You recently won a prize in Wells Art Contemporary 2020 for your triptych Where Are You Really From?, a self-portrait which deals with questions of racism and ethnocentrism. Although the piece speaks for itself, a blog and several social media posts you dedicated to this ballpoint pen drawing allowed viewers to get a deeper understanding. Can you quickly tell us about it? There is an underlying ethnocentrism present in modern society, rooted from archaic colonial structures. This ballpoint pen series of self portraits looks to empower people marginalised as a result of structural racial prejudice that I feel is embedded in western society and in some manifestation or another, is perpetually apparent in the day to day lives of minorities. Until recent atrocities of police brutality have gained strong visibility, these issues were not discussed consistently enough for impactful change, this feeling of oppression whether on a macro or micro level can be felt when you are a minority living in the UK.
As a somewhat racially ambiguous young mixed race man, I am made all too aware that I am different; with questioning apropos to my ethnic heritage being a constant. This apparent curiosity of one’s race feels as though judgement is being passed on you solely based on your pigmentation & ethnic heritage. I am immensely proud to be of Sierra Leonean and Lebanese descent, whilst being conscious of being the first generation of my family to be born in the UK and feeling that I must work harder and go further than my white counterparts.
It can become exhausting expecting a line of questioning on your heritage when you meet people - your pigmentation can be used to evaluate what kind of a threat you are. Thus, the narrative of this triptych shows an adherence to certain racial stereotypes by creating three caricatures of myself to convey the nuanced racial prejudice that I have experienced.
These works respectively reflect over-simplified labels of various demographics that lie beneath the veneer of disingenuous tolerance. The Black stereotype drawn on an 1866 map of Africa plays to the notion that black men are inherently aggressive and that black men do not smile in pictures. The white caricature, drawn on an English map from 1907, wears a faux polite smile and is unsettled by the gaze of the two figures situated either side of him. Drawn on an 1866 text of ‘The races of men’, the middle-eastern stereotype looks suspiciously away from the viewer and may be dangerous to the central white caricature. This work sardonically answers the inquisitive viewer’s question of where I am really from with the use of redundant stereotypes, contextualised by the antique maps; whilst paradoxically showing an antiquated ideological domain that the ignorant few may place me within.
As a visual artist, it can be difficult to put your work into words - as opposed to images. Do you struggle with this too? Any thoughts on this issue? Early on in my career I did not like writing about my work. I would worry that my explanations may not be intellectual enough or conversely, they may seem pretentious. Writing would feel like a burden, so I simply didn’t do it. I soon realised that when making my most impactful works I took risks with being vulnerable and potentially controversial; simply put, I removed the element of worrying about being good enough. I applied this perspective to how I speak and write about my work, I try to be transparent and write as clearly about my process as possible - remembering that writing something is better than nothing. From this starting point I found it easier and even cathartic to write about my work in more depth.
The key is finding the balance between your work speaking for itself… and describing it in a way that includes viewers and gives them an entry point into your art. How do you find this balance yourself? In the traditional gallery setting I believe that the artwork almost has to speak for itself but when it comes to an online presentation it is very different. We live in the information age, generally just seeing an image of an artwork on your computer for the first time with little background informing the concepts and materiality of the work may not be enough to engage a viewer that has unlimited access to several other artworks and artists just a click away. Viewers will immediately deduce a narrative apropos to the artwork before they even read about it. It is crucial to remember that for someone to want to read about your work in the first instance, they must already be interested to a certain extent. When you recognise that writing about your work can be seen as a ‘bonus’ for people, then this alleviates some of the pressure or anxiety that I believe artists sometimes feel around articulating ideas behind a piece. Most importantly, I try to write about each artwork as though the person reading it has never seen or heard of my work before. The entire purpose of my work is to empower and celebrate people of colour through portraiture that is relevant in a socio-political context. So I see writing about my work as a further opportunity to reach more people. I want to make work that resonates with the people that my practice represents and for others to see a different perspective. Writing about my work in my blog, social media and in online galleries allows the work to be understood from the perspective of the practitioner, whilst enabling the viewer to maintain their own opinions but showing a point of comparison.
Do you have some tips for artists about how to talk and write about their work?
The most important thing I can stress is to be concise. This is advice that I’ve repeatedly been told throughout my career regarding artist statements, blog posts, funding proposals etc. Whilst typing, constantly remind yourself of what the purpose of the text your writing is, don’t worry about meeting a word count. Try to avoid cliches (I still struggle with this) it’s easy to fall into traps of romantic descriptions without any substance. Lastly, read out loud what you’ve written, you may also find it helps to show it to someone else to see if you’ve made your point clear.