, which uses gypsum powder. The masks are geometric faces that are at once human and otherworldly, honoring the capabilities of personalized 3D technology as a fertile technique for artists.

Ritual. Image courtesy the artist.

Says Diallo, “I’ve always loved to add masks in my portraits to express different states of emotions. It was an opportunity to push the boundary and use a new technology.One of the masks is my face duplicated three times. That face was based on an Aztec ceremonial mask from 1300 AD that represents three stages in life, birth, and life. The version that was printed at 3D Brooklyn was made from a scan of the artists’ face and a digital breaking away of her face through measured layers in software.

Later that same day, The Creators Project accompanied Diallo to George Brown Studio in SoHo to stage her first Ritual portrait with the three-faced mask. The portrait is also a performance piece that explores the duality of life and death. Inspired by the Japanese traditional performance of Shinto, Diallo broke more than 100 eggs and disposed of their centers to focus on the shells of life, she then covered her body with white paint. This literal iteration of Ritual works to compose a new cosmos with the broken eggs, bare body, and 3D printed mask.

“I recently lost someone that I deeply love and processing this ritual through photography was an important part of connecting with the idea of the soul, rebirth, and a healing process to get the pain out of the body,” Diallo says.

Ritual. Image courtesy the artist.

Click here to learn more about Delphine Diallo. 

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