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In Conversation With Textile Artist Joke Amusan | Artisans Stories

In Conversation With Textile Artist Joke Amusan | Artisans Stories

London-based textile artist, Joke Amusan is also the uplifting voice behind She Stands Firm, a Women of Colour empowerment platform. Joke uses both this online space and her workshops to create community and encourage women to ‘come together to share their stories and to embrace who they are unapologetically.’

In 2022 Joke was nominated for the “Female Founder” award in The Independent Awards and in 2023 she was a finalist for The Ingram Prize. Joke’s conversation-starting textile art, featuring distinctive red messages embroidered into hessian cloth is truly captivating, and likely to leave you moved, motivated, and challenged.

“My art became my mouthpiece when I didn’t feel I could speak, and through the years it’s helped me gain the confidence I needed to find my voice - to break down the barriers that were set in place.”  

Joke creates her embroidered art not just as a form of self-expression, but as a way to lift up others.

“I embarked on this journey of being an artist because I grew up believing that I, as a Black girl, didn’t matter as much as everyone else. Representation was scarce back then, and I think it’s not only because there wasn’t as many Black women in elevated positions, but that the ones who were in those positions weren’t being seen. I rarely saw myself in the world around me and so when I spoke and was often silenced, I believed there must be truth behind that. “Maybe Black girls and women are just below everyone else and our stories and voices are irrelevant.” I’ve always been a creative person, and my art practice has played a significant role in my growth…Now my goal is to empower Black girls and women so that they don’t have to feel the way I felt.”

The impact of Joke’s work is instant. In the Nosakhari London Fashion Week ‘Able-Ography’ exhibition Joke used her signature combination of hessian and red thread to boldly embroider a hessian version of the Able Crossbody Bag with ‘PERSEVERE.’ On a piece in the her portfolio are the words ‘My Very Existence Is Defiance’ and on another ‘Lifting Each Other Up As We Climb.’ Reading these red, textured words is both inspiring and motivating as a viewer, but beyond their initial meaning and visual strength, Joke’s choice of fabric, words and thread are imbued with an even deeper sentiment.

“As I went on in my creative journey, I felt more of a desire to connect to my African heritage which led me to fabrics and textiles which are very important in African culture. Deep down I always knew that I’d explore those materials one day, it was only a matter of time. I’ve also always been fascinated by words. They can be used to lift someone up or tear them down, I felt it was important I use my words to do what I wish words aimed towards me did: to encourage and uplift. 

Carefully Chosen To Start Conversation

“Words form narratives that can exist even when we’re not present. I wanted my artworks to be conversation starters that anyone could understand. I purposefully choose them to be simple and direct because I want my work to be accessible. There should be no confusion. I want you to understand, but I also want to challenge your way of thinking. Oftentimes it’s the simple things in life that we overlook.”

“Choosing the colour red came naturally to me because I wanted to grab people’s attention. When we see the colour red around us it’s often manifested in ‘stop’ or ‘warning’ signs, but I wanted to change the way we perceive the colour red. Still demanding to be seen, but this time the words are not set in place as barriers. Instead, they are there to unite us and remind us of who we are.

“I’ve always wanted to address the Transatlantic Slave Trade in my art practice, but not from the lens of suffering which gets taught in schools. In using hessian fabric I’m addressing migration, and its impacts. I’m also evoking the rough treatment of African slaves and the discomfort they would have felt at the time. Hessian is a natural/sustainable fabric that comes from the Earth. It’s durable, and therefore is often used to transport items. In this way I’m addressing the endurance of Black people.

“Despite being looked down on and treated poorly, we’re still standing today. In using hessian fabric and placing it on a pedestal, I want people to acknowledge a horrible past, but it doesn’t just end there. I juxtapose the coarse nature of the hessian fabric with the soft nature of the yarn and straight- to-the point words of encouragement. Our story doesn’t end in suffering.”

Joke recently started a new chapter in her story by committing to a full-time career as a textile artist, leaving the security of her 9-5 job to start her dream studio in London, a reflection of the choice Joke has made to invest in herself and her art.

“The studio represents me giving myself space to do what I love, and to freely expand and grow along the way.”

Starting work in the studio has been simultaneously a wonderful blessing for Joke and her biggest challenge.

“I suddenly felt pressure to create and to do so constantly. It was also a combination of feeling the need to make the most of it because I know there’s a lot of artists whose dreams are also to have a studio and being proactive enough to make an income to pay the rent. This led to me getting burnt out a lot. I was always aware of these feelings and didn’t want them to take over, so I worked towards getting to a point where I was creating because I loved it and it had meaning, rather than to operate from a place of fear. The moment I accepted that I’m where I’m supposed to be and that I’m here on purpose, things changed for the better.”

You Deserve To Take Up Space

This realisation is the inspiration behind Joke's embroidered piece ‘You Deserve To Take Up Space.' In a world where ‘space’ is often distributed unfairly, these words will be to many - as it was for Joke - a freeing and revolutionary statement. Thankfully, these important words came to Joke at a time where she felt least like she deserved to ‘take up space,’ but needed to hear them the most.

“Growing up, the term ‘token Black person’ was always in the back of my mind. “Only space for one Black person at that job, one Black person in that exhibition,” and this could be applied to every aspect in life. I fought with those thoughts for many years, but one day I decided to reject that term. Something in me accepted that surely it couldn’t be true. It was as though a light bulb switched on in my brain. I started to see myself differently when I saw more people who looked like me and had similar experiences.

"I thought that us, with all our unique skills and characteristics, couldn’t possibly be a monolith. Couldn’t possibly be reduced, no matter how hard they try to fit us into a box. My desire to see more Black people shine pushed me to want to express this to them. It’s when I accepted that we all deserve to take up space that I accepted I deserve to take up space too.”

Joke’s profound words articulate a perspective we should all be continually reflecting on as it speaks powerfully into our society and creative spaces, which continue to be limited by prejudice and inequality.  We need to collectively make space for all and challenge the limitations we ourselves may be placing on artists, perhaps through unconscious bias, which prevent us learning from rich and diverse creative contributions and experiences. 

As Joke proclaims in her piece ‘There Is Enough Room For All Of Us,’ taking up space doesn’t mean taking space from others.

“I choose to take up space by using my voice to speak up and by authentically being myself. I also enjoy surrounding myself with like-minded people because together we can achieve so much more. The reality is that we’re not meant to do life alone. We need the people in our lives who will keep pushing us to go beyond our comfort zones and we need each other when we inevitably get tired. Imagine a world where collaboration rules over competition and we all gave each other the room we need to freely expand? That’s the kind of world I want to exist in.”

“The belief that I deserve to take up space is a statement that’s given me the motivation to run towards things which may seem out of my reach or not for me. I truly believe that when people see the belief you have in yourself, they start to believe you too.”

One of the worst things that can happen as a creative is that you stay the same.

Joke’s creative practice has been successful on account of her perseverance, consistent investment in herself and also by allowing herself room for experimentation.

“While monetary investment is one of the factors, time is just as important. Are you investing your time into your craft? Are you allowing yourself time to experiment and test? It also means recognising your value and putting in the effort. One of the worst things that can happen as a creative is that you stay the same. I almost see it as moving backwards. You need to keep exploring and trying out new things, it’s what will help you grow and move forward. Investing in yourself also shows others that you’re worth investing in.”

Joke also invests much of her time in others through the running of her embroidery workshops which the textile artist has hosted at venues such as Tate Modern and Somerset House. Leading workshops has allowed Joke to further reflect on her value of community as well as serving as inspiration for how she can use her art to share the stories of others.

“In running workshops I’m able to see how everyone else works with the materials I work with and how they individually relate to them. It’s made me be more thoughtful in my approach to creating, and the choices I make when putting together an idea. I’m constantly reminded of community and how important it is. I aspire for my art practice to reflect this.”

On Instagram, Joke candidly shares the highs and lows of running a business, reflections on her journey and practical tips. She distills this wisdom into a few top tips for us here:

Always remember why you do what you do.

“The number one tip that I think forms the foundation of an artists practice is to always remember why you do what you do. It’s very important to be able to ground yourself and know what your vision is. That’s what will hold you when things get hard, and it’s always an opportunity to show yourself how strong you really are. Your vision is what will motivate you to overcome the hurdles.

Being an artist is also being a business owner.

“I also wish I knew from the beginning that being an artist is also being a business owner. I didn’t see myself as one when I started out because my art is very personal to me, but to run a successful business you have to be able to detach yourself from time-to-time. I would also say to keep track of everything you’ve done. From keeping all your receipts for expenses, to noting down all your achievements. It will make it easier to see how you’re progressing and the things to change moving forward.

Don’t put too much pressure on yourself.

“Finally, don’t put too much pressure on yourself. It’s easy to look at someone else’s journey and feel like you must match it. The reality is that we’re all walking on different paths and our journeys will never be the same. Instead choose to learn more about yourself, what you enjoy, and what your strengths and weaknesses are. Then move forward from there.

“Someone once told me “You’ll never know unless you try,” and it’s a statement I think about a lot. Even if I fail, I want to be able to say at least I tried, and one day it will work and I’ll also be able to say it’s because I tried.”

Besides an inspiring attitude towards failure and comparison, perhaps another key to Joke’s success also lies in her ability to speak to a need. With her poetic use of words she responds to the negative voices so prevalent in our society, with an uplifting optimism and outpouring of humanity.

“It’s been amazing to hear how my artworks are being perceived because it reminds me that my practice has gone beyond me. My thoughts are able to reach someone else and stir theirs. My work is being seen as commentary on the world we live in and a call to action, and simultaneously also words that have comforted and made others feel seen and heard.”

To discover more of Joke’s work visit Joke’s website or follow her on Instagram @ibijoke.img

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