Artist Michaela Yearwood-Dan talks to Director of Black Cultural Archives, Lisa Anderson
The latest abstract paintings artist Michaela Yearwood-Dan are as emotional, fluid and full-bodied as her personality. Floral flourishes are boldly swept across large canvases, seeped in monochromatic colourways and layered amid discreetly penned musings.
The painterly collage effect is captivating, underpinned by an elaborate and studied commitment to doing work that will last the test of time. Her first solo art gallery show is at the Tiwani, which has featured art world luminaries such as Ndijeka Akunyili Crosby.
Lisa Anderson: Do you remember when you first felt that emotional connection with painting as access to expressing your inner world?
Michaela Yearwood-Dan: It first came when I was in school, probably around sixth-form age, around sixteen or seventeen. And I remember studying sociology and getting interested in Feminism. I had very political forward-thinking tutors, “You’re a woman, you can do anything” was drilled into us. So I remember getting this urge to say something about the issues in a creative manner. Before that, I was really interested in music and drama as well as art, but I’d stopped acting and playing music because it wasn’t cool.
Yeah, acting (laughs). Also, I was a musical theatre kid. I remember I applied to a very prestigious music school in South London where everyone goes and becomes famous. I did all the auditions… I didn’t get through and was really upset. And then school told me that I couldn’t take music and art and I remember getting really, really annoyed and I decided that I was going to focus on art.
And I remember someone saying something about not liking my work and I was like, ‘Well it’s subjective’. At that moment, if I look back now, that’s when I can tell that art was what I wanted to do because no one could tell me anything. I started developing an artistic voice from then. I was 16 and I thought I knew everything, making commentary on finding yourself as an artist, a young black woman, all the big political things.
So you decided ‘this is my mode of expression where I feel the most confident?’
Michaela Yearwood-Dan: Yeah totally, art and sociology were the two subjects for me. I remember when I had a double period of sociology at school one day followed by triple art in the afternoon. In the morning I’d gotten all riled up about the world and then I was like, yeah – let’s make some work.
Were there artists that you looked towards to get a sense of what was possible through painting to express those ideas powerfully?
Michaela Yearwood-Dan: I always found that bit very difficult; I remember using Tumblr to find people because what was being shown to me in school wasn’t resonating with me. And then I remember my tutor asking me if I would do the Art Foundation year, and I was like, “Absolutely not. Artists don’t make any money”. And she was like, “yes, they do”. And I said, “No, I don’t think people like me make money”.
And she kept questioning it to find out exactly what I meant until I finally said I don’t think women or black people become successful artists. The only two women artists that I knew about at the time were Maggi Hambling and Jenny Saville. And then she said ok and left it.
A week later she kept me behind after a lesson and presented me with a PowerPoint presentation she’d made just for me, full of works by successful black and female artists.
“That’s how I discovered Chris Ofili. I remember ringing up my dad afterwards and I was almost in tears, being like, “Did you know about this man and he talks about politics? He’s amazing!”. Chris Ofili is the one for me. He was the first artist to move me. Even talking about it now, I’m a bit shaky. “
What was his artwork that you saw? Was it ‘No Woman No Cry (1998)’?
Michaela Yearwood-Dan: Yeah obviously. We’d learned about YBA’s [Young British Artists] and had touched upon Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas, and learned about art dealerships like Saatchi and stuff.
But no one thought to mention Chris Ofili?
Michaela Yearwood-Dan: Nope, they mentioned Peter [Doig] but not Chris. That was the moment that I realised that there was room for me. So then I went home and told my mum I was going to art school, and she was like, “You’re not going to art school!”
And then you went to art school anyway?
Michaela Yearwood-Dan: No, she told me, if you’re going to art school you have to do combined honours. So I applied for combined honours of Art and English until I got into Brighton. But journalism and art are both very hard careers to make money in so I don’t know why she thought that would be the route. Well, she’s fine about it now. If I didn’t get into the [2017 Bloomberg] New Contemporaries show, I don’t know if I’d be making work in the same way that I am now.
When I saw your work I was so excited because I hadn’t seen such a fresh, painterly approach to such familiar and personal subjects before.
Michaela Yearwood-Dan: So, like the Kebab shop piece and the ‘Two Twos’ paintings? I remember with the Kebab shop piece, people kept on talking about the classic tropes of ‘ethnic’ and ‘urban’. And I thought, yes, it’s urban because it’s outside of a Kebab shop but it’s nighttime and it’s dimly lit, referencing ideas of artists like Edward Hopper and early Picasso or Van Gough in the way they use light.
You actually can’t tell me that those figures are black. I know that they’re black, but the way it’s been lit in this depiction, you don’t know they’re black. But you do know it’s the inner city. It could be London, Birmingham or New York. It’s that late-night food spa atmosphere that you can only know if you were born or from a city like that.
It’s a bit like the way Drake loves Top Boy and how he explains the way it transcends a specific time and location. It’s just a vibe of a type of place. Because being at Brighton university it was hard. Because my work could be black but not too black. But it had to be black because that was what was expected of me. Black as far as an aesthetic and an idea.
Like you said your work is unashamedly and irrefutably, black from a particular perspective in terms of what has informed and inspired it. But I think you challenge your viewers to see beyond that.
Michaela Yearwood-Dan: Yeah, because I’m not just a black woman. And no black person is just their blackness or their gender. And that’s the other thing that drew me to Chris Ofili because it wasn’t a straightforward portrait approach to depicting the black body in work. It was expressive, multidimensional, mixed media, and sort of confused in terms of what genre it fits into.
So is that what informed your choice to not show the full figure in your works, as well as the cutouts and use of collage?
Michaela Yearwood-Dan: First and foremost faces are hard. I can’t lie to you, I’m good at them, but faces, they’re long and I’m a perfectionist. So (whilst painting at university), I took away the faces and began exploring ways of cropping; when you focus on certain areas. A
nd that made me think of the cropped picture the press chose to use of Mark Duggan’s face after he’d been killed [by the police], of him looking very sad and thuggish. Whereas the full picture actually shows him standing by his daughter’s grave.
I found that really interesting and that idea of [manipulating] how images are cropped and used representationally, informed much of my formal art education.
So did that lead you towards exploring abstract work?
Michaela Yearwood-Dan: Well, abstract came first. When I arrived at art school, the teachers said: “we don’t want you to paint in a literal way”; it had to be very conceptual. They said the painting is dead.
Did you have tutors who were steering you away from painting?
Michaela Yearwood-Dan: A thousand per cent! They encouraged me to find new ways of executing my ideas. I hated it at the time but fully appreciate it now because I went back to painting with a new identity. I started journeying around London and painting flowers in bloom and then coming to the conclusion that that was boring, and thinking about what else flowers say.
And then I started riffing on the idea of mortality and urban spaces as well as green spaces existing within decay. So I for my final project I made an installation where I painted directly onto the walls. Lots of pastiches of weeds and beautiful flowers growing out of a wall of decay. And obviously, I got a distinction because…
No one else was doing that?
Michaela Yearwood-Dan:Yes, and art was the thing I loved. I was not doing it not to get top grades. People said, “Don’t worry about the grades”, And I’d think “Do you know how hard I had to fight to have my mum let me go and do this?” I’m getting the top grade for everything I do.
Bold ambition. Seems like it’s paying off. You’re about to have your first solo show with your new gallery, Tiwani.
Michaela Yearwood-Dan: Yes, I’m nervous, and I’m excited. I’m trying not to have any expectations for anything. I want to be able to continue doing work.
So, what are you looking forward to getting your teeth into next?
Michaela Yearwood-Dan: I think I want to be able to have the freedom to explore my painting in new dimensions. Some ideas are floating in my head that might not fit the classical trope of painting on a canvas and painting on different materials.
You’re talking about scale, aren’t you?
Michaela Yearwood-Dan: Maybe. Scale, transparency, and fluidity, there are a few things. Ideas are being tested out and reserved for the new year after the solo show is done.
What’s interesting about this new body of work is that you’re creating monochromatic works for the first time.
Michaela Yearwood-Dan: I just wanted to employ a restriction. That’s another part of my nature as a person. If things are getting too repetitive, I think, OK, I must restrict myself from this thing. I quite liked the restriction of being very bold and experimental with colour and narrowing it down to being monochromatic whilst trying to see if the work could hold the same elements.
And they’ve been challenging me to make very colourful work, fruit salad, and colourful work. So to be like, no, you’re using green – well, cool, I had to consider what is green, how can I make this green multidimensional, and the same thing with pink, yellow and blue. There’s a lot of canvas to cover with one colour but with a lot of depth. And they were difficult to do, although I enjoyed the challenge.