Artist Bahati Simeons recalls a childhood filled with music, where play and learnings unfolded to the sounds of classical, Harry Belafonte, Michael Jackson, and trips to theatre to see old alternative films with her family. “I got exposed to art at a young age, and not only in the sense of fine arts,” she tells It’s Nice That, citing how her childhood memories are what fuelled her first steps into the industry.
The artist, who’s born in Burundi and from Belgian and Congolese descent, began painting about four years ago. It was something that she’d practice as a form of therapeutic meditation and self-expression – or “daydreaming”, as she likes to call it – where her past had previously taught her to bottle up her emotions and pain, to “laugh it all away”. This silence eventually grew into periods of isolation. “I felt like my mind got programmed to ignore differences or not to respond to it,” she says. “So I’d turn to art as a visual language, when words weren’t enough or when I wasn’t able to use my voice, or if I was too scared to speak up.”
The habits you learn as a child become second nature and, to then unlearn these habits, isn’t always going to be easy. Although Bahati managed to take these learnings in her stride, certain life events came into place and meant that she fell right back into this familiar routine. It wasn’t until the first lockdown last year in March that she finally had the time, space and energy to reflect – healing from her habits and reconnecting with herself. What’s more is that living in a post-Breonna Taylor and George Floyd world (among countless others), awoke the sense that keeping quiet simply isn’t an option anymore. So for those with a voice, a medium or a platform, now is the time to use it. And this is something that Bahati has come to realise over the last 12 months where, even if being silent brought upon her “clarity and wisdom”, she says she’s now simply “done with that”.
Bahati’s paintings have a certain empathetic nature about them, as if the subjects that she paints are marked onto the page with a story to tell. Living in her two-bedroom apartment alone, Bahati now has the space and peace to work on her projects, where most days are filled with intuitive, responsive painting to the sound of music, and series’ that she knows off by heart. It can be quite the private and solemn activity, yet with this detachment comes time to put thought into practice – and much of art’s greatest accomplishments tend to retrospectively look and reflect upon the world around us.
Take her recent works as an example; Carlos’ Jollos and My skin my logo are two pieces that she made right after the murder of George Floyd. Working preemptively, she knew exactly what she was going to mark on the paper and had it all mapped out in her mind. “And I think they speak for themselves,” she says, “celebrating the beauty of the Black body while their tattoos show scares and pain.” Both paintings use a peculiar perspective that zooms in on the figure at hand – where the focus point has been placed onto the body’s tattoos, marking round, curving skin with slogans like “Enough is enough” and “Hold”, or “Keep being loud” or “Protect the Black women.” First glance might mean that you notice the bold and rich colour palettes or the odd composition that draws distance form the subject’s faceless head, making it seem small and the fact somewhat trivial. A second look reveals the smaller details, like the powerful messaging imprinted on her character’s skin.
Shoot your shot and Charcoal swans under the sun are two other favourites of the artist’s. Built during a time of daydreaming, Bahati tells us how travelling usually ignites much of the inspiration for her work. Her trips have been inevitably been put on hold in light of the pandemic, and recently she’s found herself turning towards her medium as a means of escapism. She’s one of those itchy types that strives to constantly be on the move, planning her next adventure and experiencing new things constantly. “I love my apartment, but when I’m here, I miss the sea,” she says. “When I’m at the coast, I miss the mountains, I miss the rush of the city. So these ones just take me there, longing and wandering.”
Bahati’s remedial approach to painting is clear-cut. It’s a tactile, emotionally led process that leaves her questioning the world around her, and in turn answering her questions with a paint brush. Most of all, however, she wants her audience to make their own assumptions. “I would describe my work to be a love letter to the Black body,” she says, “and I just want people to feel seen and feel present. I don’t want to guide my viewers too much, I want them to move through my work by themselves.”
Bahati Simoens: My Skin My Logo. (Copyright © Bahati Simoens, 2020)
About the Author
Ayla is a London-based freelance writer, editor and consultant specialising in art, photography, design and culture. After joining It’s Nice That in 2017 as editorial assistant, she was interim online editor in 2022/2023 and continues to work with us on a freelance basis. She has written for i-D, Dazed, AnOther, WePresent, Port, Elephant and more, and she is also the managing editor of design magazine Anima.