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The Model Who Uses Her Voice for Change

By Terence Poh

Sharon AlexieFrom inside her home in Paris, Sharon Alexie directs and photographs a series of self-portraits all on her own.
From inside her home in Paris, Sharon Alexie directs and photographs a series of self-portraits all on her own.

The model, artist and activist Sharon Alexie moved to the city of Reims, France, after she turned eight. The relocation placed Alexie, who is a biracial person of colour, in a predominantly white community. “It was quite difficult to grow up in an environment where education about racism is not a priority and when it is done, it is very biased. I had a hard time understanding my identity, I had a hard time assuming it. I had this idea of whiteness in my head,” she says. She went to school among middle-class “bourgeois” peers. Finding herself unequally well-off, she sought to conceal her social class. “It is difficult when you are young, especially in those times, to be aware of these dynamics, and especially when you are in an environment that does not invite diversity,” she says.

When Alexie turned 15, she experienced an awakening. She realised “that what I thought I knew, what I thought normal was not… I knew nothing of this world.” She credits the person she has become to her mother, who, despite having to support her family and hence being frequently absent, invested in her daughter’s dreams. “She was always the strength I didn’t have, a shield,” says Alexie. “Growing up was traumatic for me but rich in learning, rich in questioning, rich in positive evolution and awareness.”

Today, Alexie has found her voice through her Instagram account which commands a following of over 400,000, accumulated both organically and through modelling in high-profile fashion campaigns for brands such as Louis Vuitton and Calvin Klein. Under the moniker “flammedepigalle,” she populates her profile and captures an audience with her modelling work, portraits of herself and images of her artworks while pushing for greater diversity and inclusivity in the fashion industry and beyond.

Although subject to scrutiny on the Internet by thousands, with opinions as diverse as they come, Alexie bravely speaks out about charged issues. “I do what I have to do. I try to do my best,” she says. “The only pressure I have is the pressure I put on myself because I [am] biracial, in a position where I still have advantages, so I have to learn to move towards the fairest possible path and leave space for oppressed voices.”

Social media has given rise to a cadre of online activists who are making themselves heard through different platforms. From long existing issues that underscore society, such as the climate crisis or civil injustice, we are learning that what we witness online today can send us out to the streets with an unparalleled swiftness, on an unprecedented scale. And Alexie is one young, independent woman who has been empowered by the instantaneousness of her own far-reaching network.

Writing to T Singapore from a Parisian coffee shop (one of her favourite places to work in the city), Alexie shares about her inspirations, her foray into painting and photography, and how she constantly pushes for diversity and inclusivity in the fashion industry as a young, biracial woman.

Sharon Alexie“A Story of Disarmament” (2020).
“A Story of Disarmament” (2020).

Your Instagram handle, “flammedepigalle,” which translates to “Flame of Pigalle,” sounds like an empowering name. How did you come up with it, and what is the message behind it?

This name comes from a song by Georgio that I discovered when I was 16 years old called “Svetlana and Maïakovski.” It is indeed the story of a strong woman. This song just touched me a lot and the image hit me a lot. Pigalle is also a neighbourhood that I particularly like in Paris. It is a charming neighbourhood, not far from Montmartre, a cradle of artists.

What inspires you the most?

I don’t seek to be inspired. It’s something that comes when I’m facing something that communicates directly with my heart. But you don’t have to go very far to be inspired — just look at how sunflowers live and a lot of things will happen in your heart and in your head if you have that sensitivity.

Which has been the most transformative moment of your modelling career so far?

My campaign with Louis Vuitton, which was my first campaign outside of digital platforms. I felt a particular enthusiasm, a sense of accomplishment. But there are so many people, visions and facets to this world that I am always surprised or enriched at every material encounter, abstract or human, whether good or bad.

Was there a modelling job that was particularly memorable to you?

My shoot with Harper’s Bazaar. It was memorable because we were in the Cayman Islands and the team was great and so well-intentioned — but also because I experienced an earthquake for the first time, just before my flight.

Sharon AlexieAlexie seeks to paint the emotions of her environment. Pictured here is an untitled work she has done this year, among others that she shares on her Instagram.
Alexie seeks to paint the emotions of her environment. Pictured here is an untitled work she has done this year, among others that she shares on her Instagram.

“I trust this generation, where the voices of black youth and people of colour are taking shape and volume.”

In the modelling industry, do you find that being a person of colour has limited you or given you more job opportunities?

I think I’ve often been chosen for my skin colour. People of colour, especially black people when they are not replaced by mixed or biracial people, are marketing tools and a mark of “good conscience” for brands. This hides many issues behind the cameras, such as the lack of diversity in the teams and the problems of colourism. But things are changing and I hope it will continue to evolve with fervour. I trust this generation, where the voices of black youth and people of colour are taking shape and volume.

How do you envisage the fashion industry to change in response to calls for greater diversity and inclusivity within the next few years?

Our cultures are exploited but nobody does it like [the fashion industry] at the end of the day. We will make our own system regardless of the old fashion world. We will make our teams, we will impose them. We’ll make our own luxury homes and put value in all of this because we don’t need to be validated by those who exploit us. This is what I hope for above all because we all have the creativity and intelligence to excel. I just hope that the fashion world in general will be more respectful and understanding because it is a profession of the body, of the image, and it has a huge impact on education. But once again I have faith in our black youth and young people of colour.

To you, what does it mean to be a strong, independent woman of today?

A strong woman today is a strategic woman. The ones who taught me the most about these things are my mother and French entrepreneur Zola Clarine. There’s so much to say — there is not only one type of strong woman, so I prefer to rely on this notion of strategy because it is possible for all types of women.

What led you to start creating visual art? Was there a particular event or moment that motivated you to paint?

I was always interested in the visual arts. I studied it in high school, in a class called Art History. Then, when I was preparing to go to a design school, I started drawing. I left school two or three months later but I never stopped painting.

Sharon AlexieAlexie hopes to continue telling her story through photography.
Alexie hopes to continue telling her story through photography.

Tell me about some artists or art movements that inspire your artworks.

The Harlem Renaissance. It is a movement that was not only artistic but also cultural. I find it very powerful and very enriching in terms of the context in which it was born.

Your art features black subjects and often takes on a dark, melancholic tone — what are the messages you seek to convey with them?

I paint my environment, I speak to the people around me because that’s what I see. I try to read the emotions and transcribe them. Still, my paintings are not yet very representative of what I want to convey.

Tell me about your artistic process. How do you begin conceptualising an artwork and how do you work towards finishing it?

I have several, and I don’t really have one at the same time. I just do what I want to do when I feel comfortable. Sometimes I have pictures that come to mind and I draw them quickly in a notebook to keep the idea. 

Which is your favourite artwork that you’ve created so far?

I loved to paint “A Story of a Disarmament.” It tells the story of a man living in Benin with mental disorders, but not being able to access health care because of the lack of infrastructure and because of [people’s belief in] witchcraft, so his family has abandoned him. I painted it from a documentary about a Beninese doctor demanding infrastructure and education for mental illnesses. It means a lot to me because even though it is a finished work, it continues to [spark questions for] me.

You’ve also started to explore photography — can you tell me more about your photographs?

The same thing as with painting, but it’s different because there’s always a limit, and you don’t start from a blank page. I would love to experiment with fashion photography because I find it interesting to give context to clothes, adding a story that speaks more directly.

 

Sharon AlexiePortrait painting, Untitled (2020).
Portrait painting, Untitled (2020).

“A strong woman today is strategic — I prefer to rely on this notion of strategy because it applies to all types of women.”

What are some social issues that resonate with you deeply?

Microaggressions and the deliberate choice of exclusion. However, I am often well protected: When I am in Paris for jobs, my agents always try to be present or place trusted people on set. Otherwise, I come to Paris to see great friends [and visit] places that belong to us, that accept us or look like us.

Other than modelling and oil painting, do you have any other hobbies?

I have a passion for videography, for sewing as well, and I am increasingly interested in architecture. I am very eager to talk to you about these areas through achieving them — for the moment, I am still looking.

What are your plans for the future — are there other things you wish to accomplish or experiment with?

I have so many. I want to participate in humanitarian actions, why not open an association, set up infrastructures, create spaces for discussions, help, and creativity? I want to share with the world what I have. Whether in terms of ideas or spaces or comfort. [I want to] realise my creative ideas, and think big while keeping my feet on the ground. I would love to work with people — brands I work with right now like Louis Vuitton, whose teams I work with have always been lovely; Jason Bolden, whom I have not yet met but with whom I have been able to discuss and whose work I appreciate. But honestly I’m still a baby in this world — as I told you, it’s a matter of meeting and trust when it comes to collaboration. Life will tell me.