Jahnavi Inniss is a designer invigorating and telling the astonishing unheard stories of Black British history
The London-based grad values projects that encourage criticality around cultural production and the value in what she’s producing.
- Ruby Boddington
- 25 September 2020
- Reading Time
- 4 minute read
“My practice is primarily focused on surfacing lesser-known narratives, dismantling 'single stories' and providing visibility and empowerment for underrepresented communities,” says London-based creative Jahnavi Inniss. Born and raised in the southeast of the city, she’s a recent Central Saint Martins graduate who’s already winning awards for her investigate and compelling practice.
Jahnavi’s projects lean into design practices, largely analogue ones like printmaking, letterpress, sculpting, collage and textiles and the aesthetics these techniques produce is one she describes as her signature. “I really enjoy working with my hands and so I’m always experimenting with a variety of mediums,” she tells us. Though experimental, there is comprehensive intention behind Jahnavi’s outcomes and her process involves “evaluating a wide range of mediums as I consider the best method of communication,” she continues.
This means Jahnavi’s portfolio is wide-ranging but the projects which she enjoys working on the most, she explains, are the ones that encourage criticality around cultural production and the value in what she’s producing. “Who is it for? What purpose does it serve? How will other people be affected by this work?” she asks. “I’m conscious of the influence designers can have on the construction of social attitudes towards underrepresented communities, and so I’m eager to put this to good use.”
Our introduction to Jahnavi’s practice was through Black British History Quilt, a project which earned her the Nova Unilever #Unstereotype Award, the CSM Deans Collection Award, and a place on the i-D X ARTSTHREAD Global Graduate Competition Shortlist. Visually, it’s a long, thin tapestry of names, each embroidered in block capital letters on a section of a quilt.
GalleryJahnavi Inniss: Black British History Quilt (Copyright © Jahnavi Inniss, 2020)
Conceptually, it looks at the current presentation and lack thereof of Black British history, expressing Jahnavi’s observations around the ways in which it is “treated as insignificant and of minimal importance.” She tells us that: “I noticed frequent silent gaps in the timeline of Black British history and I wanted to give visibility to the existence and contributions of Black people in Britain between the 17th and 19th Centuries.” Furthermore, she wanted to “dismantle the ‘single story’ which suggests that Black people had only arrived in Britain after the Second World War, in the late 1940s during the Windrush period.”
It’s a project which needs to embody the weight of its topic in its outcome and it’s for this reason that Jahnavi chose to use quilting, a cultural technique which has a rich history of articulating historical presence. “The medium and process of quilting links cultural practices in west Africa and the labour Black women endured during slavery in the US,” she adds. “I took inspiration from quilting artists such as Faith Ringgold, who uses quilting to construct imagery that counters negative perceptions of Black people.” Building upon this nuanced and distinctive expression, Jahnavi also used “Stuart Hall’s Representation Theory and Roland Barthe’s Semiotic Theory to embed meaning and present this history in a way that declares it as of great value and importance, making it hard to ignore.” She adds that “I knew it was crucial that the design decisions behind each element of my quilt worked together, for it to be presented in a way that would reflect its significance and its meaning.”
One such design decision was the choice to go with the typeface Martin from type foundry Vocal Type. It’s a lettering directly inspired by the “I Am A Man” placards which are a declaration of civil rights, and while this concept reflects Jahnavi’s intentions with Black British History Quilt, it resonates even further as the slogan dates back to the 18th Century slavery abolishment movement, in which a few people featured on the quilt were directly involved in, Jahnavi tells us.
The fabric featured on the quilt varies and there’s an astute reason why: “Whilst the time period is central to the message, I used fabric with patterns and a similar aesthetic to the period that each person lived in, for example, Pablo Fanque was a circus owner and performer in the Victorian period so I used fabric with a Victorian damask pattern.”
Clearly a creative to keep an eye on for whatever project she works on next, Jahnavi explains that she’s currently volunteering at the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton where she is “forever astonished by the stories I come across, and I’m always so eager to share them with other people. There are just so many stories within Black British history as well as global Black history that haven’t been told and I plan to continue creating ways to reinvigorate Black British history and tell these stories in order for Black Brits to become more knowledgeable of their rich heritage and its legacies.”
GalleryJahnavi Inniss (Copyright © Jahnavi Inniss, 2020)
About the Author
Ruby joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in September 2017 after graduating from the Graphic Communication Design course at Central Saint Martins. In April 2018, she became a staff writer and in August 2019, she was made associate editor. Get in contact with Ruby about ideas you may have for long-form stories on the site.