Internationally known under the name of Nuits Balnéaires, Dadi is an Ivorian visual artist and creative director from Abidjan living in Grand-Bassam, Côte d'Ivoire — an oasis of creative minds, as he himself describes it.
The first Ivorian to win a year-long Visual Journalism Fellowship with the World Press Foundation, Nuits Balnéaires relies on photography to get in touch with the centuries-long cultural heritage of Western Africa and narrate its stories through an uncolonised lens.
Merging fashion and documentary-style projects into a unified, empowering approach to art, the photographer reconnects with his origins through research-based artistic investigations aimed at answering the questions he poses to himself.
Below, the artist retraces the evolution of his career discussing the vision that guides his projects and revealing insights on his upcoming work.
For those who might not know you, could you tell us anything about your background?
I come from a family of intellectuals, writers, poets, and journalists. I have inherited my love for culture, literature, and nature from my father, whereas my eye for detail and strong spiritual sensitivity were handed down to me by my mother. I grew up in Abidjan, where I completed most of my studies. I was pursuing a Bachelor’s in Business Management when I decided to fully focus on my photography career a few years ago.
You’re an award-winning photographer, visual artist, and creative director recognised at an international level, but when did you first approach photography as a medium? What made you choose this path?
Photography helps me express the sensitivity I carry inside me, although it has taken on different purposes over the years. The very first time I held a camera I was still a teenager; back then, I used to experiment with making short-films and cartoons. I was about 17 years old when I got a Sony compact camera, which my mother had brought home from her Hajj in Mecca. I began to be more drawn to photography after a series of significant traumas I experienced during my teenage years. Photography taught me how to resist by serving as both an escape from the struggles I was facing and a means of creating a brighter narrative of my own life.
I wanted to capture the beauty I was seeing around me; plants, landscapes, portraiture of my family and friends, but I always did it in a conceptual way. Later on, sharing my photographs on a Facebook page made me land opportunities in the local fashion and advertising industry. After years of collaborations within the creative sector of my country, I felt a need to refocus on developing stories that I deemed important. So I moved to the seaside town of Grand-Bassam, a place that inspired me a lot, especially given that numerous West-African artists, creatives, and artisans all relocated there to perfect their craft in the past few years.
“Photography taught me how to resist by serving as both an escape from the struggles I was facing and a means of creating a brighter narrative of my own life.” — Nuits Balnéaires
Designers like Keren Lasme (iefo) and Kader Diaby (olooh) have developed some of the most important pieces of their collections in partnership with local artisans from Grand-Bassam. Painter and sculptor Carine Mansan created stunning bronze sculptures together with Dramane, a local bronze craftsman. When my creative partner Bayo Hassan Bello staged a film based on Yoruba history in one of those stunning, century-long-aged houses from the colonial era, the possibility of pursuing my artistic vision there opened highways in my creative mind.
Your documentation of the floods in Grand-Bassam has granted you a year-long Visual Journalism Fellowship with the World Press Photo Foundation. What do this series as well as the award you received for it mean to you?
I have always been fascinated by the energy emanated by the Gulf of Guinea and the centuries of history of the civilisations that populate its coastline. The projects I develop in Grand-Bassam, which are very research-based, support me in the formulation of questions on numerous cultural themes. My goal is to answer those questions through my own work. When I first moved to Grand-Bassam, the resilience I witnessed among its inhabitants during the floods raised my curiosity about the values shared within their community. My research made me find out that some ancestral alliances exist between the families that live in that area.
The World Press Photo fellowship has been the perfect opportunity to focus on the development of a large-scale project through which to deepen this topic. The project was guided by the bright spirit of Juliette Grams and supported by the work of three incredible mentors; Emilie Regnier, Nii Obodai, and Marc Prüst. Thanks to their contribution, Adrien Bitibaly, Ofoe Omegavi, and I succeeded in challenging our capabilities and moving beyond our own limits, eventually creating a timeless and meaningful photo series. My personal project, The Power of Alliances, attempts to illustrate the complex, fascinating social organisation of the seven N’zima allied families of Grand-Bassam. It is the result of an incredible collaboration between myself and the local community.
Besides being a documentary photographer, you’ve also worked with established brands such as The Nice Magazine, Nataal Media, ELLE, Universal Music, Lagos fashion & design week, and more. Do your socially-engaged photo series and fashion editorials share a common thread, or should they rather be seen as two independent things?
I tend to look at the different expressions of my work as part of a continuum, even if they are, of course, created in different contexts and meant to serve different functions. I believe they are complementary, as each project I develop — whether it’s fashion or documentary-oriented — shows a different side of me. Fashion and styling always play an important role in the shaping of my creative process.
“Each one of my works is nothing but a piece of the vast puzzle I aim to compose so as to find responses to the numerous cultural, existential, and spiritual questions I ask myself.” — Nuits Balnéaires
For The Power of Alliances, I styled and designed the outfits, props, and sculpture pieces myself. It’s been quite a challenging experience, especially because at first I didn’t feel that what I was doing was fully legitimate. However, I already had a clear picture of what I wanted to develop in my mind and, as Tarkovsky says, you should “never trouble anyone with what you can do yourself.” The entire content production process behind The Power of Alliances convinced me to explore and experiment with more mediums that interest me.
To what extent would you say that the essence of Côte d'Ivoire is reflected in your photographs? What role has your cultural background played in defining your artistic identity?
Côte d’Ivoire is a place where different influences from across the world come together. This cultural eclectism is at the core of the Ivorian identity and I consider myself to be a pure fruit of that culture. On my mother’s side, my grand-mother is Malinké — a dominant tribe from the North of the country — and my grand-father is Dogon from Mali. My father is Agni from the Eastern part of Côte d’Ivoire, although we have our ancestral village in Western Ghana.
“I’d like my work to surpass and annihilate geographical borders, eventually creating room for our shared stories to be told.”— Nuits Balnéaires
My soul belongs to so many lands and cultures that it makes it impossible for me to conceive the geographical borders inherited from the colonial age. I think this dimension is something very tangible in what I do, something that permeates my entire artistic production. A clear example of that is my recent work Scent of Appolonia, where I pay tribute to Appolonia; a forgotten kingdom that extended itself on the coastal area that goes from Axim, Ghana, to Grand-Bassam, Côte d'Ivoire.
What’s your legacy? What do you hope people take from your photography work?
I think that culture and power dynamics can travel through the ocean for centuries. Grand-Bassam is the door through which the Ivorian, kaleidoscopic culture I inherited from my ancestors has finally stepped into my life. In the process of understanding such a mechanism, I realised how important it is for me to reappropriate this coastline and use it as a starting point from which to discover and tell my own story.
“My soul belongs to so many lands and cultures that it makes it impossible for me to conceive the geographical borders inherited from the colonial age.” — Nuits Balnéaires
Each one of my works is nothing but a piece of the vast puzzle I aim to compose so as to find responses to the numerous cultural, existential, and spiritual questions I ask myself. I’d like my work to surpass and annihilate geographical borders, eventually creating room for our shared stories to be told. Because culture, values, and spirits should not be constrained by arbitrarily-set boundaries.
Are you working on any new projects? What are your plans for 2021?
The Power of Alliance, the photo essay I developed during my fellowship with the World Press Photo Foundation, will be presented to the public this year, so that’s something I am really looking forward to. I am also currently setting up my first studio — a space dedicated to research and experimentation in fields that I find stimulating — which will be located in the heart of Grand-Bassam. But there’s more good news! The collaborative duo composed by my friend and creative partner Bayo Hassan Bello and I, known as NOMMOS, is the winner of the Goethe Institut and Prince Claus Fund 2020 Call for Proposals to support cultural and artistic responses to environmental change. The jury awarded us funding for Death is the space that nature needs to be alive; a feature film through which we explore the cycle of life and death within the village of Tanokoffikro, Eastern Côte d’Ivoire. The film will premiere at the end of 2021 alongside a collection of texts inspired by the same theme.