Liana Nanang is a multidisciplinary storyteller with Black-Bermudian, Iban-Malaysian and British parentage. Exhibiting in both the art and poetry components of the 2022 Bermuda Biennial, she describes her creative work as “an exploration of my identity and experience as a neuro-divergent, Black, Indigenous, Woman of Colour in a world – and on an island – that would demand my assimilation and my silence.” Of her Biennial works, which include a watercolour and three poems, she says “each of my submissions claims part of that story.”
Daughter of the late lawyer Julian Hall, in 2021 Liana changed her surname by deed poll to relinquish her father’s surname derived from slavery. Embracing all African and Indigenous parts of her, she took on her mother’s Iban surname. She later wrote about how she visited Gherdai Hassell’s first solo exhibition I Am Because You Are, held at BNG, to commemorate this significant life event.
Taking part in a 2021 Bermuda Heartbeats panel discussion A Visible Minority: Asian Diasporas in Bermuda, hosted by the Department of Culture, she said: “Living in a majority-Black country (52%), presenting as Black, identifying as Black AND Asian, Black AND multi-racial, Black AND Indigenous, Black AND… means I rarely have the opportunity to talk about the ANDs.” Through her artwork she explores her identity in its wholeness, claiming all parts that make her who she is.
A former columnist and the author of The Year of Celebration: A Manic Depressive’s Guide to Celebrating Life… One Day at a Time (a blog which ran from 2011 to 2018), words have always offered Liana a means of self-expression. An introduction to art therapy in 2018 gave her the opportunity to explore sculpture and reignited a passion for the visual arts. She has since exhibited her artwork at Masterworks, in the 2019 and 2021 Charman Prizes, most recently winning the Use of Materials Category, and at the Bermuda Society Arts in Exhibition on Emancipation (August 2020).
Liana is the founder of Unstoried, a production company which develops books and films which “educate, entertain and empower people of the Global Majority.” She is currently writing her first book, Menoa: Ancestral Healings for Trauma, Addiction and Fractured Minds which will be published in September 2024.
As the 2022 Bermuda Biennial opens, we caught up with Liana to discuss how poetry has always been a healing modality for her, how working with her hands helps her to heal trauma and self-regulate and how great art is both universal and personal.
BNG: This is the first time that you have exhibited in the Bermuda Biennial. It is also the first time that the Biennial has included poetry alongside visual art, and you are exhibiting both. What does it mean to you to be included in the exhibition?
LN: It’s felt like a significant validation of my decision to move into writing and the arts full-time. I took the leap in January and the Biennial deadline was at the end of that month, so it was the first proof point for me. After completing the application form, self-doubt crept in and I nearly didn’t submit my painting, The Child Returned, or two of the three poems, but my partner encouraged me. To have all four of my submissions accepted was a complete shock, and a total delight.
I have no formal visual art or writing training – I studied law then the performing arts – and the calibre of the Biennial jurors was both inspiring and intimidating. Beyond their credentials, I respect their work. Alexandria Smith’s Ibeji I series is a stunning representation of the Orisha and Dr Richard Georges’ poetry gives haunting voice to the particularities of life on an island akin to Bermuda, while Claire Gilman is curating wonderful work in New York. I was feeling detached from the larger world in my home studio on a small island in the middle of a pandemic, so being selected provided a contextualising of my work both within Bermuda and beyond.
BNG: As a former columnist, and author of The Year of Celebration: A Manic Depressive’s Guide to Celebrating Life… One Day at a Time, words have always been a means of self-expression for you. Is poetry something that you have always turned to?
LN: Poetry has only recently become an intentional area of study and development for me, prompted by the Biennial. I took the Department of Culture’s pre-Biennial workshops with Yesha Townsend and I’m now participating in Dr Richard Georges’ workshops through the summer. I hope to elevate my poetry both to complement my visual and performing art and to build a stand-alone body of work.
Prior to this year, I hadn’t truly considered myself a poet, but I recently found my 13-year-old self’s journal and discovered that, even then, I had been using poetry to process what I now know was severe mental illness. It has always been a healing modality for me.
When I was 18, Chewstick at Champions was the place I could safely share my poetry. The things we lost in the Chewstick fire in 2016 go beyond the material – it was a catastrophic loss for our creative community. However, the spirit of Chewstick persists through so many artists, writers, and musicians today. I wouldn’t be the poet I am today without it and its impact will reverberate through generations to come.
BNG: You are currently writing your first book, Menoa: Ancestral Healing for Trauma, Addiction and Fractured Minds, which will be published in September 2024. You are also working on a memoir. How does your approach to poetry and long form writing differ?
LN: My writing process always starts the same way, with three morning pages of longform freewriting The Artist’s Way-style. They clear away the deafening inner critic and make room for my true voice. My book editor, Kristen McGuinness, calls them magic pages because they work at any time of day.
With long form, I hurl words onto the page and edit later. The Bermuda Arts Council funded my attendance at The Rock Retreat in Gibraltar in May and facilitator Sarah Odedina (who oversaw the publication of the Harry Potter series) emphasised the importance of not editing as we write. She introduced me to setting timers, which has proven to be an invaluable addition to my process.
With poetry, I take time to pause. I focus on my breath and listen to what needs to be birthed. Sometimes, poems arise within my morning pages, as was the case with my Biennial poem yellow. a week before the deadline. Other times, I’ll write a long form essay, and then realise it would be more effective as a poem.
Without intention, poetry can creep into my writing. When a friend complimented my “poem” describing my sculpture in the Charman Prize catalogue, I was surprised to discover I’d written one!
BNG: In a 2019 Pecha Kucha talk, you described how you first started working with your hands after being introduced to art therapy as a patient in a residential trauma treatment centre in Santa Fe in 2018. In the talk you described how trauma lives in the body and how working with your hands has helped you to process it. Could you please tell us more about this?
LN: I’d always turned to drawing and painting when life felt overwhelming, but I’d only sculpted once for GCSE art, so I wasn’t aware of how profoundly it could support my healing. I fell in love with the form in treatment, so I joined a clay studio for two months in Santa Fe, where I began to develop my craft.
I experienced the benefits of sculpting with clay before I understood the mechanics. I had previously been treated with EMDR (eye movement desensitisation reprocessing), which is a therapy that uses bilateral stimulation. During a traumatic experience our processing systems are derailed, so memories are not processed properly. They are fragmented and short-term and long-term memories become confused – hence flashbacks and other life-disrupting symptoms. Bilateral stimulation – i.e. right, left, right, left – links the right and left hemispheres of the brain, connecting thinking to feeling. It helps trauma survivors regulate our bodies and minds, reconnecting explicit memory with implicit memory and grounding us.
In sculpting, I alternate using both hands in a rhythmic and mindful way. I was self-regulating without realising!
Before the pandemic, I hated wedging clay. I was learning under the brilliant Bermudian potter, Johnny Northcott, who would kindly do it for me. When the pandemic hit, I saw it as an unwelcome preparatory step that fuelled my procrastination. Out of necessity, I discovered that pounding and wedging the clay allowed me to release my anger and sadness. In preparing the clay, I was preparing myself. In softening the clay, I was being softened.
BNG: In what ways does your approach to painting and sculpture differ to your approach to poetry?
LN: They both mostly come from visions I experience in meditation, but sculpture more so. I tend to sit quietly and touch the clay and see what emerges, whereas my paintings are more planned. However, my Biennial watercolour The Child Returned came very quickly and clearly and was sketched and completed in one evening sitting.
Even though I’ve been painting longer, I feel I’m still finding my way with that form and there’s more self-judgement. I describe my sculpting method as FAFO (F*** around, Find Out) and it helps me maintain a beginner’s mind where the magic can really happen. Self-judgement slips away, and space is made for the unknown.
When I’m doing abstract painting the same format applies and, while I haven’t tried bilateral drawing yet, I’d be interested to see what would emerge.
BNG: Are the two disciplines very separate for you or do they overlap in any way?
LN: They overlap only at the start. When I have a vision, I sit with it to decide which medium would be best suited to depict what I saw, felt and heard. I’ve been taking a Crit.art course with Turner Prize nominee Dexter Dalwood and he’s pushing us to consider the effectiveness of our chosen mediums. It’s easy to stay stuck in what I feel is working, but I feel more fulfilled when I take risks.
After that, everything is different. With painting, I feel less attached. It’s easy to leave and return to it later, sometimes years later. With sculpting, there’s an urgency – not just due to the timing of drying, glazing and baking – but an urgency within my body. Everything else becomes secondary. The sculpture is the only thing in focus.
They also heal me differently. With painting, the healing is in the completion; with sculpture, the healing comes in the process. When I’m sculpting, my creation is an extension of me, an elongating of a limb; and, after completion, the extension is severed, and my limbs are mine again. I have more distance from my sculptures after completion, as though they were created by someone else in the past, whereas my paintings feel like my present.
BNG: You describe your Biennial works as “an exploration of my identity and experience as a neuro-divergent, Black, Indigenous, Woman of Colour in a world – and on an island – that would demand my assimilation and my silence.” Could you please expand on this?
LN: I am the child of Julian Hall. I was raised by a giant of a man with an unwavering commitment to dismantling Bermuda’s systems of oppression. My life was spent experiencing attempts to silence and economically assassinate him. He was banished, bankrupted, bloodied, but unbowed. He, like me, wrangled with the demons of personal and transgenerational trauma at a time when mental illness was not accepted. At BHS, white girls would push against me and say, “You’re my PLP – my personal leaning post” and repeat the violent words against my father their parents and grandparents had said the night before. It was a different time and the PLP were a different party. With the interplay of incessant racist attack and years of childhood sexual abuse by a family friend, there’s no wonder that teenage me was writing poetry about death.
My partner Ajala Omodele’s father also spoke up in the 1960s and 70s and experienced the sanctions that went with that, essentially becoming an economic refugee from Bermuda. We were both 24 when our fathers died prematurely, and we know first-hand the consequences of speaking truth to power. It’s the backdrop of The Child Returned, my partner holding his teenage son in a way he never was held. His poetry is also in the Biennial, taking us to the crossing – the originator of all of this pain.
It is terrifying to have lived through this, and still be determined to create art and writing that confronts reality. At home, we often discuss how we’ll survive when we bring to the light things that others don’t want seen. Our answer is, “We must do it in community.” Artists like Carlos Dowling and April Branco, who were doing the work before Black Lives Matter sprung into international white consciousness, were ostracised for the work they create that is so desperately needed to empower and educate us. For all the ills that social media creates, it has given a platform for the oppressed to organise and galvanise, but damage has been done.
Bermuda society is the epitome of W.E. Du Bois’ concept of double consciousness. In our list of National Heroes, we honour both a committed segregationist and a committed abolitionist who wrote for her and our freedom over a century before. With a bankrupt father who was refused a legal practicing certificate due to legislation designed specifically to target him, I was only able to afford university through the Sir Henry Tucker Scholarship. Sitting in that committee room praising him was like singing for my supper. It’s demoralising and damaging to the Black psyche.
When the Bermuda Sun published my op-ed in 2013, where I discussed my suicide attempt eight years prior, we weren’t discussing mental illness openly in our society or across the world. I was scared, but I had an internal push to tell my story to dismantle the stigma that drives so many of us to choose death. I did it again on BBC Breakfast in the UK and BBC World News and the posts received both supportive comments and racist ones. Countless people – strangers and friends – have contacted me, sometimes years later, to tell me that the article or the TV programme saved their life, or made them feel less alone, or drove them to seek help.
I was frightened to write it because people want to pay lip service to mental illness and antiracism initiatives, while continuing to discriminate against the mentally ill and people of colour. Change is not easy; it is a hard graft. To truly look at the structure of your organisation or our country is to realise that we have an intersectional caste system of discrimination. And beyond the photo ops or the one-off diversity workshop, what are your truly willing to do? The sad answer is often not much. People like me will be first embraced and championed, then reluctantly tolerated, and then dismissed and crushed. The resistance is in persisting and continuing to create when the fear arises. That’s also why I had to move into the arts full-time; I felt like I was choking on the work I couldn’t put into the world because of the threat of economic sanctions in the world’s most expensive country. I may now be a struggling artist, but I’m a free one.
BNG: In 2021, you changed your surname by deed poll to relinquish your father’s surname derived from slavery, choosing to embrace your maternal Iban heritage. You have written about how you visited Gherdai Hassell’s first solo exhibition I Am Because You Are, held at BNG, to commemorate this significant life event. Could you please tell us about the impact that the exhibition had on you?
LN: It was both profound and timely; as though the Ancestors were communicating, through Gherdai, what I needed to see and hear to move me onto my path. I think that’s the power of great art generally – it’s both universal and personal, but for me I Am Because You Are was also a spiritual experience.
My mother is Iban, one of the indigenous people of Borneo. She was born in Sarawak to her Iban mother and Scottish father. She didn’t speak English until she went to boarding school at the age of nine, a process that stripped her of her fluency – a fracturing of indigenous identity. While this happened to her in the 20th century, it happened to my father’s family for centuries through the transatlantic slave trade. I had been considering reclaiming Nanang, my granny’s maiden name, for some time but when my dad died in 2009, the overwhelming grief made me cling to everything that was his. Except ‘Hall’ and all our other family names weren’t his; they had become his through kidnapping, rape, and unspeakable violence. That’s what my poem proud. invites us to grapple with.
Two weeks before Gherdai’s opening, Ajala gave a talk at the Commissioner’s House in front of a copy of a daguerreotype of my ancestor, Mama Doe, who had been taken as a child from Peru and enslaved in Bermuda. She was 13 at the time of Emancipation. Mama Doe later married Joseph Dill, who had been enslaved by the Dill family. She and Joseph had 14 children. Ajala talked about how discarding his Bermuda surname discarded the spirit of the enslaver-rapist who broke into his Ancestor’s body and produced his line. As a survivor of rape, I realised part of my healing lay in acknowledging that level of violence in my ancestral line.
I then came to Gherdai’s opening and, prior to her talk, I found myself alone in the exhibition room. Seeing the composites of Black faces with familiar surnames juxtaposed alongside the African names she had reclaimed for them was further affirmation that I could no longer stomach an enslaver’s brand of ownership on my identity.
I visited it several times over the months and the penultimate day of the exhibition was the day I registered my deed poll. Ancestral spiritual practice is grounded in ritual and the exhibition was there from the beginning to the end for me. It was the closing of a circle. It saddens me that the pandemic was surging at so many times during that exhibition as the whole island should have experienced it. From the black and white composites that filled the walls through to the colourful, rich, dynamic, mixed media oil paintings – it truly was a celebration of the survival and resilience that we Black Bermudians share.
BNG: How does art help us to tell our stories?
LN: Art is immortal, and so are our stories. The Bambara people of Mali use the word Jali to describe a storyteller or what the colonising French called Griot. Jali also means blood. In Yoruba, another West African language, Egun means Ancestors – it also means bone. For me, artists are keepers of memory, and we convey memories we don’t even know we have, but live deep in our blood and our bone. Trauma lives there, but so does our healing. This is so necessary for those of us who have been so disconnected from our ancestral stories. Truthfully, white supremacy and colonisation did this to everyone, including Europeans when they were brought under the umbrella of whiteness and their indigenous connections to their lands were erased. I believe all people can use art to reclaim truth, power and healing – to tell the stories they’re meant to and not the ones we’ve been told about ourselves.
Follow Liana on Instagram here.