I pursued Laetitia Ky for several months but she was often travelling and our communications stretched over time. We wrote to each other and at some point determined that she would answer my questions with voice notes. The calm tone, the warm voice added a kind of sap to the statuesqueness of her poses. It is as if her works at some point took on a new life.
With her hair, the artist makes portentous sculptures that she immortalizes in photographs where she takes on strong expressions from time to time, as a protector of women’s claims and gender equality. Her work is reminiscent of that of Nigerian photographer J.D. Okhai Ojeikere, who beginning in the late 1960s created a mighty collection of African women’s hairstyles to classify their symbolism.
In contrast to J.D. Okhai Ojeikere, Laetitia Ky dresses her creations, interprets them, takes them on, becoming the work herself. From the art of weaving, she moves on various planes by relying on different tools and techniques, from photography to painting, and she spreads her messages through social networks, as if her research cannot be separated from sharing.
Inevitability and hype, then, together with the firm belief that art can move consciences.
This exchange took place in June, when the artist was in Italy for a residency.
Where are you now?
Actually I am in Italy, I am here for one project with the foundation called Una boccata d’arte. Every year they select 20 small villages in Italy and they give each village to one artist, national or international artist. Each artist has to create a project for the village in order to celebrate the village. It’s an initiative to promote tourism in these small places. My village is Rocca Sinibalda, in the Lazio region, and I am working on this project called Follow the braid.
How did you discover your love for hairstyle?
It’s very hard for me to say how I discovered it, I think it has always been very natural for me. Braiding hair is very common in Ivory Coast, where I come from. Since I was a child I always seen many women around me braiding their hair. I started braiding hair when I was like 5 years old. I was very tiny, but I was already braiding other people’s hair, like my little sister, my mum and everyone around me. It was very natural to me, it’s part of the culture in Ivory Coast.
Why did you choose it as an art?
It became an art way later, when I was around 20 years old. I was in a phase in which I was trying to reconcile myself with my own African heritage. For years and years, since I was a child, because it was normal here, I used to relax my hair, it was always straight. After my high school degree I went in a process where I went back to natural hair. Having natural hair was a very big shift in my life because it wasn’t an easy step: I wasn’t very familiar with my own texture, it was hard for me to manage it, so sometimes I felt like I wanted to come back to relax my hair. But to help myself I was following on social media accounts that were promoting natural hair, black beauty, those kinds of things. Watching this encouraged myself to continue to keep my hair the way it is and not to go back to relax it.
One day one of those accounts posted a photo album that was completely amazing, it changed my life. This photo album was showing West Africa women in the precolonial era, very ancient pictures in black and white. It shew how all women used to do their hair before colonization in West Africa, and I was completely amazed because those hair were sculptures, like abstract sculptures. When I did my researches I have learned that in old African society hair was a way to communicate. It wasn’t just to make someone look beautiful, it was actually a tool to communicate on various aspects of someone. People could use their hair to say, for example, “I am a married woman” or “I am single”, or “this is my religion”; “this is my tribe”. Depending on the culture and on the hairstyle you could have many informations about a person and I was very impressed by this. I wanted to experiment after seeing this photo album. And I started to experiment. Everything started there.
How much does it take to make one of your sculptures?
It really depends on what I want to do, there is not an average time. Some sculptures are really easy to do and will take me like ten minutes, twenty minutes; other sculptures are way more complicated, and I need to do them for hours. I have some sculptures that takes 4 or 5 hours because I need to create like separated pieces of extensions that are not necessarily directly on my hair and then I attach them to the sculpture. It really depends.
Can you describe your artistic process?
Well, my artistic process is pretty simple. I am a very intuitive person, so when I have an idea, it just comes to my mind like a flash and I try to do it. Of course it happens that I have to conceptualize something, a project to seat and to reflect on, especially when I have clients or I have to do some collaborations. But most of the time, when I create, I don’t think that much. Once I have the idea and I know what I want to do, if it’s pretty simple, I will seat in front of a mirror, and I will just sculpt. If it’s a very detailed sculpture, I will just take a piece of paper and a pencil and I will try to draw what I have in my mind, because when there are too many details it is very hard to visualize it perfectly. So I draw it and then I seat myself and I sculpt, and when I finish sculpting I take my tripod and my camera and I just take the picture. I have a kind of remote control that I use to be able to take pictures of myself.
Do you work with some other people?
Most of the time I will do everything by myself but sometimes I need help and that help is my little sister, Florencia. Sometimes I need help to take the pictures because doing a photo shoot all by yourself, especially when it is not indoor, you need help.
Do you have a working routine? If yes, can you describe it?
I don’t have a specific job routine, to be honest. I do sculptures, I paint, I write; I am learning music, so it’s very hard to have a very specific schedule, also because I work out a lot. I am not a very organized person, I want to change that and learn to be more organized, to prepare my week and to prepare my month, but I don’t know how to do that. So I wish I will learn, and this is one of my programme, so I could be more productive, but I do so many different things that is very hard for me to have a specific work schedule.
How does it look like your working space?
I live in a small apartment in Abidjan for now. I am planning to move but I am in a very deep thinking right now because I am hesitating between two different places. In Abidjan my studio is my apartment, like where I live. It’s a small place but very cosy, very comfortable, very nice. You know, everything is just mixed together: my bed and my paintings, my canvas, my computer. I feel the best to create when I am home.
In your artworks you seem to embody the power through your hair, how long do you keep your headdress? I mean, do you go around with these sculptures in your daily life?
No, I don’t go out with my sculptures. I don’t like to do that, actually. On a daily basis my hair is just normal braids. When I sculpt my hair in general it is for the opening of an exhibition or a special occasion where I want to have some attention because of my event. One thing to know is that these hairstyles are very painful to wear, it’s a huge pressure on the skull, and to be able to stand on the top of the hair the original ponytail needs to be extremely tight, and this can be very difficult to wear for too long. So, when I do a hair sculpture, as soon as I finish the picture I just take it down. When I have to do a performance because I have an event it is a nightmare, to be honest.
You reflect on issues such as colinialism, feminism, gender and race. I read you recently had your first show in Ivory Coast, how is your art perceived in your Country?
In my Country it’s a very shared opinion (In my Country the opinion is very split). People love my art visually, they think it’s beautiful, and I always have a lot of compliments for the visual aspects of my hair sculptures. But when it comes to the message that I address, especially when it regards equality of sexes, there is a lot more of backlash. Everyone (no one) is not happy with my opinion, Everyone (no one) is not happy with equality of sexes here, especially when I talk about issues like abortion, since there is a lot of religion culture here. Or when I speak about all the things that are tabu about women’s body, like periods, body hair, being old women, sexuality. People are not used to that, so it creates a lot of backlash. As for the paintings it’s also the same thing because my paintings are getting more and more recognized, and I am becoming more and more famous. They just hate my paintings in Ivory Coast. A lot of people hate them because I don’t use filters when I paint, my art is always very strong, I use very explicit elements like blood, sex, body parts. I am not afraid of painting with honesty, so it creates a lot of backlash, but at the same time I also receive a lot of love.
What does it mean to be an artist working with and through her body in Ivory Coast?
As I said before, being an artist, working with your body and expressing the type of opinions that I have, is also being ready to receive all these backlashes. It means being ready to receive a lot of hostility and insult. People love to make fun of me, for example when I show my body hair. There is a lot of violence, to be honest. Everyday I receive messages from women saying that I am so courageous, they don’t know how I do to just keep going when I receive so much violence but I am used to that. I am not afraid of hostility, I feel like a human being grows when he/she is confronted with hostility, actually. If you are extremely comfortable everyday, if you are always in your comfort zone, and everybody agree with you, there is no evolution. You have to be confronted (to confront) with people that think differently, with people that don’t like you, to be able to evolve and to learn things and to learn that life is not just always easy. And that’s how you become stronger, that’s how you build character (personality). So actually I am not afraid of all those backlash, when it comes from Ivory Coast or from the Western road, I don’t care. The most important thing is to be true to myself and to continue creating.
You studied Business Administration, do you think your studies contributed to define your artistic choices and path?
Actually I studied Business Administration but I stopped before having the degree. It was definitively important to me to realize that I didn’t want to do that, to realize that I just wanted to be an artist, being someone who uses imagination to create. So, yes, my studies definitively contributed to my choice. Because being an artist in Ivory Coast is not easy and there are not a lot of parents that love their children to choose this path. So, because I had my high school degree very young, I was 16 years old, I didn’t have the courage to say to my parents I didn’t want to study anymore because I wanted to be an artist. We don’t have so many art schools in Ivory Coast, so it’s not very easy. I just did what they wanted me to do and I realized it wasn’t for me, and I just did all the things I could do to build my own path and story.
You use social networks to promote and spread your art and messages, how do you relate with these platforms and with your followers?
I think social media are amazing, of course they are full of good and bad stuff, but I think that when they are used well, you can absolutely change your life with them. I have built my career thanks to social media, so I am very grateful that I have been able to have this tool. I started creating in my little room in Abidjan, I had nothing but my phone and my creativity and I’ve been able to touch people all around the world. Without even moving. I think it’s very magic. I think it’s an amazing tool, but it also has a lot of backlash because people, when they are behind their screen, they are very different, they are bolder, they can say very awful things that they would never say in real life, in front of you. When you are an artist like me and you have a big following and people just want to hear what you have to say on different topics, it’s very complicated to be on Internet because the bullying can be very strong. I do love social media, I work with them; I distract myself with them; I meet amazing people with them and I do a lot of amazing things but I think we have to work, everyone has to work as a community to make them a safer place because when someone is harassed on social media it can be extremely strong.
You also work with music and cinema, and you recently played an important role in Disco Boy by Giacomo Abbruzzese, that won the Silver Bear for Outstanding Artistic Contribution. How was this experience?
The experience in Disco Boy was my second experience as an actress and I actually love acting. To me it was like the confirmation that I want to do that, I want to continue being an actress. I have always loved cinema, I love to dream, I love to imagine things. Watching movies has always been a way for me to just escape reality. I’ve always told myself “I don’t know how I am gonna do this but I know I will one day be in the film industry”. And you know, things just being things. They came to me to propose me the role, it was amazing. Giacomo Abbruzzese is a very nice person. Although it’s not easy, because when you are very new to acting and you are trying a lot of different things, it’s a lot of practice, it’s not simple, and you realized that working with one director can be completely the opposite of what another director teaches you. Sometimes they will teach you opposite things. For example, you know in general African people, and me especially like many African people, we have very strong facial expressions when we talk, when we do things, and from a Western point of view it can seem a little bit too much, especially when it comes to film. I had to learn to just edit my facial expressions and it was a very complicated exercise, but it was a very beautiful experience, I have learned a lot and I am very happy of the result and I am looking forward to have another cinema project.
Is there an artwork you find particularly representative of your life now? And why?
No, I don’t think there is one artwork in particular. Everything I create is one representation of one part of my life or of the female experience, not necessarily me. I take inspiration from my experience and from the experience of the women all around me. So I don’t have just one artwork that just represents me. It’s the combination of all my artworks and everything that will come will represent me.
Is there an inspiring person in your life?
Yes, there are so many inspiring people in my life. There are two women that I completely love and adore, they are celebrities. The first one is J.K. Rowling, the creator and writer of Harry Potter. She is a very strong woman and she has a lot of courage, she fights for women rights, and even with the backlash she received, she stayed herself because she wasn’t doing anything bad. But the media, you know, they made her look like the bad guy but she stayed true to herself, she stayed true to what she believed. This is very important to me because in this society, where you can’t offend anyone, when there is a lot of cancel culture, seeing someone like her, just stay herself, despite everything, definitively inspired me a lot. The second author is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I just adore her, she is extremely courageous and when she believes in something she will not let any type of propaganda or any type of pressure make a change of her mind. These are definitively the two women that inspired me the most.
What is your next project? Can you anticipate something?
Yes, I am working on so many different things but one of the projects I am working on is like a comic, a book on an Ivorian super hero who use her hair to fight crime. It’s an idea that I have since many years but now I feel I am ready to just write it and I am very excited. It will take me a lot of time but I want to do it, because I believe you have to create the representation you want to see. I don’t love the tendency to make other characters that are white to make them black to talk about inclusivity. I prefer to create our own heroes, and there are not so many Ivorian heroes in the pop culture, I feel that if I can do that it will be very amazing. So I want to create a woman who is fighting crimes with her hair. It will be like a comic book for young people.
All credits: Laetitia Ky
Ode to womanhood
Sacrifice de mère
Le lait de la vie
Les trois mères
Tree of life