The bright colours and bold stance of Whining Queen greet you with confidence as you enter the 2020 Bermuda Biennial. Taking up an entire wall of the Humann Gallery, Niamah Frith’s fabric and chalk pastel portrait, which the artist describes as “an examination and celebration of the black feminine body, a site of resistance, power and resilience” sets the tone for the exhibition which provides a crucial platform for Bermuda’s contemporary artists.
The artwork, which the recent graduate created as a final piece for her BA in Fine Art, marks her first time exhibiting in the Biennial and pays homage to both the crafts passed down by the women in her family and the sense of freedom she found in working with textiles. “This work takes apart and puts back together the politics of my culture, femininity and the things that have been handed down to me as truths” she explains.
We sat down with Naimah, who is currently teaching the Bermuda National Gallery Art + Tech Summer Camp programme alongside education officer Louisa Bermingham, to discuss the Biennial, breaking free of the constraints imposed by a traditional art education and why she has wanted to teach art since she was six years old.
BNG: Could you please tell us about the background to Whining Queen?
NF: I made the artwork last year in my studio class during my last semester at the Nova Scotia College of Fine Art (NSCAD). Before taking the studio class, I had been in other drawing classes where the focus was on traditional mediums such as charcoal, oil painting and acryclic. I had a really hard time connecting with the class. It simply wasn’t doing it for me. So I asked one of my teachers if I could do something else and call it drawing. That started out with wire and led to a sculpture piece using wool, which was where fabric came in for the first time.
BNG: What drew you to use more tactile mediums?
NF: I like working with my hands. I always have done. I guess that drawing is also a way of working with your hands but I enjoy seeing something come off of a page, to have the chance to mould it and shape it. To feel. The approach in the drawing class was incredibly precise and it felt too prescriptive. It gave me a good foundation to build on and go outside of but I found it very frustrating. My classmates were very good at taking such a figurative approach, which I admired, but I wasn’t interested in capturing things in the same way.
Being from Bermuda, I also had a different language in colour. I’ve always been drawn to bright and bold colours and I was a bit embarrassed about my colour sense at first. I felt like I wasn’t doing it correctly as the other works were very muted. I come from a very bright place where everything is colour! I had to figure that out how to translate that which took some time.
I continued to make things with other materials in drawing class and then I went on to studio classes which was where I first started experimenting with fabric. That was fun. I liked the challenge of it. I loved being able to take two very different textiles and transform them into something that made sense together. I enjoyed using materials that wouldn’t usually be appreciated and incorporating them into my artwork. I really enjoy (fellow Bermuda Biennial artist) Gherdai Hassell’s work for that same reason. Her artworks are so vibrant and I admire how she incorporates a lot of different ways of making art into a single piece.
BNG: Have you always sewn?
NF: Before I started sewing the fabric in the way I do now, I used to create sewn portraits. I would draw the face on a canvas which I would then sew, incorporating scraps of material to create the portrait. It was a very time intensive process and not conducive to art school as you move so quickly through projects!
I don’t think I’ll go back solely to that way of working but I do think that there is a place for it in my practice. Back then, the sewing was the main focus of the work; whereas now the fabric takes centre stage and the sewing compliments it. Both ways of working use the same materials and mediums but I’ve switched their importance.
BNG: Do you think of Whining Queen as being part of a larger body of work?
NF: It’s the beginning of a series, in the same way that each of the other pieces are part of a series that led me here. They are all women; usually mother figures, working women. This figure would be a younger, freer woman. I’m very drawn to and inspired by motherly women in my life and I tend to make art about them. My family also has a history of craft making, specifically women’s craft, which has been passed down to me. I’m currently working on more pieces as a response to Whining Queen. I never saw her as just one thing. Just one piece. She has a lot more women to accompany her on her journey.
Being back in Bermuda, I don’t currently have access to the same selection of fabrics that I did in Canada, which is difficult. It has made me change the way I work. I used to plan my piece by sketching it out, planning the colour scheme and earmarking specific fabrics which I would then source. Now, I have to start with the fabrics that are available and make it work from there. I have turned to collecting personal, used, fabrics since I can’t select exactly what I want at the moment. This adds another layer to the work. Each piece of fabric has its own life. Its own story.
BNG: What was it like to be able to work on a bigger scale at college? Was it quite freeing?
NF: I was actually really scared. It was very nerve wracking. I felt like I should have been comfortable but I wasn’t. Up until that point someone else had always had full control of everything that I had been doing – the size, the subject, the material. When you are at school you are limited by the materials and the space available to you. You only have your desk to work with. Then you get to art college where have your own studio space. You can make all the mess you want. You can go as big as you want. Suddenly everything was up to me.
Even now, teaching the BNG Summer Camp programme, we’re telling the kids what materials to use and that constrains how big it can be. Which is needed. We need rules in life. But when that is gone the freedom can be quite overwhelming. That was definitely a challenge for me when I got to art school. But it was a good struggle to go through. I was able to figure it out and it made my work stronger. I had to find my own voice.
BNG: You have been working as a para-educator at Dellwood Middle School this past year. What’s next?
NF: I would like to be an art teacher. I’m going back to school in September to do my MA at Kean University in New Jersey. It’s a dual programme with a focus on both teaching and fine art. I get my teaching certificate and then go on to the masters where I get to deepen my artistic practice.
I have wanted to be an art teacher ever since I was 6 years old. I had a brilliant art teacher in primary school, Miss Friday at West Pembroke, who taught me in P2. Her classes were so fun! I have wanted to be an art teacher ever since. I remember being very struck by her and wanting to teach art, not just make art. The classes were so fun to go to and we would explore different materials. I enjoyed the freedom of the art class. There was no right or wrong answer. The answer was whatever you wanted it to be.
BNG: You’ve just finished teaching the first week of the BNG Art + Tech Summer Camp. What has that been like?
NF: Teaching the summer camp has been a learning experience for me. The students have an amazing sense of freedom that we often lose as we get older. They are very open to trying different things. They are not confined by the rules, which is very different to the way that I was taught in art college.
The students are teaching me to be a little more forgiving in my own art making process and I’m also teaching them the same thing. They can be hesitant about whether or not what they are making is good art. I don’t want them to have that mindset as it can really hold you back. They need to understand that there is no such thing as good art. That was a huge challenge that I had to face when I got to art college. I worried that I couldn’t draw like my classmates. That I couldn’t paint like them. Eventually, I came to the realisation that my classmates couldn’t make a piece the way I did either.
It’s been exciting to see the summer camp students grow in such a short span of time. At first, getting them to draw on a larger scale was a challenge. They were used to working in a small space whereas now they have the whole gallery to themselves. They have been looking at the works in the Biennial, many of which are large in size. We have been encouraging them to make a mess of things and bring it back together into something new – it may be beautiful, ugly, whatever it is. But it is their own.
Click here to learn more about the Bermuda National Gallery Art + Tech summer camp programme.