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“indelicate process’”

Kirsty Jukes

Anya Paintsil is a textile artist of Welsh and Ghanaian heritage based in London.

Combining traditional rug making techniques taught to her by her Grandma, with contemporary materials such as synthetic and human hair, she creates richly layered woven works of cultural significance. Embroidery, sewing, rug-hooking, tufting and tapestry all combine in an indelicate process that Paintsil revels in. The similarity of technique and tools used in making rugs and styling afro hair, particularly in ways of knotting, inspired the artist to take the natural step of combining both skills in her practice.

When I spoke with Paintsil, she mentioned the realisation that as her work became more publicly visible she started to ‘notice a phenomenon surrounding the use of hair in my work that made me both uncomfortable and I guess some way ended up becoming an unintended political statement – that the hair in my work, in a gallery context, has more agency and more entitlement to bodily autonomy than I do, as a living human black woman’.[1] Echoing sentiments similar to Emma Dabiri’s in her ground-breaking feminist book Don’t Touch My Hair (2019) in which the author’s experience of growing up in Ireland with afro hair was a ‘constant source of deep, deep shame’,[2] Paintsil notes that ‘it is completely understood that art works within a gallery context cannot be touched, under any circumstances by the public. Curators, technicians etc. all handle with care, wearing gloves. But for some reason I can walk down the road and my afro can be petted by strangers like I’m a stray dog’,[3] foreground textured hair in an institutional context, providing a sense of reverence and respect it deserves.

This work is informed by Paintsil’s fascination with the Mabinogion, a fragmentary collection of pre-Christian Welsh Romantic prose taught at schools providing Welsh-medium education. The fates of the women in the Mabinogion particular fascinated the young Anya. This process of passing down stories by word of mouth mirrors the ‘verbal art’[4] of Fante culture, so important to the artist’s Ghanaian familial heritage. Reading like a feminist cautionary tale, characters like Blodeuwedd, a signifier of desire and deceit in the Mabinogion, met quite cruel and farcical fates. The central figure in Paintsil’s Blod references this character, whose name means ‘Flower-face’ or the Brythonic term for owl; Paintsil’s figure is stricken and wailing as she morphs from floral maiden into her final owl-like form. As flowery adornments recede, her body is suspended mid-transformation. A contorted arm forms an overarching gesture that resembles the beginnings of an owl’s concave facial disc, eyes blank and wide with terror. Standing in front of the work, one can almost hear bones cracking and feathers bristling through the raw umber skin. Popping out of a lilac backdrop, a colour usually associated with romance, the black figure is unapologetically claiming her place in both Welsh and art histories.

Often regarded as a woman’s craft, the weaving of fibres into textiles has, until quite recently, been devalued in Western ways of thinking in comparison to media such as painting or sculpture. Due to its association with femininity, industry and low-paid labour, a male-centric cultural value system has ignored such work. As discussed in Deborah and Zoe Gustlin’s text Herstory: A History of Women Artists, ‘historical perspectives tend to be predominantly European-centric, often disregarding the sophistication of other continents… women throughout time worked with different medium even if their work was not documented or acknowledged’.[5] Paintsil, then, continues the essential work of elevating her chosen discipline. Fibre art as a whole is slowly becoming a firm feature in major exhibitions and collections. Artists such as Faith Ringgold, Hannah Ryggen and El Anatsui create politically subversive works inspired by protest banners, war rugs and spiritually sacred indigenous textiles. Contemporary artists such as Paintsil are joining their ranks in showing the versatile nature of fibre to the viewing public.

With upcoming shows at Pearl Lam Galleries, Hong Kong, In Praise of Black Errantry at Venice Biennale and a second institutional show in Tŷ Pawb, Wales, Paintsil is reaching the heights that her talents merit, and helping establish a more well-rounded art-historical narrative that includes previously overlooked but culturally and historically significant traditions.

March 2024


[1] Email communication with Anya Paintsil, 6 March 2024.

[2] Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff, ‘Don’t Touch My Hair by Emma Dabiri Review – Groundbreaking’, Guardian, 23 April 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/apr/23/dont-touch-my-hair-emma-dabiri-review.

[3] Email communication with Anya Paintsil, 6 March 2024.

[4] William R. Bascom, ‘Verbal Art’, Journal of American Folklore 68, no. 269 (July–September 1955): 245–52.

[5] Deborah Gustlin and Zoe Gustlin, ‘Overview of Woman Artists’, Herstory: A History of Women Artists (San José, CA: Evergreen Valley College, 2023), LibreTexts, https://human.libretexts.org/Bookshelves/Art/Herstory%3A_A_History_of_Women_Artists_(Gustlin)/01%3A_Introduction_to_Women_Artists/1.01%3A_Overview_of_Woman_Artists.

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