Textile artist Anya Paintsil incorporates humour, hair and folklore to tell stories of her dual heritage
"A lot of my work is inspired by my own life, childhood memories and experiences," says Anya Paintsil, an artist who grew up in a town located in North Wales. Her father is from Ghana, and her mother – plus her side of the family – are from Welsh-speaking communities in Anglesey.
She grew up speaking Welsh and always had a "weird little art practice" going on the side, even though she wasn't much a fan of school or art, for that matter. Having left education at 16, Anya worked full-time before heading to Glasgow and decided to study art at university – choosing illustration as her initial discipline. She got into Manchester School of Art, "quickly" swapped to fine art and graduated in 2020. The rest writes itself.
Before now, Anya's textural wefted pieces would depict people, conceived as portraits and artfully sewn to represent her siblings, friends and loved ones. Nowadays, her work is more abstract – with contorted compositions, textural weaves, body postures and expressions that denote her experiences of having dual Welsh and Ghanaian heritage. "A lot of my work is pretty tongue in cheek and comical while also reflecting identity and trauma." Along with the more literal depictions of people, Anya also references motifs and stories from her childhood, things like folklore, symbols, art, sayings and proverbs, the elements that they had "contact with" yet never fully explored or understood.
"I like a lot of it comes from searching for connection, particularly after the deaths of my paternal grandparents and maternal grandmother over the last few years," she says. "I began to look into these things – not necessarily thinking they'd feed into my practice, but they've resulted in quite a large shift in my work." Today, Anya is heavily inspired by both Welsh and Akan visual and oral culture – the folk tales, symbols, flags and stories that her father used to tell her when she was little. She combines these narratives, intertwined as both a depiction of her personal history and those before her.
When making a piece, Anya uses hair as a vital element throughout the process, often making braids and twists from synthetic hair of reused extensions she's previously worked on. In fact, textiles and afro hairstyling, she says, are both traditionally associated with "femininity, domesticity, decoration and vanity" – "because of this, they have unfortunately been both devalued". As such, Anya strives to bring back value to both practices, utilising the craft of rug hooking and textures, embroidery and needlework to do so, particularly since rug hooking has long been associated with labour "and working-class women's art history and creativity". Afro hairstyling is similar, she adds. "I view it inherently as an art practice requiring immense skill, creativity and intense labour."
As we speak, Anya's evocative textile creations are being exhibited in her first London solo show, We Are All Made of You, currently on view at Ed Cross. Blod and Mair a Ralph are two of Anya's favourite pieces in the show, both of which were made earlier this year and are inspired by the women of Welsh mythology, "particularly from The Mabinogion", which she says is a collection of Welsh folk tales and "pre-Christian Welsh/Celtic Pagan belief" compiled in the 12th-13th Centuries.
Besides being peppered with humour, these works – much like the rest of her portfolio – are riddled with context, history and meaning. Mair a Ralph, for instance, has a "jokey" title and looks at Ci Annwn, "dogs from the underworld, death omens in Welsh mythology" – "they're white, spectral with bright red ears and make honking noises like geese". The portrait itself isn't a depiction of anyone in particular, yet the work is a subtle reference to her sister, Mair, and her sheepdog named Ralph, "who bit me on Christmas Day".
We Are All Made of You is open at Ed Cross, and Anya also has an upcoming solo show later this year in New York at Hannah Traore Gallery, as well as a few more group shows.