Artist Joy Yamusangie’s autobiographical practice knows no bounds
With an approach that includes illustration, typography, poetry, ceramics, collage and painting, you never know what medium Joy’s next piece will take.
“You know that saying, ‘Jack of all trades master of none’, I feel like I want that to be the title for this,” says artist Joy Yamusangie with a smile, as we discuss the long-winding processes their work involves, and the many artistic forms it manifests in too.
Over the past few years, Joy’s work has meandered through visual techniques and disciplines, culminating in an artistic practice which includes poetry, illustration and typography – to much admiration from both illustration and artistic-leaning communities. These forms can then be found gracing a canvas or a print, a T-shirt or a ceramic pot and soon, within film too. Vast in their ability to find mediums of expression, Joy’s work jumps between disciplines because, at the root of it all, are Joy’s personal thoughts and feelings, planting the seed for whatever the work may grow into.
The idea of working in a creative role first became a possibility for Joy while at college in north London, where “just having a really good creative art department made me think ‘I can actually do this’,” they tell It’s Nice That. At first, Joy thought animation was the next creative step but, “there were so few people – there were two people, I was one of them – that they actually cut the course,” they explain. This led Joy to take a place on an illustration bachelor’s at Portsmouth, an accidental decision, but, “if that didn’t happen I wouldn’t be illustrating today, and I love illustration!”
Despite illustration laying the foundation for much of Joy’s work, it was actually going against the traditional teachings of the medium that allowed them to develop a personal narrative: “I guess that when you study illustration, you’re taught to illustrate other people’s stories, other people’s dreams and visions,” they explain. “I think that when I was studying in Portsmouth, there was so much going on that I used my work as a diary to talk about all of the struggles I was going through. There was a lot of racism, just blatantly on the street, and I would use my illustration to document those stories. That how I started off talking about my life, and then I realised I don’t really have much else to talk about,” they say, between laughing. “And it’s close to me. I think that’s what makes my work me.”
“It’s close to me. I think that’s what makes my work me.”Joy Yamusangie
As a result of placing themselves at the forefront of their work, the artist’s influences and inspirations stem for personal experiences too. So much so, that when it comes to asking the artist how they would describe their own work, Joy explains it’s an amalgamation of three simple elements: “bright colours, faces, and black lines.”
The colour aspect, in particular, developed from childhood where the artist was already surrounded by a bright palette. “My family loves bright colours,” they elaborate. “I remember even having a bright yellow jumper and tracksuit, and bright yellow dungarees, bright blue shoes, stuff like that.” It’s an aspect which also formed during Joy’s trips to the Congo, where their family is from, and noticing “how colourful the houses are, painted pink and blue and yellow.”
The second factor, faces, began when Joy started utilising the medium as an aforementioned diary. Soon realising that “one of the things I enjoyed the most” was to sit with a mirror and draw self-portraits, “trying to, not come to terms with, but study myself, my own face, and appreciate myself in act of self-love,” they explain. Bold, thickly painted black lines or letterings are then used to bind these elements together, whether it’s through a continuous line in a portrait of themselves, someone else, or in text.
Poetry has largely influenced Joy’s work, a medium they first encountered when looking for texts by black authors during their dissertation. Joy was struck by the short, emphatic narratives: “I came across a lot of poets, all the famous ones like Audre Lorde – there was one particular poem that stood out to me, Black Unicorn – but I was also looking at contemporary ones, like Yrsa Daley-Ward,” they explain, reflecting on this initial inspiration. “Coming across texts like that, and feeling really represented, is what got me into poetry. I wouldn’t describe myself as a poet at all,” they admit now, “but it definitely got me into being unafraid to write.”
Visually, with this research as a backbone, Joy structures these elements with an influence from DIY posters and screen prints, pieces with “big, chunky text and just a small drawing in the middle,” they describe. “That sort of stuff I really, really like.” An example of how these influences merge into a body of work is Joy’s show from last year, Blue Glass Fortunes. In short, the show displayed the artist’s interpretations “of dreams that I’d had in the past year, and how dreams are a kind of visions, or predictions, of what the future would be.”
First taking voice notes when waking from a dream, snippets were pieced together through text in the artist’s signature capitalised script, alongside drawings as a focus and always implemented in a primary colour palette, whether they were using paint, pencil or paper. The result was personal in its beginnings but then, as audiences filtered in and out of the gallery, they made their own assumptions: “All of it was amazing,” the artist says. “Some interpretations were true and others were far from the truth, but I like that everyone had a story to tell behind a piece. That’s kind of nice, to be able to connect in that way.”
“It’s also about making it real, and challenging ourselves to do something new.”Joy Yamusangie
Moving back to London after their time in Portsmouth, Joy had a newfound appreciation for their childhood home. “I think it was a good experience to leave,” they tell us, “however, I would never live in Portsmouth.” Returning to the city in 2015, Joy arrived with the aim to become more active in the art scene, to find a new community after leaving their artist friends on the coast, and connect with “in particular, more black artists.” Taking to Instagram, “I met so many,” says Joy, who discovered artists, collectives and events, meeting those who “are now my friends, and I really feel like I’m part of something,” they explain. “There were loads, I just had to find them.”
Aside from the fact that their works are, in themselves, brilliant, eye-opening reflections on life, social media has been instrumental in getting Joy’s work recognised in wider circles. This, too, is due to their open approach to the platform, describing it as feeling “like I’m posting to myself as an archive.” It’s a refreshingly natural approach to social media, but it’s also logical with Joy explaining how they’ll often return to their feed to remember – and then continue – a previous idea or piece. It also allows admirers to connect with Joy’s work and its ongoing process – sections of the artist’s feed display short videos of them at work – seeing the artist grow into one of the creatives they started to follow just a few years ago.
Social media has also instigated several tangential opportunities for Joy to work on new projects away from their primary practice. For instance, collaboration – both in the sense of making a piece of work with another, or simply gaining and giving helpful advice – is now a large part of Joy’s practice. Always natural and never forced, “I just find it fun to do,” they point out. “I don’t just want to make something for the sake of collaborating with someone though. It’s more like, if we’ve talked about different ideas and find a common ground within it,” they continue. “It’s also about making it real, and challenging ourselves to do something new. It could be me learning something about their practice, or them learning a part of mine… Otherwise, I just work in my studio, by myself, the whole time. It’s a little lonely, to be honest!”
Most recently, Joy, together with photographer Ronan McKenzie, has been delving into the medium of film. An entirely different ballpark, it’s one they seem unfazed about getting stuck into. Over the course of our conversation, Joy has been enthusiastic about the pieces they’ve already created, but it’s when they discuss working with new mediums that an almost giddy excitement takes over. “I feel like I’m learning something new, literally every day,” they tell us on their collaboration with Ronan, to be finished and released in the next couple of months. “I think I just like that experimentation, the feeling from university or college when something like that is encouraged. When you find your style and stick to it it can stop becoming fun. I like to be able to try out all these different things, and then combine it, altogether.”
Looking Back, Looking Blue, Beers London
This then leads Joy to mention a flurry of other media they’ve been trying out too. Ceramics, following a collaboration with Freya Bramble Carter a few years ago, has wormed its way back into their practice. Currently working on a commission and learning techniques from Freya and her dad in their studio, it’s the act of learning a new process – albeit a hard one – which again ignites Joy in conversation. For instance, detailing the problematic material of plaster, Joy is just as pleased about their mistakes as their triumphs: “Plaster can make your work explode,” they chuckle, “but is also great, for like, everything.” Jumping again to another medium, Joy then unexpectedly adds sewing to the list of their creative talents: “I have got really into sewing – I’m bringing up all these different things! I’m not amazing at it, but my mum sews and so does my sister, so I want to improve my sewing skills,” explaining how sewing their own canvases has been the first step in introducing yet another craft to their practice.
Now a full time practising artist, Joy works out of their own studio in London, usually from a Tuesday to Saturday: “Sometimes I just don’t like working a Monday!” they laugh. Days are spent with mornings dedicated to admin – “there’s a lot of admin” – and afternoons are used to concentrate on research or making. In general, this works towards Joy’s process of seeing “myself working in series,” they explain. “I try to think of a project, or a theme, that I would like to do and flesh out the thing within that.” And as we have come to expect from the artist, what creative form these ideas may take knows no bounds.
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About the Author
Lucy (she/her) joined It’s Nice That as a staff writer in July 2016 after graduating from Chelsea College of Art. In January 2019 she was made deputy editor and in November 2021, became a senior editor predominantly working on It’s Nice That's partnerships. Feel free to get in contact with Lucy about creative projects for the site or potential partnerships.
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