Cultivating a meditative paradise.
‘Afrofuturist’ is what best describes London based artist and illustrator Charlotte Edey’s practice, which envisions an idyllic place or state. Mostly manifested through the representation of a particular hairstyle, the majority of Edey’s figures embody women of colour. The artist, whose own heritage is mixed, admits not having encountered much variety of ethnicities when growing up, being this a stimuli for exploring ‘a bit of herself’ in her depictions. Steeping her work in the cosmos, the artist enables stimulant experiences, including tactility, fragility, contemplation, and balance, through her use of symbolic motifs that incorporate natural elements – being these delicate pearls, suspended leaves, and ethereal landscapes, combined with architectural components. Edey, who hasn’t been academically trained, is committed to experimenting with materials. And what started off with an investigation into ceramics, has now resulted into a playful exploration of concrete, prints, and tapestries, amongst other mediums. Her commissioned work is impossible to miss – from illustrating Miu Miu’s fragrance ‘Fleur d’Argent’ to making 30 ‘spiritual and conforting’ illustrations for ‘The Spirit Almanac’ published by Penguin. This prominent artist is taking the best out of her illustrative input, and combining the learnings of these commissions into her own work.
You undertook an Arts Foundation at Chelsea College of Arts, however you didn’t carry on studying, but rather start making. In this context, do you think you have a ‘DIY’ or ‘craft’ approach to your practice as a response to not having been academically trained to make art?
I was really aware of not having a degree, and the difficulty of experimenting with materials independently. I’ve worked with ceramics, concrete and tapestries over the years and I’m always looking to push my work beyond illustrating. I think my approach to working is probably more playful than academic, in that it really is just trying something and seeing what happens. It’s not always successful but it’s always fun.
You mentioned that in your childhood, you were always interested in drawing. Where you fascinated by certain objects or motifs as a child? Have you kept on drawing these motifs since then?
A lot of my interest in drawing came from reading. I was always reading and it was usually fantasy, which definitely explains the interest in world-building! I would usually draw things I couldn’t or hadn’t seen rather than what was in front of me.
There seems to be a very ‘digital’ aspect in your handmade works… and I understand you’ve worked as a graphic designer aside from your art practice. Does this graphic training influence your compositions, soft change in scale or perspective decisions?
I still work in graphic design and it definitely informs how I approach compositions. Graphic design has made me more aware and interested in perspective, accuracy and simplicity. It’s important to me that my works are legible, even if the themes, characters and objects inhabiting them are uncanny.
Your past work was quite static and monochrome, however your current practice involves color, movement, architechture, and landscape. What can you tell us about your “Pools” work, which seems to have shifted your practice?
Pools was the first ‘self portrait’ I ever did, where I consciously placed myself in the work. It was the first piece that combined the fine-liner elements with colour, pencil and the scale that I started to explore after. It was odd, I realised after I made the work that it coincided with when I stopped relaxing my hair and returned to my natural texture, so there’s a poignancy in that shift for me.
The figures you introduce in your works have a characteristic hairstyle, which could be associated to a particular ethnic group or race. What can you tell us about your choice of ‘hair’, and is it a reflection of yourself?
Most of my characters are women of colour. My heritage is mixed Caribbean and my hair was always my defining feature, so there is a bit of me in it but curly and kinky hair beyond my own features heavily in my work. It’s important to me to create and represent characters that I didn’t see when I was younger.
There seems to be recurring motifs in your works, such as hands, eyes, liquid or pearls. Do these symbolise anything particular? Would you agree in saying these emblems seem quite sensual on a first glance?
I agree. There’s a femininity and softness associated with all of them and a tactility I’ve always been drawn to. Hands in particular I love. For me, it’s such a visceral sensation of touch that really pulls you into an image.
You beautifully quoted Virginia Woolf ‘s essay “A Room of One’s Own” in our recent conversation. In this context, are you consciously referencing experiences of isolation and intimacy in your works?
I was talking to a friend about it and we were joking that my work was like ‘A Planet of One’s Own’. The essay moves me on a few levels. There’s a quiet radicalism in the idea of creating and taking up space. There can be sanctuary found in isolation, in a place to reflect, preserve and grow – free from any external expectation. There is power in representation and visibility of women, particularly women of colour, occupying space. There is an optimism in building a space: the very act of it looks forward and creates possibility.
There is something quite meditative about looking at your works. Are these topics of wellbeing, equilibrium, balance, spirituality or fluidity a response to today’s visually charged environments, with non-stop internet connectivity?
I’m really pleased you feel like that. I think there’s a resistance in being able to reach a space that feels somewhere near meditative between the incessant stream of information. I read a really beautiful piece about wellbeing within afrofuturism that articulated it perfectly: ‘The beauty of afrofuturism lies in its boundlessness. Afrofuturism makes space to investigate who we are, where we come from, where we’re going and how we’ll get there. It quickens us to cultivate a paradise that is of our own making.’
Comissions play a large role in your practice. What can you tell us about your most recent commissions for Penguin Random House and for Miu Miu? When will these launch, and how do these commissions make you reconsider your ‘function or role’ as an artist?
I was lucky enough to illustrate The Spirit Almanac, written by Emma Loewe and Lindsay Kellner and published by Penguin Random House. The commission was 30 full colour illustrations to accompany the book and it was the first time I’ve been able to devote whole months to one project. It’s very spiritual and comforting, it was so lovely to follow the book through while I was illustrating it. It will be released on October 16th – I’m so excited to see it put together! For Miu Miu, I was asked to create three pieces for their latest fragrance. I loved the idea of visualising a scent – it’s so multilayered, and drawing attention to everything that makes the scent really invites you to deconstruct it. I pulled from the separate floral ingredients, the bottle, the scent undertones and the sensation of the fragrance itself to create worlds that embody the different elements of Fleur d’Argent. I consider myself both an illustrator and artist, and I enjoy the challenge of interpreting a brief. I’ve found it really useful in learning how to weave narrative into my own work.
You are going to be part of a female surrealist show at T J Boulting, curated by Katy Hessel. What work will you present and how does your work fit in with the rest of the artists in the show?
I will be exhibiting ‘Quiet’ tapestry for the show. The premise of the exhibition is create artistic conversations between historic and contemporary women artists; artists include Lee Miller, Barbara Hepworth, Alice Neel, Maisie Cousins & Juno Calypso so it’s a really amazing meet of artists working across different mediums. In terms of personal influence, Lee Miller’s meet of surrealism and striking simplicity I’ve always adored. I really respond to Barbara Hepworth’s drawings too, they feel really transient; it’s like watching her searching for the shapes she would later create.
Ceramics, concrete, tapestry or printing are just some of the mediums you employ. What’s next for you?
I have just started playing with wire drawings that also incorporate some of the objects that I draw in my work. I’d like to expand these into installation works that inform the tapestries and drawings by deconstructing the recurring elements.. it’s very early days!
Words by Vanessa Murrell