Born in Panama, artist Giana De Dier is acutely aware of the history of how she came to be in a country thousands of kilometers from where her ancestors came from. This displacement of Africans is a topic she often explores in her collages. Centering the Afro-Caribbean people in her collages, she constructs a powerful image with archival pictures. These archival photographs, once a fetishized look at the black body, become a celebration of the life and culture of the people that came before her.
Let’s take a closer look at collage as an art form before diving deeper into De Dier’s works. Sometimes it’s easy to dismiss collage as an art form that’s done by children. At a surface level, it might seem lazy to use pre-existing images to create art. Shouldn’t an artist be skilled in creating something out of nothing? Isn’t using pre-existing things cheating?
Sure, if you want to look at it that way, but just like paint is the medium in which painters create, collage artists see bits of paper and other materials as another medium to create with.
Once printing became more popular and photography became more accessible to the masses, photomontage became more popular with collage artists. Photomontage specifically refers to collages made out of photographs, a method that De Dier uses. But what’s so great about photomontages? Well, it’s a way for artists to explore a different reality than the one that we live in. By using existing photos and changing them, what’s created is more akin to an alternate reality as opposed to a brand new reality.
Now let’s go back to De Dier’s works with archival photographs of (usually) enslaved Africans in the Caribbean.
Many people within the African Diaspora have lost most to all contact with their ancestors. Unlike many others, these Black folks had no other way to connect with their past. The most they can do is piece together what little they can. Similarly, De Dier is piecing together a past that may or may not have existed. While a photo can say a thousand words, it can simultaneously hold a thousand mysteries.
With these archival photos, many of them are not identified, with some even referred to only with numbers. It’s difficult to find out the names of these people, let alone who their family or ancestors were. So we, or rather De Dier, have to fill in a lot of the holes. Sure, she can be “historically accurate” with her descriptions, but she doesn’t. Instead, she treats them as royalties, giving them a rich depiction of what their lives should have been.