SheCAN Interview with Enam Gbewonyo

Meet Enam Gbewonyo founder of the BBFA, a collective for Black British, Female Artists, the multimedia textile artist, decided if she wanted change then she was going to have to ignite it and the Black British Female Artist (BBFA) Collective was born.

Her artwork merges textile and surface pattern techniques with traditional painting practices, resulting in textural works translating ideals of humanity through nature’s tactility.  As a curator, she is committed to delivering unique, immersive exhibition experiences dedicated to highlighting the work of diaspora artists. In both exhibiting and curating Gbewonyo has worked with organisations such as TEDxEuston, and The Artist Project Fair, Toronto. She is also a participant of the International Curators Forum’s (ICF) ‘Beyond the Frame’- a programme developing art professionals in the BAME community.

AA: What was your motivation for founding the Black British Female Artist (B.B.F.A) collective?

The Collective came about out of my frustrations navigating an art world that is still extremely elitist, racist, sexist and ageist. For myself and many of my peers these barriers were keeping the doors to the art world firmly shut to us. So, the Collective was created in response to this and as a way of solution. In coming together, we are a stronger force to create more visibility for us (black women artists in the wider sense) and more platforms. Collectively our reach is wider and it means our voice is louder, we are committed to raising awareness of the challenges we face and working as best possible to change the landscape for good. That said in the years since we formed we have seen that the tiding is turning, its  slow and intermittent and I’m often unsure of how authentic it is. But something is better than nothing

AA: Tell us what the BBFA does and recent/current exhibitions?

Currently the Collective’s focus is in supporting it’s four members and strengthening its business strategy and revenue stream. The latter is a priority focus over the next few years as it will enable us to grow and deliver wider reaching projects. In terms of recent projects, we did a group show with Tafeta Gallery at the tail end of last year and will be working with in the future. We also did a two site collab with Adidas last summer. They took some of our members to their HQ in Portland, Oregon and their Herzogenaurach, Germany site to participate in their Creative staff development program. Upcoming, I will be representing the Collective at the Wish Africa Expo in June and will be speaking on their ‘Investing in African Art’ panel. The Collective will also be exhibiting at the event.

Enam Gbewonyo, Barely there, 2017, aquatint etching on paper
Enam Gbewonyo, Barely there, 2017, aquatint etching on paper.

AA: You are a multimedia Textile Artist, tell us about what this entails, the kind of materials you work with and the works that you produce?

Quite simply I use textile techniques and processes to create artworks. I find that this gives me so much more freedom in the materiality of my practice. Working with textiles also gives the audience a more visceral experience to viewing my work that engages the senses on both a visual and tactile level.

I can pretty much work with any material and have done, anything from sugar and sand to plastic and even tights!!! Will reveal more about that later. Being that I work across the mediums of weave, knit, print, embroidery and painting the works I produce are very varied. That said I do think I have a certain aesthetic to my works that makes them readily distinguishable as mine. For example, more often than not it will feature tissue paper in some way (I love painting on and working on tissue paper due to its textural quality) and/or the burn out technique (where I create small perforations in the paper/material by burning with incense sticks – and the scents have a calming quality that adds to the art making experience).

AA: Tell us a bit about your journey as an artist: where and what did you study, what was your first exhibition?

I always say, I have always been an artist. Ever since I figured out how to grasp a pencil I have made visual work in some capacity! Obviously the quality and conceptuality has developed somewhat since my first scribbles as a toddler ;). In terms of study, I did a BA in Textile Design at Bradford College of Art and Design and actually started off with a career in fashion design. It is this experience that helped me realise my true passion was in creating visual art. Technically my first ever exhibition would have been my GCSE art exhibition at school, I still remember the body of work I created which was all around gods and myth. If we’re talking art career however my first exhibition was a one night group show back in 2010 at the then Firehouse & Chloe Private members club in Kensington.

AA: Tell us about how/why you promote the use of hand crafting practices, are these practices dying?

Interestingly craft is actually enjoying somewhat of a resurgence as a hobby of late.  People are becoming more conscious of the affects too much tech/internet/social media is having on their mental health and so are reverting to handcrafts as a way of stress relief/ achieving mindfulness. For me it’s amazing to see as the spiritual elements of making by hand are the key reasons why I champion this art.

However at the industrial level everything is machine made and handmade is indeed a dying art. We can blame the rise of consumerism for that! Of course, human hands cannot produce at the speed of machines but in my eyes we are substituting true quality for quantity. Those that made by hand were artisans with years of expertise. Each piece was made with painstaking attention to detail. This is something no machine can ever replicate. Why do you think the best couture houses make everything by hand and pride themselves on that with a price tag to match!?

Enam Gbewonyo, Teetering on the edge of visibility, the invisible disguised as visible, 2018, vintage scanned photographs, nude tights and acrylic paint on canvas
Enam Gbewonyo, Teetering on the edge of visibility, the invisible disguised as visible, 2018, vintage scanned photographs, nude tights and acrylic paint on canvas

I believe it is important for us to reconnect with the art of making by hand, it is an art of alchemy. The sense of gratification and satisfaction one receives from making something of beauty by your own hand and then for that object to bring another joy. The feeling really is incomparable.

AA: In November 2016 you were one of ten emerging curators to be selected for the International Curator’s Forum (ICF) ‘Beyond the Frame’ development programme, how did that feel? 

It was an exciting moment to be selected as I knew that the insight and experience I would gain over the course of the 21-month programme would be invaluable and it absolutely was. I learnt so much from the programme leaders, my peers in the cohort and of course the stellar events and art professionals I was exposed to. The benefits are long lasting, so many opportunities have come from the exposure and networks made through the program. I am hugely grateful!

AA: Alt A Review is dedicating the upcoming issue to celebrating women in the creative industries: in recent years we have seen good number of diaspora female artists exhibiting works in major galleries, and enjoying “mainstream” recognition: are you optimistic, what more would you like to see happen?

For the most part, I am optimistic but I think there is still a very long way to go and the cynic in me can’t help but think these institutions are still operating on a check box system and these so called ‘diversity’ programs and schemes will run their course. That said my optimism comes in the fact that we ourselves are becoming more vocal and taking ownership of both our narrative and industry. I am surrounded by so many amazing black women artists and art professionals who are committed to furthering our cause and ensuring we are visible, working and earning for the long term. That is really exciting and empowering to see.

AA: Who/What inspires your work?

I am largely inspired by the natural world. I am fascinated with its purity, beauty and complexity. I feel it  gives us vital clues to living more simplified lives, in sync with the natural world and its energies.

More recently my work has become a space to explore issues that are of interest to me which mainly revolve around matters of gender, identity and the human condition. It’s become a space of healing which has also become a real interest point for me – art as therapy. It’s pushing me into the realm of public engagement more, particularly within the black community. There’s centuries of pain underlying our existence and I believe art can be a crucial tool to help us navigate those feelings, open up and communicate and move towards a point of healing. Which in a weird way brings me full circle to my initial point about living more simplified lives.

AA: You also work as a curator why did you decide to go in that direction?

The curation really came out of necessity rather than desire. As previously mentioned finding platforms to exhibit proved challenging when I first started out and so I decided to curate my own small group exhibitions. I also supported established curators on bigger projects which was a valuable in helping me learn the ropes. Having those skills proved even more crucial once I set up the Collective.

AA: What are you working on at the moment?

My current body of work is titled Nude Me/ Under the Skin and investigates how historically nude hosiery has been a mode of marginalization for black women. It also looks at how we are reclaiming this space. My research touches on a number of subject points including Windrush and black NHS nurses, slavery, mental health, dance and sustainability. What I’ve unearthed so far has been really thought-provoking and is very much informing the work. I’m also loving my experimentation process in terms of the art making, I am using the tights themselves as the medium. I’m exploiting their malleability in interesting ways but also manipulating the surface by burning into them, adding embroidery and in time will also be printing on them. I am really excited about this body of work, especially as it has opened the door to performance as a further medium of interpretation. I am finding this a stimulating challenge to navigate and definitely a huge space for growth as an artist.

Found out more about the BBFA: http://bbfacollective.org/  Read our interview with member of BBFA Ayesha Feisal in the spring print edition of Alt A Review here subscribe of buy a single copy.

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