In Conversation – Shiri Achu: “I’m Not Afraid To Create My Own Market”
Shiri Achu’s art comes from everyday, unsurprising yet unexpectedly vivid moments, times, places and objects, and her aim is to showcase the diversity of African culture. The Cameroonian born but London based artist has exhibited her work in various cities around the world, including; Adelaide, Lisbon, Barcelona, Amsterdam, Las Vegas and Chiang Mai. As she returns to London with her second solo exhibition – ‘35 In Print: London’ – she tells me why she is not afraid to create her own market and her passion for telling stories about African culture through her work.
Belinda: What stirred your passion for painting?
Shiri Achu: I have always had an inherent need to be creative and the way I choose to express myself was through drawing, then painting. Painting was something I loved and needed to do and develop. I was extremely blessed that my parents were supportive and encouraged my passion for it. I was 9, and we had moved into our new home and my brother recalls me finding some artist materials such as paints and paint brushes. I’m told this is how I acquired my first artist materials and this is how I started painting.
You an architect by profession, how does your work as an architect influence your paintings and vice versa?
I’m very lucky that both are creative fields. Having worked for Foster and Partners and Scott Brownrigg Architects, I learned a certain discipline I now transfer to my art world. In Architecture, a single space, even a perfect square space could be designed in so many various ways. In so doing, I have developed a habit to have options and think of the same thing/space in very different ways. I have transferred this habit of options to my art work because I now always think of the alternative; maybe a different colour or angle. I weigh the options out in my head most of the time before applying it. Sometimes however, it’s not enough to simply weigh the options out in my head, so I find myself painting over it again until it sits right with me. Also, in architecture, while we learn about making beautiful, interesting spaces, we also learn about perspectives, views, and the space around the space being of utmost importance too, to form a collaborative whole. In art, in thinking about the space around the space, you are somewhat working on the composition of the piece. Art influences my architecture as it makes me less rigid and allows me to really exercise my creative thinking before looking further into the design to make it work spaciously and developing it technically. The two disciplines, art and architecture, are interwoven/married in a way that they feed off each other beautifully.
What influences the themes of your work?
When I started painting, I simply enjoyed the notion of putting paint on paper/canvas/board and creating various effects with my paintbrush. During that time I knew I had to learn techniques because to truly narrate what I wanted to say I had to have the painterly technique to do so. Thus the theme of my work then was everything I saw and had interest in. An orange, an egg, flowers etc. At 18, just as I was heading out to University to embark on my architectural journey, I saw an ad inviting all local artists to submit paintings based on the theme of carnival. At this point, I had a severe passion for colours and very painterly paintings, if that makes any sense, so I jumped at the opportunity and created two paintings for the group exhibition. I sold my first painting then! So excited about my sale, I went off to university and throughout the course I tried to incorporate paintings into my final design projects as much as I could. When I qualified, I realised that I had not seen much of the world so I travelled! From Hong Kong to Lisbon, from New York to Dubai, from Nigeria to The Cayman Islands, from Jamaica to Paris, then Sweden, then Berlin etc I was inspired by my travels, but no place was more inspiring than Cameroon and Africa at large! I remember when I went back to Cameroon after a long time away, on my return back to London I had this longing and deep desire to just paint everything I had seen! I had taken thousands and thousands and thousands of pictures knowing that I will be revisiting them at some stage. I did. My first solo exhibition in London ‘The 30th Act’ was at the St Augustine’s tower in Hackney in April 2010. This exhibition really breaks down my passions and inspirations for my paintings. The exhibition was divided onto 3 floors. The first on Carnival – For I love capturing the colours, movements, and joy of carnival and bringing that joy to homes. The second floor was on general works that inspire me such as meat and my travels, and the third floor was works inspired from Cameroon and Africa.
It is your goal to promote Cameroonian culture though your paintings, why have you taken on this task and what is the story about Cameroonian culture that you want to tell the world?
I wish they already knew. The truth is I don’t think they do! I don’t think many know of the beautiful Cameroon culture. I visited Kenya and came back mesmerised by the Maasai and their culture – I thought, hold on, I already knew the Maasai even before I went there! I then made a painting ‘Maasai tone’ which is now actually one of my best selling prints and people recognise it as the ‘Maasai’ instantly – even though the men in the painting are faceless! They are recognised just by their stance and their robes. I’m fascinated by that. Now if I could only get that sort of worldwide recognition for a single tribe in Cameroon that would be fantastic. Cameroon is known as Africa in miniature – it contains everything that is on offer in Africa, all the climate changes are experienced, there are 250 different dialects and very diverse cultures and practices in each region. I remember having a beautiful childhood, playing bare footed at the back of the house, the food and the friendly and peaceful nature of its people. There is so much Cameroon has to offer and it saddens me that over the years the Cameroon I remembered dilapidated. I paint to revive and express the culture and the spirit of its people. I paint to educate people who know nothing or don’t know much about Cameroon and aim for them to learn something about Cameroon.
‘1.1.11 Baforchu celebrates’ was a piece inspired by 2011’s New Year. We had travelled to Baforchu, the village I come from and we visited the palace for the New Year festivities. The sight was a glory to behold. The traditional wear worn, known as the ‘toghu’ was spectacular on the day, I had to do paintings, and swiftly included it in my solo exhibition at The Tabernacle in April 2012. The response was great! Not only because people were really taken by the celebratory spirit and atmosphere but because up close, you could see and feel the three dimensions of the painting. Overall the piece received a very positive response which was fantastic! People really were intrigued by the traditional wear and the atmosphere captured in the painting.
Some of your work – for example, your painting of animal hearts, your love for painting raw meat and human flesh have drawn on words like ‘confused’ and the need for interrogation. As the artist behind the work, what you do want to expose, examine and explore through them?
I love to paint the flesh. The layers, the folds or smoothness, the tones and textures you see when you look deeply intrigue me. I also love to paint flesh because I love to apply an ample amount of paint when I paint – so the combination is pure heaven…If I could have people sit for me in their birthday suites, this would be great… but in today’s busy world, people do not have the time to do that so I shall make do and work with the images I capture on photograph. I’m currently working on a new collection of works incorporating the naked flesh of predominantly the African woman. This, I am hoping, will be a major exhibition.
What social narratives do you want your paintings to evoke in people when they come in contact with your work?
Because of the various perspectives we have of Africa, I like to explore and portray happiness not usually explored and showcased. Despite all, in our rich culture we cannot fail to thank our God for the blessings. Africa is beautiful. Its people, its culture, its colours, its smells and its languages, and I want all people, who don’t know the culture, to be intrigued by the visuals I create. I want people, who know the culture, to have a nostalgia for home/Africa and the good old days that was and that are yet to come.
What are some of the challenges you have encountered as an African/Cameroonian artist living in the diaspora?
Firstly, because my work is predominantly on Africa, its people and culture but I’m not surrounded by the very place and people that inspire my work. This is challenging. So, often, I must travel back home and elsewhere in Africa to get inspiration to do more printings. It is always challenging putting up solo exhibitions. I have to produce pieces I will be excited to exhibit, find a great venue, do the publicity, advertising, promoting it and selling it. There is a lot to do if you don’t have help and have to work on your own especially since I started making signed limited prints, I have found that the amount of work I have to do now has increase. To date, I’m still working on my own as I’m not signed to any galleries. There have been opportunities but unfortunately none really materialised. Although I’m not overtly concerned with gaining recognition from and being accepted by the art establishment it would be nice to get signed by a leading gallery where I would be invited to hold group and solo shows and sell at serious prices. In the meantime and until that happens, I’m not afraid to create my own market and work very hard to make it succeed.
You had your first solo exhibition in Douala, Cameroon in 2011, elaborate on the experience of exhibiting your work in your country of birth?
My first solo exhibition in Cameroon was very special – It was great to finally show my work to the Cameroonian people, the inspiration for a huge part of my work. It was very positive. I didn’t expect it as I thought they might just think, well, we see this everyday, but I was pleasantly surprised when they appreciated seeing the works. A renowned Cameroonian artist came to the opening and shook my hands to congratulate me particularly because he had not expected that the works were created by a woman. I found it odd that they didn’t believe the artist was female, and with that I really would love the stereotype of male and women jobs to end. A woman is capable of doing anything she sets her mind to and all women should really aim to reach the highest stars they can attain!
35 In Print: London opens at The Strand Gallery on 19 April
For more information, go to: The Strand Gallery
Image of Shiri Achu by Suki Mok