Urban Natures: AJ Silistrie on Photography

By Dr. Leanne Haynes Wednesday, March 11th, 2015 Categories: Artistic Horizons, Features, Interview, Updates

Dr. Lea Haynes interviews London-based artist AJ Silistrie. Hailing originally from France and Guadeloupe, Silistrie discusses her philosophy, inspirations, and gravitation towards photography. Read the interview, featuring Silistrie’s thought-provoking images, exclusively for ARC Magazine:

AJ Silistrie was born in 1975, in Nancy, France. The narrative of this French-Guadeloupean visual artist, who resides and works in London, compels you to embark on an introspective journey. The talented, self-taught artist consistently presents a body of work which exudes an aura of curiosity and provocation. Her artistic endeavours developed in her teenage years, in the fields of music, writing and sculpture, before finally settling into photography less than a decade ago. AJ regularly exhibits her work in London and has sold over 100 originals in the last three years. She is currently working on ‘Indigenous’, a new series of monochrome portraits, two of which, ‘Fearless’ and ‘Falling With Grace’, were selected as finalists for the May 2014 SHOOT THE FACE award and later published in the SHOOT THE FRAME 2013/14 book as a result.

Leanne Haynes: Can you tell me about your background?

AJ Silistrie: I was born in Nancy, a city in north-eastern France, where I grew up and lived until 1999. This is where my mother is from. My Caribbean background comes from my dad, who is Guadeloupean. I go to Guadeloupe and the Lesser Antilles every year to visit close family. The Caribbean is where my heart is. I am particularly fond of Dominica, it is such a beautiful and unspoilt island. I always try to spend a few days there when I visit Guadeloupe.

AJ Silistrie

AJ Silistrie

LH: And you’re based in London now?

AJS: I discovered London at the age of 15. I used to stop by there on the way to see a pen friend in Nottingham! I remember being absolutely fascinated and drawn to the capital city at the time. Everything was so vibrant and diverse. It is around this age that I developed a passion for languages and travelling. After a languages related university exchange, I settled in London in 2000 and remain here to this day.

LH: How has London helped to facilitate your career?

AJS: London simply seemed the perfect place to be, first to find a job and to pursue my artistic endeavours. I remember my first years here; it felt like a world of new possibilities was opening up in front of me every day. Everything was so different but also so accessible, every experience was a journey. London soon became a great starting point to travel and explore the world and to meet people of different cultures. I simply embraced its buzz and diversity and I still do.  Living here enabled me to maintain and develop my artistic creativity further. There is a large audience for the arts and cultural events here. As I matured as a person and an artist, I decided it was time to share my work with others so I started exhibiting and selling at places like Spitalfields Art Market. As time has gone on, more and more people have started to show interest in my work and more opportunities for exhibitions have arisen for me.

Equilibrium, Heart Opening Collection. Copyright AJ Silistrie.

Equilibrium, Heart Opening Collection. Copyright AJ Silistrie.

LH: One of the prominent themes in your work is urbanism. How does living in one of the busiest cities factor into your creative vision?

AJS:  Yes, urbanism is quite prominent throughout my work, although it often coincides with other elements, without being too overwhelming, I feel. In the collection “Altered Nature”, for example, landscapes and botanical scenes merge into dilapidated walls and rough textures, to represent how urbanism can affect man’s perception of nature. Cities are growing faster and bigger. You inevitably become more aware of their environmental consequences when you live in a capital city.  London, however, may not be the most environmentally friendly city in the world but it is pleasant enough to live in and somehow stay in touch with nature. There is always a possibility to escape the confinement of the city walls to find refuge in a bit of wilderness here. There are a variety of gardens, commons and untamed parks, like no other capital city I have been to. In some cities, the impact of urbanization can be overwhelming, nature, there, becomes like an altered vision, a fading memory, sometimes a dream and this is what I was trying to represent in this series. I think it is important for nature and urbanism to coincide harmoniously and for Man and Nature to co-exist rather than Man repeatedly trying to alienate Nature.

LH: Why is photography your preferred medium of artistic expression?

AJS:  I have always approached life as an artistic journey and always had a passion for the arts. Literature at school, music in my teens, then clay and sculpture , to settle for photography in my late 20s. Art was an expensive hobby for my parents and not really an option for studies so I became an autodidact in all fields.  As a child I was always eager to explore the world to the full and was very curious of my surroundings.  I received my first camera, a Kodak instamatic 133-x, at the age of 9. I used to love taking pictures of family moments and adventures. I was keeping records of them in small photo albums. This became my diary. I often relate to life memories, more as a series of visual images rather than a series of events. Today my photography is still my diary, although rather than documenting life events, it also enables me to express the personal thoughts and feelings of what I experience.

Young at Heart, Heart Opening Collection. Copyright AJ Silistrie.

Young at Heart, Heart Opening Collection. Copyright AJ Silistrie.

LH: I admire the way your street art collection plays with the idea of perception: the photographer framing the artist.

AJS: I have always been intrigued by street art and urban culture. I first grew up in Vandoeuvre, a small suburban town in the outskirts of Nancy. Graffiti was everywhere, not particularly elaborate but nonetheless abundant. The need to mark territory and express one’s existence was strong. In the nineties/noughties street art became less marginalized.  Real open air galleries popped up in cities like Berlin, Lisbon and even London, where artists like Banksy, Pobel, De Vhils, Dolk, Invader and many others found recognition.

I like how street art is as rough as it is fragile. Photographing it is also about seizing the moment, Graffiti being ephemeral. My intention in this collection was to recreate a scene or simply framing the art in order to enable it to perpetuate in time. Some might argue that I “steal” from the artists but as Banksy quoted and supposedly ‘stole’ from Picasso:  ‘the bad artists imitate, the great artists steal’ so I guess this is fine!

LH: Does inspiration come from all sources?

AJS: Inspiration comes from a variety of sources. It is almost constant but does not always materialize. I am very sensitive and reactive to my surroundings and often feel an urge to express thoughts and share them with others indirectly. My influences are first and foremost everything I see, feel and experience. My school is that of Life which I fully embrace with all it has to offer. My photographic work is therefore diverse in subject matter, style and technique. Each collection is a visual journal, emanating from personal thoughts and life experiences. I suppose a love for nature, words and travelling often transpires in my work.

Melancolie, Altered Nature Collection. Copyright AJ Silistrie.

Melancolie, Altered Nature Collection. Copyright AJ Silistrie.

LH: What exhibitions have you been involved in and where?

AJS: I have showed my work across London and exhibited at Spitalfields Art Market in Shoreditch for a few years. I also took part in the AACDD (African and African Caribbean Design Diaspora) at the Bargehouse Oxo Tower Wharf, London and regularly attend the Urban Art Fair, a South London art festival in Brixton.

Last October, I exhibited at the Brixton East Gallery as part of the Lambeth Open, where I introduced “Sankofa”; a photographic installation mixing monochrome portraiture with Afro-Caribbean prose. This was well received in celebration of Black history month.  Last year, “fearless” and “falling with grace” two portraits from current collection “indigenous” have been published in the “Shoot the Frame” photography book 20130-14.

LH: What’s your creative philosophy?

AJS: I like how photography can both seize and create an emotion, can both seize and create a reaction. It is like the ultimate eyewitness but from the photographer’s perspective. Photography enables me to show the worlds as I see it, as I want to see it, or sometimes as I would like it to be, I suppose.   Like any artistic expression, it opens a dialogue with the viewer who can then make his/her own interpretation of it where words can be more dictating or paralyzing. My main focus lays more in the creative process rather than the technical process of photography. The photograph often being the catalyst for my artistic expression, it is often that I combine it with other media like ink, prose or other processes in order to achieve the desired results.

Falling with Grace, Indigenous Collection. Copyright AJ Silistrie.

Falling with Grace, Indigenous Collection. Copyright AJ Silistrie.

LH: “Heart Opening” cleverly uses image and text. Can you tell Arc readers more about the intentions and motivations for this project?

AJS: “Heart Opening” is a personal visual diary and I think of it as my most intimate collection. After a lot of travelling around the world (and within) I finally came up with some answers which I wanted to share with others. My intention is to invite the viewers to question themselves and reflect on their own life experiences. What other things the viewers get out of these pieces is left to them. Everyone is entitled to secrets and emotions of their own…Each person takes something a little different from the same piece but seem to meet on the overall feeling which makes the whole process fascinating.

LH: How does photographic software factor into your work?

AJS: It depends on my needs.  I avoid using photographic software not to alter the reality of the image too much. I prefer playing with perceptions than altering images. I used it mainly in the “Altered Nature” collection to suit the purpose of the series. Nature and urban scene had to coexist so I used digital software to create a double exposure effect. Other collections are pretty raw, I may play with contrasts and filters on occasions but it is as far as it goes.

Starry Night, Altered Nature Collection. Copyright AJ Silistrie.

Starry Night, Altered Nature Collection. Copyright AJ Silistrie.

LH: How important is it to experiment with new forms?

AJS: I like to flirt with abstract photography and create illusions whenever possible. I find it playful.  What you see is not what is. It therefore requires further observation from the viewer to access the reality of the shot. This is indeed particularly present in “Altered Nature” where brick, rock, wood and botanical scenes intermingle and blend to form a colourful sometimes lunar interpretation of nature. It also shows in my 3D architectural series, where I manually cut and layered segments of the photograph to create a subtle 3D illusion.

LH: Can you give Arc readers an idea of any forthcoming projects? 

AJS:  I am currently exploring portraiture and work on broadening “Indigenous” my latest collection. “Indigenous” is a tribute to the past and to what remains today in a critical state of vulnerability.

This series of monochrome portraits explores the roots of `negritude’ and self identity. Where do we truly come from? How is race defined?  A race that unites as much as it divides, that gratifies as much as it offends.   These are some of the questions that my multicultural self is attempting to explore in this new collection.  

Ne me dis pas qui je suis toi qui ne sait pas qui tu es, issue de tous, metisse je suis, indigene du monde, mes origines font ma force, ma negritude mon flambeau.

Dr. Leanne Haynes
Dr. Leanne Haynes

Leanne Haynes has recently finished a PhD at the University of Essex, which was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Her thesis focused on St. Lucian literature and mapped out the island’s rich literary landscape. She also completed her MA (Postcolonial Studies) and BA (Literature) at the University of Essex. Haynes has presented material at conferences in the UK and Europe. She is a keen creative writer and amateur photographer, with publications in the UK and US.