Dark Horses and Desire
By Maya Acharya
Upon My Skin is a new film poem by composer and poet Axel Kacoutié, released as part of his collection of poems titled The Allegory of Youth. Axel shares his thoughts on dark horses, going against the grain and finding a poetic voice speckled with celestial romanticism, Greek mythology and Old English verse.
Drawing reference to the famous 19th century painting Frenzy of Exultations, Axel Kacoutié's video is an otherworldly affair, laden with contrasts and soft, striking imagery. Seeping over the top in a dreamlike coating is Axel’s voice, resounding in the thick of the mesmerising soundscape:
She traces stars within my skin/Stirring stars inside my skin/She stirs with love and cinnamon […] A muted chorus of elysian melodies, of sweet ethereal melodies that hung within my skin
"The painting [Frenzy of Exultations] resonated with me in terms of the symbolism; the woman on this black horse, the mystery, the dark passion, this wildness that every human being has I guess," Axel says. "I’ve been called a dark horse before, which stuck with me. I guess that kinda informs why I identified with the image: the woman and the horse, the dignified and the animalistic manifestations of pleasure. I felt it was representative of a kind of joy you feel when being touched by a loved one.”
Along with notions of love and longing, the video also explores how we view and engage with art. The protagonist, “Axelina”, played by Aderonke Oke, doesn't only break with traditional gendered boy-meets-girl narratives (Axel remarks that most people read her as male until she takes off her glove), but also crosses physical boundaries in a gallery-like space in which onlookers snap photos.
Axel explains; “You can think an artwork is rubbish or, equally, it could be a life changing experience - they are both valid. I think there is this idea that you have to have a degree in order to 'get' certain kinds of art, and it's just not true.”
The video, Axel admits, was at times stressful (apparently life size fibreglass horses aren't exactly easy to come by ) but ultimately a rewarding journey, and he's been met with positive feedback. "It's amazing and touching to hear how people have emotionally responded to it," he says.
The opulent symbolism of the video, directed by Émile, is part of a poetic aesthetic that has appealed to Axel ever since he was young, professing that "all that epic, emotional and romantic stuff? Just yes. I dig it!”
As a teenager, hip hop was a latent interest for him, while the poetic language and lyrical concepts he found in metal, rock and gothic music offered a romantic and expressive escapism. ““Then Lupe Fiasco came along with his second album The Cool and suddenly it was like, 'ok yup, step into my life please!'” he laughs.
The romanticism and mythological references in Axel’s poetry aren't just a predilection though, they are also a way to subvert expected notions of black masculine identity. Identity and race are also reoccurring themes in his poetry and he talks about his struggle with these imposed prejudices and expectations while growing up.
“Some of the lyrical choices I made were conscious in the sense that I’m very aware that being a black man talking in a way often understood as Shakespearean or Old English is not usually seen as compatible. I always felt like those presumptions and projections distracted everyone, including myself, from being understood. Another aspect is my feeling that black identities in the ‘west’ are largely informed by the collective African American narrative. Being Black British is perhaps another reason that I hold onto the Old English kinda thing, to distance myself a bit from the way that poetry is often performed, with a specific voice and rhythm.”
The Allegory of Youth showcases a merge of poetry and music that feels authentic in its expression. It’s also, as Axel puts it, “a homage to a past chapter of my life.” The cover of the collection is a picture of him as a child, staring wistfully out of a window.
"The title related to the notion of never really feeling young. So there’s that element. Then there’s also the memory of me, as a kid, always being happiest in my own head. The project was cathartic, not because I have necessarily dealt with everything, but because it allowed me to articulate a part of my life in a way that finally felt like, 'cool, you did that justice now, onto the next'."
The Allegory of Youth is also available for purchace on bandcamp