Africa

The women warriors of Senegal

By Daisy Carrington, for CNN

Updated 5:34 AM ET, Wed April 8, 2015
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YZ Yseult Senegal Project AmazoneYZ Yseult Senegal Project Amazone
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Female warriors can be overlooked in the annals of history. French street artist YZ Yseult is paying tribute to the Dahomey Amazons, a 19th-century all-female military regiment that fought against the French in Dahomey (modern-day Benin). The series is called Project Amazone. Courtesy YZ Yseult
Yseult draws large scale portraits from old images and pastes them on the walls of female-owned businesses around Senegal, particularly on restaurants and breakfast stands. Courtesy YZ Yseult
"I'm very impressed with the women of Senegal," Yseult says. "They take care of their families and take care of their businesses. They work from five in the morning until nine in the evening. They are warriors in their way, and I have a lot of respect for them, and that's why I put my paintings on their houses." Courtesy YZ Yseult
Yseult's husband, who is Senegalese, helped translate her intentions to the local shop owners. "They were quite interested in the stories of these women -- especially Aline Sitoe Diatta," she says, referring to a Senegalese heroine who gained fame for her resistance to French colonial rule. "Because they knew who she was, they could relate to her." Courtesy YZ Yseult
The research, says Yseult, grew out of a previous project called "Women from Another Century", which similarly profiles strong female figures from the past. While visiting Senegal, she spent time researching in the library of a local gallery and uncovering West Africa's tradition of female warriors. She also does a lot of research on the internet. Courtesy YZ Yseult
Many of the women she has portrayed for this series remain anonymous to her -- though their images have been appropriated into the history books, their names have not. "When I choose a picture to draw, it needs to be very strong. It's a very personal feeling," she says. "I don't say to myself, 'I'll choose it because of this and this.' I just look at the picture and if there's something that happens inside me, I know it's the portrait to do." Courtesy YZ Yseult
Not everyone she comes into contact with in Senegal feels positive about her work, she says."They're not used to street art," she acknowledges. "They're more used to images related to religion. They don't really care for art." Courtesy YZ Yseult
The portraits of anonymous women were the hardest for locals to relate to, she admits. It helped, however, when she shared the stories of some of her subjects."They might say, 'Oh, she looks like my neighbor,' or find another way to re-appropriate the installation." Courtesy YZ Yseult
Yseult's own background is mixed. She is part-French, part-Guadeloupian, and she believes she has African roots as well. "I really wanted to know Africa because I have roots here. When I arrived in September and researched these women, I could relate them to my own story. It was very inspiring for me." Courtesy YZ Yseult
Yseult is also planning on painting local women and using accessories to portray their heritage."I would take the pictures myself because many of these women don't have photos of their own," she says. Courtesy YZ Yseult
Yseult uses a very thin paper to paint her portraits in order to allow the textures of the surface she pastes on to show through. Courtesy YZ Yseult
"Where I put my posters is as important as my projects. They work together," she says. "If the paper covers something underneath, it's not going to work." Courtesy YZ Yseult