Fishing for Holes in Water: On the Ecopoetics of Penda Diakité’s Mixed-Media Art
Winner of the 2023 Toni Beauchamp Prize in Critical Art Writing

Constance Collier-Mercado

“… Moi je suis mère / Je suis terre dernière demeure / Terre qui l'on bat / Terre qui l'on piétine / Terre que l'on pétrit / Terre où l'on gambade” – Fatoumata Keita

There's a familiar saying throughout Western culture: You can't see the forest for the trees. Translation: Your focus is skewed, misunderstanding persists. Modern environmental rhetoric is caught in a similar disconnect. The ongoing project of negotiating human relationship to earth, as Ed Roberson describes it, “somewhere between right and understanding,” has increasingly become the responsibility of Ecopoets who are writing themselves into the very green. A similar shift is happening in many art circles. One that sees multidisciplinary Malian-American artist, Penda Diakité, caught in the thick.

In visual art, the Gaia/Mother Earth archetype is well known but far removed from its baser origins. Gaia as leisurely site of beauty and excess, blissfully domesticated toward household and motherhood, perpetually available to nurture all who seek her – she has been made toothless by way of romanticisms that tread dangerously close to turning our natural world more servant than autonomous being. Diakité’s oeuvre, perhaps attuned to the unspoken gendered, racial, and colonial implications of this ostensibly blissful servitude, sidesteps any such imbalance by rejecting the idea of a zero-sum politic.

Filtered through the lens of Black feminine existence, her work is concerned with both animalia and humanity, earth and its many inhabitants. Never far from the surface is the whispered reminder of an historically violent mammification visited upon the Black female body by a society that deems her both easily disposable and constant caretaker. These are not the same, of course. Gaia is not the Mammy trope. And Black women are certainly no mythological creatures borne of European history. But by centering Black gendered experience, Diakité problematizes the Gaia archetype and makes space to investigate how violent subjugation of the Earth and the Black body intersect.

In her Fall 2020 solo show, Mousso-Ya [Womanhood], some of Diakité’s more obvious parallels with the Mother Earth pastiche were on display in her study of the Black feminine profile. Using bust-size figures, spread across six panels of either cardboard or wood box frame, she first takes time to examine the trees: Mousso-Ya 1, Mousso-Ya 2, Mousso-Ya 3. Womanhood becomes both litany and a rough artist’s outline for the biosphere contained within its borders. Diakité’s primary medium is collage, typically applied over a textured base of oil, acrylic, and spray paint, such that when we zoom in on the details of these silhouettes we are brought face-to-face with a brightly colored assemblage of entirely new beings.

Close inspection of Mousso-Ya 3 reveals a hoop-earringed woman with a cascade of braided hair piled high in a messy bun and a yellow iris tucked behind her ear. There is beauty here. But within the minutiae of her face and neck there is more: a spotted snake forms her nape, a koala gently nuzzles the hollow of her neck, the torso and one leg of a lizard make up her jawbone, and the list goes on. At Band of Vices gallery, the figures faced each other, three offering a right-side profile and three others facing left. Displayed this way, a suggestion of dialogue and intimacy was created between each pair.

Ashia Ajani's 2022 poem, a black hair study in commensalism, i.e. grease and glory in the marshlands of my scalp, is the latest piece by a contemporary Ecopoet to “fill my knocked / around head with box braid" reminders of Diakité's numbered busts.

But what happens when the relationship between earth and humanity eschews symbiosis in favor of imbalance or, worse, parasitism? The opening epigraph by Malian poet, Fatoumata Keita, is less than optimistic. In the metaphor where the whole of humanity plays unethical polygamist husband to earth's used-then-cast-aside wife, our planet survives to heal itself long after we have destroyed ourselves. What is less clear are the implications of this metaphor in an unequal society. Climate activist, Vanessa Nakate, notes that “those with the fewest resources and who’ve contributed the least to the crisis are contending with the gravest consequences.” Is not some subset of humanity, like Keita’s speaker, more closely aligned with an abused earth rather than the abuser?

Diakité does not shy away from the complexity or subsequent grotesqueries of this question, instead testing what poet Camille T. Dungy refers to as “the limits of dominion, empathetic metaphor, and pathetic fallacy… at both extremes.” It cannot be overlooked that the figures in most of her artworks are nude – stripped of not just their physical clothing but also their skin. Such spectacle was on display at Chicago’s Nych gallery for Diakité’s Spring 2020 solo show, Diary of a White Black Girl. There is a multiplicity to the series, made possible in part by a recurring reference to water in several of her paintings.

Fishing for Holes in Water easily drew my attention with its gold-rimmed, blue pixelated, round box frame. In a since-deleted three minute video posted to Instagram, Diakité tells a story about the painting’s name and  Dunfin – a genderless Jinn of the Niger River who lives along a strip that seems gentle and calm but actually harbors multiple whirlpools only a few feet away. It becomes clear that to fish for holes in water is to seek wisdom and revelation from sources otherwise seen as counterintuitive – to recognize depth (and danger) hidden among the seemingly shallow.

It is Dunfin who makes way for clarity, not between the level of detail inherent to forests versus trees, but an understanding of when one is submerged in superficiality versus the metaphorically profound. Dunfin brings with it a volatile counter to the domesticated appeal of Gaia in collective imagination, effectively telling the viewer: These are not the same.

For anyone who’s suffered loss through the raging effects of storms and subsequent rising waters that increasingly flood the Niger River, the Mississippi River, and the Amazon as both river and ecological region, they are all watery natural disasters made worse by receding tree lines and arid conditions synonymous with human extraction. In each case, the water runs a clay mud shade of burnt red or brown that reeks of both caved-in earth and bloated flesh. There is violence here but who is wielding and who is seeking defense?

In some paintings I see parallels to Wanda Coleman’s poem, I Ain't Yo EarthMama (3), and her visceral rejection of any relationship to Mother Earth while wholeheartedly embracing the Black fat body society typically abhors. Coleman rages:

“i’m so big i can barely walk. /… / sometimes the world fits / and though i can’t be called small / no one laughs or cracks jokes behind my back // i will cut you / with my tongue / my nails and the / butcher’s knife / in that order / … / when i stomp my foot, the ducks take ground.”

It is interesting that Diakité does not frame her more recent work as a similarly direct commentary on the Anthropocene or imminent environmental destruction. Instead, her art engages a circuitous orbit around those Dunfinian powers most likely to heal environmental decline.

One such whirlpool of possibility exists with her May 2023 solo show, Mansa Musso (She Is King). The artist and her work enact a polyamory unto themselves such that time, history, and ecological futurity collide to subvert present-day disaster. In stark relief with the extractive polygamy of Keita’s poem, Diakité’s portraits of Sogolon Kondé, Sasuma Bereté, and Buktu mounted on the back of a camel in search of water for her people all privilege a Black womanhood that bears equal standing as poet, griot, spiritually attuned advisor, and prominent nation-bearer. What if this past were made to thrive into modernity? How might the impact of these women’s influence affect a different relationship to our planet?

Diakité recently introduced a new element to her material practice, showcasing a technical leap toward carving opulent patterns from the rubber backdrop of each collage. In the description for one 2021 painting especially, Koroduga, she bridges generations of her work:

“… Koroduga sing meaningful songs and tell stories to help people understand life concepts like birth, death, celebration, harvest … they are known to collect recyclable things and use them for their costumes (cowrie shells, old cans, shoes, etc…).”

What is the connection between rubber extraction and dressing oneself in recyclable materials for adornment? Given that rubber and other natural resources are routinely extracted from and then polluted back onto the African continent as waste, Diakité has opened a wonderful space for introspection regarding this newest portrait series as a model of reclamation and harvest instead. Where extraction typically exploits, might the unearthing and elevating of these women’s stories offer an ecopoetic lesson on more reciprocal notions of value, beauty, and consumption? If so, it is a culmination of ideas the artist has been in conversation with for many years.