The Modern World Through Art: Talking to a New Generation of Artists
Art has always been a way to express oneself while providing beautiful decoration. From Picasso’s potent 1937 painting Guernica that depicted the Nazi bombing of the town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War to Norman Rockwell’s The Problem We All Live With, which portrays a little African American girl being escorted to school by four US marshals due to racist threats. Art imitates the world we live in.
In the digital age, the world and its woes are amplified with people constantly battling contradicting views and trying to decipher truth from too much information. Four artists speak on how their artwork help them to navigate, understand and heal from modern society.
Chris is a London based artist and curator who works across the mediums of documentary film, music videos, online interventions, clothing and live events. He founded the English Disco Lovers (EDL) in 2012 a satirical protest group that used the acronym 'EDL' from the English Defence League. His project was comprised of online occupations, street-level protests, club nights, talks and exhibitions.
Illustrator and printmaker Jess Wilson work carries a social element. Her illustrations depict societal issues and are layered with statements such as ‘Dieting Makes Me Hungry’ and ‘Humans Are Still Needed.’
East London based illustrator Olivia Twist’s work carries themes of place, the mundane and overlooked narratives. Her vibrant illustrations depict the relatable world around her and she’s determined to help make the arts more accessible and representative of their local communities.
Using digital media as a platform, Seema puts herself at the centre of her work as well as addressing issues of the ‘ethnic self’ and ‘various degrees of minoritisation.’ She uses the internet to express herself candidly through her writings on her website where she also sells her artworks.
Does art help you to get through life or make it easier?
CHRIS: Perhaps, I think it's important to have a sense of purpose or agency. However, I find that being an artist and making art is often about acknowledging and addressing that which is inherently difficult and complex, rather than making things easier.
JESS: In the sense that I like making stuff and when I have finished a piece, I feel a sense of accomplishment. So it makes life easier as it makes me happier.
OLIVIA: Art is my therapy. I’m not too much of a talker so I tackle my issues visually. For me it’s easier that way and I like the sort of secrecy that goes with it. It’s coded and only I know what each mark truly means.
SEEMA: It never used to. When I wasn’t out (about my sexuality) it was the biggest burden in the world to me. I used to call it my “secret practice”, recent circumstances have led to the opposite of that now! Therefore, I’ve begun to not only accept my practice but own it.
Do you use art to help you navigate your life / the world?
CHRIS: Yes. My projects are often about formulating alternatives, imagining otherwise and disrupting received norms. This happens in dialogue with the world that we live in and art becomes a conduit for these ideas; a means for transmission, conversation and reflection.
JESS: I make a lot of maps and the research involved in making these maps makes me research the landscape and world and discover new things. For example, I’m currently doing a map on Great Britain. There a so many really interesting things to do in this country which I had sort of forgotten about.
OLIVIA: 100% art is how I vent. My illustrations are me asking myself questions and how I make decisions. My work is basically me highlighting what I think is important and needs to be looked at more closely.
SEEMA: Without question, it’s impossible not to. Sifting through the mess doesn’t necessarily make things clearer, but it gives me a new thing to work towards each time.
What topics inspire you and which ones do you highlight in your artwork?
CHRIS: My practice is research led and often interrogates the symbolic manifestations of power, for instance; coats of arms, Latin mottos, mythological weaponry and national flags, amongst others. I work to destabilise or subvert their logic, undermining their shaky foundations. Over the past few years I've undertaken a number of large-scale projects that addressed various topics. 'English Disco Lovers (EDL)' (2012-15) opposed fascism through disco music; 'Under the Shade I Flourish' (2015-16) was a speculative project, which interrogated the overlapping phenomena of rhythm 'n' blues, tax avoidance and Britain's colonial history; and for 'a shared interest in the bounce' I developed an open source game that addressed the proliferation of aggressive architecture.
JESS: I like fun and I hope some people smile through looking at my work.
OLIVIA: I am really inspired by the mundane. The everyday is important to me, not everything must be extravagant to be deemed praise worthy. Place is another common theme in my work, whether it be my east London or imagined places or the idea of back home. Nostalgia fuels my work. I just want to make art that looks like my mum and her siblings when they were my age!
SEEMA: The topics my work centre around are formed from responses to my own innate identifies. Tropes and labels that have taken over my brown body. I’m inspired by my own mind really, which is fed by what my eyes see and what my ears hear. I say it weirdly like that because sometimes you internalise shit without even realising it, it festers and filters in your mind until suddenly: epiphany.
Are you inspired by any particular cultures or social issues?
CHRIS: I'm a Quaker and grew up in a Quaker family, so that's been a pretty big influence throughout my work. Quakerism exposed me to a lot of activist work early on in my life and instilled in me a desire to effect change in the world. It remains an important part of my life and a divining rod for my practice. Quakerism aside, I've skated for the past 11-12 years, so there are elements of that subculture present in my work too. I think my interest in aggressive architecture stems for skating, as well as a broader interest in finding alternative uses for things, be they; acronyms, golf courses or benches.
JESS: I am obsessed with documentaries about Sub cultures and revolts but I wouldn't say that I particularly put it into my work. I think that little element gets through, mainly when I’m using humour to poke fun at how obscured it all is.
OLIVIA: I have both St Lucian and Ghanaian heritage so all my work is spiced with that and I’m really just out here loving my black Britishness. Aunties on the bus inspire me, my younger brothers inspire me. We have so much going on its all just quality and amazing in my eyes.
SEEMA: I’m an Indian, low-caste (In the Indian caste system) and a lesbian - so 100%.
Does the political sphere influence your artwork at all?
CHRIS: Yes. I think it would be irresponsible not to address contemporary social and political issues with my practice; everything that we do intersects with the political sphere to a greater or lesser extent. If I were to claim neutrality, I would be complicit in ongoing structural oppression.
JESS: Yeah of course. But it feels quite subtle. I'm creating a Sims style illustration at the moment and have a character holding a sign saying "buy more shit" so I guess this says something about me. But it’s not aggressive.
OLIVIA: I want to encourage the taking up of space amongst people like me.
SEEMA: I think especially these days it’s quite impossible for it not to when you’re surrounded by corruption.
Do you believe that consuming art helps people emotionally and psychologically?
CHRIS: I think art can perform an array of roles for different people. For some, it may be a source of emotional or psychological support, for others it may be a chance for contemplative or critical engagement; not that these things are mutually exclusive. It's a spectrum. For me, art is a space to imagine alternative ways of being in the world; ways that defy hegemonic logic.
JESS: Well if it makes people happy to hang it on their wall then that’s a great thing. But if there hanging art on their walls to impress the "Joneses" next door then that probably won't make them happy. It’s all about why someone consumes it.
OLIVIA: Yes, definitely, community wellbeing can be heightened through art. It demonstrates worth and gets people talking. Art breaks down barriers and art has the power to heal. it’s the most cathartic thing.
SEEMA: I really think it does - it’s something I’ve definitely realised in the last few weeks. I’ve never had so much support and communication from people that just want to say thanks for putting my stuff out there because it helps them deal with their own shit.
Do you think that you'll change the way that you create your artworks through technological developments?
CHRIS: My work always begins with an idea, which then informs the medium I work in. So, it's possible that I could work in any medium; new or old. I'm not explicitly looking to work with emergent technologies, but have an ongoing interest in how they shape or influence our lives.
JESS: Yeah of course. I now draw on a Wacom tablet. It saves time and is cleaner. But my end process is screen-printing which tends to get rid of how computerised the art looks and give it a more tactile feel. But screen-printing is hand drawn and long, but it looks ace.
OLIVIA: I used to be into digital art but now I have reverted back to that proper analogue hand rendered stuff. I am a bit stubborn so I think I’m really going to hold out. The old techniques just make art feel so much more intimate.
SEEMA: Yes, and no. I would say that I’ll change the way that I create my artworks more through the evolving of personal experiences rather than technological developments. Whatever advancements occur, for me they mainly act as filters to deliver a personal, personable commentary.
Tali Ramsey a London based writer who focuses on contemporary art, culture and music, particularly reporting on the underrepresented and overlooked artists of these industries. Email: email@example.com. Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/taliramsey/
Cover art copyright Olivia Twist