Hiraeth. The word, Anya Paintsil tells me, “can’t be translated directly into English – but is kind of a nostalgia, or homesickness for a time or place you cannot go back to”. Hiraeth refers specifically to Wales – but it pinpoints a feeling I have experienced as a diasporic person, uprooted and replanted elsewhere. It was a feeling I got looking at the brightly painted panting tongues and ghoulish, bulging eyes of Sri Lankan Raksha masks that hung in my childhood home. The sticky smell of cinnamon and unfamiliar heat. My grandmother’s bare, brown and leathery feet on English grass, listening to stories of vindicative Kinduri spirits and Riri Yaka demons as she turned her fried eggs black with pepper. Hiraeth. A blurring of family fiction and collective folklore, material history and memories; a place where stories and images converge; tastes and textures collide.
This is what Paintsil’s new body of sumptuous textile works evokes for me. The multiplicitous ways of being between, existing in a space while simultaneously inhabiting the rich imaginary of a mixed heritage. In her exhibition, We Are All Made of You at Ed Cross’s Garrett Street gallery, Paintsil explores her relationship with Wales, the result of both living outside of the country, and the death of her maternal Welsh grandmother. “I think I’d been searching and trying re-establish a connection since my grandma was my strongest tie to the ‘Wales of old’, but also to where my family actually come from – I was raised in Northeast Wales but all of my mum’s family are from Ynys Môn and I spent a lot of my childhood on the island.” Welsh myths inspire many of these works: the female figure with arching arm decorated with tiny flowers who appears in Blod is a representation of Blodeuwedd (translated as ‘flower face’), a character who appears in the story of Math fab Mathonwy in The Mabinogion – the earliest British prose stories, first appearing in manuscripts in the 12th–13th century, written in Middle Welsh but in existence in oral form before that. Medieval Welsh royalty, popular myths and legends – and the common conflations between these figures fantasy and history – also resurface, reanimated from Paintsil’s childhood.
There are also references to proverbs preserved in Adinkra, Asafo flags and other forms of Fante visual culture, that have been a constant and foundational reference for Paintsil as an artist – “they have a quite complicated history but really made my decision to work with textile and portraiture”, she tells me. And then there are her own interpretations of the kind of family tales that become legendary – the trip to Ghana during which Paintsil’s younger brother earned the nickname ‘Bolognese’ from his older siblings, is immortalised with affection and amusement – perhaps to his chagrin. These are the moments that become inscribed in a family’s shared story, old jokes that never fail to solicit a laugh, bonds preserved like favourite photos constantly revisited in an album – unknowable to anyone else.
Storytelling was part of Paintsil’s world from a very early age thanks to brilliant raconteurs on both sides of her family whose vivid tales had her rapt as a child and left their imprint on her still-nascent artistic sensibility. Her Welsh grandmother and great-grandmother were both masters of the Welsh tradition of Llefaru (recitation) popular at Welsh cultural events such as Eisteddfod (an annual touring national arts festival) and Paintsil grew up surrounded by these dramatised poems and stories. Meanwhile on her paternal side, Paintsil’s imagination was piqued by the anansi (Twi for ‘Spider’) stories her father told her at bedtime. The protagonist is a hybrid spider-man character from Akan folklore (depicted in Paintsil’s version, Don’t tell me Kwaku Anansi) who often defeats those much bigger and more powerful with his cunning and intellect.
There are stories to be found even in the surfaces of Paintsil’s works, whose rugged, rough textures, known for also incorporating her own hair and braids, make evident the labour and the time that goes into them. They are also a far cry from what are typically thought of as decorative textile arts. With their arresting gazes and elongated limbs, these figural hangings are the result of physical hardship, Paintsil’s hands following her grandmother’s, who taught her the technique, and a centuries-long matrilineage of working-class women practicing rug hooking in Britain – an arduous method involving pulling loops of yarn or fabric through a resilient base using a latch hook or punch needle. In the 19th century, rug hooking was a craft of poverty – scraps of whatever fabrics could be found were knotted through empty burlap sacks. In this new body of work, Paintsil also introduced new tools alongside her punch needle, lending a slightly different aesthetic compared to her previous pieces: a 1940s Airlyne rug maker (whose origins can be traced back to Abergele just thirty miles from where Paintsil grew up in Northeast Wales) and a handnål, a 1960s Danish tufting tool.
This material resourcefulness and purposefulness, the ability to improvise and create something new from limited means, clearly connects Paintsil’s practice to her ancestors, but like other outstanding artists of her generation, reinvents that language by articulating new concerns with their inherited material culture. I think of the jute sacks fashioned into monumental installations by Ibrahim Mahama; the so-called ‘mummy bundles’, layers of prismatic patterned cloth used by the Paracas civilization in Peru to bury the dead, resurrected in the towering, handwoven textile sculptures of Sarah Zapata; or the dazzling traditional Indian handcraft and embroidery on silk – also learned from her grandmother – Spandita Malik applies to her photography.
Paintsil’s tight loops and dangling threads are proud expressions of self-affirmation that embrace her bloodlines, maternal and paternal, ancient and living histories. They are reminders of, as Paintsil puts it, “the multifaceted nature of the identities of British people of colour”, adding that she uses textiles and craft as “they’re soft, they’re familiar but it’s stealthy and politically-loaded – it can draw someone in and confront someone with a conversation they didn’t expect to be having when they looked at a pink fluffy portrait of a young girl holding a duck.”
This new body of work also suggests a new chapter in the artist’s life, an increasingly confident exploration of all the fruitful, vibrant and abundant stories that constitute a life in general. And as we shift along the mortal coil, as we move out from the centre of our own lives, or away from the parameters of the family structure, such nuances and reconciliations continue to evolve: this exhibition continues to connect the dots, a personal process that extends far beyond the self. Such is the case in When there are no trees birds will perch on men’s heads, for example, in which Paintsil connects the composition of an Asafo flag relating to the Akan proverb of the title (meaning ‘seek the reasons behind strange behaviours’) but casts the figure of Rhiannon from The Mabinogion, who is always accompanied by three magical birds, to represent it. The message I find in this work, is one of the beauty of finding synergy and symbiosis between things that may seem opposed; in the natural way anyone who has grown up with multiple cultures is a proof of the possibility of harmony between differences, simply by their existence. People of mixed heritage have always been mediators, negotiating gaps and bridging distances. “I’ve never really struggled with my sense of identity, never felt as if I needed to downplay or push a particular aspect of myself. It has always made sense in my head, I’ve never wanted to be anything but what I am”, Paintsil reflects. In this way Paintsil, for me, heralds the perspective of a new generation, articulating the varied experiences of being a woman of colour in this country today in celebratory new ways.
“We have perhaps more longing, more interest, and more passion and motivation to really understand our cultures and histories when we’re not surrounded by it or our links to it are taken away – I think this directly links to my making this body of work”, Paintsil responds, when I suggest that as people of our generation growing up in the UK, our dialogue with the ‘other’ parts of selves is maintained mainly through material culture and stories – something that also contributes to a mostly positive experience of these ‘other’, co-existing parts that reside in us. The adinkra-adorned wax print textiles at Paintsil’s mother’s home, or the Sankofa and Gye Nyame tattoos on her father’s arms. The Welsh legend of the faithful hound, Gelert the Dog. Landscapes of the Menai straits and of the Western region of Ghana. We are all made of you – even when we are separated. Hiraeth.
By Charlotte Jansen
Charlotte Jansen is a British Sri Lankan arts and culture journalist contributing to publications such as The Guardian, The Financial Times, British Vogue, Frieze and Wallpaper*. She is the author of Girl on Girl (LKP, 2017) and Photography Now (Tate/ilex, 2021) and the host of the Dior Talks podcast series The Female Gaze.