African artist,  African female artist,  Aissata Pinto Da Costa,  black female artist,  modern art

Adelaide Damoah in Conversation with Aissata Pinto Da Costa

Aissata Pinto Da Costa is an artist and former runway model. Born in São Tomé and Príncipe, a small country in the Gulf of Guinea , off the Western coast of Africa. Aissata has lived in six countries around the world and speaks five languages fluently. Having travelled to more than 50 countries worldwide with her modelling career, Aissata settled in the United States in 1999. In 2007, Aissata became a self-taught artist. With three solo exhibitions under her belt, including Marymount Manhattan College and The Steuben Glass Gallery New York, Aissata has caught the attention of collectors all over the world. She took time out her busy studio practice to talk to me about life, art and success.

Blanc et Rouge _1.83m:1.21m  © Aissata Pinto Da Costa

Adelaide Damoah (AD): How long were you a runway model for?
Aissata Pinto Da Costa (APC): For about six or seven years.
AD: Why did you make the transition from modelling to fine art?
APC: Everything that I have ever done was an accident! I did not choose to be a model, I was found on the street. Well found on the street sounds really bad, but you know what I mean! It is the same thing with being an artist. If anybody had told me that I would be an artist a few years ago, I would have laughed. I was staying with a friend from Martinique and there were these designs by some people from a Congolese tribe. I remember liking one of the designs so much that I put it on paper and embroidered it. I don’t know why I did that. It took me like one or two nights… And then when my friend came and saw it he said, “Oh my God, we need to do a line of tableware!”
So we bought 300 metres of linen and went to Mali. The idea was to get the people who embroider those boubou’s- African dresses, to embroider our spreads. We made these huge incredible spreads and I used one as a curtain. You know how some people see patterns and things that no body else sees sometimes? I saw characters in those things! I went on the computer, which by the way, I also learned by myself a few years before, and I started drawing these characters. I don’t know why. Then I showed them to a few friends and they liked them. Then I just kept on going and I came up with these characters. Without even knowing, I just started telling this story. Then in 2007, I decided to start painting. Actually, I didn’t even decide! Someone broke my heart.. You know how as women, we can be dramatic and either you die of a broken heart or you do something extraordinary. So I started painting and that is how I became a painter. Now I really love it. My first painting was six feet by five feet. I remember when I was painting it I was crying the whole time.
AD: Awww! That sounds so romantic and sad! But to start your first painting with a canvas of that size makes you very brave!
APC: Yes, but to get a bit personal, it wasn’t the guys fault. I am the one who put him on a pedestal where he did not belong. You know, it was one of those things. I am actually very thankful that that happened. We are still friends and everything, but it’s just that, my God, I discovered something that I never thought I was going to do, you know.
AD: Yeah
APC: One of the platforms a few years ago was Myspace. Peoples reactions were always so heartening. It made me think, wow, I have got something here… So I just kept on doing it. Now, I look at it sometimes and become a bit angry because I think, now I have to do something to get it out there. You know, the business part. Artists usually hate it, but I am thankful because look at what I have done. I am really excited and looking forward to doing bigger things.

Serena Serves_0,92m x 0,76m  © Aissata Pinto Da Costa

AD: When did you start painting?
APC: I started painting in April 2007.
AD: That is not long ago at all! Have you had a solo show yet?
APC: Actually, I have had three solo shows already. I had my first solo show at Marymount School of Art, that was about a year and a half after I started painting. I met one of the curators at a party and was able to convince her to come to my studio and within the first five minutes she agreed to give me a show. Then I had two other shows at this gallery called Student gallery. All accidents. The thing is, I paint, but I don’t know anything about the art world really. Maybe it is a blessing in a way, because I don’t know what I am doing so I don’t have any rules…

Cindy, Bibi and Beyonce_1m52×1m83  © Aissata Pinto Da Costa

AD: Yes, I know what you mean. Do you think your experience in the fashion industry has influenced your work in any way?
APC: Yes it has. Although in the beginning I was in denial. I worked a lot as a model, but I didn’t care for the profession itself. What I loved about modelling was… I loved the travelling, I loved, hmm, I don’t know if you can print this, but I loved the beautiful guys! But I was too young at the time. I was like 19 when I started and I did not realise what I was getting into, but I was just walking through it. I would say that modelling made me very aware of physicality, which I think is very prevalent in my work. It’s funny because I was talking to a friend of mine yesterday. We were both models many years ago, but we still have that body consciousness where if we put on a few pounds we go oh my God… I always say that the modelling industry is run by gay guys who don’t like women, so there are a few problems. Even though I sometimes paint women who are large, they still have a small waist. The colours, well sometimes I have to sit down and think how I got influenced because my life… I have lived everywhere, Cuba, Algeria… So sometimes I wonder where everything comes from and sometimes I don’t think about it. Like I went to Cuba a few years ago and I saw this artists work and thought oh my God, now it makes sense..
AD: I think that you take different things from your environment without even realising it. You just absorb it. It then naturally has an influence on your work, whether you are conscious of it or not in my opinion… Were you able to sell any work at your solo shows?
APC: Yes I was able to sell work, but it was mostly to friends of friends. You know right now with the prices it is a bit difficult, but the thing is, I don’t have that skill. I have lots of skills but selling is not one of them because I don’t care for it , you know? I am a bit spoiled in that sense, if I don’t care for something, I’m like yeah, whatever! And I am not starving either. I guess if I was then I would just learn that skill.

AD: How did you define success when you were a model and do you think that definition has changed now?
APC: I would not say I was a successful model and one of the reasons I was not a successful model was because I never thought I was going to be a model. Like I said, someone found me. I worked well but I never really made an effort. Sometimes they would send me to castings and I would not go. I was just too young to understand it. I wouldn’t say I was a financial success as a model, but I would say I was successful in it as well.. I learned English because of modelling. One of my passions is that I love meeting people and while modelling I met thousands of people. Some interesting and some not interesting at all, but that was a very interesting period for me.
AD: Now that you are an artist, what is your definition of what it means to be successful within the art world?
APC: My father is a very successful person in my country. As a child, not that I am trying to compete with him, but sometimes I feel like a failure because I am not there yet. Whatever that “there” means. So success for me is mostly recognition. I am hungry for recognition. Obviously, money would be good too. But for me, when someone comes to my studio… I enjoy the reaction. I get so much pleasure from it. Success would also mean to be economically free. Able to do whatever I want, paint when I want, you know…
AD: Yes. By your definition would you consider yourself to be successful?
APC: Well considering that I started in 2007, I would say that I am accomplished. I think I have a lot of the ingredients to be really successful but I am on my way. That is what I say to myself all the time. But no, I don’t consider myself to be successful. Not yet.
AD: What would you say is your biggest achievement to date?
APC: My biggest achievement is when I look at the paintings that I have done because I was not supposed to be doing this! I am here in my studio surrounded by all the paintings and I feel like wow… I feel accomplished and also I know that I am capable of anything. I am not scared of anything. If someone tells me that they want me to do a mural of 90 feet or whatever, I don’t know how to do it, but I will figure out how to do it. I know that I am capable of doing a lot of things that I never thought were possible.

Dancing Goddesses  © Aissata Pinto Da Costa

AD: What would you say was your biggest failure and how did you overcome it?
APC: I don’t know. I don’t really think that I have had big failures because everything I have done to date has prepared me for where I am now, but failure?
AD: Think of it in a different way. Think of it like large stumbling blocks or challenges. Things that you have had to overcome.
APC: Well I could have started being an artist a lot earlier but I didn’t because I partied too much! But I partied really healthy, I didn’t do drugs or anything, but I love to dance. I don’t see that I have failed or anything. I don’t see it like that.
AD: What advice would you give to young women coming up wanting to follow in your footsteps?
APC: As black women, growing up, we did not have many people to get inspired by. Oprah is pretty recent… I would just tell her to work, work, work. The more you work, eventually, someone will notice what you do. Believe in your dream, believe in your craft and just work.

AD: Talking of black women, I am not that familiar with the USA, but I know that in the UK, the art institution is mostly run by white upper middle class men. As such, they are more likely to be naturally geared towards a certain type of person and that is not necessarily going to be a black woman. In the art world, I can not think of very many black women who have really seriously made it. Is this something that concerns you? If so, how do you overcome that?
APC: My case is different in the sense that I don’t know the art world. I don’t have any barriers because they don’t exist for me. Also, in America, they love to box people. So if you are black, you listen to this music and you speak like this… Me, I don’t belong to any of those boxes because I don’t belong and I do at the same time. Tomorrow I could go to any event with Obama or whoever. I don’t have any complexes in that sense and for me, those barriers do not exist.

King Usain Bolt_ 1.83m by 1.21m  © Aissata Pinto Da Costa

AD: What about future exhibitions?
APC: I want to start showcasing in Africa, especially in Angola. I was in Angola recently and that country is booming! It is insane! As an African woman and an African painter- I usually don’t like to describe myself like that, but I am tired of being judged by Western critics. They have their own prejudices… I really want to turn to Africa completely. I am going to Africa in like two weeks. There are a lot of wealthy people there. Now, you can feel that there is a shift. There is a new class of African people buying African art and really putting serious money into it. As a matter of fact, I sold a big painting for tens of thousands of dollars, and I sold it to an African woman from Angola.
AD: That’s impressive. To sell for that kind of price after such a short period of time is pretty major!
APC: That’s another thing. Maybe I am naïve or whatever because I am not from the art world, but I price my art so that it is not cheap. Even if it takes me three, four or five years to sell, I would rather not sell cheap. People say oh you could put your work in a bar or a café… But I just don’t want to do that. I don’t know why. I don’t feel it, so I just don’t do it.

Runners_1m52×1m83  © Aissata Pinto Da Costa

AD: I’m the same. I probably over price my work and people ask me why it is so expensive...
APC: Because it is! Because I decided so. I am not comparing myself to him in any way but I went to see Kehinde Wiley..
AD: Oh my God, I love Kehinde Wiley!
APC: Oh gosh, yes he is insane! And the concept is so brilliant! I have seen maybe four of his shows and he sells pieces for you know $300,000 and $400,000 and that is where I want to go. A lot of the time, us Africans and you know, blacks, we underestimate our worth. Because we have been in survival mode for a long time and we sometimes cheapen ourselves. I don’t want to do that. No way!

Aissata with woman and children

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