Where are you really from?


Attending art college in Ireland was one of the greatest experiences of my young adult life. Here I would be among a myriad of creative weirdos, meet some of my best friends, live away from home for the first time and have the opportunity to create all day every day for four years. However, I left art college feeling somewhat deflated and it's something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. 

For the final year of my ceramics programme, I began looking at common proverbs as a starting point for what to base my work on for the year. I chose the phrase “There’s a black sheep in every flock”, a phrase that describes a member of a group who is different from the rest and also often seen as unsavoury due to their difference and non conformity. It was simple, well known and subtle enough to speak to my insecurities about being mixed race and looking and feeling different to my white peers. I brainstormed ideas, tried thinking outside the box and couldn’t wait to see where I could go with the project. When I approached my tutors, it was suggested that I keep it literal and make sheep. My one tutor explained that there are conceptual artists and visual artists and that I am the former and should keep it simple and stick with making things that look good. I was disappointed but I believed in the guidance of my educators and so I spent a few months making sheep. I enjoyed observing these funny little animals and figuring out the process, learning about making moulds and large scale sculptures but the whole thing also felt like it lacked substance for me.

I remember panicking at the thoughts of coming out of art college without really having said anything or expressed myself fully. I really wanted to do a project about racism, but people weren’t talking about it then. I started thinking about the different assumptions that are made about people of colour when it comes to race, ethnicity and nationality. I wanted to give my mostly white viewers food for thought and make art I felt passionate about. I used the question “Where are you really from?” as a title for the project; a question I got asked so many times and I felt was a good start at highlighting the problematic nature of challenging someone's identity in this way. I knew I would pour my heart and soul into it. I was nervous but I remember thinking I was halfway through my final year and this was my last chance to push myself. I built myself up to enter my tutors office with my proposed brief, fully believing that passion and self-belief would drive my ideas forward. I still remember the confused look on her face. At this point I probably don't need to mention that this older woman was white, in fact I think the whole faculty was. She told me she didn’t really know why I wanted to make such a leap from the initial project, that she didn’t really get it and that I should just make sheep. It was pretty invalidating to have my ideas dismissed in this way but I didn’t even know how to name that feeling then. I felt my enthusiasm and confidence shrink back inside my dejected, brown body. But a part of me wanted to stick to my guns, go through the project and prove that I had something important to express through my art. So I would work on this passion project while simultaneously making sheep to keep the people who were grading my work happy.

I got to work immediately and it was uncomfortable. I awkwardly approached all of the other people of colour I knew and asked them if I could take their portraits and use them in my end of year degree show. I asked my sister, my boyfriend's brother,  a couple of students in my year, a daughter of one of my classmates, a guy I met on the bus. I mumbled the title of my project and took their headshots from various angles, silently pleading that they at least would understand what I was trying to do even if my tutors were uninterested in helping me develop the concept or find the words to accompany the sculptures. I wasn’t really sure where to turn for support and I don’t really remember how far I went with the explanation, convinced that the title of the work was enough to convey my point. What I do remember is working really hard to build these giant ceramic heads, dealing with explosions and colour matching issues and the weight of the final pieces. For my degree show I presented the project; the selected few portraits that made the cut, alongside the sheep. I was proud of myself for pulling it off but I remember also feeling slightly embarrassed as I watched people's reactions because I wasn’t sure I had achieved what I set out to do by presenting this work. 

If I were to redo the project now, I would approach it differently. I would have had proper conversations with my models and asked them how they felt, I would have sought support from external educators and other people of colour and done some proper research on artists that had made similar work. But 21 year old Adeline was lacking in confidence when it came to being outspoken in her work so I have only compassion and love for her  now. As a result of me not following my tutors' guidance of sticking to an uncomplicated, comfortable concept, I ended up graduating from Art School with a grade that was a lot lower than I thought I deserved. I was pretty upset about it and I emailed my tutor to ask for some feedback and find out where I went wrong. I never got a reply.

Something shifted inside me when I left Art College and entered the outside world. I felt like I let my parents down because even though I worked really hard, I felt it wasn’t enough and my grade confirmed it. I failed to be seen and I felt defeated. I didn’t know who to tell so and wondered if it was all in my head, so I buried it. The project wasn’t a complete disaster and I would continue to make art but I told myself that going forward I would stick to trying to make work that looked good because I wasn't one of those artists who made “conceptual” work. That was also the last time I tried to talk about race and racism through my art or bring up questions that would make people uncomfortable. 

I want to try again but I’d be lying if I said I said I wasn’t scared; scared of insulting the white people in my life, scared of the debates that often ensues when a black woman tries to talk, scared of saying something stupid as my own understanding of race and identity evolves and scared not being able to stay strong enough in my conviction if I am shot down when I decide to share my work. I have for the past few years been searching for the beauty and the visually stimulating in the world around me and that has served me in so many ways but my relationship with my art is now shifting as I discover that looking inward might hold the key to unlocking some already existing treasures. I am only starting to get comfortable with the feel of the words “Black and white” on my tongue, only starting to grow my radical wings, learn how to flex my taking-up-space muscles and learn how to advocate for myself. It is taking some effort to reprogramme my brain into believing I have something to say and I’m capable of expressing it through art. Writing it all down and having conversations is helping bridge the gap. I am so grateful to be able to use my voice and excited about where I can take it. I realise now I have to find my own inspirations, seek my own mentors who will help me understand and develop these feelings rather than quash them and I have been so lucky to connect with other artists I admire who are not afraid to speak their truth through their work. It has been somewhat frustrating and emotionally draining trying to get to this point and I constantly have to remind myself to trust the process and to trust myself. I don’t know where it will lead but I am so grateful to have this space to invite you to follow me on my journey, grateful to have the tools and resources to express myself and grateful to have found the courage to keep moving forward.  


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