Portia Emily Baker – My work is purposeful

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Camberwell College of Art graduate Portia Baker analysed race, identity and art education.

If your creative work were edible, what would it taste like?

All purpose seasoning lol not on its own, though. Just because I want my work to be able to go with anything, anywhere, for everyone.

Your technical drawing ability is amazing! When did you know you wanted to be an artist ?

Thank you, I think it wasn’t until year 11 that I started drawing in my spare time as well as doing my art homework. It was an easy way for me to express myself and document things.



What inspires you?

I find inspiration in everything. My work is constantly changing but since my dissertation, my work has been mainly race related. I am interested in stereotypes and the view of black people, especially in Britain, as I have found that this area is not particularly well documented within art and the creative industries.

What challenges have faced?

I often find when working with race related art that I censor myself so that I don’t  offend or am told that I don’t know how something feels because I am not black or white, just part of both races. Being mixed race doesn’t negate my blackness.

In your artist statement for the Black Blossoms Exhibition, you say “ Basic education on positive black figures was denied to me by the British education system “ what impact has this had on you and how have you dealt with this?

Studying at Camberwell forced me to investigate my race and identity as an artist. I was one of a few black students. We are in the middle of Camberwell in South-East London and the residents of the area are predominantly African and Caribbean, but the university was extremely white.  

In my final year, I  started to consider myself as a black British artist. The learning and social environment, the attainment gap, knowing because of the colour of my skin that I could be destined to get a lower grade than my white peers. I felt like my work needed to be purposeful.

I focused on these issues and questions surrounding race, researching Black artists which had never been introduced to me through my art education.

From the time that we enter the British education system, we are taught to celebrate and learn about predominately white men and women. There is no mention about what other races have contributed to British society. This history excludes positive black figures, which then renders them invisible.

Without positive black figures, we are made to feel they don’t and won’t exist. Throughout schooling, I was only taught about white innovators and artists. By the time I got into uni I felt so disconnected to the people I was being taught about that I distanced myself from lectures and began working away from the studios.

Luckily in my second year, I attended a lecture given by a Black British artist that changed my perception of art and questioned things I had been taught. After listening to a positive Black role model speak about his work and speak about some historical events I felt should not have been left out of my history lessons I began my own research.

In schools you’re being shown imagery that is false and white washed, such as Andromeda from Greek mythology, Andromeda is depicted as a white woman with red hair in countless paintings, (some of which are in educational British galleries/ museums) but when she was written about through history she was described as an Ethiopian princess so it is confusing that one would come to the assumption that she was white. We are either being told that ok we know that she was black but a white female is the ideal of beauty or she is white because all great stories in the world are based on white people.

One could argue that that could be quite damaging if all gods and goddesses in academic books are portrayed as white when through research you can find that that is not the case.

It took me a long time to even know this was going on, now I have to make a conscious effort when reading different facts to make sure they are accurate and not just made up stories we are force fed.

What are the positives of having multiple cultural outlooks and how does this manifest in your creative practice?

I feel I am able to have a balanced view as I am aware of social issues.

By Speaking about things from a personal perspective amongst my family I hear why they have views that differ from each other, which allows me to understand some things from an insiders, view allowing me to debate and challenge views I come across.

Although my background gives me the freedom to work from my different cultural experiences it also reminds me to try and create work, which is inclusive and doesn’t isolate anyone by being too confrontational.

Tell us about your portraits at the Black Blossoms exhibition.

My portraits are Excerpts from my degree show piece which was an exploration of my identity through my family. I initially drew 81 portraits of my family members The work acts as a self-portrait of sorts, investigating the different hues, types of hair and face structures of each family member. For the black blossoms exhibition, I exhibited 20 drawings of women in my family. I chose family members who would be considered as Black British, I also included my mother although she is white she created a strong foundation for me where I was able to feel as though I was enough and able to do anything, regardless of what I look like and others opinions.

What advice would you give to young black artists?

At university, I started meeting with a group of black artists who had already formed a friendship. We ended up forming a black art group. I would advise black artists who are dealing with race within their work to form a group like this at University.

It will allow you to discuss issues you may face being in a predominately white institution. Share feelings and frustrations. You can ask the group to help you critique your work. In a classroom crit you sometimes feel as if your work is being critiqued based on a individual racial tolerance level rather than technical ability. Lasty, being in this group reminded me that I am not alone.

Great advice and thank you for talking to Shades of Noir. Where can our readers see more of your work?

Website: www.portiaemily.com

Twitter: @Thisisazarra

This interview is part of the #BlackBlossomsExhibit series.

Black Blossoms highlights the voices of Black Women in Higher Education and creative industries. The exhibition is open from 11 July – 2 October at UAL Showroom.