MH Sarkis is an artist whose work explores cross-cultural tensions and identity. In our interview with her, she tells us where her interest in art stems from, her influences, how it has evolved and her plans for the future.
ABR: First of all, your name is fascinating. Anyone seeing it without first meeting you is more than likely to think that it’s a man behind the beautiful paintings? What’s the reason behind the pseudonym?
SARKIS: I’m happy the name sparks curiosity. MH is a shortened version of my full first name, which I feel good about keeping under wraps as I continue solidifying myself in the industry.
It’s interesting you should say one would think it’s a man behind the work; recently a national newspaper referred to me as a “he”. I suppose many still consider it to be a male-dominated profession.
Someone came up to me the other day and said “I didn’t expect to see a fine girl behind these paintings!”
I laughed. I don’t mind – I enjoy the element of surprise and challenging expectations and perceptions.
ABR: How did you develop an interest in painting and when did you decide to go pro?
SARKIS: I was always drawing and colouring in my childhood. Throughout primary school I enjoyed showing my work to adults and seeing their reactions. Then in secondary school our art teacher told me it would be a shame if I didn’t do anything with my skill-set. Although I didn’t think much of the comment at the time, it encouraged me.
I was more drawn to painting as a medium when I read about the Expressionists and how they explored the body and the self. I tried acrylic paint shortly after, and I fell in love with the “gloop”, its versatility, when I saw I could manipulate it well to the point of presenting something unexpected and visually striking. I had a gut feeling and when that happened I decided to go pro…
I then backed out of my English (Literature) UCAS applications. I wasn’t one to wait [for another round of UCAS] so I enrolled into a liberal arts institution which was happily quite international, and was painting of my own accord throughout undergraduate studies. No regrets o! None at all.
ABR: What was the first work you ever did and the first you ever sold? What has changed since then?
SARKIS: It’s hard to tell; just today I found another work in the house I grew up in, and I’m not sure of the date. The first artwork I sold was a large commissioned landscape piece that wasn’t really connected to my current practice but was a good experience at the time. That was years ago and what has changed is, as I’ve focused on my practice and continued exploring what inspires me, I am now sensing heightened interest from others inside the industry as well as outside.
ABR: What influences your style and what medium do you use in painting?
SARKIS: Nigerian crafts (I grew up surrounded by carved work and not paintings per se). Masks, scarification, people. The grooves within and around the face. I am also interested in clash of cultures, or a harmony sometimes unexpected. The “other”, and the perceived threat of the “other”. They arise from my own experiences.
I mainly use acrylic paint because it allows flexibility: I can lay it on thickly and shape it, or thinly and as a wash. It also dries more quickly, which is often a good thing as it can encourage instinct if one’s an over-thinker, which I can sometimes be. On the other hand that can be quite dangerous, especially with my way of “digging in” while it’s fresh and workable.
ABR: Your first exhibition in Nigeria “Back on the Island” is currently ongoing. What is the inspiration for your latest paintings?
SARKIS: All stem from real experiences and personal realities. The pieces are somewhat varied but at the heart of the works are notions of “cross-culturalism”, otherness, and identity especially relating to the Sub Sahara and Middle East. Scarification is a big inspiration, but the distinction in my work between markings and sculpturally-influenced lines are often blurred.
ABR: What memorable responses have you had to your works?
SARKIS: A lot of people (many of whom I don’t know) have stared at the works, and eventually, slowly stretch out a finger to touch. At first I would observe and not register how I felt about that as I wasn’t sure; you know often people advise against touching artworks for various reasons. But afterwards I realised I felt happy the work was that textural or tempting for them to just go for it, even when they knew full well the artist was standing a few feet away. Thankfully they were gentle.
ABR: How has painting influenced your life?
SARKIS: The painting process, as well as the surrounding and resulting events, has been cathartic. It is one of the strongest ways to express myself; I feel if we can’t express our story the best we can, we have the tendency to act it out in ways that are difficult to comprehend.
In short I have been able to understand my personal history, experiences, and triggers and tie things together through the medium. I am able to form relationships with others through sharing my work whereas previously, I had experienced feelings of isolation that can come with being a migrant here.
ABR: What setbacks have you experienced in your artistic journey and what did you learn from it/them?
SARKIS: I left university and didn’t have artistic contacts or networks to join in the UK (let alone Nigeria where I previously was). Most of my peers left the country after graduation. There was no tangible support system and I felt like I was starting from rock bottom. It was that sense of isolation and detachment, which I linked to “outsider-ness”, all over again. Getting online and applying to many open calls helped, as I then exhibited widely in and around London. I eventually came across the ‘Outside In’ platform, and the ‘Saatchi Art’ platform which then featured me a few times. This all happened back when I had a full-time job, and commuted well over an hour most days after work to my studio, and later to an artist residency with Free Space Gallery.
What I learnt is you really need passion and dedication to stick it through and to continue sharing your work, because if you’re not lucky to have someone holding your hand or showing you the ropes, it likely won’t happen. Also there’s not much point looking for insight or approval from those who don’t know or care about what you’re trying to achieve, or waste time applying to things that don’t apply to your artwork.
ABR: Aside from painting, do you do anything else to release your creativity? If yes, what are they?
SARKIS: I enjoy writing poetry and prose now and then. I used to write short stories often but haven’t written one in a while. The last one was based on a real-life event in Lagos and involved Pidgin. I was pleased with it but my computer crashed and I hadn’t backed it up. I still get worked up thinking about it! Now that’s where painting has the upper hand!
ABR: You’ll be going for your residency in Egypt soon. How did that come about and what are your plans afterwards?
SARKIS: The Gallery Manager and Managing Director of ‘Gallery Ward’ saw my artwork and invited me to join them as artist-in-residence at their base in Giza, which I am looking forward to especially as I understand Egypt is a culturally unique yet influential place, and a meeting point between Sub Saharan Africa and the Middle East, aspects that currently concern my work.
I look forward to seeing how the residency could inform my practice but at the same time perhaps give me a fresh start.
I can’t say exactly yet, but my general plan for afterwards is to continue taking things up a notch in terms of visual presentation.
ABR: What is your ultimate goal professionally?
SARKIS: I often feel wary about saying too much in future tense, also because I don’t feel there is an “end-point” or set goal. But at the moment the aim it is to take myself back home and keep me mobile. I also would like to solidify a connection between the places that have influenced me and mean something to me. I want to solidify myself. I want my work to continue hanging here in Nigeria, in the UK, and in Lebanon. If it trickles over their borders, that would be good too.
ABR: Where can we find your art work?
SARKIS: Nike Art Gallery and Quintessence at the moment. Online, mainly within my Saatchi Art portfolio (www.saatchiart.com/sarkisartist)