Art Culture

Black History Month: Highlighting black artists – Saoirse Amira Anis

Even though black history should always be taught, understood and thought about, this year’s Black History Month feels even more urgent after the recent growth of the Black Lives Matter movement. Scotland is not exempt from racial issues, and can learn a lot from the Black Lives Matter mural trail, organised by Wezi Mhura.

The young artist Saoirse Amira Anis took part in this mural trail with her 2020 work We Can Still Dance:

On her Instagram (@moroccanstylechicken), Anis states that she took inspiration “from the negative impact of Hollywood’s Magical Negro trope,” and that she “wanted to flip this to reinforce Audre Lorde’s idea that caring for ourselves as black women is an act of political warfare and allows us to define our own destiny (and dance).” The declarative font of the statements on the first and second boards establish the process of self-definition that Anis seeks. These statements are illuminated by the brightness of the light in each piece, which is augmented again by the contrasting shadows, especially in the sand dunes.

Dancing features in many of Anis’s works, revealing her process of self-definition and also a sense of personal freedom and creative process. The movement of such uninhibited dance, which is free from any traditionalist constraints, suggests that black lives can be an artistic practice: physically in the movement and actions of the body, but also metaphysically within consciousness and creative process. Anis’ live artwork and dance, which can be seen on Vimeo (search ‘Saoirse Anis’), elucidates this idea as we watch the movement of the body in a progression of self-definition.

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The creativity of dance, and indeed the visual artwork, mimics the creativity of Anis’s endeavour to define her own destiny. But this creativity is not frail or delicate – as is the traditional western image of dancers – it is robust and resilient, as the powerful declarative statements indicate. However, the statements and the imagery also urge the audience to take a step back from their theorising (of which I am guilty here), and listen to the voices and see the ‘light’ and art of the black community.

Anis’s artistic bounds are not restricted to mural: her 2019 work There’s a Fig Tree on Fairy Lane again combines text and image, which are suspended apart but relate to each other in a nexus of line and colour.

Natural imagery again abounds, but in one page is placed next to a neon pink square, challenging our understanding of hybridity. Blues and sand-colours of desert scenes are strong here too, reiterated by the verse laid beside it: ‘indigo, red, green/and azure blue’. Anis’s poetic talent reminds me so much of the British surrealist Roland Penrose’s 1938 ‘image diary’ The Road is Wider Than Long, where word, photograph and drawing are brought together into one piece. Anis brings this even further into the contemporary scene with memes, photocopied paper and digital effects.

This exploration of contemporary medium is also expressed in her 2020 work Shaiku and Shquiggles, where Anis uses the form of iPhone notes to survey her own artistic career.

This offers an intimate insight into the process of the artist and the anxiety that comes with self-definition. However, the anxiety is coupled with uninhibited ‘shquiggles’, as she calls them, which show us the freedom that can come from artistic development.

Anis writes with excellent dexterity, for example in her 2020 piece Don’t Go To The Cookout. Here she speaks about the solace of finding black joy and love in Tank’s tiny desk concert during an exhausting Black Lives Matter movement, which she says is ‘vital’ and ‘hopeful’ but also ‘a constant reminder of the continued brutalisation of black bodies and the rifeness of anti-black violence.’ The theme gains even greater palpability following the violence enacted against the Dundee Black Lives Matter murals last week – the work of fellow mural artist Sekai Machache was vandalised in Slessor Gardens. Although the urgency of anti-racism should be a constant, these acts make the urgency feel even stronger.

You can donate to the Black Lives Matter Mural Trail here:

Images: Courtesy of Saoirse Amira Anis