“I’m very conscious about the lack of Black British history taught in schools, and I’m also tired of hearing about these amazing Black Brits when they’re no longer with us. I’m just trying to give people their flowers while they can still smell them.”
South London based British Somali artist Aisha Mohamed is discussing the glaring absence of women that looked like her appearing in the curriculum. You can almost hear the sigh, see her eye roll, as she reflects on women artists who were celebrated as part of her art classes in school: “I definitely didn’t see black women in the paintings we did study” she says. It’s not a lone experience. In fact, it’s one that many people from communities of colour notice keenly – that there is a distinct commonality that ties the Van Goghs, Cezanne’s, Picasso’s and Hirst’s together. For some, the way to try and cut through the lack of visibility is to become an activist – and artists across the board are decolonising spaces, curriculums and art institutions in their own way.
For others, like Aisha, she uses her own work to respond to the message of invisibility that her curriculum gave her. What do artists do when they don’t feel seen? Sometimes, they draw themselves. Well, not quite herself. Mohamed, as part of her personal project created in reverence of Black History Month, looked outwards and asked her Twitter followers who they would like to see depicted through her work. The result was Lady Phyll, the co-founder of UK’s Black Pride, Serena Williams, and the Lupita N’yongo along with the fellow ‘women of Wakanda’, among others. Her work sees photographic images of women superimposed over classic backgrounds characteristic of still-life paintings. The glossy images are highly produced, and we see women with their heads back, skin shining in uproarious laughter, in regal sitting positions gazing out. The flowers she’s giving us to smell, reference the past and present as we see her reinterpreting Van Gogh’s floral paintings in one set.
“The flowers used in the first part is from a still-life Dutch artist from the 16/17th-century artist Ambrosius Bosschaert,” she says, describing a selection of the images. Despite her extensive research, she’s self-deprecating about what her practice really entails: “I just sit there on Photoshop and throw things together until it looks decent!” Decent is definitely underselling the beautiful, joyful pictures, laid with muted colour palettes in burnt oranges and autumnal reds, moving through inky blues, delicate pale pinks, and fluoro green, depending on the set.
It’s no surprise that Aisha cites her influences as Kehinde Wiley and afrofuturist Margot Manzeljudign by the dense but delicate work that thinks about aesthetic composition as well as the opportunity to celebrate the contributions of black women in the public space. The images are poetic representations of beauty and powerful declarations of existence in a world that often dismisses the existence of black women.
Speaking about her next projects, the world is Aisha’s oyster but she has one clear goal for next year: “I would love to work on an album cover in 2019…so I’m speaking that into existence” she says. In the present, Mohamed draws on the excellence of another hero to sum up her desires: “Nina Simone actually said something that resonated with me heavily ‘It is an artist’s duty to reflect the times’…I feel like it’s my duty to make sure black women and our many contributions and experiences don’t go unnoticed”.
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