Steve Allen speaks to Kedisha Coakley about her recent projects and education in the arts. Coakley is currently undertaking a residency at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park as the 2020 recipient of the Yorkshire Graduate Award.
[Steve Allen] I’ve had a look at your previous work and the primary thing I found was that hair – your hair, the use of hair – was significant. Why is that?
[Kedisha Coakley] That’s a very fair analysis of my work. Everything I do pretty much stems from the use of hair; my ‘Ritual’ (2019- 20) sculptures, the latest ones that I have done, were moulds of my actual hair. Some of my other works in photography and sculpture have incorporated the use of synthetic hair. All this has been a link to my own personal experiences as well as to my culture and heritage. Growing up as a Black woman, hair has always been central. It is natural that it would prove to be integral to my practice.
[SA] One thing I admire greatly about your work is its uncompromising declaration of your identity. Your recent ‘Negritude No. 10’ at Bloc Projects in Sheffield was one of your larger works. What was it like creating such a large piece of public art?
[KC] It’s been great working with Bloc, outside a university setting. Following continued conversations throughout my degree, I was invited to work with them on this piece and I thoroughly enjoyed it. In terms of the design for the wallpaper, it was both influenced by and a play on the fleurs- de-lis and damask patterns that were prevalent in more ‘opulent’ households. It’s one of those patterns that are hidden in plain sight. The context isn’t fully known by some, but the fleurs-de-lis was used to brand slaves. This is why I wanted to reclaim that and bring it together with ‘adinkra’, Ghanaian symbols that have deep meanings like hope and endurance. I want to emphasise that just because these patterns are prevalent as decoration, it doesn’t mean they can’t be used in a modern context. We are at a stage where the whole truth should be presented and we can make hard decisions based on all of the facts in front of us.
[SA] Given that you have incorporated numerous cultural references into your own work, do you feel you have been given enough room to explore a sense of your own culture, and how it interacts with a Westernised view of the education system?
[KC] That has been somewhat of a struggle given where I have studied. I think there’s been an issue of representation and wanting to see people that have had that other experience, or the experience of being ‘othered’. The department I am in is made up of predominantly white middle-class or working-class tutors.
I think I deal with the lack of representation within the department better than others. I felt that my life experience – being older than most students that go straight into education – means that I’ve grown as a person and as an artist. I’ve had to learn a lot about how to manage myself in those environments and having to just pull from where I can.
You can draw from all sorts of cultures and all sorts of theorists. No matter where you’re from, you need something that is specific to you or to the road you’ve walked. Having teachers that don’t have that experience means that they teach from their own, which is valid, and it’s hard to argue with that. That was the answer I got back; basically the curriculum that we are presented with and learn from is taught from their own lives, be they black, white, man, woman or other. That’s the situation, and staff within the university are aware of it. Education in the arts that empowers Black voices needs bodies on the ground, and it needs people. I mean, they’re trying. I find it hard to comment because what is the solution? I’m not the person to give it. The staff and the institutions themselves are the ones with those skills. They need to actively look into it.
[SA] As a white non-binary, queer person I know I sit as a privileged individual. There’s a real disconnect between positions of power and arts institutions as you have mentioned. Places of education, museums and galleries, but also arts publications are failing to uplift the works of Black artists. Would you agree?
[KC] Precisely. Often the conversation would become, ‘Why don’t you present what you’re doing?’ If none of us are participating then there won’t be anyone to look up to or lead us forward. So yes, we have to start somewhere. But I should not be solely responsible for solving issues around equality, racism and inclusion just because I’m a Black woman.
[SA] You stated that you wanted to ‘challenge colonial constructs’ in your work at Yorkshire Sculpture Park (YSP) and that you feel it is a safe space to allow interpretation within the surroundings without interference. Do you prefer this to the ‘white cube’ gallery?
[KC] I wouldn’t say I have a preference. As yet, I’m not far enough into my career to say I’ve had enough experiences in gallery spaces. I think it’s more about what those white walls represent and who can control going into those spaces. I do enjoy the aspect of allowing work to sit in a space where there are no constructs. The pieces are set into the environment and left to find their own narrative: I think there’s real freedom and real joy in that. Even before I was studying, YSP was the first place I visited when I came to Sheffield. The sense of calm and the sense of connection is something I’d never felt before. I’d visited galleries from when I was very young, but there was something else at play.
[SA] The forms artists produce and the environments in which they are situated are commonly viewed as separate entities. Your work sits equally well in conventional gallery settings as well as in the expanse of nature. Why do you think gallery spaces hold more value than the public realm?
[KC] It’s a question of who is allowed and what is allowed to be shown. I’m quite interested in the categorisation of art works. In particular, I get a lot of comments about my ‘Ritual’ series, about how they look like antiquities and how they appear ancient. Who decides when it’s art and when it’s something to be studied? Those are the kind of power structures within a gallery space that I’m interested in exploring. I’d like to see work in spaces where you can walk into, feel comfortable and encounter something that truly resonates with you. Obviously, everyone brings their own thoughts and experiences, but there haven’t been many times that I have walked into a space and felt [this resonance] unless it is specifically a cultural exhibition. I yearn for a sense of belonging. Rare are the moments that I realise ‘we don’t have to sit in a cultural fair’, or that we aren’t caricatured or pigeonholed into someone else’s view of Black art. Our lived experiences, and the art they inspire, should be appreciated for the truth they reflect. We are just part of society. From my own experience, I often struggle to feel a sense of belonging in larger galleries for that reason.
[SA] You mentioned that you are working on some new bronzes at YSP.
[KC] At YSP, there’s quite a lot of freedom to explore what I’m working on. My main material currently is bronze, but when opportunity calls for it, I can do something on a larger scale. I have been given the opportunity to use a lot of materials available at YSP without cost, so I’m rethinking and reassessing the way in which I’m working. That’s purely because of the cost of bronze. There’s quite a lot of flexibility currently with steel and my hope is to use some of it left behind by Anthony Caro [whose estate donated the material to YSP for early career artists to use]. In my graduate award application, I made reference to his use of ‘the primitive’. I will go on to make that link between mine and Caro’s work. I don’t want to feel like I’m stuck in bronze. I love what it does for my work, but I think it’d be a mistake to go, ‘That’s me!’ I like the thought of using other materials to create that bronze effect, as it creates an illusion of luxury from a commercial and industrial product.
[SA] What were your main inspirations? Do you take on themes that are determined by others or draw primarily from your own culture?
[KC] It is probably the hardest question to answer, in that I take on so many images and reference from so many things. I will say the constant thread throughout my work is my own culture. It’s what I know; it’s what I’ve grown up with and what I’ve got an understanding of. It’s me putting my own lived experience out there as a direct contradiction to other people’s views of Black culture.
Representations of Black and minority ethnic people in art always leads to a ‘study’ rather than the appreciation of colours, textures and flavours. I just hope people will be able to appreciate these as well. I want people to be able to walk into a space and see and feel something that they really relate to.
When people see my head scarf sculptures, some will immediately comprehend the cultural resonance and context. But hopefully the rest become interested enough to want to know more too.
Steve Allen is a writer based in Sheffield.
Kedisha Coakley’s self-titled exhibition will take place at Yorkshire Sculpture Park from 31 July to 31 October 2021.