Student Named Finalist for AXA Art Prize

July 26, 2021

In June, Zeinab Diomande ’22 (Painting) was named one of 40 finalists for the prestigious AXA Art Prize. Of 600 artists who applied, she was advanced to the finalist stage by a panel of regional jurors, which included UArts Master Lecturer Charles Browning as a member, and a four-member exhibition jury comprising representatives of some of the country’s most prestigious museums.  

Diomande’s painting “The Corner of the Room Was Cold and Blue” (a detail of which is featured above) will hang alongside pieces by her fellow finalists in a virtual gallery this fall. In November, all 40 finalists will also be featured in an in-person exhibition at the New York Academy of Art. The first- and second-place winners—who will receive prizes of $10,000 and $5,000, respectively—will be selected by a panel of nationally recognized contemporary artists. 

UArts recently caught up with Diomande to learn more about her creative process, how it feels to be named a finalist and her first professional exhibition in the Ivory Coast, where she has spent most of her life.

How does it feel to be selected as a finalist for the AXA Art Prize?

To be frank, it is very exciting. When applying to the competition, I had zero expectations whatsoever. I am very happy to see my work alongside so many great works. It’s very uplifting, and it’s encouraging me to push myself and my ideas even further.

The prize is centered on figurative work. In your case, the central figure is almost always you. What are you exploring through your self-portraiture?

I am exploring the idea of self-discovery and exploration, the space that the imaginary holds in my everyday life, mental health—specifically, bipolar disorder—and navigating life as a Black woman. I always say that soul-searching is a timeless truth, as one is never done discovering themself.

When it comes to the mental health aspect of my work, I come from a country where this is not a topic that is often discussed. If anything, it is still pretty taboo. I started making paintings and drawings about this before moving to the U.S., but the difference now is that I don’t want to make work about mental health for the sake of making work about mental health.

The way I approach things is way different than how I used to. My use of bright colors is often in contradiction with the actual meaning of the piece. That’s also something that you find in a bipolar brain, where thoughts are always fighting and in opposition with each other while still sharing the same place.

As a Black woman and a Black person in general, I feel like dreaming is not something that we are often allowed to do. When making work, sometimes people expect it to be reactionary, expect the work to have the answers to questions we as Black people are also not done processing. I use my work as a way to give myself a break. You can’t create and keep the momentum [going] if your mind is exhausted. You need to nurture it. Being angry all the time is not something that is humanly possible, so I use the imaginary to rest. Rest is also a radical act of resistance. 

In addition to the figurative elements of your work, there are often elements of collage. What does your creative process look like when you approach a new work?

I always tell people that I never throw anything away, and I keep adding to the hoard. I am always on the hunt for new found material. Everything has potential. When I start a new piece, I generally like to think about an idea and then center the material I will use around it. I try to be mindful of texture, consistency, porosity and how it relates to the idea.

You often refer to yourself as both Zeinab Diomande and Z the Rat. Can you tell us a bit about who Z the Rat is?

I like to think of Zeinab Diomande and Z the Rat as two separate entities making up one. Zeinab is my everyday life self, the one that my friends and family know. Z the Rat makes all the art. She is in charge of the ideas, the approach, the technique and everything in between. She is way less shy than me, and she is able to articulate herself clearly and with confidence when talking about her work. Ultimately, these two people are the same but embody different aspects of my personality. I find it easier for me to separate these two as it helps me draw the line between my professional and personal lives.

Through August, your work is featured in the exhibition Découvertes with five other artists at LouiSimone Guirandou Gallery in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. Have you shown work in a gallery setting there previously?

This is my first group show in a gallery back home in the Ivory Coast. I had previously been in a few exhibitions there, but they were mostly curated by my friends in less formal settings. The thought of being in an actual gallery is a big deal for me. 

You’re headed into your senior year at UArts. Beyond graduation, what do you hope is on the horizon for you? 

My plan post-graduation is to be in graduate school while building my art career, developing my ideas even further by working on bigger and more challenging projects and sharing what I know with people.

Image: Detail, Zeinab Diomande, “The Corner of The Room was Cold and Blue,” 2021, collaged photographs, paper, acrylic, gouache, oil pastel, oil and wallpaper on toned paper, 18x24 inches. Courtesy of the artist.