“It’s important to be close to where I live. I’m a night owl, and so if I have an idea in the middle of the night, I can get to the studio straight away”
The floor of Adelaide Damoah’s high-ceilinged and brightly lit studio is covered in a layer of intense pink purple that comes from a very fine powder that she’s just used in one of her latest series of body print paintings. It’s a luscious shade, the kind of pigment that will never come out of anything it touches, and sure enough, fuchsia-coloured footprints can be traced leaving the studio and towards Adelaide’s apartment nearby.
Adelaide is Creative Land Trust’s latest addition in a group of Artist Ambassadors that help champion the work we do. I visited Adelaide’s studio at Bowarts’ Thamesmead Lakeside Studios location in October of this year as part of one of Creative Land Trust’s team days, which we base in a different London studio location each month. But today, on a cold damp grey November afternoon, Adelaide and I speak from our respective workspaces across London by video call to discuss her work.
The Lakeside location is a studio complex housing 30 artist studios and a public café. In collaboration with housing association and developer Peabody, artists are offered the opportunity of affordable residential and studio rents within proximity of each other in Thamesmead. A large-scale regeneration project is in progress there , and some of the old residential stock is available at very affordable prices until they will be taken down and redeveloped. Bow Arts has a 30-year term lease on the Lakeside complex from Peabody and the expectation is that affordable artist accommodation will be made available across this period as well. Adelaide occupies one of their current accommodation units.
So, why Thamesmead? As it happens Adelaide’s family is from Greenwich, “I grew up around the corner in Welling and my aunt lives in Thamesmead. It’s very familiar to me, it feels like home. I love travelling, and while I am always interested in extended residencies abroad that will be significantly career enhancing, I often won’t need it; I can have a permanent residency right here”. The arrival of Bow Arts in Thamesmead felt like a perfect fit for her practice, which currently centres on using her own body.
Adelaide makes large scale, layered, durational performative work, with a wide range of materials. This requires the room that a studio provides, away from a home environment: a messy space when she can leave that way and contain any dangerous materials, before retreating to her living space, which is an equally important thinking and research space for her. “It’s important to be close to where I live. I’m a night owl, and so if I have an idea in the middle of the night, I can get to the studio straight away. The safety aspect of this is important especially as a woman; I need that privacy and security to be comfortable enough to work, particularly when there’s no one around”. She often works with difficult topics, conceptually but also physically. It means stretching herself to a level of near discomfort and so that safe place is crucial to helping her to commit to these endurance pieces.
If she didn’t have a studio, she says she would probably be confined to academic work and perhaps photographic processes like cyanotype printing. During the Covid pandemic she found herself focusing on drawing, a result of not having access to the materials she would normally use, and yet it was an incredibly prolific time for making for her.
Prior to Covid, Adelaide had started researching a project, with the purchase of 204 out of print books called the ‘Colonial Project’, a series of instruction manuals of sorts about the British Empire. This helped her begin a series of works called ‘Confronting Colonialism’. Adelaide was born in the UK, a “daughter of the British Empire and Ghanaian parents” as she puts it. Ghana was, at the time her parents moved to the UK still the British Gold Coast. The project investigates among other things, photographs of her grandmother, whom she knows little about. Adelaide tries to uncover narratives about her heritage and the histories being passed down by family members. She hopes to spiritually connect to her ancestry by channelling through the work she does and with meditations reconnect with her past.
Adelaide Damoah, Moon cycle, period, full moon. This week, I have simultaneously experienced intense pleasure and excruciating pain, 2021 (Left Image). Adelaide Damoah, Dreams Of Overcoming No. 2, 2020, Cyanotype, ink and 24 carat gold leaf on hand made cotton paper (Right Image).
Art making is not something that runs perceptibly through her family, Adelaide considers. Nonetheless, she always had the instinctive urge to create. Adelaide began working as an artist in 2005, but she started her career in business and sales. She became hooked on art making when taking her GCSE in Art. She remembers a moment of inspiration on a secondary school museum trip to a Frida Kahlo exhibition, “It was the first time I realised I could be my own subject as a way expression, working with self-portraiture as a method of working autobiographically. It became cathartic” she explains, “a way of dealing with my teen angst”.
After secondary school though, Adelaide was persuaded to follow a path in science, her other passion, rather than towards the unlikely career potential in art. She continued to make art obsessively and friends, family and colleagues knew her for it. “I lived in a one-bedroom flat and the walls were covered in my paintings, because I had nowhere else to store them” she remembers. Friends would come to visit and end up buying a painting for £100 or £200.
It was only while being forced into taking leave from work due to illness caused by the long-standing condition of Endometriosis that she suffers, that she had time to develop her practice enough to realise that she could potentially make a life out of making art. She didn’t know other artists, anyone in the artworld, or many of the institutions or mechanics of the artworld or how it worked. That created a strength for her, she says, and allowed her to go into the sector opportunistically like in any sales job, networking with people she thought might be influential in helping her get a leg up, people she might not otherwise have approached. Some of these, often men, tried to take advantage of her situation, but she wouldn’t stand for it. She recounts a story of one individual who offered her substantial investment towards putting together an exhibition, but there were to be compromising terms attached. Adelaide declined the funds and instead took two years fundraising by asking friends and family to sponsor new canvases, all of which ended up in an exhibition of hers in central London.
Adelaide recounts other situations where she has felt put in compromising positions as a black female artist in the artworld. It is perhaps why the body, and specifically her own, features so prominently in her work. In her 2017 work ‘This is Me, the Inconsistency of the Self’, Adelaide creates painted prints of her own body against a blank canvas. They respond to Yves Klein’s 1960 series, the ‘Anthropometries’ performances. She reflects on the work’s beauty and power, but when she delved into the performances themselves was struck by the power imbalance between the artist, a white middle class man presented in his tuxedo and gloves, and the young female naked performers who were instructed and moved around the room in front of an audience, also fully clothed in dinner outfits. To reclaim the passive, objectified nature of these performers, Adelaide created her own feminist series of performances and paintings, where she becomes both the creator and the muse to the artwork.
That work also responds to the male gaze and historical references of black women in art, subjects often who go unnamed, often in support of a white person or used as a contrast to whiteness. “I felt powerful in the moment of making those works, I had agency”; these performances often took place in predominantly and historically white spaces.
I asked Adelaide what barriers slowed her from starting off, and she didn’t hesitate to reply: money. Her family was not wealthy, and so she hustled working twelve-hour days to pay the bills and for materials. Studio practice (in her flat to begin with) had to take place on weekends, and so getting a degree in Art was out of the question. The first ten years of her practice were self-taught. She was able to get a bursary to take the summer course ‘Curating Conversations’ at the Royal College of Art, and from the connections she made there, she built a network of contacts to foster her practice. She was only able to clear the decks when an individual asked to buy a couple of her paintings, and after that, agreed to become her patron, paying her a monthly stipend until she was able to get on her feet fully.
It was reported in a recent study that systemic issues around access to the creative industries create real life barriers that continue today, “Class-based exclusion is inextricably linked with gender, racial, disability and spatial disparities, and… [research] has shown how these factors interact to compound disadvantage”. In London, “if you are white and privileged the odds of working in a creative role are one in five – double the chance of those from ethnic minority, working-class backgrounds also living in the Capital”1. This figure is further exacerbated in the visual art sector where the likelihood of making a living from an art practice is perceived as far less viable.
In this period after the pandemic, Adelaide has returned to the ‘Confronting Colonialism’ project, with reinvigorated energy to uncover more about her own identity and history through her art making. I ponder that these activities, like Frida Kahlo’s portraiture work before, will undoubtedly help create a space and discourse that helps empower others, for a next generation of those who might otherwise have perceived barriers within the artworld, that may now instead find opportunities to be inspired, start discussions, and express themselves through their own creative outlets.