"Growing up in Senegal, on the west coast of Africa, life and art shared the same space. They were indistinguishable. As a young boy in Dakar, I learned that art is the tool I have for a direct and honest conversation with my own heart. Art always has been my rescuer, my liberator – creatively, emotionally, spiritually. I’m a self-taught painter, able to create in any media, always painting work that is straightforward and personal, work coming from a place within me that is constantly loud and growing."
"The surface of my paintings is a glimpse of how I struggle a lot with the worlds between dream states. The worlds of our dreaming, the dreams of achieving something that's not realistic. When you first talk about having your big dream you run to share it with your parents and they say how it's just a dream, grow out of it. But dreams are real even if they come from fantasy or desire. When I dream I want so badly to manifest it in my life I work to recognize it emotionally and physically. You need discipline to achieve that dream of fantasy or desire. It's always going to exist between you and reality. Feeding from the part of you is very creative and each time I add something from that to my paintings it becomes a little more tangible even though it can never fully fit into reality."
"The real truth you recognize and don't need to do anything to make it more visible. That's why I like the world of the supernatural. It's not realistic and it's good to get lost there."
From Michel Delgado: Romantic Rebel, Solo show, 2016
White Series, Paintings
By Alyssa Laverda, Associate Director
Matt Hardman, Seraphin Gallery Resident
"My work has been called naive. I fill my canvases with intense and basic colors, crisply painted shapes, and meticulous detail; I make work without conventional representational techniques; my work is free from metaphor, irony, and paradox. I paint straightforward narratives, stories of my journey and memories of everyday experiences." - Michel Delgado.
Michel Delgado is a Senegal native, who travels between Philadelphia and Key West creating and exhibiting his work-- which is full of raw and complex spiritual energy. An untrained artist, Delgado has developed his craft wholly from life experience and intuition. Over the years he has ignored the traditional guidelines of what fine art is supposed to look like in order to release his unique style and perspective. Delgado refers to himself as a Visionary Artist. His work comes out of a necessity to express what is inside; surpassing the physical world into a place where spiritual awareness and mysticism defies the primitive visual appearance.
Director Anthony Seraphin has previous experience dealing with the untrained eye, in the form of Friedrich Schröder Sonnenstern, whose work is aligned with Outsider Art. When referencing Outsider Art, Jean Dubuffet also comes to mind; Art Informel , alongside Art Brut, focused on creating representations that were heavily influenced by the art of children and the psychologically afflicted. In addition, Outsider Art portrays a slightly broader spectrum-- including all art created without formal training and separate from societal norms and culture. Delgado is inherently an Outsider Artist, in that his work stems from a deeply personal and internal space. Much like the methods of famed Surrealist artists Salvador Dali and Frida Kahlo.
Michel Delgado starts painting without a composition in mind, letting himself wield paint unrestricted. He allows the subject matter of his work to emerge through a journey between him and his media. These forms materialize and become known to Delgado. As he works with the paint, certain traits compound with memories, experiences, and allegories from his upbringing. Interpreting through this original viewpoint, Delgado brings to life animals and figural representations that carry an essence of being. These entities emanate an aura of life energythat radiates-- vibrating throughout the canvas.
Delgado's work, Something Big Is Coming To... , portrays a confrontational character that stretches to the entire canvas. This figure is not contained by the limits of the space, but seems to reach beyond-- his torso expanding with breath. This strong presence elicits for Delgado a being that is aged with experience. The blackness embedded within the figure (face and spots on the body), represent times in life, moments, trials, and ordeals, that create a new perspective and wider sense of understanding. These physical afflictions of wisdom permeate through the body and are a part of this self. The horns possess an instinctual animalistic quality, while the boxing gloves represent power and strength, but are untied- the hands are free. Freedom and power are entwined for Delgado.
Delgado uses his technique and symbolism to also depict other sides of the human psyche. In Things You Should Not Say, his figure translates as conflicted and oppressed. Where previously there was power and strength, here there is silence. The barbed wire serves as a boundary for Delgado, where this entity is restricted from being able to express itself. The paleness of the face versus the darkness of the eyes shows a severity. The distressed countenance, where the eyes are pleading yet passive, and the mouth is tightened again relays the internal conflict. The chest of the figure seems torn open, revealing blackness and emptiness. It is as though this being is a shell, vulnerable and open-- not being able to heal itself and encased within the static nature of its medium. Delgado activates the background in both works, showing a space that is full of chaotic energy, and sketches of forms that could convey memories or spirits.
This artist's paintings reach deep into the human condition. Life can be felt in his works. Different aspects of personality, emotion, and states of mind appear within his depictions and complex creations. The rawness of his intentions further epitomizes the essence, the reality, of empowerment, freedom, adaptability, suffering, playfulness, confusion, and heartbreak.
Delgado knew he wanted to pursue a career in the arts from a very young age, and spent most of the 1980s in the Paris art scene. Immigrating to the United States in 1988, he continued his career as an artist and shortly thereafter began exhibiting in the region of Southern Florida. In the 2010s, Delgado's work started to become widely known, having been acquired by private collectors throughout the nation and by the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, MD. In 2014, his work was featured in the Fox Television Network series Empire, alongside works by Kehinde Wiley.
By: Michele Lesko
Michele Lesko: Michel, what would you say were your artistic influences growing up?
Michel Delgado: It was my curiosity with the world surrounding me in Africa - craft, dance, farmers, musicians. All of this revealed questions to me about our purpose here. I didn't start painting right away. At fourteen, I sewed, made bags and painted them. I painted fabric, burlap, cardboard. Unfortunately, things around me were very primitive.
ML: Well, that's fortunate, really, because you stayed out of the art world's influence long enough to create your vision.
MD: It's about finding your own essence located inside you, trying to leak out of the cultural identification. It was hard to break away from that. I wanted to be outside my world, to watch the way people live and how they believe their identity from the influences around them.
I moved to Europe, where there was so much, color, speed, theater, sexes, challenging those two cultures and how people relate to this world, this growing madness. I was trying to figure out my own reality of the experience of everything around me.
ML: Your work is described as Brut or Naif art. Do you believe your work exists outside the influence of tradition and culture?
MD: My energy...I believe that how you're going about your existence, your emotion, questions and personal experiences create an image from your own revelations. I was working, in the early period, to build a sense of confidence beyond the “idea” of art. The schools and formal training are expressing something aesthetically beautiful instead of expressing what you feel. I find the most romantic and beautiful things in the world that isn't usually painted. In the school, you paint an ugly flower and you give up. There is beauty inside the ugly flower, inside the wrinkled old woman there is the very beautiful. Illusion of aesthetic beauty is permanent. I want to go past that illusion.
My work has an aggressive feature or energy that doesn't come from a place of anger but from recognition of the reality of the world. I want to bring angst forward - what we feel in the moment interacting with all these people and experiences.
ML: Animals appear regularly in your work. Is there a narrative arc they represent in your mind?
MD: There were animals in my world, growing up. The essence, closeness of who we are, where we come from; we have intelligence, but this is also a part of us, this animal nature. If I paint a plain, white man talking to a tree, I don't express what's real in that. I angst it with the animal image with horns and a man's face, talking with that tree. This comes from another world. Horns in my work are like antennae, receptive to otherworldly insights. People question it and come to the painting with expectations of their own - the devil or something like that. It's not a devil element but receptor for all the invisible that we experience. I paint to bring out what happens every day that we don't see, what happens inside me as I go through different worlds.
It's interesting when they come up with their own sense of it. When they bring their own feeling. This empowers the viewer.
I grew up with domestic animals, grew up watching them, how they interact. We used their horns, their skin, their blood spilled across the yard. There was ceremony and spirituality in it, in killing them. It was biblical, spiritual, Koran-oriented, and that finds its way into the psyche. I would sit on the ground. This man would come in sandals with a piece of wood and no shirt. He was an independent shepherd. He comes and gets the animals, a few from our yard, a few from every yard in our area.The animals feel the guy coming. They follow him. He orchestrates them to move to a field every day, where they eat. Then they come back at the end of the day. It is the most powerful spiritual experience I ever have to sit on the ground as a child and watch the animals begin to run, when they get near their homes, their owners. They come to meet the shepard in the morning and they run to their owners in the evening.
Each day it happens again. All these different feet running past me. All the colors and the power the animals have and their desire to return home. I'd think, who's making these things? I wondered, who is orchestrating who here? Huge questions began as a child there, and I wanted to express that connection I had when they found their way into my psyche.
ML: Your experience with your work is very intimate, so how does others' experience of it affect you?
MD: Different comments come from a variety of intellects and their previous exposure to art. It's often all about their own experience, but it hits them. It's good. The work should be where you go on vacation. You just sit with it. Stay quiet long enough to reveal something. Some people connect to some work and some to other work.
ML: Describe the “loud place” you mention as something that propels your work into being.
MD:The world is constantly coming through me. It is the reality every day that I watch and experience. The most experience comes with unfiltered darkness, love, emotion; a mixture like that I like the most, to have all that come out in the exploration of the world and people. All this drives my higher curiosity. There is a complexity when I merge together with and experience people, the compassion, wonder and mystery of the reality as I experience it.
ML: When were you first able to support yourself through your art?
MD: Let's put it this way: I never thought I'd make art to earn money. I began to show paintings, and they sold. It's been sixteen years now that I've been able to live without other jobs. I had a lot of different part-time jobs. Every day I would give four hours to my work, and, eventually, I could cut the jobs. I did silk-screening, printing, pottery. Making art is not for sissies. You have to remain consistent but also push yourself to create more interesting work, interesting to yourself and then to viewers. Things go good, they go bad. I have money. I have no money. I keep painting, trying to go beyond what I did last. We live for instant gratification, the paycheck, but this, the daily work in my studio, the exploration when I'm traveling, says this is what I really do. The consistency of working. I'm fortunate. It just hit on me that money came from it. It's a mix.
ML: How do you keep track of your ideas, impressions when you're on the road, away from your studio?
MD: It's been awesome, going to different places; a lot of time on my own. My thoughts. I use a sketchbook. I mark things that come out of my head. It's a reference, not a drawing or a formed painting idea. I come back to my environment, my studio, where I've lived for twenty years, and the references in the sketchbook trigger the painting from the world I've been in, away from my home environment.
ML: Your art, in its essence, is described formally as Brut Art, which is about not fitting into traditional art world structures & strictures.
MD: Yes. It's a huge world of creativity every day. Ideas coming from a very certain place but, no, it's endless, constant. It's the reality of where we are, and it's very personal. This moment is not the same to me as someone right next to me.
ML: Is there an influence of acceptance now that your work is collected? Do you feel constrained by collectors?
MD: I love the eclectic collections of the people who own my work.They are not fixed to have “same” things. They're excited about the work as it changes. These people understand visionary art. Where I'm at is never about what I can make for them. It's a happy exchange. They promote my growth these patrons. It's a very respectful exchange of trust.
ML: In what direction do you see your work going?
MD: Yea, for me, this part of my life is about losing boundaries even more. Lose what's accepted and create what comes here once and stays in my mind. I'm growing as a person through the complexity of relationships, raising my daughter, and getting to the point that I want to be involved with people who understand contemporary art. I want to get completely lost, go further inside and reveal that in authentic ways.
My vision is to move to a more central place, a big space, where art is appreciated, so that creative energy is there. I've been isolated in one environment for a long time. I want to bring my work to the people who understand contemporary art, to those who are more receptive to art as an expression that is always changing based on what comes from the experience of this reality and not that sense of aesthetic beauty.
New York Museum of African Art
American Visionary Art Museum