HERE’S TO GAP YEARS: singer songwriter and Courtauld student Marie Naffah talks about her year out

 

A level results.  Less than a handful of letters that can make you go:

O

M

G*

 

(*These weren’t my grades, I promise.)

 

You may have bagged your chosen grades and packed your bags- ready to roll straight out of school, on into university. Sorted. You may be staring at some unwanted, isolated letters, having loaded your school portal three hundred times on a dodgy Wi-Fi server, only to find out that the future you thought was yours, well, isn’t.

BUT DO NOT FRET. Here is why a gap year was one of the best decisions of my life:

GETTING AN INTERNSHIP/WORK EXPERIENCE

With an entire year, I was able to research internships that really interested me. I contacted several companies, and landed a 3-month placement at Palazzo Strozzi, in Florence. Not only did it fill some space on the old CV, but it also allowed me to experience the business world of curating and marketing, giving me a clearer idea of things I’d perhaps like to do after university.

ABILITY TO SEE THE WORLD

Travelling is arguably one of the most significant reasons why one should consider taking a gap year. It’s a perfect time to see and do things you have never done before, and perhaps may never have the time to do again. I did the Art History Abroad Summer Course of 6 weeks. I joined the course not knowing anybody, but from day one I was fully immersed with the 19 other like- minded students and the fantastic tutors. Starting in Rome and ending in Venice, passing through places including Naples, Siena, Florence and Verona, we were able to skip queues of the Academia, eat where only locals would eat and continuously develop such an enthusiasm and appreciation for the profuse amount of art that Italy has to offer. And that’s only 6 weeks. As a musician, I toured around the UK and travelled to Paris, playing shows and building the foundations of an international fan-base. I was recently named MTV’s Unsigned Artist of 2014, and I look back on my gap year as a crucial turning point for my career.

PREP YOURSELF FOR UNIVERSITY

You can take your well earned break from exams and really research the course you want to do.

YES TO EVERYTHING

From climbing mount Vesuvius in Naples to playing one of the most magical shows of my life in Montmartre, Paris, one thing I learned was, on a gap year, you can say yes to everything.

EARN SOME MONEY

I got a job in a café, I ran my own music night – do what you want but you’ll be thankful for some dosh!

ASK YOURSELF WHAT YOU WANT TO DO

For the first time in your life you can be totally selfish. I made a list of everything I wanted to achieve and just went and did them.

REVIVE YOURSELF

Forgive me for ending on a very cheesy one, as I try to avoid the ‘I found myself on my gap year’ cliché. But whatever you choose to do, your Gap Year can teach you a lot about yourself. You roll your eyes , but trust me, it’ll stand you in really good stead for the future years.

 

 

Reflections on the The French House Series, Iona Wolff: Marie Naffah

On a chilly autumnal evening, I headed over to Dean Street in Soho, into the charming little pub, ‘The French House’ in order to see London based photographer, Iona Wolff’s latest project, aptly named ‘The French House series’.

The exhibition lacked that sterile formality one often experiences at private viewings. People had that anticipated Christmas-esque excitement  and it was contagious. Despite the viewing being packed to its full capacity, the former Central St. Martins student was the first to greet me as if we’d been friends for life, leading me to the thirteen works that made up the exhibition.

The dominantly monochromatic photographs complement the luscious deep red walls, mirroring the red wine and rosy cheeks of friends, family and passers by that turned up to share in Wolff’s success.

‘I left two in colour because they really suit colour but Lesley (the landlady of the French House) and I had an agreement that the works would be predominantly in black and white’, Iona explains.

I ask her what gave her the idea for such an original collection and she tells me that she’d built up a close relationship with the landlady from frequent visits to the pub. Regarding her subjects, she says they’re either friends, or friends of friends, which probably explains how she manages to to capture so much in each image. She describes her process of composing a piece, inviting the subjects to come to the pub with their friends and simply ‘chat’.

Above: Iona Wolff

Wolff’s approach reminded me of two of my favourite artists.  The first was Lucian Freud, who like the photographer, was completely dedicated to accessing his sitter’s personality, taking them out to dinners and asking them questions before and during his execution of their portraits. The second, dating a number of centuries earlier, was the sculptor Bernini, who sought to grasp a ‘speaking likeness’ of Louis XIV in his bust portrait. All three artists, although rendering separate mediums, capture an awareness of character that shrewdly transcends many stagnant, detached portraits.

Call me old fashioned, but I was intrigued to see what Iona’s preference was in terms of digital or non-digital photography. Without hesitation she explains humbly, ‘I’m quite lazy and I want to see instant results’ championing digital over dark rooms, a position I find most photographers take today.

But is non-digital photography being completely phased out with other forgotten favourites like Furbees and yoyos?  With creations such as the camera phone and the notoriously acclaimed Instagram, I was keen to discuss with Wolff the potential threat these instant filters posed on digital photographers.

Unexpectedly, she waxes lyrical about it: ‘I absolutely adore Instagram’ it’s the ease with which you can come to something visually satisfying, and of course share your creations, which most appeals to her. She captivates me further describing how she occasionally combines advanced digital editing on her computer with further alterations on her iPhone, creating layers through the ‘screenshot’ function and enhancing the colour or contrast through implementing certain Instagram filters. She fuses the very best of both worlds to create an incomparable result.

Above: Iona Wolff

With my own mother already beating me at the perfect ‘selfie’, the concept of the camera phone and all the apps that are introduced with it seem to have successfully integrated themselves into our everyday lives. Will this be the end of photographic prints? Or will the 6 x 4 “ default print turn into a 4 x 4” that adheres to the square format of Instagram snaps? As I write this article, I start to wonder if the red line that keeps appearing under the word ‘Instagram’ will disappear on the next edition of word.

She used to cut up magazines and filter through family albums from the age of seven, but looking to Iona’s future, I ask the photographer of her plans and thank goodness she assures me that ‘more photographs’ are on the agenda. Such an uplifting exhibition that I would most certainly recommend. The French House series is open until the 10th December 2013 and watch this space, this girl is on to something.

Find out more here: www.ionawolff.co.uk

 

Hanging Out in Dalston House: Marie Naffah

 

Being an art history undergraduate, I know it’s probably a crime to admit that I don’t always feel like heading into central London to rub shoulders with flustered mothers tripping over their tired children who are bored of Gauguin and have seen enough Rodin and are ready to queue the hour and a half for a mediocre sandwich and well-needed cup of coffee at the gallery café. Sometimes, I’m not so keen to stand on my tip toes and crane my neck over the overexcited school children that surround Van Gogh’s Sunflowers.

 

And before you ask – no thank you, I wouldn’t like a headset.

 

Cynicism aside, obviously, with these mainstream exhibitions that have been so ruthlessly executed down to the colour of the walls, it is understandable that everybody wants to climb into such a treasure trove of gems. But sometimes it can prove a little too much, hence why I was delightfully humbled after stumbling upon Leandro Erlich’s encapsulating, three dimensional pop up installation of Dalston House recently commissioned by the Barbican.

 

Above: First photograph of the cast of ‘Buoy’

Modest in its exhibition space, the work occupied an understated lot on Ashwin Street, displaying a Victorian façade of a terraced house that has been created on the ground. Through the placement of mirrors, the façade had been reflected, replicating a lifelike upright representation of a house as we know it. It’s a photographer’s paradise, toying with the different angles as members of the public lie on the ground pretending to hang, fall, jump and climb from the various windows and doors. I found the atmosphere of this ‘hands on’ project so very uplifting, and although the free admission meant there was a queue, time flew by as you watched each individual bring their own imagination to Erlich’s innovation.

 

Above: Second photograph of the cast of ‘Buoy’

For those that have read my previous entries, you will be aware that a recurring theme and personal fascination of mine is art’s ability to involve the viewer. Erlich takes this concept to a whole new dimension as the boundary between the work and its viewer is not only blurred, but indeed, fully abolished as we interlock ourselves within the spectacle, a powerful development of a common 17th century characteristic of creating a new found role of the viewer (As discussed in my previous blog which you can read here.) The facade itself was executed from the foundations of a house that had been bombed during the Second World War, lending the artwork the capability of linking past and present, as the artist unites contemporary society and historical architecture.

 

Above: ‘Pip’ – Digital Photograph with poster edges filter

A definite exhibition highlight of my summer, Dalston House left me wanting more amusingly perceptive works from the artist, for those days where you just crave something a little different.

For more information on Leandro Erlich and where to see his work visit his website.

The Power of Portraiture: Photographic reflections on the BP Portrait Award, 2013 National Portrait Gallery – Marie Naffah

 

Now in it’s thirty-fourth year, the BP Portrait Award continues to be one of my favourite exhibitions. Ranging in style, scale and subject, the exhibition shows a plethora of ways through which one can communicate expression within a portrait. This collection provided me with a reassuring sense of familiarity – there are no daunting or challenging narratives that pervade each work. With certain exceptions of the occasional famous face, the works focus on the artists’ friends or family, aggrandising your average Joe and making them worthy of your time and attention.

 

In my opinion, the most successfully engaging portraits touched on the crucial factors of eye contact and a simplified background but more interestingly, specific examples sparked the question of whether the inclusion of a face is truly necessary. Are we able to access the identity of a person that lacks what is commonly believed to be the most fundamental aspect of the portrait? Using this photographic exploration, I intend to incorporate the aforementioned artistic techniques of portraiture into my own rendition within the digital medium.

 

On entering the display, Hynek Martinec’s large scale, hyper realistic depiction of Zuzana in London (1980) was difficult to ignore. Immediately I was enthralled by a fixed, confident gaze of the sitter, directly confronting me with her intense stare and sincere expression. Is it a photograph? – No, it’s acrylic on canvas, executed with a ruthless attention to detail that imitates and emulates the prevailing impact of a photograph.

 

Above Left: Zuzana in London, Hynek Martinec (Acrylic on Canvas), Above Right: Barny, Marie Naffah (Photograph with enhanced film grain)

What continues to fascinate me is the often taken for granted necessity of the direct gaze. Established in the 17th Century, the device creates a seamless relationship between the subject and audience, thus enhancing the emotional worth of the piece. (For more on this subject, have a look at my earlier entry, Blurring the Boundary, A photographic exploration of Baroque Techniques).

Another common feature that proved particularly noteworthy within the exhibit was the blank backdrop that accompanied each  sitter. Such a simple device that has clearly been intentionally executed in order to confirm that our focus can only be directed to the figure that occupies the foreground. As well as offering a visually satisfying finish, no distractions hinder our personal experience with each character, as we are offered the opportunity to draw our own conclusions to their stories.

Above Left: Self Portrait, Ian Cumberland , Above Right: My Father, Julie Held

Above: Amy, Marie Naffah (Photograph)

Above: Fergus, Marie Naffah (Photograph)

The thing that really stuck with me after this exhibition though, and has sparked further contemplation a week later, is  the question of whether a facial expression is necessarily crucial to a successful portrait? Interestingly, my two ‘postcard worthy’ images both lacked the typical, assumed inclusion of the face, yet managed to conjure up the same emotions without it.

 

Above Left: Net No. 10, Daniel Coves , Above Right: Kristy, Geert Schless

No eye contact, no facial expressions, these portraits really are the game changer regarding  our consideration of portraiture. We’re taken out of our comfort zone and relocated to somewhere that contains a combination of thought provoking and unsettling ambiguity. Love them or loathe them, these portraits may have not won the BP Portrait prize,  but they certainly won my vote. What impressed me most was the artists’ ability to create an emotional stimulus to piety in such a subtle and constructive manner. Perhaps it’s the close attention to the other details of the work, or maybe the focus on each figure’s posture that creates a certain psychological tension, reminding us of the impact of gesture and expression in art.

Above Left: Will, Marie Naffah (Photograph), Right: Rosie, Marie Naffah (Photograph)

Open until the 15th September and admission is free, this exhibition is definitely worth a visit.

The Exploration of Freedom: a Photographic Study of Contemporary Artist, Frank Bowling

Above, Left to Right: All Frank Bowling: Beggar in The Window. (1962) Who’s afraid of Barney Newman? (1968) Kaieteur (1968)

The other week I headed over to the Standpoint Gallery to listen to the 79 year old Guyanese artist, Frank Bowling, give an intimate talk about his latest London exhibition, entitled Grit to Gold: Collaging the Abstract.

I have decided to focus this photography blog on how the stylistically varied work of Frank Bowling marks both his physical and artistic journey. I also want to examine how his painting serves as a commentary on the marginalised lives of Black Artists during the 1950s and 1960s, with his earthy toned figurative paintings presenting images of violence and despair in the country where he was born. His later abstract works reflect his experiences in London and New York as he searched for new opportunities and methods, starting to allow paint to obtain a life of its own. This is illustrated very well in his Poured Paintings exhibition at the Tate Britain, a show I would also thoroughly recommend.

Bowling’s earlier, figurative works focus on the tragic aspect of human behaviour that he was exposed to during his upbringing before moving to the Western World in 1953. Paintings of beggars (see above) were used to personify poverty and weakness, demonstrating the instability of Guyanese culture. Bowling refuses to spare any detail of this sense of suffering: his brushstrokes are rigid, his colour palette is limited and, as the artist put it himself, he has chosen to ‘impair the traditional soothing’ that we expect from a painting, as we feel guilt for the man that begs at the window. Bowling is not afraid to separate the figure from the onlooker by using the window as a device to hinder our access, confronting the obvious division between black and white artists in the ’50s and ’60s. His painting is reminiscent of western artists such as Turner and Rembrandt, whom the Bowling admires, suggesting his desire for universality between different cultures.

The subject matter of beggars served as a common stereotype for the category of ‘Black Art’ alongside other subjects, such as landscape and childbirth. But now, in retrospect, we are able to see the Bowling’s battle with the ‘sweeping generalisations about cultural distinctiveness’ as he promoted the idea that there is no such thing as ‘Black Art’.

On moving to New York, Bowling grew increasingly more aware of the cultural limitations of his art: the post-colonial approach focusing on concepts of exile, migration and displacement gave the artist little flexibility in the subject matter of his paintings.

Scared to transfer entirely from figurative art to abstraction, he felt the need to incorporate fragments of his ethnicity into his series of Map Paintings, claiming he ‘didn’t feel brave enough to go straight into abstraction’; the implication here was that his integration into mainstream art was hindered by racial prejudice.

But finally, Bowling managed to shift to complete abstraction, where his art was no longer defined by his race or ethnicity and visual arts could be separated from other social concerns. For example in his Poured Paintings (see above) the subject matter becomes less of a concern to the artist, demonstrating his new confidence and status, rising above the need to incorporate iconography into his work. This process-driven approach breaks away from the conventional 20th century demand for logic and subject matter. He works without an easel, and pours the paint on a tilted board, ‘wet on wet’ giving it its own liberty to create forms independently, each colour falling and blending as it reaches the bottom of the picture plane.

Below, I have tried to replicate this idea of experimentation and portrayal of freedom photographically, setting a long shutter speed whilst moving the camera over coloured lights. We see there is no boundary between the piece and the observer, like we have experienced previously in Bowling’s earlier works. This is meant to suggest how the modern world allows for the participation of all cultures, inviting us to appreciate the work for what it is; provoking a sense of anticipated excitement for the future of art, as it aims to encapsulate the spirit of modernism – ‘Art for Art’s sake’, if you like.

 

Above: Lights 1, Marie Naffah

Above: Lights 2, Marie Naffah

Above: Lights 3, Marie Naffah

I must lastly mention that Bowling has finally sold one of his paintings for $275,000 after years of working as an abstract artist. Although the Guyanese artist proves very successful, I couldn’t help but think as I sat in a room of about 25 people listening to him speak, why is it that we grant his contemporaries so much recognition, for instance, Hockney- who arguably produces works of the same artistic merit? Is it acceptable that there is still an underlying struggle that takes place for a black artist in western society?


Blurring the Boundary: A photographic exploration of Baroque techniques by Marie Naffah

The 17th century brought a new emphasis on the role of the viewer. Barriers were broken down and the audience no longer looked through a window into Renaissance perfection. Instead, they found themselves amidst the dirty feet of Caravaggio’s figures, up close and personal with Bernini’s mythological subjects- absorbed in all things ‘baroque’ – emotion, movement and drama.

The focus of this piece is to explore how artists  managed to engage their audiences in works of art in the 17th century and successfully blurred the boundary between the observer and the observed. The centralised government’s concern for ‘reaching the people’ meant that artists started to manipulate their work in order to be involved in, control or intrude on the observer’s space.

Using similar techniques to those used by 17th – century masters, such as Caravaggio and Bernini, I have tried to create photographs that not only encourage, but crucially, demand the participation of the observer.

Arguably, the simplest technique for provoking interaction with the viewer, is through the creation of protruding elements that reach out of the picture plane, and fall into our space.

Above Left: Cerasi Chapel, Sta. Maria del Popolo Rome, Caravaggio Conversion of St. Paul – The foreshortening of both man and horse in such an uncomfortably small space, enhances dramatic tension here as we are physically confronted with the body of Paul, stretching out into our space.

Above Right: (Original photograph, Florence) – Here, I have taken the two photographs from below, creating a similar foreshortening effect which leads the viewer in through the sitter’s feet, into the overall composition.

For the first time, the 17th century brings a crucial element to portraiture – the direct gaze.

From Top: Caracci: The Bean Eater (c. 1585) – the fixed stare of the figure creates an immediate, private connection with the viewer. The sense of immediacy is intensified through the beans that fall from the subject’s mouth, consequentially creating a ‘snap-shot’ effect.

From Below: ‘Bubblegum’ (Original Photograph, Florence) – In the same manner as Caracci, I have used the bubblegum to suggest this similar ‘snap-shot’ effect, as the viewer anticipates the bubble bursting. The figure however grabs our attention through an intense, and some-what seductive gaze, inviting you in and again, forcing direct interaction between the subject and the onlooker.

Lastly, 17th century artists often intended to include elements of surprise in their works, in order to provoke a reaction and involve the viewer. Paintings and sculptures often had sensual undertones which may be thought as slightly controversial, for perhaps religious subject matter, causing questions to be asked by the onlooker.

Left: Untitled, (Own Photograph, Buckinghamshire) The fixed gaze contrasts the motion blur of the overall piece, whilst the sitter’s shoulder is left slightly exposed adding an air of sensuality to the photograph. The sitter still maintains a distinguished beauty, similar, I think, to Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Theresa. In this case, the focus is not on a sexual matter, yet the daring interpretation of the religious subject intends to shock, providing an invitation for further questions to be asked – again, another way of involving the viewer.

At a time when population – particularly in Rome where two of these great artworks were created and still remain – personal space was not an option. Perhaps this is the same today. Certainly I hope I have shed a little light on how the composition techniques employed by great artists of the seventeenth century can still be used today, across artistic media.

Andy Warhol – Playing with Layers.

In this cold, dreary weather, it seems like we could all do with a splash of colour in our routine. Humbly inspired by the recent exhibition of Warhol displayed at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, I’ve decided to dedicate this blog to the photographic re-creation of some of his work, focusing on the manipulation of multiple layers in portraiture.

There’s no Marilyn and there’s no Campbell’s soup tin, because, although now arguably synonymous with Warhol’s name, I left the exhibition assured that there were many more dimensions to Andy’s career, hence the reason why he is considered one of the most influential individuals of the 20th Century.

Above left: ‘Rosie’ (Original photograph by Marie Naffah) Here I have a photograph that has been duplicated and layered each frame on top of one another. I have enhanced the saturation of the original, replicating Warhol’s vivid palette. This acts as the base of the original, whilst, akin to Warhol’s portrait, I have sketched the top layer digitally, suggesting subtle details of the facial features.

Above right: ‘Muhammad Ali’ (Warhol)

With the striking simplicity of the line drawing, combined with the small inclusion of hand- drawn details, a sense of identity is created  for the subject, whilst unanimously creating a piece that successfully draws the viewer in, stimulating emotion. It’s almost reminiscent of the Baroque style, with regards to breaking the boundary between the subject and the observer.

Another aspect that impressed me was Warhol’s expertise in creating something magnificent from something so simple, reiterating layers of the same picturesque cliché in order to produce an alternative perspective on the subject.

Above left: Mickey Mouse Screen Print (Warhol) – Warhol’s prints are defined as screenprints on paper and were intended to be produced in multiple impressions.

Above Right: ‘Tara’ (Original photograph by Marie Naffah) – Here, a monochrome photograph is repeated four times and rendered with the ‘Conte Crayon’ effect in order to imitate the simplified style of the screen print.

Warhol is undoubtedly regarded as an astonishing colourist. I still can’t quite comprehend how he gets away with placing layers of decorative colour on fairly formally composed portraits, and it manages to prove a huge success. The colours chosen are far from naturalistic, yet seem to enhance the overall piece, consequentially adding further expression to the individual.

Above Left: ‘Sarah Bernhardt” (Warhol)

Above Right: ‘Self Portrait’ (Original photograph by Marie Naffah) Similarly to the first image, I have used multiple layers, combining a line drawing and a monochrome photograph. Additionally, I have added three more layers of separate colours, echoing Warhol’s style. For some reason, the image doesn’t appear primitive, yet instead, a portrait full of expression and animation.

I’ve only touched on a few examples of Warhol’s phenomenal use of layers, but the exhibition did solidify my opinion that he was indeed a master manipulator of photographic imagery and had the ability to transform familiar, commercial art into that of “high art”.

The Power of Line and Development: thoughts on the exhibition ‘Master Drawings from Mantegna to Matisse’, by Marie Naffah

There are two things that resonate in my mind after visiting the temporary exhibition Master Drawings from Mantegna to Matisse at the Courtauld Gallery: the importance of developing a work of art through drawings and sketches, and the authority of line in many a finished artwork. Having been to Italy and experienced the masterpieces of artists like Michelangelo and Tintoretto, I found the Courtauld’s drawings exhibition very refreshing. From this selection of sketches, the visitor is able to access the artists’ intentions and priorities for their work without having to see a finished piece at all.

The exhibition inpired me to  explore the concept of creative development and line using photographs of my own drawings, and editing software. I photographed a selection of portraits which I made while on the Art History Abroad Early Summer Course 2012.

 

Above is a portrait, ‘Rose’, edited with an applied “coloured pencil” filter. Here, I have sketched over digitally to create the chiaroscuro affect present in Piazzetta’s Head of a Boy and an Old Man (above right). I have also tried to imitate Piazetta’s use of white chalk to heigten the contrast of the black chalk on grey paper which in turn creates a soft suggestion of form.

I was also struck by  Ingres’ beautiful study for the Grande Odalisque, which demonstrates that line and composition can dominate colour and detail, creating something just as effective.

 

Above left: Here, I have divided my portrait in two, leaving the original drawing on the right hand side. Similarly to Ingres’ study, I have erased the detail on the left hand side, allowing the viewer to focus on the line and composition of the photograph.

Above : Self portrait taken 3 times in the Marino Marini museum in Florence and “Emma” in Santa Maria Novella. I decided to place these drawings together after seeing Da Vinci (Mary Magdelene studies 1480 ) and Veronese’s Studies of Christ Carrying the Cross (both above right). In both drawings the artists experimented with slightly different compositions before settling on the final outcome. Viewing the sketches, one can see the figures merge together, almost creating a sense of movement. It is rare that we are able to follow an artist’s thought process like this.

So in conclusion I am amazed at how effective a simple line drawing can be. The exhibition perhaps told me even more than if I’d seen the finished works. Here, I end with my final photograph, “Ella” which combines two layers – one of the original grayscale photograph, the other digitally sketched. As I hope you will see here, with a sketch, you do not necessarily need an abundance of detail and colour for the result to be effective. What you do need, is a clarity of line and of composition – something the drawings of the old masters illustrate in abundance.