I transform everyone into a shadow to propose a universal race
Photographer Njaheut Gilles Valer tries to capture his vision of society with his lens. We met him at the expo This is what you came for by Els Dietvorst and the BARЯA MOVEMENT. After visiting the double exhibition at Bozar and CENTRALE, we reflected on what it means to see the process of making art as a collaborative ritual.
What did you think about the exhibitions?
You could really feel her vision and I think she wanted to create this immersive experience for the visitors. Instead of focusing on the finished result, she prioritised the process. Artists often lose themselves because they want to create the best and most beautiful pieces, but what happens is that they also forget the process and message behind the work. She did the opposite, and that was the most interesting part of both exhibitions for me.
Instead of focusing on the finished result, Els prioritised the process
Is the process of making art important to you as well?
When I started creating, it wasn’t as important. I was more focused on the quality, the art direction and the final piece that I could deliver to people. I felt like I had to provide services for clients. The process only became important when I stopped and asked myself why I practised photography. I started thinking about what I really wanted to tell people through my art. The change in how I create was marked by the change of my name on Instagram. That was the first step in my process - I changed it to my real name @njaheut, to tell my real story.
I started thinking about what I really wanted to tell people through my art
Els Dietvorst favours working with people, is that something you ever considered?
In the past, my relationship with art was a personal battle because my parents didn’t understand why I wanted to be an artist. So when I started creating, it was more logical for me to start the process alone. It was only after some years that I realized that other people are important to share knowledge with. I started doing some collaborations but I’m still hesitant to ask people. I think I have to learn to be proud of my proposals before I can invite people into my process.
Is that something you’re trying to change now?
Definitely. I went to Cameroon last year and I don’t know my way around the place like I know it in Brussels. It’s my motherland but I hadn’t been there for ten years. My uncle and cousins had to guide me around. In every single thing I wanted to do, people had to help me out. Even to take a taxi or find the right addresses in Cameroon. The collaboration was in everything, not just in art. I realized that I don’t have to wait until I’m in Cameroon again to start asking people for joining my process.
The materials Dietvorst uses are from the area where she lives. How important is the location for your work?
It’s more important to me than my camera, but I didn’t go to Cameroon for my photography. I was in search of reconnection with my family, so I was hesitant to even bring my camera with me. I was afraid it would turn into a relationship between an artist and a place, instead of the relationship between me and my motherland. I had to accept that I could be a photographer in Cameroon, without the thought that I had just come there for pictures.
Throughout the exhibitions, Dietvorst asks ‘what can art mean as a ritual?’ Everyone has their own rituals to feel better. Some use sports, some travel and others meet people. My ritual is art and showing images to people. I use it to define my vision of society and its problems. At the moment, I mostly play with shadows and contrasts. Everyone has the same black shadow, so everyone is the same person when reduced to their shadow. I want to show that the colour of our skin is not important: humanity is. By producing silhouettes in my pictures, you can’t see the subject properly.
Everyone has their own rituals to feel better. My ritual is art and showing images to people
Will you continue working with shadows in the future?
I want to start a series where I make a fabric out of etiquettes from skin-bleaching products. People will wear that fabric as a second skin. It won’t focus on shadows, but it will be a new way of covering the skin. It’s a symbol of the new identity people are trying to fabricate by becoming whiter. I think they are trying to change themselves because of frustration because they don’t feel they fit the beauty standards. I want to raise awareness that it’s very dangerous to bleach skin. And my final dream - maybe it sounds a bit crazy - is to create a completely black exhibition. My inspiration for this is the painter Pierre Soulage.