Bermudian artist Gherdai Hassell’s mixed media artwork celebrates the black female figure. Exploring ideas about representation, perception, identity creation, and childhood, her vibrant collages capture and center the gaze.
We caught up with Gherdai, who is currently studying for an MFA at the China Academy of Fine Art, to discuss her artistic process and the importance of the arts as we navigate these uncertain times.
BNG: You grew up in Bermuda and are now studying in China. How have the two very different experiences shaped your work?
GH: Growing up in Bermuda definitely shapes my artistic practice. Bermudian heritage is so rich and vibrant. I draw on many experiences I had growing up in Bermuda. Being in China has also had a profound impact on my work. It has underscored a pride that I never had before in my heritage. When you’re placed out of context, it makes everything clear – who you are, what you want to say, and why it matters.
BNG: Your work celebrates the strength and beauty of black women. Historically, there has a been a lack of representation of people of colour in the art world. Is this something that you were aware of growing up? How has it influenced your practice?
GH: I was less aware of the lack of representation when I was a child because being from Bermuda, and growing up within the community, I saw and engaged with mostly black people. In real life, there was representation. I’ve always had wonderful black women in my life: my mom, aunts, grandmothers and family friends. It wasn’t until I got older and started engaging with media and traveling that I became more aware that images being presented about people that I knew and loved did not reflect my real life experience. So I wanted to create work that does.
BNG: You describe you work as ‘an exploration of self through various materials which suggest that identity should be self-determined and understood’. Could you please expand on this?
GH: My process is meditative. The work unfolds as I make it. I never know exactly what it will look like when I begin. As I’m exploring the ways in which I can use and manipulate material to create, I’m also exploring parts of myself. I’m fully in the moment – mixing paint, cutting, drawing, making marks, assembling, discovering what could be. I’m on a quest for understanding and acceptance of my own identity when I work. I create from my subconscious. When I’m exploring materials, I’m also exploring untapped parts of myself.
BNG: Your 2020 Bermuda Biennial artwork Interactions Bermuda is an incredibly ambitious large scale installation which incorporates collage and painting. At 6 ft x 8 ft it takes up an entire wall of the Young Gallery. Could you please take us the process of creating and installing the piece?
GH: Interactions Bermuda is my most ambitious and largest piece of work to date. I created the collages in my studio in China. I started with the faces and upper half of the figure then created the limbs. The figures are all over 4ft in height, so to get the work to Bermuda I had to disassemble the work and re-assemble it on site in the Young gallery. I then created the Aura Mural around the figures directly on the wall.
BNG: This is your first Bermuda Biennial. What does it mean to you to be included in the exhibition?
GH: I’m thrilled to have my work exhibited on such a platform, to have my work curated by an international jury and shown alongside some incredible artists. I’m particularly happy to have my work showcased on such a platform so early in my career. Taking part in Biennials was something that I had planned to do perhaps midway through my art career, so I feel like I’m a little ahead of schedule. I’m very humbled and grateful for the opportunity.
BNG: Your work was showcased in the last year’s Wearable Art Gala, which was founded by Tina Knowles and Richard Lawson, and chaired by Beyonce Knowles-Carter and Solange Knowles. How did your inclusion in such a high profile event affect your career?
GH: The artwork I displayed at the event was an experimental piece. It sold for over $6,000 – about $1,300 above asking price. I was thrilled to be included and even more pleased that the work went to such a worthwhile cause. It gave me the opportunity to take a step back and to reflect and grow as an artist. It has strengthened my belief in my messaging and my work.
BNG: Their team discovered on social media. How has Instagram provided a platform for your work?
GH: Instagram is a great platform for artists as it allows you to tell a visual story. I have created and grown my brand on Instagram. It has allowed me to connect with other artists – both in Bermuda and across the world. Most of my press opportunities and sales outside of Bermuda have come through Instagram.
BNG: You are a great role model for young Bermudians. Do you have any advice for local emerging artists who are looking to further their practice?
If you have a dream to be an artist, go after it. Just do it. Artists are so crucial to our society. When you step out on faith, everything you need shows up to meet you halfway. As everything has shut down due to the coronavirus lockdown, people are turning to the arts more than ever. They read books written by artists, they watch films directed and acted in by artists, they listened to music created by artists and they looked for inspiration created by visual artists. Without art, life wouldn’t be as beautiful. So create your work, we all need it. Find a mentor – early – it can make a difference on your path. I’m willing to help any young artist coming up in Bermuda, please connect with me on instagram at @hassell_free.
The eyes of the figures are an access for viewers and a veil or protection: a safe space for the women to exist. The collages are avatars, an exploration of self through various materials, which suggest that identity should be self-determined and understood. I employ multimedia to communicate the complexity of being myself, out of context.