Katy Hessel: Anya, thank you so much for speaking with me today. I have loved getting to know your work this year – I was immediately drawn to it. It is at once expressive, playful, emotive, and sharp. It feels familiar, painful, beautiful and real. Your work has shown me a side of fibre art I have never seen before. It's often filled with recurring characters, personalities, loose limbs or loose eyes. Each work embodies such power, such expression, that you are utterly hooked on the scene as you come into contact with it. So I'd love to start off by asking you – why is it that you are attracted to the medium of textiles and fibre?
Anya Paintsil: I suppose for me, there was never another medium – my practice started pretty early, obviously not in its current form but I learned how to rug hook from my grandma when I was about eight or nine. […] I'm on the autism spectrum, so I've always had a very intense, special interest and [when I was a child] I would make literally hundreds of drawings, hundreds of paintings, and they would just be all over the house. Eventually my grandma was like, okay, this is too much. I want you to be engaging with something which is not so quick and expressive, that takes time. You can channel your creativity into [rug hooking], and I just kind of liked it.
AP: I like being called a textile artist because I like textile history – I think it's super interesting. I read a tonne of academic literature about textiles, so I like to be within that lineage. […] The feminist history of textiles, and also the kind of enduring debates around craft versus fine art – those things really motivate my work in a lot of ways.
KH: That's so interesting. Historically, textiles have been seen as women's work or craft, but that completely changed in the 60s with people like Annie Albers, Sheila Hicks – and then in the 70s, with people like Judy Chicago… [Those ideas are] deep rooted in history, but also, actually, women have monopolised this medium – it's women who are kind of paving the way.
AP: […] I think my work specifically is a celebration of women's craft through history, particularly the craft that I use. Rug hooking has been passed down intergenerationally in my family for probably 100 years. My mum's side of the family are farmers from Anglesey, and I'm a first language Welsh speaker.
So the feminist art movement [in the 1960s] is very separate to the stuff that my grandma was actually doing, but [it did involve] looking at skills, intricate artistic crafts, that were often thought of as useless – or not useful for capitalism, just the mindless provinces of women – [and taking them seriously]. I specifically wanted to use rug hooking techniques as opposed to embroidery or other techniques that were associated with upper middle class Victorian women – who have nothing to do with me! There’s intense physical labour in my work, […] and I want there to be evidence of that labour in the scale. There’s a kind of satisfaction in people knowing that my works are made by hand.
The Afro hair styling [in my work] comes from a similar place – looking at skills possessed by women more than men, that society deems useless, associated with vanity like rug hooking is associated with the decorative. As though [those skills are] about personal beauty as opposed to being truly artistic skills that require a lot of intricacy, learning and refining. They're undervalued by society, generally by men.
KH: [One thing that’s] interesting about the 70s was the fact that they took that medium of textiles and placed it in a gallery. It was put on that level, as if to say ‘this is also considered art, even though it's been seen as mindless and decorative’.
KH: Your figures look weirdly familiar; they look how it feels to be a human. […] Do you know an artist called Hannah Ryggen, who was around during World War Two? She lived in the middle of nowhere, in Sweden and then she moved to Norway. She used to make these amazing, propagandistic textiles, like figurative textiles of say, a bullish Winston Churchill or Mussolini decapitated. She would hang them out as the Nazis walked past, to basically just piss them off! […] I think so few artists have managed to achieve figuration in textiles, and I feel like your work is kind of a dialogue with hers in a strange way. There’s truth to it. There’s just a reality to it.
AP: I don't really like keeping my work. I feel that I'm like, expelling something [when I'm making it], and then once it’s expelled I don’t ever want to look at it again! Imagine your arm was chopped off, you wouldn’t want to look at it—though somehow it's fine when it's on your body.
KH: Yeah, like a loose limb. It becomes kind of abject – but your works are much nicer than that!
AP: But most of them are really personal. […] They feel necessary to make – like I said about my drawing, everything in my creative practice comes out of compulsion; sometimes I have an idea that I need to make right now [laughs], like it's inside me.
Then some of my work is about preserving memories; two works are actually memorials to my stepmother who died. Some are memories I don't really want to hold on to… It's autobiographical, I guess. A lot of my works are about me and my sister as children, and those really focus on being mixed race in North Wales, and they’re titled in Welsh.
KH: Why do you like to title some in Welsh and some not?
AP: I suppose in a way they are a series – the Welsh titled works all relate to each other, and most of them are depictions of me or my sister, my mum… but it's always us as children, and that was a time in my life when I spoke Welsh constantly. A lot of conversations where people would ask me where I was from would be conducted in English, and then when I dropped the bomb that I was a Welsh speaker, they would interrogate me about it for ages – like, how can this possibly be?! People just saw me as a person of colour, and then when they realised I was a Welsh speaker it was like [a collision] of two things which couldn't possibly meet.
So it’s a way of asserting that identity – but also, I’m very passionate about keeping the language alive.
AP: There’s a work of mine which is called Beware the woman dog and her babies and it's about my younger brother Levi (I'm 12 years older). Levi was living in Ghana and I was visiting. I wanted to go to the night market to go get my favourite food. Levi used to speak really formally, and he said, I’ll escort you to the night market, even though he was about five and I was 18...! Anyway, on the way we saw a big pack of dogs and Levi was just screaming and screaming. We got home and he was like, we were accosted by a woman dog and her babies! So that’s where that [title] came from; I just thought it was so funny.
KH: I love the idea that [the titles come from] memories because memories are kind of so hazy in your mind. They’re never what actually happened, they’re more like how you felt. So the visceral-ness of Beware the woman dog and her babies makes sense – all the eyes popping up or the exaggerated teeth…
KH: What do you want to make next? What are you making right now?
AP: I’m making loads of works at the moment – which is weird! I like to do one work at a time but there was a big yarn shortage due to Brexit so I had to order loads from Dublin… I was having to start and stop a lot of different works, and I've kind of continued having a lot of works on the go at the same time.