In her portraits, Franco-Malagasy painter Celia Rakotondrainy combines her personal history with in-depth research on identity and culture. The cultural diversity that was ubiquitous in Rakotondrainy’s upbringing has reinforced her desire to discover, question, and understand the principle of identity. The artist’s works are inspired by a concept of ethnicity that respects diversity and inclusion, and her goal is to show that identity is as painting: a construction.

Rakotondrainy’s choice to paint portraiture is intimately linked to her examination of the quest for identity in relation to the notions of culture and perception: "The face is the first thing you see when you meet someone. It raises multiple questions about identity, from ethnic features to resemblance to family members. From the way you wear make-up and get tattoos to expressions inherited from society or culture.", the artist states.

The face thus occupies a prominent place in Rakotondrainy’s work. However, she does not explore the art of portraiture in a realistic or traditional way. The series she is currently working on consists of portraits oscillating between realism and the imaginary. The facial expressions of the portrayed people are fragmented or superimposed. They thus represent the multiple facets that an individual can have, but also the passage of time, in which one can visualise and interpret a movement or a direction. Her compositions express the difficulties of grasping identity across several cultural or social reference systems in which we evolve and in which we place ourselves.

Identity is a complex and paradoxical concept: "After realising that I was different to each of the identity configurations offered to me, I felt partly excluded from each of the cultures I share. The moment this multiplicity is unified or reunited, we move beyond the idea that identity is a collection of parts that are alien to each other. They are in fact not delimited, and together they form a new essence, unique in its diversity."

The artist’s necessity to deconstruct and to understand all the components of identity originates in her close observation of the long process of identity construction. The figures Rakotondrainy paints are deconstructed, cut up, depersonalised and reorganised. "My paintings are nothing more than the continuity of an internal cultural negotiation between my French side and my Malagasy side. This need to overcome the conflict and to make various elements cohabit in harmony in my person, I also reproduce it on canvas. Through my work, I hope that everyone can understand that we define ourselves the way we want to. We build ourselves from elements that are added, destroyed and transformed over time to compose a contrasting whole in constant evolution. This makes it impossible to write a universal definition of identity," Rakotondrainy says.

You did not go to art school. How did you teach yourself to paint?

In the early stage of my painting practice the idea of being a full-time artist was far away. My main objective at this time was to become an independent curator with the idea of opening my own gallery a couple of years later. I was enrolled in several programs to learn about curation, art history and the art market in three different universities. Painting became my little escape from all the books I had to read and started in a very instinctive way. I was trying out to mix colours and put them on the canvas without too much thinking. At some point I just could not stop, even though I did not know at all what I was doing. I started to paint every day, watched hundreds of videos on colour theory, chemistry behind oils, or how linen or cotton canvases were manufactured. I became completely addicted by how much I wanted to learn and how deeply I wanted to improve. The Internet is so resourceful; everything is there. It just requires a lot of time because, in the beginning, I did not really know what I was looking for. But step by step, my research became more precise, and I dived into it more easily. It took a crazy amount of practice, thousands of failed attempts, and a mountain of mistakes. But the most precious experience in terms of learning was to ask questions to different artists I was following on Instagram. Most of them were so kind that they took the time to provide materials and share information with me. This was truly helpful, and it is something that I want to give back. Sharing knowledge and experience is really important. I’m trying to answer as much as I can and when I can, because there’s still so much I don’t know.

Was there a decisive moment, event, or encounter that led you to becoming an artist?

The moment I knew I wanted to paint every day as my main activity was when I did a painting to apply to an open call for Monopol Magazin in collaboration with Tinder, called "What is love? From Amor to Tinder." It took me weeks to make this painting because it was much bigger than anything I had made so far, and I was totally lost. Of course, I got rejected, but I loved every part of the process, from the birth of the concept until the application of the varnish. I documented the process of creating this piece, and when I look at it now, it makes me laugh. I really did not know what I was doing! But I did it, and I still love the final painting, even though there are so many things I’d change today! I had a lot of fun doing it, but what was most interesting to me was how focused I was and how hard I tried to make it. It was not difficult to figure out that this was more appealing to me than my other activities. I remember telling my parents that I could see myself painting for a living. They laughed and told me, "Well, finish your studies first and you’ll see after". Their reaction was normal as I had only been painting for a couple of months, so this sounded completely insane! First, I was mad at them, but maybe without this reaction, I would not have pushed myself like I did.

Do you have a role model?

Biographies and documentaries about the lives of artists have always fascinated me. It would be very difficult to choose only a handful of them as role models. However, there was one exhibition that changed the way I wanted to approach art: Beauté Congo–Congo Kitoko at the Fondation Cartier, curated by André Magnin in 2015. Until today, it is the exhibition that has marked me the most and that gave me the desire to focus more on contemporary art, and in particular in close relation to the African continent. Among the artists were Chéri Chérin, Chéri Samba, JP Mika, and Moke. These artists still have an impact on me. I think my passion for figurative art started to develop intensely after seeing this show.

Today I must say that I am impressed by the careers of contemporary artists whose work pleases me enormously both on a formal and intellectual level. The ones I follow very closely are Adelaide Damoah, Toyin Ojih Odutola, Shannon Bono, Chloé Wise, Kimathi Mafafo, Johanna Tordjman, Sahara Longe, Ekene Emeka-Maduka, Yoyo Lander, Reisha Perlmutter, Bisa Butler, Sophie Dherbecourt or Loribelle Spirovski and Calida Garcia Rawles. These women are simply incredible and are definitely marking the history of art. Their work and their processes give me infinite strength!

What inspires you morethe inside or the outside world?

People inspire me the most. This is the reason why I directly started working on portraits. What fascinates me the most is to realize how people are so different and so similar at the same time to. By telling the story of one single person you can find a way to express something much wider and collective. This is what I’m currently working on with my upcoming series, addressing the collective through the subjective, I do hope I’ll find a right way to do it.

What is your favourite item in your studio?

Tricky question! I think it’s the biggest plant in there, a huge Dracaena Marginata. I placed it on an old painter’s stool that unfortunately does not belong to me. The stool is raised to the maximum, which allows me to have the soil in the pot at elbow height. And this is really important because I often paint with more than 15 different brushes, sometimes more, and my hands can't hold everything all the time. So, when I need a break, I can simply stick the brushes into the ground instead of bending over 200 times a day, preventing me from breaking my back as I usually do. It's so handy that I can't work without this plant anymore, and I've officially called it my assistant.


Celia Rakotondrainy is part of MISA VAN HAM KUNST_HALLE, the fifth edition of MISA taking place near Cologne from 16-21 November for the first time. In partnership with VAN HAM over 30 emerging and established positions will be presented together offline and online with digital art at the same time as Art Cologne.

Please click HERE to browse through the available work by Rakotondrainy