In this series of blogs we’re looking beyond the artwork and into the artist studio. They are often seen as mysterious creative hubs of liberation and creative endeavour but we want to go inside and uncover the environment in which they work in, to unwrap the mystery and speak to the artists. Discover tips on how to be inspired, find their ‘flow state’ and uncover what the studio means to each artist and how it influences their practice. For the sixth edition we’re delighted to speak with Adelaide Damoah.
Adelaide Damoah is a British artist of Ghanaian descent whose earlier work combined African and Western influences while highlighting social issues. A founding member of the BBFA (Black British Female Artists Collective), We caught up with Adelaide to find out more about her practice and uncover her studio habits!
Hi Adelaide, thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us. Firstly, as a self-taught artist could you talk to us a little bit about your journey as an artist and how it has evolved over the years?
This is going to sound cliché but I’ve been drawing or painting ever since I can remember. I became conscious of my desire to really engage with it as a practice when I was around 15 after having discovered Frida Kahlo for an art project. I continued to follow her way of making- that is, making work in response to and to make sense of certain things that happened in my life- from that point onwards.
All the way through university and into my first job in pharmaceutical sales, everyone close to me knew that I had this passion that I fell back on. It was a casual passion until I started to get sick more frequently and for longer periods of time. During those months of convalescence, I had the time to explore and learn through books and videos and I started to take it more seriously than a casual hobby. In 2005, everything changed because I had to leave my job because of endometriosis. My leaving coincided with friends and family starting to buy work from me and it was at that moment that I made the decision to make a living from my work.
During those years, the work I was making was mostly figurative, sometimes abstract and sometimes it was a sad attempt at surrealism. Initially, I was exploring very personal emotions, life situations and relationships. The work helped me cope emotionally, especially as a young person coming to terms with various life changes. Later on, I started to explore social issues that were personal at the same time like race, domestic violence and sexuality, through the figure. By the time I had my sixth solo exhibition in 2015 (This Is Us), I thought I was a figurative painter, but something still felt not quite right.
My mentor Simon Frederick had told me to place myself at the centre of my work around a year or so before and I was still grappling with what that meant to me at this point. I was simultaneously conducting a lot of interviews with other artists as a way of getting to know them as friends and colleagues and also to understand the industry more, being somewhat of an outsider. It was at this point that I met Rachel Ara, she was my second video interview (my first was Rebecca Fontaine Wolf some years prior), but my first for this particular series of video interviews. We became friends and she gave an impromptu critique of the work from the This Is Us series and it was this critique that sparked in me a new way of thinking about making which ultimately led to the development of new techniques using my body and performance as well as collage and image transfer techniques which I am constantly developing and improving upon. My journey has taken me from figurative/wannabe surrealist to mixed media/painter and performance artist in 15 years. I am always curious and learning, so who knows where the next 15 years will take me.
Your work begins with a performance during which you create imprints of your body on a blank canvas. You then take these imprints back to your studio and work into them in a number of different ways. Can you tell us a bit more about this process?
The public performance I do is different to the work I make in my studio in that once the performance is complete, the piece is done and I do not work on it any more. The piece is the evidence that the performance happened - along with photographic and video documentation. Before the performance, I cover myself in barrier cream and then oil paint privately. I have an assistant to make sure that I am fully covered. I use a large roll of canvas - for my last performance, one canvas was around 6 meters by 2 metres. This is laid out on the floor in front of the audience, ready for my arrival. When I walk out in front of the audience, I observe them first - which i will explain later, and then instinctively press and roll myself on the canvas from one side of it to the other. After that, I pause and write on the canvas.
I have always written on my work. Sometimes I just write whatever comes to mind. Other times the writing is more deliberate. In the summer of 2016 I interviewed Sokari Douglas Camp for my YouTube series Art Discussion. We sat and talked after the interview and she looked at some images of my work. She told me to baptise the work with the language of my parents. After that, I started writing in my parents’ language on the work.
Marine Therese, pigment and ink on hand made cotton rag paper, 37" x 53"
Performing in front of an audience must be hugely daunting, especially if you're clothed in nothing but paint! Two questions - firstly, how does the audience tend to react to your performance, and secondly, how important is the presence of the audience to the creation of your work?
It's funny, men and women have vastly differing reactions to the performance. Women tend to be concerned about my wellbeing, while being fascinated by the process and report feeling empowered. For example, when I performed at UNFOLD in October 2017, a lady came to me after and asked, very seriously, if I was OK. She wanted to know first, if I was really naked, and second, if I felt exposed or afraid. She said at the start, when she realised that I might be nude, she felt afraid and exposed for me. Once she realised that I was in fact fine and that I was in the moment and totally unconcerned, she relaxed and was able to experience the performance and all of the emotions she felt as a result. She said she felt empowered. A man approached me and said I must have "very large balls" to have the guts to do such a thing! He was fascinated with why I was doing it and what inspired me to do it. An art world person who is a friend of a friend of mine told her (I am paraphrasing) that he was expecting to see a "titillating performance" and was quite excited by the prospect. When he experienced what actually happened he said he was "disappointed because somehow she managed to desexualise the whole thing and turn it into high art!"
The audience is essential for the performance because I feed their energy into what I am doing. Before I start, I look them over and listen to any sounds and note any expressions that I can see. Their energy directs me. When I stop making the body prints, I pause again and listen. I then start to write what I am thinking, feeling and hearing directly on to the surface. So in the end, the evidence of the performance contains my reaction to the audience. The audience is a part of the performance. They don't realise this until they inspect the evidence after I am gone.
Central to your practice is the use of your body as a 'living paintbrush', could you tell us about your choice of paint you use?
I love the texture, look and feel of oil paint, so at first, I used just that. Initially, I used only permanent alizarin crimson by Winsor and Newton or Michael Harding. I chose this colour because I wanted to get something that reminded me of tissue and blood and I felt that this colour was most consistent in getting across the feeling that I wanted. It’s probably not sensible to use oil paint on skin! As a consequence, I now use water mixable oil paint by Winsor and Newton. It’s much easier to wash off and less irritating to the skin. I adore the vibrancy of Michael Harding alizarin crimson too and I have some of his oils.
For my last performance I used Winsor and Newton Artisan water mixable ultramarine blue. It looked very shiny, beautiful and dark against my skin. Against the white canvas it was a perfect shade of ultramarine. I wanted something as close to Yves Klein's blue as possible.
If we were to delve into your studio what are we likely to find?
Ha! An old work made when I was 15 years old in response to The Two Frida’s by Frida Kahlo. It is an ugly old thing but I was so proud of it at the time. I got an A with distinction! It is hidden underneath a heap of works on paper. You will find miniature experiments, little squares of cotton rag paper less than A5 in size. I am working with some new materials so I am testing them out to see how they work before sending the work off to CoLab for longevity testing. You’ll find a lot of very colourful body prints on the wall left over from a brand collaboration I did last year with Method UK. I put them up to cheer myself up during lockdown. I look at them every day while I decide where to take them next compositionally because they feel unfinished. There are bits of paper and materials everywhere as I am in the middle of working out a lot for my ongoing project Confronting Colonisation- hence the experiments... I have lots of acrylic ink and a tonne of raw pigments. I love working with pigments as the colour is all the more intense than when they are made into paints. Finally, you’ll find an old Barbie my goddaughter gave me when she was around 5 years old. She is wearing a pink dress and has a missing shoe. One day when I have some spare time I will give her a makeover.
Could you tell us a bit about your studio habits at all? How are you able to tap into that state of flow and find inspiration and do you have any advice for anyone struggling with trying to find that inspiration?
I find that when I just go to the studio, something usually happens. If you have a regular studio habit, the space gets anchored in your psyche as the space where you make art. Therefore even if you have had to spend some time away from the studio (for example because of lockdown), when you go back, it is easier for things to click back into place. I wouldn’t say I have any specific habits in the studio as what I do can vary from day to day. But going into the studio and starting to play with something, even when I might be in a bit of a low point, invariably leads to something else which could end up being something quite beautiful, invigorating or exciting.
Another thing is that I am incredibly lucky in that I am working on something that has enough material to last me many lifetimes. This means that every time I go to the studio, I am not looking for material, it is there. The only decision I have to make is what to do with that material. How will I interpret and make sense of it through my art making. These decisions are not difficult. They are exciting and challenging. Having a particular subject that I am passionate about is the driving force behind my practice. The books I read and the lectures I watch on the topic are a constant and infinite source of inspiration.
The Rebirth of Ama. Installation view at Boogie Wall Gallery
However, if you are struggling to find inspiration, never ever beat yourself up. Especially in times of stress or trauma. It is okay to give yourself permission to take a break. Sometimes the most creative ideas come when you give yourself that space to just do something different. Obviously everyone is unique. But have you ever noticed that you get your most brilliant ideas in the shower or when you just wake up? Those times when you are most relaxed… Or during a meditation session, during yoga or while taking a walk in nature. Maybe give yourself a break and make the conscious decision to do something relaxing like that without any pressure for something to turn up in your mind or to have that flash of inspiration and you might find that is when your biggest inspiration comes.
You’re also one of the founding members of the BFAA Collective, could you tell us about it and what your role is?
I am the unofficial note taker! When we have meetings, I take the minutes and make sure everyone gets a copy. I occasionally come up with ideas which I share with the group, but we all do that. Really, we are a sisterhood and we share opportunities, contacts and ideas. We lift each other up and support each other on our respective artistic journeys. We work together to find, create and take advantage of opportunities that will benefit the group nationally and internationally. We are stronger as a group and we have made much progress. We hope that one day, we will be in a position to support other black British female artists who need the support to do the same.
Installation view. Boogie Wall Gallery. Reembodying The Real. Solo exhibition
As a whole what do you think the industry can do to ensure better representation of black female artists?
I think we need to get away from the idea of inclusion for inclusion sake and tokenism. These things are vaguely insulting and have nothing to do with long term solutions. This is a complex issue that requires serious examination. As the late great Okwui Enwezor said, what is required is for black artists to be included in conversation with, rather than in opposition to the Western art canon. Because our stories are an important part of the conversation and you cannot tell the whole story without us telling our magnificent variety of stories too. All of our stories intersect and collide in beautiful and important ways. We need more black writers and curators to write black female artists into the canon. This is crucial.
I think we are living in an important and critical time where people's eyes are being open to the very real systemic issues that exist in all sectors of society and which have lasting impacts on the careers and lives of real people. We can no longer turn away from this reality. Black people and our allies have always known this. In order to seriously address the issue, we really need to look at who is running the show. Who are the decision makers in our institutions? Ultimately the decision makers are making decisions based on their unconscious biases. As humans this is what we do naturally and if you are among that group of people holding all the power, then the decisions you make in terms of programming are more likely to reflect your identity and the things you care about.
I think we need more black women in decision making positions. We need more black female curators working in institutions, more black female writers with the power to have their writing included in significant publications and we need more black gallerists. I recently started working with an amazing new gallerist based in Mayfair. Her name is Josefina Kapelo and she runs a gallery called Boogie Wall Gallery. They only work with female artists as she is doing her best to contribute to redressing the balance of males to females in the art world. She is black and she works with artists with a wide variety of ethnicities, but because she is black I have no doubt that she will give voice and space to many black female artists to shine.
You can Adelaide's work on display at her solo show Reembodying The Real at Boogie Wall Gallery in London until July 7th. She is also part of a group show called Figures at Sakhile & Me in Frankfurt until August 8th and also has a piece on loan at the Royal College of Physicians Musem until April 2021.
See more of Adelaide’s work here.
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