Corporeal and spiritual entanglements.
Self-taught artist Tiffanie Delune instinctively mixes the personal and the universal in her multilayered paintings. Playfulness is at the core of her process, with her application of tactile embellishments including glitter, pearls and dried flowers. She approaches making with an intuitive curiosity, enhancing a joyful representation of her Belgo-Congolese heritage, which is further reinforced by her use of bold shapes and vibrant colours. Taking inspiration not only from Congolese folklore (tales, proverbs and songs) but also from her own childhood recollections, she is able to reform even traumatic memories through her work. Emphasising on the therapeutic quality of painting as self-reflection, the artist acknowledges that it has been functioning as a gargoyle in her spiritual journey, guarding her against the devils of the mind. Describing the duality of her technique akin to exercising; from meditative yoga to physical boxing, it is no surprise that her canvases are full of complexity and movement! Having interviewed Tiffanie just after lockdown measures were lifted in the UK, she explained how this unusual state brought a moment of stillness to herself and her work. Focusing on “wondering and wandering”, she has utilized this time to concentrate on smaller, intimate pieces. Whilst staying inside and looking inwards through her paintings, she aims to lead the viewer to unexpected “magical” places; dreamworlds, nature, and abroad to offer new perspectives on enquiries as varied as domesticity, identity and spirituality.
Having lived and worked in Canada and Switzerland, as well as taken trips to Bali and recently Luxor, in what ways have those diverse histories and cultures shaped your work? Do you feel confident about your current studio location in London providing the necessary stimulations to develop your practice?
Originally from Paris, I was naturally attracted to western destinations as a teenager, which brought me to live in Canada and Switzerland and it was in my early twenties that I started being drawn to other places in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and the Caribbean. I’m interested in the dialogue between family heritage and personal development, history and womanhood, spirituality and modern relationships, and that’s probably why I feel the need to learn about deeper, unfiltered, non-Western cultures. While London is definitely the place where I want to develop myself as a Visual Artist, for its vibrant, cultural scene and unique opportunities it provides, I also need to feed myself regularly, whether physically or indirectly by these places. It goes from the films I watch, the books I read to the people I surround myself with to the trips and photographs I take. These influence the colours I mix, the effects of natural landscapes, the mystical feel of some pieces. They feed me differently, making me understand the world we were not taught about but also finding my own definition of cultural belonging.
Before dedicating your full time to art-making, you constructed a career in the advertising industry. What made you shift your professional pathway? Do you recognise any reminiscence of the design mindset when conceiving and presenting your work?
I spent almost a decade working in creative project management at advertising agencies and beauty brands in Geneva, Paris and London. While I really enjoyed that time of my life, it no longer engaged my creative curiosity to its full potential. I was craving to express myself with my hands, working in a free space at my own pace; and it’s the birth of my son in 2017 that was the catalyst of embracing art-making. The design mindset was probably visible in my early work exhibited in Lagos in 2018, which was solely focusing on the marriage of shapes and colours and had more of a child room’s wallpaper feel for that reason. I was afraid to dig into personal subjects. The way I was applying the paint and composing the piece was very neat and organised, animal shapes were flat and geometrical. The confident abstract shapes, bold colour palette, layers of mixed media, personal stories and mystical meanings and constant movement in the work came with the dedication to art practice and letting go of any inhibition, discovering an unexpressed territory within myself.
Motherhood sparked your creative curiosity to develop full-time work as a visual artist. Did this also activate a playful approach to art-making, observed through the use of glitter, collage or bright colours, for example?
Motherhood is definitely a red thread in my practice as it influences everything, from the time I spend working, to the ways I approach the work. It first gave me a shot of electricity to have the courage to let go of the fears and step on the other side: full-time art-making. Adding the single motherhood, it pushed me to be very organised, to focus deeply when I create and engage with my passion, discipline and playfulness to the core. That naturally includes introducing more and more materials, playing with scales and having a lot of fun along the way. Whenever things get too serious, I truly appreciate how having a child grounds you and allows you to let go.
What instigated the maturity of your practice, which has transitioned from flat forms, geometrical lines and primary colours to fluid, layered, and mixed media pieces?
As I started pouring myself into the canvas, the recurring themes of heritage and modern relationships, family and womanhood became obvious but also what I wanted the point of entry to the work to be. It’s important that the work feels intense yet joyful, making you wander to unknown places, questioning abstract shapes and finding double meanings. I like the idea that I leave the viewer feeling empowered from an unexpected trip to a magical place. It’s from this desire that the mixed media practice evolved, preparing layered backgrounds before the foregrounds, adding oil paint and oil pastel to acrylic and playing with all kinds of materials from pistachio shells to papers, nets and flowers.
Duality points are characteristic throughout your work: the use of multiple colours to balance out uncomfortable themes, the contrast of muted with neon traces or the play on flatness and depth. Are these conflicting positions a strategy to steer clear of any hierarchical order between elements?
It probably comes from my own mixed cultural heritage and self-taught, instinctive practice, rather than a direct answer to hierarchy. It’s key to me that everything feels naturally blended and fluid, creating a new reality once the piece is finished. I put a special emphasis on finding my colour language, spending more time mixing shades and giving myself challenges such as working dark or adding pastel tones. I also embraced working on paper as much as on canvas. The former introduced further elements of sewing, wool, pearls and embellishments at a smaller scale, with a more defined approach. I also understood that I was in my territory between abstract and figurative and that it was in my DNA not to be easily defined. What became important for me was that the story, my heritage, was told in its authenticity and depth, showing the layers of generational trauma we carry and the healing power we hold within.
Are dreams inspirational tools for you, as you seem to register shapes from these? How immediate or intuitive are your painterly reactions to the forms uncovered by your deep subconscious? Do any of these visions recur?
Dreams, subconscious and meditative states definitely influence me. While my early work was a direct, raw, unfiltered conversation with myself, I approached painting differently in 2019 to prepare for the 1:54 Art Fair. It started with months of self-hypnosis and spiritual practice to heal my inner child and adult self, which shows in pieces such as The Unwanted Diamond; Here I Am Naked and Life In Paper Houses. I depict my family’s history and the mutable sense of cultural belonging in a very vulnerable yet subtle way, using symbols from our heritage and mysticism, but also apparitions in dreams. I believe that reprogramming my subconscious and understanding my shadow has also made way for full light and energy forms. It allowed me to develop, understand and own my visual language that shows in Patience & Phantasm, Metanoia and in the most recent Spirituality and Fareway series. I developed a habit to stop painting at a certain time in the day, that has to be a moment where I’m in a dialogue with the piece and I’m excited about it. Late-night visual research, reading and rest will then play a part and the early morning will seal everything on the canvas. It’s a very liberating moment.
Physical actions embody your creative process, where you shift the works between the desk, floor and walls of your studio. Is this bodily activity, which you mentioned to be akin to boxing, a key point to achieve fluidity and movement in your resulting works?
I’m obsessed with creating and showing movement in my work, whether it’s telling a story of displaced domesticity (We’ve Always Been Kings And Queens), approaching the new era we live in (A New Dawn) or having a conversation with the universe (Spirituality series). So it first makes sense to move within my studio from desk to floor to walls, to sometimes working from home or in a foreign place (Martinique, Lagos, Egypt) as it creates different states and ways to approach your body and movement within that space. Some stages such as sewing or dotting are repetitive. Navigating between stillness and contortion, thus require a certain patience and dedication, similar to my yoga practice. While others like layering and collage on bigger pieces are physical, intense, and feel like boxing. Both are important in the conversation I’m having with the piece, in deciding which materials to use, how to blend them and knowing when to stop.
The natural world in its untouched and wild state is depicted through magical landscapes imbued by stars, constellations and living organisms, in many cases coexisting with solely one individual. Considering the urban context where you create your pieces, is this idyllic depiction a process of breaking free? Are you interested in addressing an environmental and spiritual unity through your works?
Spirituality and coming home to yourself is explored through various lenses in my work, from love and sexuality to identity and power to the inner world and a higher call and(,) in my case, it brought me back to observing the natural world, from constellations to jungles to personal travels. Places where everything is untouched, without any form of conditioning, from where the instinctive self can only be elevated if you believe that you have everything inside you. The Fareway series is(,) therefore(,) a depiction of my spiritual and travelling journey, rather than a goal or full escape from my current urban context. In a world where everything feels so saturated, they further dig into my research of telling blended stories and unique narratives. They navigate between real places and wild dreams, vintage travel posters and modern fantasies.
The piece “The Elephant Never Tires Carrying Its Tusks” is evocative of an African proverb whose meaning entails that an elephant is never too tired to carry its own weight. By working with this analogy, recalling the elephant as a symbol of perseverance and parenthood, are you able to highlight not only universal concepts but also personal experiences?
The central point of my work always came from personal experiences in one way or another, whether I speak of the child or the woman, my heritage or my spiritual self. The fact that some of the pieces are considered universal and speak to a wider audience in their own realities is unintentional. I tell my personal stories but what you see and how you feel is yours. However, this time I was interested in changing that perspective. Focusing on Congolese folklore through tales, proverbs and songs I cherish, I intentionally want to show that we can all relate to a non-Western narrative, making it more universal than you think it was.
Considering that your practice is strongly related to your sombre childhood memories, are you able to heal yourself from traumatic moments through your artworks? Home is often depicted as an unstable place, what is your starting point to confront these past experiences in order to create such joyful depictions?
As I write in my statement, painting has been acting as a gargoyle in my spiritual journey, guarding myself against the devils of the mind. It has allowed me to visually express what others could say through therapy or journaling. I always start by what I want to say and how positively, magically or unexpectedly I can represent it so that the result is joyful, intriguing or dreamy. In a certain way, I look back with my naive child eyes and the understanding and forgiveness of an adult. For the series Childhood Memories for example, the starting point was the movie Little Miss Sunshine, and its ability to make you laugh and feel empathy towards an unusual family with unexpected adventures. I looked back at very specific moments of my childhood and family and wanted to give them a sense of humour, romance and poetry, which was emphasised by the titles — Gambling Fever — We’ve Always Been Kings And Queens — The Magician — The Stolen Christmas Tree — I Come From Far — She Used To Live in 9 Square Meters Near the Eiffel Tower. It’s all about the moment you’re able to observe the most traumatic experiences you had and laugh, forgive and even see their hidden beauty. From my father stealing food or Christmas trees(,) to my sisters, brother and I sleeping in one bed with my mother, I used a wide range of colours and kept the magical feel as a thread throughout. For me, it shows that the inner work has been done and the perspective has been changed.
Mundane objects such as house keys, dried flowers, garbage bags or latex gloves are symbolically accentuated in your paintings. Does this exercise of repurposing items highlight their history, materiality and memory?
In most cases, I collect materials I am attracted to without always knowing how I would use them and then I do so when I think they make sense on the piece. Alternatively, the material can be the starting point, for example in the case of papier-mâché for Daydreaming Of Love In A Papier-Mâché Dress. The reason why I am attracted to the objects in the first place is definitely based on their meanings and sense of memory, but also on their textures and the effects they create. In the case of garbage bags, I used them in heart shapes in the Childhood Memories series (She Used To Live In 9 Square Meters Near The Eiffel Tower; The Stolen Christmas Tree) to depict the conflicting definition of the love of my parents and all its impact on me, my self-esteem, self-confidence and body language. The starting point of Midnight Walk was Pandora’s Box, so she carries a locker key on her head to emphasise the beauty and unpredictability of this fearless woman. Dried flowers are romantic, subtle and reassuring and create a balance with the thick, mysterious atmosphere of the scene.
You developed a change of direction in your palette and medium during lockdown, as you started to work with papier-mâché layers. Did this particular piece trigger a minimalist maturity in your practice? By adding elements associated with femininity, including dried flowers, curvaceous lines and a dress, are you aiming to raise questions about vulnerability, womanhood or mortality for instance?
This piece is definitely an exercise for a small(-)sized series on cotton paper that I am working on this summer, which will focus on minimalist lines, mixing watercolours, oil pastels, and sewing. I was and still am interested to see the result of stripping down the piece to focus on the lines and shapes, owning an instantly recognisable visual language. This is something I am more confident to do today, taking things off, being nude and simple in a certain way. A bit like ageing and wearing less but better makeup. I definitely want to keep narrating the modern woman through all angles and that includes reflecting on the daily navigation between strength and vulnerability, energy and stillness, independence and sexuality.
Although you work mostly on canvas, your practice has lately ventured into paper, which was the case for the series at the Alexandra Cohen Hospital For Women And Newborns. Why did you consider that drawing was an appropriate medium for this particular setting? What are your thoughts on these works operating as a vehicle to enrich such a hostile environment?
I actually started working on paper casually in late 2018 but I embraced it in 2019 when I understood how much more it allowed me to explore. They were originally some sort of studies that in the end turned out strong enough on their own to be presented at the 1:54 Art Fair. The work was very well-received and that’s where the hospital commission comes from, as they asked for pieces on paper directly. It was a very free and pleasant work for an artist — I chose to explore the positive emotions associated with womanhood, motherhood, femininity, sexuality and children as I thought a hospital can feel intense and draining at times for the patients and carers. This was in line with my intention to further delve into subjects associated with my current journey rather than the past, and I was particularly excited to celebrate women and babies in an abstract, unseen body of work. It called on my “mother side”, feminine emotions, looking through my child’s eyes and pushed me to think about artworks I wished I’d seen when I gave birth. I researched tarot cards, childhood tales, magical images, astrology and fecundity.
During the lockdown period you were bound to scale down your work in order to produce a new series from home. Did this compact format help you intensify the tension or turbulence channelled from these compositions? Before this period, you travelled quite frequently, which quickly became a distant possibility. Were these paintings coping mechanisms to combat an urge to move?
Of course, one couldn’t help but wonder and wander during lockdown so there’s definitely some sort of influence on the pieces. However, they’re not a form of escape from my reality as I truly appreciated the moment of stillness of this unique time. I already planned on working around wonder and wander, and also “smaller” subjects to study further possibilities that I could apply to larger scales. The fact of working on these smaller individual studies on compacted formats definitely pushed me to intensify each element, adding further influences such as Chagall, Chaïbia, or Le Corbusier, and remaining patient along the way!
You are represented by nomadic agent Ed Cross, an advocate of contemporary art from Africa and its diasporas. Can you recall any career opportunities, critical considerations or valuable advice that he’s provided you with throughout your career?
One of his first advice was to not give up the day job, so you don’t stress about the money to pay your bills, because this is a long ride. Even though juggling between the two and having a kid was extra demanding, it definitely allowed me to feel free and empowered by my practice rather than pressured and drained. After he presented me officially for the first time at 1:54 which was a success, everything felt right and peaceful to become full time in the new year. We also discuss constantly what’s next and how but he doesn’t influence the work I’m producing, which is the perfect relationship.
Although you often develop large scale pieces, in your most recent “Spirituality” series you present 50x50cm paintings, paralleling the square ratio used in Instagram. Has working in a smaller dimension than usual accentuated your concentration on the concept of this series? Does limiting their proportion to such a familiar arrangement allow your viewers a greater understanding of the works?
I‘ve been interested in working on a smaller format for a long time and it became the right choice with the Spirituality works because the smaller, square format pushes you to focus on your core, clear the junk and elevate your self-expression, which is what spirituality is all about. It was the first time I fully applied the approach I had with works on paper and used sewing, wool, gold leaf, glitter, papers, and even tissue and sand on the canvas. It’s interesting because they were all made over winter in London, which is usually a gloomy period where you go inward and hibernate, while three of them were made on an Egyptian break taken alone over New Year’s Eve, which was the perfect high to finish the series. The direct light, mystical feel and layers of history of the country massively influenced me. I think the smaller format makes the work somewhat accessible for such a subject. Spirituality doesn’t necessarily feel at reach first. Some of the works being very abstract, the square format can encourage the viewer to have a personal moment with the piece rather than feeling overwhelmed.
Wooden panels, loose textiles and Indian paper are some of the mediums that you are planning to work with for upcoming projects. What are you expecting for those different materials to add to your practice? Are you hoping for these to overtake certain restrictions of working with canvas?
Working on canvas can definitely feel restrictive as you’re limited in format and support, which is why I am working on loose linen textiles over the summer and plan on working on handmade wooden panels in the future. I’m interested to see if the form and texture of the support push new boundaries in my practice, whether in transparency, the materials used or ways of working. They might fall out of the painting category and that’s exactly the challenge I’m looking for.
Words by Vanessa Murrell