“Should I reduce myself to a female gaze which – moreover – feels very cisgender?”

© Mame-Diarra Niang / Stevenson

You are a self-taught photographer, what made you choose this medium?

I didn’t choose the medium. It came to me at a certain point in my life, when I was burying my father and was going back and forth to Senegal. The only thing coming between the event I was dealing with and my pain, my loss, was a camera. So, I took it and started to process my memory, my emotions with it. I don’t think I chose anything, it just found me at that time.

You grew up between Lyon, Abidjan and Dakar. How have these places influenced your artistic practice?

The fact that I have lived in several places has forced me to always reconsider who I am. I don’t think in terms of identity, I think in terms of territories. I am a territory. Having travelled throughout my childhood has forced me to reinvent myself, to be faced with a different population, with a different language, and to have to meet other parts of myself each time. The back-and-forth between these territories has forged my artistic practice.

Words and language are particularly meaningful to you. Can you explain your title choices?

I won’t say too much, because I also view my work as a game. It’s a commitment and I ask the spectator, or the person engaging with the work, to be the starting point. There is a path that is traced within certain titles. There are hidden texts that are interrogated in other series. It’s a kind of treasure hunt in a territory – and I am this territory. I see my work as a self-portrait. While you can see landscapes, I see a self-portrait.

Landscape and the notion of territory are at the heart of your work. What interests you in these elements?

It’s not the landscape necessarily. I think that what people see, what I see, is myself. It’s an inventory. For example, my first series – Sahel gris, At the Wall and Metropolis, which are a trilogy – represent the evolution of my mourning, that of my father. Sahel gris begins in a no man’s land, an empty territory, which is also a place of construction where I wandered. It reminds me of the feeling I had when I arrived in Senegal and had to bury my father. This was the place he was giving to me. That was how I felt. I infiltrated this territory until I met a wall, hence the name of my second series: At the Wall. We were, indeed, at the wall. It’s a continuity. It’s never about the physical place where I take the pictures – when you enter a territory in my work, it’s always about me.

Why do you seek the viewer’s participation in your work?

I could tell my story, but it would only matter to me. It seems to me that each of us is at the centre of our own world, our own universe. I’m rather curious about what other people experience when confronted to my images. It’s a circuit, a wandering that I propose, which can only unfold through someone’s eyes. There are several stories, there are several paths. My images are like a puzzle. You have to put this puzzle together, and each person puts it together differently. Whether it’s a viewer, a curator, it’s always a different version. It’s important that people talk about the experience. I don’t like to take them by the hand. It’s much better to discover something that’s hidden, by yourself.

The notion of metamorphosis is also very important to you. Why always reinvent yourself?

I think you never know who you are, so you’re always looking to find yourself. Reinventing yourself? Yes, because everything is movement. In a way, life is made up of cycles of life and death, and you witness the beginnings and ends of cycles. Some periods are valid… I don’t even know how to say it because it seems so obvious to me that you always should reinvent yourself, reconsider things, your vision, your memory! The more information one acquires, the more important it is to readjust what has been learned before. Are we on the right narrative, the right memory? Have we forgotten? And if so, did it carve something else in us? This is the whole question of reinventing ourselves. I am in favour of metamorphosis.

Do you consider yourself a committed photographer?

No, I don’t think I feel like a committed photographer. I am what matters to me, and what matters to me is to be heard. As a racialised person, my voice is important. My work starts a conversation, but I don’t advocate myself as a committed artist.

Do you think the female gaze exists?

That question doesn’t make sense to me because, again, beyond being a woman, I’m a racialised, mixed-race, homosexual woman… There’s a lot of intersectionality in my gaze. So, should I reduce myself to a female gaze which – moreover – feels very cisgender? I have an issue with this ‘female gaze’. I can hear it, but it’s not part of my conversation. I would even say that it would be a shame to reduce the female gaze to that. I think that there are as many gazes as there are women photographers and so, all of a sudden, to say that there is an exclusively female gaze… I’m not sure how I feel about it.

What advice would you give to young women photographers?

To be! To be themselves, fully, unapologetically. To do, to make mistakes, to be! When I started, I was afraid because I didn’t attend art schools, because I was not privileged. I always felt that there was something inside me that could be an exception. And I think that if we manage to listen to this little thing inside us that makes us an exception, the world of possibilities is there, it unfolds. So, I’d tell women photographers to do, to follow their instinct, to dare, not to apologise for being, period.

Mame-Diarra Niang


Born in Lyon in 1982, Mame-Diarra Niang is a self-taught artist and photographer now based in Aubervilliers. From France to Africa, her travels and moves have shaped her exploration of space – and her own evolution. From these territories, she captures metaphorical “portraits” representing her as she reinvents herself. A complex body of work inviting the viewer to take part in the adventure. In 2017, during a residency at Stevenson Johannesburg, she invented a laboratory which she explored using video – a new way of experiencing the territory. Mame Diarra Niang’s work was featured in solo shows in the Netherlands, South Africa, and Senegal.

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