Our Director, Deirdre Figueiredo, invited four early career black artists; Jacob Monk, Meron Wolde, Onome Otite, Toni De Jesus and Birmingham based drag queen Yshee Black, to mark black history month by engaging with artist Alinah Azadeh’s online resource Craft in Common. Linking to the theme ‘Courage’ from the resource they were commissioned to make an everyday courage medal for a black person of their choice. These were showcased via Instagram from 21st to 25th October 2020.
Yshee Black is one of Birmingham’s most iconic drag performers. She has made a courage medal for her grandparents Jane and Ronald Francis who she describes as “the Hyacinth and Richard Bucket of my family.”
She says “I chose my grandparents due to their courage in coming to a different country from St Kitts and managing to not only raise five children but to buy land in Hall Green and build two nursing homes from the ground up, which still stand. I spent many years in those nursing homes as a child as my mother worked in the offices as an accountant. I remember running around, meeting patients, helping and watching my nan and grandad where they worked and lived. Being of black Caribbean descent it took courage, determination and grit not only to move to England, but also to look after a majority of white patients who often disagreed with being cared for by people of a different skin colour.
My Drag reflects my grandmother’s religious belief in the church, that anyone is welcome, anyone can be loved, and the power of music and community is strength. I believe that I am the embodiment of those values in my own LGBTQ+ community and that I can give the joy and light to others that my family have passed down to me.”
Jacob Monk, textile designer, artist and ikat weaver has made a courage medal for distinguished artist Frank Bowling whom he really admires and of whom he says “Frank moved to the UK from British Guiana in 1953. A time where racial tension and discrimination were high and the popular artistic style was different from his own. He remained focused and true to himself and continued to create his distinctive abstract paintings with a focus on colour, expression and identity. These can be seen around the world today. Aged 86 he continues to paint to this day.” Our congratulations to Frank Bowling on his recently announced knighthood in recognition of the seminal contribution he has made to art and black British identity.
Meron Wolde, metal artist and bespoke jewellery designer has made a courage medal for Marshall Allen, a 96 year old American free Jazz alto saxophone player and musical leader of the Sun Ra Arkestra. He fought in the second world war as a ‘Buffalo Soldier’ and came to play with one of the most innovative musicians of the 20th Century, Sun Ra, later becoming leader of Arkestra until now. She says “I believe music is a necessity in our lives, and the lack of live music since lockdown has been particularly hard to cope with. Therefore, to highlight and celebrate music I would like to dedicate this medal to Marshall Allen and his ongoing life-long uncompromised devotion to music. This piece is made out of brass wire and recycled fabric. It is inspired by the elaborate costumes, particularly the headdresses worn on stage, by Sun Ra and his Arkestra. Its free form reflects the sound of the music that I have enjoyed listening to live on many occasions all around the world. Something that I miss at present, and a part of my creative process and mental wellbeing. This medal celebrates his bravery, strength and courage that he shares with us through his music. Thank you Marshall”.
Toni De Jesus
Ceramicist Toni De Jesus has made a courage medal for Dame Magdalene Odundo who was born in Kenya but established her career as a ceramicist in the UK. She is best known for her hand-built ceramics, using the coiled technique. Each piece is covered with slips and then burnished, going through a range of oxidation and reduction firings to achieve some bright oranges and blacks in her work. Her work is inspired by natural forms, the female figure and artefacts/art work from around the world. Toni says “I had a first real encounter with a massive body of her work at The Hepworth Wakefield at her major exhibition The Journey of Things. Alongside her work, an archive of artefacts which has influenced her work were exhibited. Some of which have been a point of reference in my own practice. I picked an orchid as a reference for my medal/brooch to offer to Magdalene as it’s Kenya’s National Flower. Orchids being my favourite flowers for many reasons but a major one for being my mother’s name, ‘Orquidia’. Orchids have different connotations to me; symbol for home, motherhood, courage, beauty and in a way Odundo’s work encapsulates that and therefore this is the reason for me wanting to present this medal to her.”
Onome Otite is an artist specialising in figurative textile collage. She chose to make a courage medal for an artist friend Enam Gbewonyo who has inspired her so much this year and from whom she learnt a new weaving technique. She says “this medal is in dedication to her and all the artists who took part in the Black Minds Matter workshop programme I curated this summer. These artists have continued to create amazing work despite the challenges of this year and in my opinion are making history by sharing their stories, encouraging other black female artists and making themselves visible in a field where the black female voice is hardly present.
Each strand used in this weaving technique represents an artist, their stories, narrative and practice – symbolising how our lives as creatives are interwoven. The use of batik fabric pays homage to artist Yinka Shonibare, another artist who again inspires me with his use of storytelling, sharing Nigerian history of colonialism and identity in such an exciting way with the fabric. I also love that he uses his profession to help emerging artists with residencies and mentoring.”