Interview by Javier Melian. Cover portrait by Emma Zarifi
"I like my work to have a documentary basis. To tell story, to inform" - Joyce Treasure
Once in a while we meet people that change the way we see and understand things. For me Joyce Treasure (street name @joy2see) is one of them. This petite, beautiful, strong, multifaceted, colourful lady has the spirit of a hummingbird. I met her when she was selected for our #TRIBE15 Festival, which was a self curated event where artists collaborated together to make it happen. It was a terrific three days under the roof of a three level victorian warehouse in the heart of London. The vaulted ceilings and spaciousness of the loft attracted her and she settled there. She brought a considerable amount of display materials and artefacts. The day we left I felt so bad as I had to rush her whilst she had to carry all the heavy load on her own three floors down, no lift. She was cursing her way up and down taking things to an impossibly loaded van. I thought she was really angry. I went to her to apologise and say good byes and she beamed the warmest smile at me as if nothing happened but stuff she puts up with on a regular basis. It comes with the territory of being a working artist, mother, entrepreneur in a busy city like London. There and then I leant of the resilience, strength and determination of someone who has to make things work for and by herself and her family.
She is got a matter-of-fact practicality unusual to many artists, but is her integrity what I find most admirable in her character. Using Art to tell a story, to heal people and bring understanding to communities, always being very conscious of her impact in the planet, starting from the very details of the ethical provenance of all materials she uses.
I admire the rawness and strength of her works. Rawness that is not improvised or naive, but a cultured, meticulously researched work the best of historians could feel proud about. Her work "Litany For Those At Sea" is a master piece continuously admired by art lovers all around. Even in the eyes of the portrayed mask, made of postage stamps of the Queen, one can dive for ages on the details and their meaning.
Vibrant colours, majestic compositions and truly recognisable style. Money talks and Joyce's 50 Guineas series are a subversive discourse on nouveau colonialism, just an example of the uncompromising statements in Treasure's works that come from years of tracing history and self discovery.
She is called Treasure for a reason, as a treasure she is for everyone to uncover, appreciate and then admire.
Joyce Treasure on her painting "Litany For Those At Sea”: "... it plays homage to the Idia mask from the Benin Empire. The object was stolen during the Benin Expedition when Britain raided Benin and took fine artefacts that can now be found in the British Museum and around the world. These objects were exquisitely crafted. The Europeans at that time thought that the artworks were so beautifully crafted that they didn’t believe that the objects could have been made by the Edo people and that they must have been made by Europeans. The juxtaposition between the background, made up of pages taken from The Common Prayer Book, and the mask is to acknowledge the union of two cultures and the title is to recognise those that suffered and lost their lives during the Transatlantic Slave Trade."
Treasure’s work often looks at identity and heritage working in layers and body forms to slice cultural and iconic imagery together using collage, print and acrylic. You will be able to find familiar monochrome Afrocentric prints and subversive artwork that sometimes appropriates the queen’s image, usually by making her black or giving the image an African layer to represent colonialism. The hummingbird is her totem animal and it occasionally appears in paintings to portray the lightness of life and presence.
She began painting only five years ago; "I wasn’t sure where I was going with my work, all that I knew was that I wanted to paint and I had to feel something", Joyce says. Her training in photography, silversmithing, documentary filmmaking and scriptwriting lay down the foundation for what was to follow. Joyce's first paintings were monochrome Afrocentric, figurative art and, loosely themed around fashion photography. In that collection she sometimes placed Afro characters in places where Black culture was underrepresented. "I did very little thinking at first and found that the work spoke to me" she adds.
One of her most popular prints, AfroJazz, shows two characters in full jazz swing. The image is a take on a photograph taken by Lord Snowden for a book titled Appearances where the models are poised in an impossible position. In her painting she changes the characters making them Afrocentric. This was done quickly. This approach has partly formed the basis of Treasure's current work, where she has appropriated iconic imagery to create a new setting or manipulated the imagery to display Black culture or history.
And so it is from this documentary style that Treasure's work weaves colonialism through it, hence the postage stamps. "I’m interested in how this translates and rests upon our current state of being and am currently reading up on this. Research research research!! And producing work at the same time. Asking questions always. I enjoy working in a way that is beyond me, from me. It has to have meaning", Joyce says.
Note from the artist: “ The Girl With The Pearl Earring' I chose the name as it relates to a Vemeer painting. Vemeer was a portrait artist during the Dutch Golden Years. A good proportion of the wealth during this period was gained through the transatlantic slave trade. I wished to draw an image I found searching through the internet over a stamp of queen Elizabeth. The actual photo online is that of a boy, but I translated the imagery to depict a girl to give sense to the transient boundaries when relating to identity, heritage and culture. She has been drawn over an image of the queen to pay homage to the untold rich history of African and Caribbean people over time. Their influences in forming Britain and Europe. There are numerous other levels to the piece and its meaning, but I leave this open..."
Joyce also works in a hospice part time, which she loves. Art is therapeutic and as a facilitator she works with the patients to find something that they can make and create. In this they are focussed on that, rather than anything else. "..So lovely. Much laughs and great sharing where I’m learning from the experience and these relationships all the time" she confesses.
Treasure also ran her own jewellery business for twelve years with her ex partner and independently. She is continuously bringing new ideas to live: "I’m also drawn to working in 3D, though I’ve yet to explore this further. I do have a instagram where I propose to stick 3D figures out on the street graffiti style. but I’ve not had time to fully play and work with this. Though I’m beginning to form a stronger idea of how that can look". ( Instagram page @wareartthou )
Identity, heritage and culture are recurring themes in your work. Is there a particular message that you want to convey? How do you relate it to your personal experience?
The work has played a therapeutic role in my life. It has helped me to work out and explore further my relationship with my own identity. Prior to painting I was studying and reading a lot of spiritual teachings. Particularly nonduality teaching. In this practice you come to recognise that nothing is separate, one without a second. It is originally a Hindu practice that refers to the idea that the true Self is the same as the Pure Divine (whatever that is). Yet for most, the world appears separate. And as I see it, in our current state, we are still vibrating out of a colonial past where White supremacist ideals still linger. I create paintings where that past can be sensed or felt, as false. Personally, my work sometimes depicts my own negative and positive experiences growing up as a mixed race girl in an institutionally racist society and how that has formed part of my identity.
How do you choose the themes of your works?
The work seems to inform me. I have one painting, ‘Special Person’ which uses pages from a Gothic German to English Dictionary as the background for a figurative painting. When I first showed this painting as part of a group show with Calabash Of Culture in Sydenham, the owner asked me if I had deliberately used a particular page. My attention was then drawn to the fact that I had used the page listing words beginning with black. Black artist, Blackamoore, and so on. That day, I bought the book ‘Blackamoores - Africans In Tudor England: Their Presence Status and Origins’. The content of that book helped to support some of my ideas for my artwork.
You are a multidisciplinary visual artist; from street art, writing, jewellery etc. What is your favourite media to express yourself?
I love contemporary visual arts, as it’s now so close to me and I still have so much more that I wish to learn, personally and through exploring other artist’s work. The writing is more for creativity expressions such as poetry as a way to express my feelings and relationship with the world. There isn’t the same drive to learn more with writing. I’m quite happy to just write a stream of consciousness that I rework a little, but not to perfection. I don’t get so lost in writing as I do when I paint. Painting feels more organic and non-linear. Street art, I love as I can have a direct connection with people, which is brilliant. It’s also exciting to just say fuck it! I’m owning this space. Mind you I tend to ask permission, as I’m bit of a lightweight and lay no big claim to being a professional street artist. I ran a jewellery business for 12 years as a silversmith but I no longer work with metal. At the time, my partner and I had our own British hallmark, where we combined our surnames Blackwell and Treasure and our company was called Black Treasure. Out there somewhere are pieces of silver and gold (mostly silver) with the hallmark BT inside a double diamond inlay. I also love filmmaking and spent 6 years teaching filmmaking after winning a scriptwriting competition, where my film got made into a 10-min short. That’s how I got to experience working with people, which has been my anchor. I also work part time teaching art to day patients in a hospice, which is very rewarding.
Your art is not about pure aesthetics. You also use it as a tool to promote dialogue in communities, raising awareness on important issues via workshops, installations or interactive experiences. How important is for you this commitment to society? What is the role that art should play in solving global problems?
Art is a great tool for people to express what the world means to them and their role in it. It’s also brilliantly therapeutic in alleviating suffering and bringing people together. It can be effective in raising awareness. I used to facilitate filmmaking and watching a group of young people move from not speaking to one another to producing and making a film is a total joy, as well as hard work. It is here that I have seen children who are classified as impossible, create a product that they can own and be proud of. Art is important in helping to solve problems. For me working with another who isn’t an artist to help them produce art is what keeps me connected to a feeling of doing something for others beyond me. One of my favourite living artists is Ai Wei Wei. His work demonstrates how art is a very powerful tool. I went to his show here in London at The Royal Academy and was moved by his words: “I want people to see their own power” and “If a nation cannot look at its past it has no future”.
Could you please tell us about the creative process since initial thoughts to completion? How long does it take to complete the piece?
It can take as little as 30 minutes to weeks depending on what is happening. On the street I work faster (well I try). I’ve been working on one painting for months now. That’s because I have had to put it away, whilst I research. I read a lot. That helps me to form ideas. I’m fascinated by African and Caribbean history. There is so much of it that is directly linked to European and American history. My last painting ‘Litany For Those At Sea’ sat in progress for 8 weeks, whilst I read about the Edo people and the Benin Empire and Britain’s invasion. I watched videos and played music moving from research to dance to painting. In this space nothing feels separate. Nothing can be forgotten or left out. That can take as long as it takes there is no definitive answer.
Since childhood you've been interested in understanding and reconciling your dual (White) British and (Black) Jamaican heritage. Have you drawn any conclusions in the knowledge you've gathered?
Nothing can be left out because it’s all part of one. Nothing can be forgotten. And on the other hand nothing really seems important. When we try to leave any of this out it appears to cause conflict. During my formative years my White British heritage was more influential. I lived with my mom and my brothers and they were all White British and the schools I went to were predominantly White. The history we were taught was predominantly White history. My mothers extended family were White My parents separated when I was a baby, so my first experience of Black culture was through being with my dad every other weekend and sometimes I spent time with my British Jamaican cousins during the holidays, so I was able to experience Jamaican culture during these times. Popular Black culture through TV was my alternative source but when it came to history I was limited to watching Roots, a popular TV series made in 1977. African history was told through films that often portrayed the African has needing the White European or being exploited by the White European. Black appearance was sometimes made comical and joked about through Black Face that appeared as toys or entertainment.
When I was 14 I became a two-tone skinhead, dressed in rude boy style clothing and adopted that subculture. Listening to Ska and Reggae imported from Jamaica by artists like Desmond Dekker, Skatelites, Prince Buster, Bob Marley and then later British bands such has Selector, The Special, Bad Manners, The Beat and others groups and artists that lead towards the punk era.
Only now have I properly embraced African history and how this has shaped British, European and American history and our current state: economically, socially and spiritually. Also how this affects us psychologically and how that gave rise to White supremacy. Through my artwork I’m currently expressing or exploring some of the subjects included here. I’m also studying a term called ‘diunital consciousness’, a way of thinking that has come about through my nonduality study. As I understand this means to see “both/and” as opposed to “either/or”. Seeing beyond dualities. It’s new to me but has been embraced by African American scholars, such as W E B Dubois and current author Dr Joy DeGruy. Such academics have studied Sociology and Civil Rights to address the problems that cause conflict and oppression. I’m unable to give the topic its due credit and suggest further examinations for anyone who is interested.
With regards to identity there is no conclusion it’s an ongoing experience, fixed yet ever changing. My role as a female for example is different today then it was 20 years ago. The knowledge I have gained has allowed me to be more at one with whatever shows up.
You frequently denounce unfairness and are vocal on current affairs. About the world's problems, which one affects you most?
I love London for its freedom of speech, so if someone is racist or sexist it’s likely I will speak out and say something. Those two inequalities affect me the most. But I will equally speak out when I see other inequalities, such as homophobia. Through my work I sometimes challenge the idea that one is better than another either by subverting or by appropriation. I’m compelled to respond when it is apparent that another is being oppressed or being exploited. That’s what seems to drive me right now.
What other artists do you admire? What is your favourite piece of art?
Ellen Gallagher, Augustus Savage, Louise Bourgious, Ai Wei Wei, Darren Siwes, Anish Kapoor, David Hammons, Yinka Shonibare, The Chapman Brothers, and I have just discovered Kara Walker. My favourite street artist is Phlegm. There are more artists that I admire, but these are the ones that come to mind and feel most relevant right now.
Some of my favourite pieces of art are: Anish Kapoor's Marsyas, Louise Bourgeois’s couple textile series, Francis Bacon’s Study after Velázquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X, Ai Weiwei’s Straight and Chair installations, David Hammon’ Heads and Ellen Gallagher’s yellow Afro head series and her Bird In The Hand is beautiful. And a spectacular street performance and one of my favourites was The Sultan's Elephant.
You've ventured successfully in the fields of poetry and scriptwriting. Are we likely to see more of these in the near future?
Not so sure about those two ventures being successful, but poetry just happens from time to time. And I’m currently reading The Interesting Narrative and other writings of Olaudah Equiano. If I had time and the expertise of writing superb screenplays, I would write a script about his story because it is incredible and would make a good film.
Joyce was chosen as one of five winners of a Bollywood scriptwriting competition, where her film Be Mine was funded by the BBC and ABI, and directed by Esther May Campbell
What are your artistic dreams?
I would love to make a good living from my paintings and to continue to be involved in participatory projects. If my artwork can communicate somehow to other people that would be great.
Collaborate with other artists.
One of my dreams is to have a solo exhibition with an established gallery, such as The Studio Museum Harlem, to create a body of work especially for that show and for that show to be understood by others and for it to be a success.
Find out more about Joyce Treasure's work at www.joycetreasure.co.uk