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Gallery Talks: In Conversation with Efia Serwah

For our ongoing virtual group exhibition 'Interconnected' in collaboration with Arneli Art Gallery, Lebanon, we introduce each artist on the line up, spotlighting their practice and the story behind.

Efia Serwah is an artist whose work responds to stereotypical representations of the female body throughout history. Seeking to present women’s bodies beyond tropes of the beautiful muse and tempting nymphs, she engages in challenging postures of the

ordinary, explicit and sometimes vulnerable.

Moving away from narratives of staunch morality or explicit temptation. Efia Serwah creates intimate snapshots of women she has known and loved as she grapples with finding her own definition of femininity away from societal standards and expectations. Efia graduated from the University of Birmingham in 2020 where she studied International Law and Globalisation with a focus on Women’s Reproductive Rights and Migrant Issues. Also an artist under Ghana based art collective, Artemartis. Efia has worked on campaigns such as the Emmy nominated 2019 BBC Africa Eye documentary titled “Sex for Grades” and volunteers at organisations that raise awareness on sexual harassment in both Ghana and the UK.

What inspires your style?

My style is inspired by a comic book-like illustration approach to painting. I am attracted to vivid lines, strong yet feathery brush strokes . I enjoy using deep contrasting tones and color palettes very similar to the style Ghanaian sign painters utilize when creating artworks from movie posters. Artists like Jenny Saville, Tschabalala Self, Paula Rego, Lisa Brice and Michael Armitage also influence my take on shape and form. In terms of reference, I love the kind of diary style, confessional images taken by photographers such as Carrie Mae Weems and Nina Goldin. A huge part of my practice is confronting the "private" in public and pictures of vulnerability, intimacy and sometimes the explicit are my favorite to pull from.

What sort of experimentation has led you to your current style as an artist?

I started experimenting with paints early on around the age of 17 but I did not take to it as much. I started trying out markers on colored paper and I loved how I could create face, body parts out of simply blocking or whitening out various shapes. In 2021, I picked up the brush again to try and utilize this kind of layering approach to my paintings.

For 'Keep(her) 2022' I gained inspiration from Lee Krasner’s technique of collage paintings where she’d cut pieces of other paintings to help complete a different painting. Employing this technique allowed me to express how lockdown threw me, my flatmates and other friends together. It forced us to confront any unspoken issues we had between us in order to survive together. Despite our different backgrounds we were able to hold space for each other during an excruciatingly difficult time. Using collage, the process of cutting and sewing canvas onto canvas is not easy, however the result is impactful and I think that’s a beautiful metaphor for the time we spent together.

Why did you start making art? How did you kickstart your artistic endeavour?

I used to create drawings and doodles from an early age. In class, it helped me concentrate. At home, it was a hobby I could keep to stay out of trouble since I was a particularly troublesome child who always wanted to play. Pretty soon, art became an escape for me beyond my physicality. It became the place I could confront my body and understand it without prescribed moral value whilst seeking to understand the world at large and my place in it. Growing up, removed from my own culture from a very early age, I relied on family, school friends and the internet to educate me about myself. Projections about who I was based on my nationality, body fat, skin tone, facial features, perceived intelligence weighed me and my aspirations down for a very long time. Art has always been a way for me to create a safer space. To carve out moments of reprieve for others and myself through truth telling and world building.

Making the move from hobbyist to artist, I started by finishing my year of country service in an investment office. I then turned down a job as a junior graduate analyst to work as a project manager and executive assistant at an art foundation in my home country. Shortly after, I joined the Ghanaian art agency and collective known as Artemartis at the end of 2021 and I have been creating works ever since.

What other artists, genres or movements do you draw inspiration from?

I love discovering women in the surrealist and romanticism movement. Artists like Leonor Fini, Ithell Colquhoun, Frida Kahlo and Leonora Carrington, whose life story I feel greatly connected to through her refusal to be launched into high society from an early age.

If you could change one aspect of society or social issues through your work, what would it be?

I would really love to deconstruct the concepts of femininity and masculinity. Even though I love being a woman and my subjects are mostly women, my practice is based on my own grappling with feeling unfulfilled by society's expectations of femininity and masculinity. With my work, I am actively reconciling what I was taught with what I know and see now about womanhood and I would love to create/see a world beyond this binary.

What do you do to get into your creative zone?

I usually begin by looking up reference images. 80s photograph series, old photo collages with me and my friends, pictures of my mom, my aunts, family members and strangers I have encountered. Then I begin sifting through old sketches or paintings. When I am ready to paint, I put on my headphones and I disappear.

What are the biggest challenges you've had in your art?

Understanding that not everyone will connect with what you are creating and that it is okay to be insanely specific about what it is you are trying to share.

What ultimate messages do your creative expressions convey?

Ultimately, I want to discover differing definitions of freedom and safety. I want to create space for those who we may not consider deserving of pleasure. I want to challenge myself to discover who we are when the façade of keeping up appearances slips off and what that world looks and feels like and I want it to be honest.

Are there any thoughts you wish to share in relation to the theme of interconnectedness? (the impact the global events of the last 3 years have had in your artistic endeavours as a female artist)

Like most women, COVID-19 disrupted my life. I am not ashamed to share that it destabilised me and I just hope that as time passes more of us are able to take stock of that fact. I think about how the fast the internet has grown and how during times of crisis, we all turned to "connections". Connections are what keep us alive, afloat. My connections kept me alive in 2020. In order for any connection to take place, there needs to be an exchange and as we see more parts of the world through the internet I hope we carry with us empathy and the spirit of exchange.

Has technology had any impact on your artistic practice? In what ways has it affected or shaped it?

I have begun to use a mirrored projection technique to create new works. I am excited about the possibilities as I ease myself into new ways of art-making. Tools like Sketchbook and Photoshop allow me to test additions to current paintings and play around with variety. Social media has also had a profound impact in the images I use for reference. During lockdown, posts were largely limited to people’s houses, bedrooms…safe spaces so I found myself drawn to these images.

What are you working on now and next?

I have two series that I am working on currently. One relates to the concept of "interior worlds"- the investigation of safe spaces and our relation to them and ourselves specifically looking at queer women of colour. The other one is broader. Its main aim is to assess stereotypes of people from different walks of life and kind of forces its viewers to engage with their presumptions.

INTERCONNECTED - A group exhibition of 18 women artists from across Africa and the Middle East; showcasing 36 works in a variety of mediums and perspectives outlined in paintings, mixed media and digital art. Bordering between the known and the unknown, abstraction and figuration; the selected artists examine the interconnected complexities of human experience detailed through distinct artistic styles and approaches - in personal theory and form.

Visit the exhibition here.


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