Q&A with Syahi

Multi-disciplinary visual artist Syahi's oil paintings bridge the gap between the real world and something altogether more spiritual

Finding the right earthly artistic discipline when your inspirations are so extra-terrestrial is quite the challenge. This is exactly the challenge that Syahi (he takes his name from the Hindi word for ink) found himself faced with when he began his creative journey in the early 2010s. He got started trying his hand at making music videos alongside a friend from church and soon became a recognised figure in Derby's creative scene. Whilst organised religion may no longer be foundational to his world view, an appreciation of something bigger than himself is evident in both his work and his outlook, as I talk to him in his art studio/front room. The room is beautifully adorned from wall to wall with the oil paintings that he pours his personality into these days. One of the most striking pieces is an unfinished surrealist depiction of one of Derby's inner city suburbs Normanton. Entering "Normanton Derby..." into Google brings up "Normanton Derby Crime" as the first suggestion at the time of writing this. It's also home to Arboretum Park, Britain's first public park, which inspired the layout for New York's Central Park. This contradiction is symptomatic of revolutionary art's habit of cropping up areas deemed "undesirable". What would music be without Compton and the Favelas after all.

"One of the things I'm tryna do is focus on the positive sides if that makes sense? Bring a lot of colour, a lot of friction a lot of life out of it" he says of the Normanton piece. He has real desire for his art to spread positivity and encourage reflection and engagement rather than be outright abrasive.

This desire for his work to be affable matches his personality. Softly spoken and earnest (but still affirmative and confident) in discussion, Syahi's work is an expression of a genuine yearning for dialogue and understanding. One of his most striking pieces The Question is partly informed by conversations he had with a disabled man his mother cared for before his passing. Right side up the painting shows a man painting an orb. An apparent reference to manifestation. Upside down the image shows a wheelchair. An homage to the invisible status unfairly bestowed upon disabled people in our society. "If he wanted to see me here he wouldn't be able to"  he says regretfully looking around his second floor apartment.

He goes on to talk about how society is formed through the gaze of those at the top of hierarchy. His partner (quietly watching anime in the next room) an ESOL teacher with a sociology background, has been instrumental in broadening his horizons. Another one of his pieces Swallows Nest is an exploration of masculinity and the isolation that comes with it. "Me as an artist I started off with beauty art, so like the art that's like very beautiful. Let me draw this person or let me draw this girl or whatever it may be. As I've grown up and asked myself 'why am I doing that?' there's the whole male gaze element" . A desire to flip the visual narrative away from naked women to a naked man makes for one of his most interesting pieces. Where images of naked women are intrinsically read as sexual, images of naked men evoke a sense of vulnerability. Making his audience consider why two images that are the same compositionally feel so different (depending on the gender of the subject) is a perfect example of the power of Syahi's work. The technical ability is stimulating in itself, but what you come away with in terms of introspection elevates his craft to a new level.

Like any Black artist who's work explores the human condition, Blackness as subject matter has been a consideration for Syahi. His early work in school bore references to slavery and suffering, which is undoubtedly a large underpinning of the Black experience in Britain. At the same time he finds the shackles of history and confines of what Blackness can be stifling. "My whole world isn't Blackness, if I go back to the identity piece yes the person is Black but with the painting...I see my identity as being an artist before anything else". He goes on to say that he still sees putting his Blackness and identity into his art as important, but sees it as a vicarious inevitability by virtue of being Black - rather than something he has to actively work towards. 

Both of us have grown up in Derby as people who's identity doesn't necessarily align with the media depiction of Blackness in the 2000s. 50 Cent being the most famous Black person in the world for a period was well deserved for the quality of his music, but laid down a confusing framework for Black brits with no affinity to American gang culture to try and follow. Even our own equivalents like the London-centric Black British braggadocio espoused by So Solid Crew and Roll Deep, felt quite unattainable from the suburbs of the East Midlands. The inability to emulate what society deems Blackness to be in your adolescence, can create a sense of "failure" to perform authentic Blackness in adulthood. It's natural then; that images of slavery become central to our self perceptions. That shared history can be the one thing that gives a sense of unity with other Black people. But the vulnerability of Syahi's work offers an alternative. A shared unity through honest conversations that have been off the table for too long.

"I've grown up yes in a Caribbean family and a lot of my social group come from different parts of Africa and the Caribbean but I was brought up in Britain where it is predominantly white. So it doesn't necessarily feel like I have a pressure to have to represent that or what not". Instead Syahi's motivation is to celebrate the multiculturalism that defines his experience. He's already making huge strides in bringing his community together. Towards the end of last year he showcased prints at Derby rapper Loue Marc's headline show and exhibition. The aforementioned Normanton was lucky enough to have him partake in a Q&a about his work and a local school was blessed enough to have him create a mural for them. Ensuring future generations are inspired to follow in his footsteps.

One of his big ambitions that crops up throughout the afternoon is the ambition to make a comic book. The world building element of the process is of particular interest to him. It's obvious that the breadth of experiences and people he's been exposed to throughout his creative development have fostered the hunger to depict that in comic book form and make a world in his own image. After spending the day in his company and looking at this work, it's a world we should all look forward to diving in to.

All art by Syahi

Article by Martyn Ewoma


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