The Shades of Noir team had the utmost pleasure of meeting Mary Evans in her studio in Camberwell for a quick chat on what’s she has been up to most recently with her practice and her teaching. With her upcoming new show in April for a retrospective on Frans Masereel in Brussels. We gained an insight into the realities of having a studio for a practicing artist and educator. So can one balance both teaching and making? What of collaborations? Where does contemporary art find itself situated currently? Is it worth getting into to it to begin with? Mary Evans’ down to earth, no nonsense and direct honesty gives us her opinion: [..] ‘With Fine Art there’s no particular formula, you have to make your own way there are so many paths, you kind of have to follow your nose. [..]
SON: In terms of some of the spaces you’ve exhibited your work and had shows within renowned institutions/galleries; how was your navigation and experience as a black women making work centred on the Diaspora and cultural transgressions and migratory displacement working within these big institutions/galleries over the years?
Mary: ‘Not a problem really…I’ve never really had any problems. Like for instance this Masereel show, often I get invited to show work in a group show because of the content of work not in spite of it. So with Masereel, the curator was saying they wanted artists who they felt had some kind of consciousness, social conscience awareness in their work, and that’s why they invited me. So I’ve never felt a need to justify what I do.’
‘I suppose sometimes I’ll say my work is political with a small p. Because I don’t feel like I’m standing on any kind of soapbox trying to educate people. The basis of my work is very much to do with me looking at the world that I found myself in, and trying to understand it.
And I know that a lot of artists do that. Most artists do that. But I also know that the specific issues of diaspora and migration and belonging and alienation are also true for lots of artists. But for me, it’s about coming here as a six year old from Nigeria to London and trying to work out what that means and how you navigate life as an immigrant. And then as someone who’s very integrated in the society that I find myself in. For me it’s really important that I start from the personal perspective that I find myself in. But, the personal is often political.
You start personally, and then it’s magnified. Other people have exactly the same story. You know, it’s not unique to me, at all, It’s not unique to West African People. I’ve been lucky in that ever since College I just apply for things, I enter things and then when you do that people see your work.’
SON: I’m still on my course and we all feel like we have to take every opportunity because you never know what’s going to happen or if it’s going to come back around. But what if the work isn’t right for the space or the audience on offer?
Mary: ‘I think if there’s something you know really isn’t going to work for you then obviously, you know, you shouldn’t take it. But personally, I suppose I live my life by the general rule of if you say no, then that’s it. It’s closed. It’s done. But if you say yes, then there’s a conversation to be had, then there’s negotiation to be had. Then you can see what will happen. But if you say no then that’s it. Conversation closed. Finished. As a rule, I would say, look for things you’re eligible for as well. Because it goes in a kind of timeline. You finish college in your early-ish twenties. There will be things you can apply for as a recent graduate, for two years say. And then there’ll be an up to 30 category, then over 30s. So keep shifting along.
And that’s how you build a track record. By following your nose and applying for things that are suitable for you. I know it can get expensive as well with the application fees that you don’t get back if you don’t get in. But generally, just keep going.
SON: Could you speak to us a bit more about your role within UAL and how teaching has influenced your practice?
Mary: ‘I started teaching at Byam Shaw in 2005, at that point, we were just forming part of Csm, so that’s 11-12 years approx. I currently teach on the BA fine Art course, I also offer Academic Support to Widening Participation Students, I wear lots of hats, I also coordinate the Peer Mentoring Scheme so I try to match second yr students with first yr students to be their mentor and it’s UAL-Wide now. It has had it’s ups and it’s downs, but as a rule, I think it’s a really good idea, it’s just taken a bit of time for people to know about it. I like having different roles, they are three separate roles but to me, they are all connected. For me, teaching is part of my practice as an artist. As an artist I need a job, for years I got a job working in an Art shop for 14 years on and off, then I went to Amsterdam and came back, I started to apply to residencies and then I started very slowly to get jobs, freelance jobs in schools as an educator in schools, hospitals, the National Gallery and then freelancing at the V&A, the Whitechapel. I did all of that for about 12 years. Half of it was partly also working at CSM, I stopped doing the previous type of work in 2012 and now I’ve solely been working at CSM.
I’ve always kind of worked in Arts Education, whether in schools or gallery education or now in university. Everything kind of feeds me, just working with children feed me, watching a child react to a painting in the National Gallery that I’m talking to them about and watching them making responses back in the studio and engaging I just find that really inspiring, I know that might sound a bit high-handed but I do find it inspiring. Working with young artists keeps me informed with what’s going on as well, I just think you can get stuck in a rut, like in many fields. For me teaching is very much give and take, it’s very much an exchange, that’s what I enjoy most about it.
SON: Can it be difficult to find a balance sometimes balancing teaching and studio time?
Mary: ‘It can be difficult, but I freelance, with freelance work you never know if you’re gonna get another contract, so there’s that kind of aspect of – If you’re offered something take it -, and then think after. The holidays are really important because they are decently long, generally. So I can catch up on work. In the winter times I’ll work from home, I’ll do most of the small things at home but larger in the studio, what I find interesting is the women’s work aspect of the work like ‘parceling’ work, like you can do a bit one evening and someone another evening, like a cottage industry, bits here bits there. But summer season I can be in the studio til midnight, I’ve been really luck in the last 10 years of teaching and showing I haven’t had a clash of works, I’ve been really lucky. I don’t take stuff for granted.
SON: Can you speak a bit more about what you mentioned at Iniva, about the recognition of female artists later on in life? You mentioned Phyllida Barlow and her recognition coming later on in her life, could you expand on that?
Mary: ‘When I think back to my friends in college who were with me, they are mainly women who have stopped, or whom have ended up doing something else, or having families. That’s kind of significant because there are so many things in life that aren’t fair, the male artists that I know can carry on because they have a partner, often a women, not always, who supports them and if they have children, etc. I was just interested in Phyllida Barlow because I saw her show at the Tate Britain two years ago, she’s going to represent Britain in this years Venice Biennale and she’s just been talking about how she’s been raising her children and teaching for 30 years and people all of a sudden become interested. I just wonder why do you have to work until you’re in your 70’s? I don’t think that particular scenario happens with men. But I also think it’s great that she is representing Britain and it’s not an artist under 50 or 40 who is representing Britain. You know, you hear about Hollywood and women are kind of written off under 40, in terms of the roles they are offered or sent and the kind of roles they are asked to play and I suppose I’m thankful that it’s not like that as much in Fine Art or in Contemporary Art but there is an aspect of that and also if I think about some of my contemporaries like Sonia Boyce, who is doing really well, she has always had this trajectory where she has pushed and progressed forward, but I just feel as though she is getting more of her dues now, in terms of mainstream institution.
SON: What are your thoughts on the word “griot” and could you speak on your modern day griots and the importance of both storytelling as a historian and on the aspects of memory and remembering within your work.
Mary: ‘I feel like sometimes some people’s attitudes towards artists is that you are someone special. Like the article where I’m described as a ‘griot’, I don’t see myself as anyone special, people think you have some magic powers as an artist and they treat you accordingly a lot of people do and I don’t feel like that.
It’s to do with my personality, the narratives within my work I don’t think are specific, I think it’s a very overall, general awareness or consciousness about diaspora and movement and migration and it could apply to any kind of community of people. I mean, I’m speaking from an African perspective because that’s my perspective, but I feel as though there’s a universal impulse in thinking of how people move around the world and I suppose the ‘griot’ element comes in as though I feel as if I’m telling stories, like those small pieces ‘Vignettes’ like a window into a story. The reason I say that it’s part of my personality is because I have an amazing memory, I remember everything, I remember from when I moved from Nigeria here to the UK, I’m the eldest of my sisters and I am a bit like the family historian. Maybe that’s where that storytelling impulse, maybe more to do with the wanting to remember, to commemorate or mark, I don’t consciously make work to remember though, the only piece I made in that regard were the plates ‘Recollection’ and on-going series but for me they are just about remembering African figures you may not know, you can think of it as recollecting as remembering or re-collecting as making a collection of these people.
SON: Do you feel like it would have been different if you’re family didn’t support you, it would’ve been harder but would you still persist?
Mary: [..] My mum and dad really supported me being an artist, yes there were times where they would worry but you know they are your parents and they want you to be ok, but I never thought ok that’s it I’m gonna pack it in and work in an office, it’s been hard and it’s still hard now, but I want to do what I want to do because I want to do it.
In terms of is, they weren’t as supportive, It would have been harder, I still would’ve done it. I feel lucky that all my sisters are creative and we can talk to each other about what we are doing, and it’s like you were saying, when you leave college it’s as though you’re safety net has been pulled out under your feet, so you have to try and reconstruct that somehow so if you have family support that’s great, but family support isn’t quite it either, like keeping in touch with your peers, seeing each other now and again, not just as mates but as constructive critical meetings that you can have with each other, but I’m lucky I can do that with my sisters who are also artists, but other than that it’s artists friends that I have.
I actually think that now the creative industries are much much more diverse and there’s a lot more going on than when I graduated from BA in terms of start ups, online, etc. When I left BA all we could do is sign on the dolel (jobcentre). I think there is more scope now, parents shouldn’t worry as much as they do. I think it’s just something about Fine Art that worries parents because it seems so undefinable, than perhaps say Graphics which seems more tangible.
M: Have you done any shows you regretted doing, or in retrospect compromised your creative integrity, or pushed you too far in a direction you didn’t want to go in?
Mary: maybe, I’m not sure it’s a commission I did for the NHS for St Thomas Hospital, because I was working with the NHS and the architects and then it was me in the middle, they had appointed me to do the floors in the children’s section of the hospital. There were lots of meetings and they didn’t like much and they were really strict and I didn’t feel as though I had a lot of room to make the work mine, I did in the end even though it was hard, I found it really difficult but it was ok. I don’t work collaboratively as much as a rule.
But I also think it’s quite good to remove yourself out of our comfort zone, for me, Residencies do that, with a change of environment you always do something. I do like working with people, just in other contexts I guess, not in an art context.
When I actually install my work I like to do it alone too, people always want to help me but at that point when I’m pasting onto the wall, I’m still thinking about it, when other people have had to install my work it’s been stressful. But always fine, but I prefer to be the person doing it. It’s part of the piece, because I’m thinking things through, and often I’ll paste and re-paste.
SON: What advice would you give to current students of colour within the arts struggling to choose a path post-graduation and to students struggling on integrating identity politics within their own work?
Mary: ‘I think as an artists you should have a certain amount of integrity, and do what you want for the right reasons, you can only navigate the world from your own lens, yes, we are all influenced by the people around us, friends, family, partners, etc and they are all coming at you at some point with their perspectives, but you are you, and you can only navigate the world through your own eyes and you can only do this once so you’ve got to just make the most of it. [..] I would say the key, and what I would say to any student, is that it’s not going to happen if you’re not making work and putting yourself out there. I know it’s sometimes daunting, but you have to remember that if someone’s contacting you, to show your work, then they support you in some way. They’re interested.
[..] I don’t think you just become famous as an artist when you’re 28, I think it is a long hard slog as a rule, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that either.
My tutor when I finished my MA at Goldsmith’s said: just persevere. That was the best piece of advice that I’ve been given. Just keep going.
Interview by Tiff Webster & Mica Schlosser.