Artist of the Week: An Interview With Hannah Marsh

Hannah Marsh is a fine artist currently based in Oxford. After graduating from the University of Leeds with First Class Honours in BA Fine Art and History of Art in July, Marsh was selected as one of four finalists for the FUAM graduate art prize exhibition at the University’s Stanley and Audrey Burton Gallery, which she went on to win. She has recently finished a month-long graduate residency at The Art House in Wakefield. Her work aims to explore identity, the differences between private and public spaces, and the social imbalances often surrounding race and gender, particularly those surrounding black women.

Featured image: Hannah pictured with part of her final year exhibition piece, ‘For Eya, Susie, and I’ – ‘leaving behind a gestural mark of someone that occupies a certain social position’.

How would you describe your work?

I think my practise is very multifaceted; I don’t really have one particular medium I use, but I think I try to use different mediums in the same way. Attention to detail is really important to me, so I think that comes across whether it’s a sound recording or a drawing, but I guess the idea or feeling I am trying to convey is always the most important aspect of the piece.

I have always found it really difficult to move from research to art, and I think this is why I end up working in so different materials, because I am still trying to work out what can work. I guess my practise is very experimental, process-wise, but based around the same social concerns. Whatever I make I like to spend a lot of time doing it, [putting] a certain labour into it. Maybe because my work is about other people a lot of the time and I want to do them justice.

My work is very much concerned with social imbalances, particularly concerning black women and the space we occupy in art history, and in modern day society. My work attempts to create a dialogue surrounding the lack of opportunities black women have, drawing upon my acknowledgement of the lack of diversity within my Fine Art School. My own family history is also fundamental to my practice.

‘For Eya, Susie, and I’, in the FUAM 2018 Graduate Art Prize show.

In your work for the School of Fine Art’s Degree Show ‘Squeeze’, ‘For Eya, Susie and I’, you explored issues of institutional racism and the idea of making the invisible visible. You interviewed both your grandmother Eya, who is originally from Saint Lucia and had been a cleaner at Rugby train station, and Susie, one of the school’s cleaners who is Ghanaian, and played out these recordings in a tiny cleaning cupboard in the school. Why was it so important for you to have both these women’s voices heard in such a physically small and uncomfortable space?

That’s a really interesting question, and I think it all initially stemmed from a lot of reading I had been doing regarding racially engineered spaces, and gendered spaces. Adrian Piper for example in her ‘out of sight out of mind’ alludes to existing in a sort of exilic philosophical space in American society, on account of her racial ambiguity. Unable to fit in with a racial or social category in white America, Piper suggests she exists within a fictional space, such themes play out in her work the ‘mythic being’. It sounds very cliché, but I started to consider spaces I personally might not be able to access socially as a black woman, or gendered spaces built into my everyday life.

There are obvious understandings of an unsafe space, or an inaccessible space, like my grandmother recalling of pubs in the 1950’s that said, ‘no dogs, no Irish, no blacks’, but I was more interested in the certain spaces people occupy that point toward a wider structure of racism and social equality, that perhaps we as a society are less comfortable discussing than an obvious declaration of racism, like a racist slur.
I was really fixed on my grandmother having to endure working on the railway as a cleaner to support her large family, existing in a space that socially rejected her, and then in a modern-day context, Susie cleaning the fine art school for 12 years, but not accessing it in the same way a professor or student does. Having the voice recordings play from the cupboard I think allowed audiences to enter such a private space, and physically experience the restrictions of having to occupy a certain position in society. The uncomfortable warmth, small space and bright lights hoped to hint at being confined to a space within an institution, and I suppose the difficulty black women have breaking through such spaces. I wanted audiences to listen to both Eya and Susie in a way that they would never do with a cleaner whom they simply pass in the morning. I wanted the sound piece to portray the realities of racism in a subtle and honest way.

I think the encounters both women recall makes the sound piece really hard to listen to, especially for me listening to my grandmother, the idea that people ignored them as cleaners, or racially abused them. There’s a part where Susie describes feeling as a ‘stranger’ in Europe despite living here for so long. The idea of not feeling welcome in a space or acknowledged is something I hope the piece draws attention to, as well as to an institutional racism. Kobeena Mercer states in relation to Adrian Piper’s work in her, ‘Exiles, Diasporas and Strangers’ that ‘selfhood is only brought into existence by virtue of being recognised by others.’ Thus, the idea that we depend on others acknowledging us, and also how demoralising it can be having a perception of you created by another relayed back to you, especially concerning race and gender.

’Wakefield’s Voice’.

Could you tell me a bit about the process you went through in creating work for your recent residency in Wakefield? For example, how did this idea of paying attention to ‘spaces’ play into it?

Following my degree show, I acknowledged my practise to be very dependent on a consideration of myself in relation to a space, and the consideration of others to a particular space. I wanted to explore this notion of space specifically in relation to Wakefield, how the it had changed as an ex-mining town, and how people in Wakefield relate to the city. So, Jacques and I, a graduate also on the residency with me, began interviewing and recording local people to attain an understanding of the city form various perceptions.

Installing ‘Through the Lace Curtain’ for the 2018 Art House Residency Graduate Show

Building on that, what was the meaning behind screen-printing lace curtains as part of your piece, ‘Through the Lace Curtain’, for the final exhibition at the end of the residency? What was it about the materiality of lace, in particular, that represented the message you were trying to convey?

I noticed that the curtains in the homes in Wakefield were exactly the same style as those in my grandmother’s house in Rugby – beautiful, thin, lace curtains, not at all uncommon in working class family homes, but I suppose it was strange to be reminded of my grandmother so early in the residency. The curtains in my grandmother’s home amid my degree show research felt significant as being a delicate layer between the safety and creativity within the Caribbean family home, and the outside world that was a racially tense and hostile space for Eya and her family. The curtains, however, did not manage to conceptually work within the body of work, ‘For Eya, Susie and I’, so it was really strange to suddenly see the same curtains in every window in Wakefield, and I was drawn to them.

Whilst recording people in Wakefield, I found myself in a mechanic’s garage, a friendly man who happened to use a racist joke in my presence. Covered in black dirt from fixing cars, he stated, ‘I’m always covered in black dirt, so people think I am Asian’. He then proceeded to look at me and declared, ‘you look Asian too’. Although the comment was not malicious, the space suddenly became incredibly uncomfortable, and having followed the man into his garage, I was very much unprepared for the comment. It reminded me of the racial undertones present in everyday life that can suddenly transform a space for an individual. The curtains then felt very important, I thought about the feeling of having a space deemed safe penetrated by something uncomfortable like casual racism.
I wanted to experiment with a way of portraying this idea visually for our residency showcase, and so I printed my drawing of the lace curtains repeatedly onto a wall, with gaps and cracks within the piece to suggest this fractured blanket of safety, with the quote the man said written in thin silver lettering underneath it.

Close-up of ‘Through the Lace Curtain’.

Do you hope that by including such personal experiences in your work, such as the racially derogative joke you mentioned, can make people more aware of the way that spaces can be made uncomfortable and the social imbalances surrounding race, class and gender?

I definitely hope that the piece prompted some discussion around how a space can become uncomfortable or unsafe concerning class, race and gender.

You’ve mentioned Adrian Piper, and your research in history of art at university, as well as, of course, your own family history and experiences playing a big part in the art you produce. What other artists and academics in the art history field would you cite as your influences?

As well as Adrian Piper, artists such as Lubaina Himid, and Sonia Boyce massively influence both my practise and art historical research. The artists powerfully portray the same issues and feelings I identify with, and I think they do it so successfully. I am also very much inspired by scholars that explore and articulate problematic notions of the ‘other’ in reference to race, class and gender. Namely: Griselda Pollock, Franz Fanon, Linda Nochlin, Susan Sontag, Simon Gikandi and Gilane Tawardros.

Having been based in Leeds for three years, and then spending the month in Wakefield for your residency, how would you describe your experience of the art scene up north? Do you think it offers a good alternative to the ever-rising expenses for young artists living in London?

I think the scene up north is really exciting. I am still trying to build networks up north, but from my experience in Wakefield on residency, and as a student in Leeds, it feels like everyone is genuinely interested in what other people are making, and the conversations I’ve had in Leeds, Wakefield, and Sheffield regarding art and culture are the kind of conversations I want to be part of. There is something really special happening up north art-wise, [there is] a collaborative and supportive network of creative that feels very resourceful and rich. Renting a studio space and actually getting onto residency up north feels very attainable, I am not so sure London can promise as much for a graduate artist.

Where do you see yourself in the future? Would you like to be based up North again at some point?

I would really like to be based up north. I am considering starting an MA in Social History of Art at the University of Leeds. I also have my eye on a few residency programs up north. Renting a studio space and becoming part of a studio collective is also something I am very interested in. I have a good feeling about Sheffield, so who knows…

Hannah’s Instagram: ha_nahm

All image credits: Rochelle Chinn

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