Art Is Not A Luxury

My real relationship and connection with art starts in a room alone while working for the NHS. Months of enormous pressure resulted in my sitting alone in that room while it felt as if my mind actually shattered into millions of glass pieces. I don’t remember everything about that day I broke but I do remember the real physical pain. After this followed a diagnosis of severe depression caused by work and then months and months of battling my dark shadow’ (Winston Churchill referred to his depression as his black dog).

I suppose though I should go back to the beginning –to my upbringing and childhood in Africa. Art runs through my life and somehow always returns to art. My childhood in Africa instilled in me a lifelong sense of adventure.  Born in North East England at 5 weeks I was the youngest passenger to fly on East African Airways back home to Uganda. Before I was 5 I had already travelled extensively through East Africa. In 1977, the family moved to Botswana, living in the Capital Gaborone, then a dusty little town on the edge of the Kalahari Desert. At that time, Botswana was surrounded by racist regimes and was an oasis of stability in a very volatile area. The capital was the base for many embassies and was home to large multicultural community. My  school, Maru-A –Pula, was founded on principles of education for all and known for its anti-apartheid stance, with many of the staff refugees from South Africa. I still have powerful memories of assemblies honouring those killed in the Sharpeville and Soweto massacres and recall frequently being marched onto the school playing fields as the school was prone to bomb threats.

 

Many weekends were spent at the museum helping my mum, a textile artist and then Curator of the National Museum Botswana, hang exhibitions. Being surrounded by this precious art work has proved to be huge influence on my current work. The ability and power of art to portray such strong political and social messages in a way that connects with people  is a very powerful driver and incentive behind my work.

Arriving in England to study A levels at Keswick boarding school I developed a deep love of the mountains and discovered the Lakeland poets.  Since I left boarding school I often return to the area to go climbing. Much of my work is influenced by a love of the mountains as well as a love of the North. It was, however, during my recovery from severe depression the mountains, the struggle to survive in them and rawness took on a greater level of importance to me .It was during one of these trips to Keswick I suddenly started painting and drawing which despite my childhood being surrounded by great art I had never done before. As this developed to a deeper level I began to realise art could not just be about capturing the feel and mood of the mountains, but also be the vehicle of remembering her childhood in Africa – the colours, textures evoking strong emotions.

Initially art was just a means to get the pain and darkness out of me – a means of art therapy I suppose without realising it at the time. Unable to leave the house I just sat on my sofa and drew and drew with charcoal for hours at a time.

But, then something happened and I started to create work that gave hints of a deeper talent. It was through encouragement from my mother and my mentor (Tim French – Goldsmith graduate, artist and Head of Art) that I just went for it. I studied and studied different artists and art history. Strangely art was the only subject matter my mind could absorb and manage to read – anything else for a time was just jumbled words. My earliest key influences were William Kendridge and Mark Bradford – not just for their works but the social and political messages underlying each piece spoke to me. The powerful integrity and meaning of their work connected with me as I searched for something concrete to hold onto.

I then just wanted to explore everything and experiment with all media. I loved having no rules to constrain me and looking back maybe this was more important at the time than I realised – a freedom my mind needed away from the shackles of the depression and darkness. It felt as if I actually stepped inside the work and was somehow inside the canvas. This is how every piece of my work has a very personal story and feel. A curator working with me described her work “as each having a piece of your soul left in them” and to me this is the most accurate description of the process I go through. My work outlines a number of recurring themes but underneath it all is a strong belief work must have integrity and meaning to truly communicate with the audience; otherwise it is just an object. My work details a willingness to confront political and social messages and the power of art in highlighting issues, mental health awareness and the healing power of nature, along with a longstanding love of Africa.

I have been privileged to have been surrounded by exciting, thought provoking art all my life and been to exposed to cultures from across the world.  It may be this that gives me the confidence to ‘attack’ surfaces without fear. My work is multi-faceted working with a variety of media on canvas, paper, wood and glass. Working with oil paints, acrylic, house paint, enamel, I adopt unconventional techniques that include using sheets of Perspex, knives, brushes, construction caulk, sanding machines.  I describe my approach as “having no rules and disrespecting the canvas”. I create thick impasto and add any item to hand including plastic, sand, string, leaves, textiles all superimposed on canvases with slashes and scars to create dense deep powerful imagery with a moving vulnerability.

Without really promoting anything I started to sell work which instilled a further belief in the new path I was following. Then a critical date in my next development –January 8th 2016- when my mum and I had a meeting with Hartlepool Art Gallery and they immediately offered us a joint exhibition. That recognition of my work by independent professionals was a pivotal moment for me – important as you do have to get used to a lot of Galleries who don’t respond your proposals. We have worked with Hartlepool Art gallery since then developing the exhibition which tells our story across Africa and the North. It opened to great success on 27 August 2016.

To me the key to this success has also been a  vision to use art as a means to give the local community aspiration. It cannot be easy as all galleries are competing for a smaller and smaller share of resources. Galleries are having to make awful choices to start charging, as happened this year at York, which I imagine is something deeply distressing to the staff or worse still to close as in Kirklees. I do believe though that going forward the key to survival will be showing art that connects with people searching for something meaningful in this increasingly fast paced world. This has to be real with depth, not just words. From experience I would say to Gallery owners to have faith – if you respond to the work have faith in the person even if they don’t have a ‘name’ yet. The  public don’t care about a name – just whether the work talks to them. Someone had faith in my work, not my name, and a year later we have an major exhibition receiving a amazing feedback.

Art must be accessible and available to all – not just words on a website. It is not an exclusive domain for a few – art is life and is everyone basic right. The cuts to the arts are deeply concerning to me. It is incredibly damaging to communities and future generations if we build more barriers within society. Art has ability like no other to address issues, raise awareness, and challenge thinking and above all to make people feel happy.

I am living proof of the power of art to transform lives and thinking. Art literally saved my life. It is not a luxury.

 

A JOURNEY THROUGH AFRICA – WITH TEXTILES

African textiles provide the inspirational material for a joint exhibition of work by myself, a painter, and my mother, textile artist Barbara Reed. The exhibition title is named after the line of a poem by the great South African artist, Gerard Sekoto.

Our work currently on display at Hartlepool Art Gallery, until November 12th 2016, invokes a wealth of images, from the literal to the fanciful and abstract. It weaves all the varied strands of our lives into a vibrant joyous display.

The textiles on show are executed in a combination of patchwork and applique with machine and hand stitching. They are also knotted, twisted and threaded with beads.

My mother trained in fine art and textile design at college in Hartlepool in the 1960’s. She was drawn to the colours and sounds of Africa when first hearing South African singer Miriam Makeba on an LP borrowed from a college friend.

Moving to Africa to live and work, first to Uganda and then Botswana, the various houses we lived in have all been decorated and hung with my mother’s African prints. These cotton textiles were originally produced in Europe for sale in West and Central Africa, but are now produced in factories in most African countries.

Kanga cloths, popular on the East African coast and worn as clothing were rectangular in shape and very useful as tablecloths. Printed in Eldoret, Kenya, they had very strong graphic patterns with a text along the border. This was usually a Swahili proverb, political slogan or health warning. Brought back to the North East they were considered very exotic by my Grandmother in Hartlepool in the 1970’s.

My mother’s favourite print from the 1970’s was bought in Botswana. Printed on cotton in Zimbabwe it was a cheaper imitation of the imported African wax prints and it celebrates a football match between two teams, KK Elevens versus Leopards. A treasured fabric, today it hangs in the exhibition, recycled and sewn into ‘Juju’ – a piece based on masquerade costumes from Nigeria.

My mother became Curator of Art at the National Museum Botswana.  During the 1980’s and 1990’s the museum acted as a platform for South African artists protesting against apartheid. The museum had extensive collections – including San artefacts, traditional sculptures, masks, textiles, baskets. She became knowledgeable about many pieces and exposure to these influences and textiles has had a profound effect on her art and practice.

She began making large scale wall hangings and blankets. Covered with animal motifs, they had a vibrant quality. This can be seen to some effect in her work King’s Cloth – a large cotton applique hanging depicting scenes on the carved door of the palace of a Yoruba King.

A large circular sculptural work in the exhibition is entitled ‘In Praise of Ancient Mothers’. This central piece acts as a pivot to the whole exhibition radiating out and complimenting all the other works. Inspired by a Yoruba ancestral Egungun costume commemorating deceased mothers, a group of fabric dolls stand proud on the top of the structure. Two of the dolls represent my grandmother, Ethel May Raine, and Martha Sutton. The smallest dolls represent the many siblings they cared for, having been forced to leave school at 14years of age to do so. The whole piece brings together Africa and the North and is dedicated to these two strong women from Hartlepool.

A gleaming counterfoil to the textiles are a series of my own oil paintings composed of dense layers of intense but carefully controlled colour. Several feature images of human and animal forms carved into the layers.

In addition, to the oil paint I also build up a thick foundation layer  using construction caulk, leaves, sand and objects found on the beach (a trait inherited from Africa where nothing is wasted). This creates a texture and energy that compliments the textiles. Each piece of work holds a very personal story; some are based on music I grew up with featuring South African musicians while other work is inspired by memories of adventures in the desert.

Weekends spent at the museum helping my mother hang exhibitions and being surrounded by precious art work has proved to be huge influence on my current work.  Although several of my mother’s textiles consist of her earlier works, a visitor to the exhibition commented it is as if all the works had been produced together, the artists working side by side and that subconsciously “you had the shapes and textures of the textiles in your mind –the dialogue between the textiles and the oil paintings is very powerful”.

Take Your Road and Travel Along – An Exhibition of Works by Barbara and Catherine Reed

Dates: 27 August – 12 November 2016

Venue: Hartlepool Art Gallery, Church Square, Hartlepool

Gallery open: Tuesday – Saturday 10am – 5pm

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