Being an outsider is sort of like having a second childhood: it puts us in a state of unknowing where we might start calling into question mores that have long been accepted by the local culture. Art-making relies on this meddlesome state of mind. Anaïs Dassé left France for Arkansas about 5 years ago. She was born in Bayonne, the capital of French Basque Country, but studied in Paris and began a career that spanned the fields of design, project management, and scientific illustration. Changing continents created a caesura in her work life, and in this space she began painting. Dassé’s monochromatic, textural works are eerie; her paintings and sculptures depict a doomsday world from which all of the adults have vanished, or perhaps stripped of their misused power, exist only as witnesses to the new order. 

The painting “The Rapt of Ganymede” (2018) depicts a child suspended mid-air by a riot of eagles; their thrashing talons mar the youth’s body. A pistol falls from the child’s torqued figure. A subject of Rembrandt and Rubens, the myth of Ganymede’s abduction and defilement by Zeus is an ancient analogue to the still sadly familiar coupling of lechery and power. Dassé’s interpretation is a frenetic composition, one that seems to be on the verge of being washed away by sooty rain. The symbols of the myth present themselves as stark dichotomies — of cherubic innocence seized by a depraved ruler but in Dassé’s fictional universe, dichotomies coalesce. The children are antagonists, too, capable of violence and calculated cruelties like adults. By showing us a feral world without grown-ups, Dasse’s work presents a funhouse mirror of our society in which we are confronted with reflections of our own violence and tribalism, our assumptions about the civilizing capacity of culture, and our doubts around the notion of historical progress.

Dassé’s art reflects her exposure to the curatorial practices in the museums of Paris, as well as her country’s colonialist past, and the subsequent culture shock of moving to Arkansas, where she found herself an outsider in the South. Her compositions reference dioramas, North African symbolism and ethnographic imagery, and she has described her artistic practice as questioning “the legitimacy of representation and the production of knowledge.” 

We spoke with Dassé last November at the Windgate Center for Art and Design, where her exhibit “Saint George” was on display. 

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What about being here inspired the shift from scientific illustration to painting? And how does your experience of the South affirm or chafe against the myth of Southern culture you encountered in France? 

After a year in Arkansas, we bought a house in a very cookie-cutter neighborhood with kids running around outside in the afternoons; it struck me when hunting season hit that even the 7-year-olds were all geared up with their own rifles, ready to go. It was a culture shock.

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In Paris, my favorite museum is the Musée du Quai Branly [which houses a collection of 370,000 historical objects from four continents dating back to the Neolithic Era]. When you think about it, you’ve got terrible colonialist loot, but it is the most amazing collection. 

When I began working with curators, and specialists of really obscure subjects, I recognized they were telling their own versions of the story, and I knew their perspectives on race and gender could influence their displays. I always thought about this as a designer: There is a gap [in the transmission of knowledge]. A lot of people from different backgrounds go to the museums in Paris … and as the viewer, you’re trying to fill the gaps between all these little pieces of information, and you’re merciless. I always felt the way we display the information — the viewer in front of it — everybody is filling gaps. In the end, they [the curators] can tell you whatever they want. This is also the question of colonialism: In these narratives, the “winner” is the one talking. It’s not just missing information; it’s about how we write history. Who are the “savages”? 

As French people, we colonized Africa — that’s where a lot of the loot in our museums comes from. I saw these depictions of African tribes that were painted, or blurry photographs, and we’re merciless. That’s a merciless way of storytelling.

In France, I grew up with American TV shows and saw the gun violence. … I also grew up with the images of the child soldiers of Boko Haram. Then here in Arkansas — in my own backyard — I see kids running around with their rifles out to go deer hunting, and I started asking myself, “Where does reality stop, and where does fiction start?” That’s the main part of my work here. It’s not a moral judgment. Now that I live here, I understand a lot more about the NRA and hunting culture — this isn’t a statement about morality that I’m making. It’s more of an aesthetic shock.

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Anaïs Dassé’s “Sticks and Stones, (2017), Gesso, charcoal, pencil and oil painting on paper

Here’s another example: if I tell a French person “close your eyes and imagine a child with a gun,” 90 percent will imagine a little African kid forced to be a child soldier. And here, that image will be little Leslie with her pink rifle going hunting her with her dad. That’s what’s crazy about it — we fill the gap. That’s what interests me — the confrontation between everything that’s fictional that I imagined before I arrived here. … You know, the Southern Gothic vibe. … And grand reality, including the 2016 election. That brings up the idea of “fake news” and the question “who is telling the truth and who is telling the story here?” Basically all of my work is questioning that. So, when I arrived here, I wanted to tell my own story — as the curator in the ethnographic museum is doing — create my own reality and give it to you in pieces. … And my story is about children in the Southern states living by themselves in a doomsday culture. 

I love the doomsday culture here — the stress and anxiety. … If tomorrow civilization collapsed, these kids from Arkansas would have more of a chance to survive than me. In France, we don’t have this question: “are you going to survive the nuclear winter?” but at Walmart or Bass Pro, you can prepare. You’ve got TV shows and Pinterest lists about prepping [for nuclear annihilation].

Why do you think that’s part of our culture?

I don’t know, and I wouldn’t speculate because I didn’t grow up here. … But I think about the conquest of the West — not being able to count on any government; it’s you against the wilderness. Or other tribes. 

Related to that history of conquest, we have a different sense of space in this country, too.

I want to think that the wildlife is a big part of it: You don’t have cougars killing people in Europe. You don’t go out asking yourself if you’re going to freeze to death. Homeless people are dying in Chicago from the cold; it’s really rare that people would die from the cold in Europe because you don’t have such differences in temperature. So I would say these extremes, in wilderness and wildlife … It’s like you have everything [we have in Europe], but a more intense version. And the anxiety here is so much more intense as well. 

Is there an interplay between that initial vision you had of the South and the reality of the South?

The easy answer would be yes. Here you’ve got nature everywhere. You can drive your car for 5 minutes and be in a park and you can’t hear any cars or see any buildings. You drive your car for an hour, and you can be deep in the woods. I’ve never experienced that before. … I’m from the South also, and we have the sea nearby and mountains, but not the aggressive forest like what you’ve got here. The poison ivy, all of the bugs — it’s aggressive. It’s like a fight with your own background … not the fairytale forests I was used to. In [the forests around] Paris, you might see a squirrel. Here, I have to remove tarantulas and snakes from my lawn so my dog doesn’t get bitten. But people here don’t think it’s a big deal — they just say, “Yeah, mow your lawn more.” Before, the forest meant for me a fairytale background or a one from a medieval tapestry. It’s not an agent of danger, the forest. And here it is. Like the Angel’s Trumpet flowers you can find here that are absolutely beautiful; they look like little church bells, but they’re so poisonous you start to hallucinate. I feel like everything here is like “don’t touch.” That’s the kind of stuff you would see on TV, but you’ve still got that kind of stuff in your backyard. 

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So that’s where the myth and reality connect?

Yes, I would make the connection there [in nature], but it’s probably more simple than that. Another reference that I like to use a lot are the Disney movies my generation grew up with. You always have this dichotomy between nature and culture, and childhood and adulthood. Children are always innocent and nature is always your friend. And culture is always the enemy; adulthood the loss of openness. 

One of your paintings is titled “Kids are Terrible People Too,” of children at a cockfight. 

I like to work on this bridge between fiction and reality — that’s where I find my inspiration. The painting of the hog hunt (“Hog Hunting”) was inspired by a video I saw from a fair in Texas. To show off the skill of the hunting dogs that were bred, they threw them in a pen with a coyote or hog and let the dogs kill the animal. That’s fairly cruel from my point of view. I understand the mechanism behind it: the culture and traditions. Then I started to think about the region I come from and the corrida in the summer — when they kill the bull. People pay to see the spectacle, and they literally torture the bull. Then they sell the meat. Every year in my family, we eat the meat. Everyone is really excited about the bull meat … the festivities and the special recipes. It’s a big part of the culture. And it’s been in the spotlight for a number of years because of the animal rights issues. This piece is also inspired by that … what I grew up with, what I saw here, what shocked me, and then as a viewer the moment when I start to ask myself, “Well, who am I to be able to say this?”

Anaïs Dasse’s “Hog Hunting,” (2018), charcoal, pencil and oil painting on gessoed paper

That lens as an outsider can make ideologies and cultural patterns apparent to you here, and it’s interesting that you were then able to turn that lens back on your own culture. 

I try to question myself a lot about that because if you don’t, you arrive in a state — and I think this is a current issue — where you don’t recognize multiplicity, such as multicultural backgrounds, as an advantage. From my research in ethnography … I started to see the same rituals and patterns in many cultures. … Like when we talked about genocide, you spoke about Native Americans, and I think about European colonialism. It’s like we’re repeating the same thing over and over. We’ve never been more informed, but for some reason we’ve never been more anxious and incapable of telling the difference between fiction and reality, and you know, fake news.

Which relates to the piece “When They Put the Children in Cages, You Did Nothing” and the detention centers. If we are not at least talking about it and acknowledging that this is something we recognize as a group, well then, nothing will happen. It will just be [considered] as one bias or one point of view. And it’s not just one bias. We are here as a group, in this place, at this time, with a common background, and maybe we’ve got different views and different cultures, but we are all only two generations from the last genocide. It’s not that far away. We shouldn’t have lost that much [perspective] as a people.