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Abbi Bayliss’ first solo exhibition puts women of colour in the picture

Artist Abbi Bayliss talks about the first ever solo showing of her exciting art

Abbi Bayliss is a Bristolian artist reflecting her reality in a new exhibition of head-turning artworks that feature striking portraits of women of colour that she is inspired by. Using painstaking digital pen work, she etches out complex black and white pictures that you can get lost in. Here, she talks to us about what it’s like having her first exhibition go on tour, what inspires her, and why she’s not waiting around for another artist to start drawing women of colour.

Hi, Abbi! Can you tell us more about your exhibition?  

This exhibition is really personal to me. I wanted to create a narrative and make something interactive that layers art, collage and storytelling. Representation is a really big theme in my work. I enjoy creating art that reflects the faces that aren’t seen enough in this field. As you walk around the exhibition, you’re taken through a journey through memories in my life. I reflect on vivid moments of pure joy and safety as a child to recent moments of revelation and inspiration. I’d say this exhibition is a cultural celebration, featuring women of colour that have changed my perspective, opened me up to something new and have influenced me growing up.

I’m proud to say this is my first solo exhibition. I have made and shown work in spaces like Spike Island and the Arnolfini but those we’re all collaborative pieces. This exhibition is all me. Initially it was daunting and I questioned if I had the ability to contruct it all, but as I reflected on it, there is no better person than me who knows how to present my work. It was such an incredible experience to plan and construct the layout of the show. It extended my creative freedom to how people would interact with the work and emphasise the journey I’m presenting. 

Who have you featured in your work? How and why have they inspired you?

I have featured my biggest inspirations in all creative fields from poetry, theatre, literature, music and visual arts. Growing up I was always very musical, I would sing everywhere and anywhere. I was that annoying kid that got the lead role in all the school musicals and sang at the drop of a hat. This was probably because of the music I grew up listening to, real powerhouse singers, Aretha, Whitney, Alicia, they’re all featured. I’m also inspired by Lupita Nyong’o. My brother is an actor and I love performing. She is one of my favourite actresses and she also challenges society and the beauty world. In literature, I have featured Zora Neale Hurston and Zadie Smith who hold a dear place in my heart. Being mixed, I really relate to their works. Zora Neale Hurston’s book Their Eyes were Watching God remains one of my favourites as the main character Janie’s story feels like an autobiography of my own life, struggling with abuse, power, wealth, race, masculinity, vulnerability, true love, true loss and literally every other emotion known. I have also included an illustration of my best friend and a self portrait, to voice how we have people in our own lives we should appreciate, even ourselves!

You have mentioned that women of colour aren’t featured enough in art.

Yes, as an art student, my awareness for the art world and its history is increasing, along with my perception of how marginalising it can be. I’m proud to challenge this, showing how black and mixed people are a work of art. I watched an interview with one of my favourite artists Mickalene Thomas who commented on how important it is to have a representation of herself in these spaces so the youth can feel like they belong in exclusive environments like museums. She highlights how beauty is problematic, from portraiture to society, and how this whole presentation of women as beautiful objects comes from an ugly place. These women I’m showing aren’t beautiful for their looks, but their creativity, vulnerability, their soul. I’m not waiting around for this to be done by someone else, I’m going to do it myself.

Tell us about your distinctive art style. 

I work digitally using an iPad and pen, drawing hundreds of little lines to build up and create contours of the face. I work from photographs, observing the contrast between the dark and light, interpreting it into a monochrome illustration. When originally developing my style, I was always drawn to this rough, inky, stetch look. Before digital, I drew with biro as it was cheap and accessible. In school I would end up drawing all over my school books in pen and this stuck with me. I’ve only been working in this style for a year. I saved up to buy my iPad for ages and spent the whole of the first few months last year experimenting with styles to only come full circle and return to the style that feels like home. 

What has the reaction to the work been like?

The reaction to my work has been amazing! It’s so encouraging to be receiving messages from people I don’t even know saying how much they’ve been moved by my work. Someone even called me an inspiration, which was so heartwarming as i’m just creating the art I love. It’s been great aswell to meet the Exeter Phoenix team as they’ve been very encouraging and supportive, let alone Creative Youth Network who have been incredible. I’m so thankful for them to provide me with this space with no limits on what I wanted to do. 

What’s next for you?

I’ve got a few things in the pipeline at the moment. I’m working on a collaborative project with M Shed, exploring the lives of 21st century young people through photography. I’ve also been inspired by this project to write a spoken word piece to be performed at the launch event. The biggest thing at the moment however is the next leg of the tour in Exeter. It’s a completely different space to Bristol, which is challenging but also presents itself as an opportunity to play around further with its impact through layout. I’ll also be working with them closely on some projects, such as a workshop and possibly selling small prints of my work. I ran a workshop with GCSE students recently on creative writing through art which I loved and am working towards running more sessions. I’ve also recently started a blog called BIBI magazine, reviewing arts, culture and lifestyle. It’s a great motivation for me to go out and see all the creativity Bristol and the world have to offer. Through all the travelling I’ve done from Bristol to Exeter recently, O’ve found myself falling back in love with poetry. This year i’m aiming to get more of my writing out there alongside my art, performing spoken word as much as I can, as well as the many zines and featured pieces I’m writing for. 

Is there anything else you want to add?

One of my favourite parts of the exhibition is a collage mural I’ve created. It’s the feature wall of the whole show. I wanted an element of suprise and fun in the space, where it’s just an explotion of creativity and inspiration. It was inspired by the Olafur Eliasson exhibition at the Tate Modern where at the end of the show, he mounted his thought process, questions and inspirations on a large captivating wall. I love the feeling of jam-packed sketchbooks, with folding flaps, bright images, sticky notes and a whole jumble of ideas. The sticky notes are an ode to a self led project of mine called The Sticky Note Project. I would always write simple to-do lists for my mental health or reminders of my worth on my Notes app, and knowing how much they helped me I digitally illustrate them onto colourful sticky notes. I included these to reinforce my message of self-worth. Another part of this wall (that I won’t give away) is an element i’ve included to make the viewer reflect that they can be their own inspiration. It’s so important to have role models but if you can see yourself in them, with similar qualities of passion, focus and drive, you can achieve anything. To me, this wall is a visual sketchbook, whilst also being a reflection of my mind: busy and a little bit mad. 

Abbi Bayliss’ work is on show at Exeter Phoenix until 15 March 2020. Admission is free. See more information here. Abbi has also shown her work at Bristol’s Creative Youth Network.

All artwork featured belongs to Abbi Bayliss.