Interview: Conceptual artist and comic Reshma Eyafe

John Clay catches up with multidisciplinary artist Reshma Eyafe on formative experiences and forging artistic communities online and off.

Reshma is dead (to me)

I died a thousand deaths in first person fiction due to my lack of imagination, apparently…

Reshma Eyafe

You identify as a multidisciplinary conceptual artist and comic. What was the first medium you chose to work through and was there a particular philosophy that attracted you to it?

I played jazz clarinet in my school orchestra from around age 8 to 11. I found it meditative. Our music teacher was a beautiful man called Mr Watson, who encouraged freestyle improvisation and environmentalism. I loved the way the two seemed to go hand-in-hand in his head – and so, for me too. During practise breaks, we were encouraged to get fresh air and take our refreshments out on the conservation ground he built for the school. One time, he entertained us with blues harmonica while we ate! Mr Watson granted vital access to the arts; often concentrating on the most economically deprived among us and supporting the talents of even the least inspired of us – to feel we might have something to offer the world. Free Jazz encouraged me to experiment and make my own artistic decisions. Its chaos still calms me.

What medium did you seek out after music and is it necessarily the most calming?

Age 13, I travelled with my family for a year. It was during this time I discovered how much I needed to document my perspective on stuff because stuff gets distorted, forgotten, or rewritten. I began keeping a diary, taking pictures, scrapbooking, collecting postcards and writing melancholy rap lyrics and letters to my cousin that included satirical sketches. This style stayed with me my whole life and inspired my first website.

Care to offer a specific event or realisation that required the creation of an artefact in order to protect its memory?

An event, yes – My cousin died, but I kept writing to him to protect his memory. Later, after my first prison visit, I had a realisation and wrote a song to capture some stuff that needed capturing. For the purpose of answering your question fully, I have uploaded it here. To make it a little easier on the ear, my friend the great NAUSMERE graciously adorned it and I couldn’t be happier with the result. When another friend heard I was doing this interview, he lovingly created some visuals for the song using creative commons content. I just uploaded it to my YouTube channel.

Please feel free to elaborate on your work in prisons and how that path intersects with your art, and thus your worldview.

OK, I tried to articulate it in my artist statement a few years ago, but with the passing of time I have lost my grip on it. I am now freefalling in the belief that inclusivity is far more complex than we think. If, in the struggle for power in our hometowns, we form tribes that oppress other tribes, how then can we expect peace out there in the world at large? It is apparent in all we do; the crimes we commit against each other, how we judge behaviours, how we seek justice. Peace begins within, and Art plays a huge role in creating a more empathetic society. A society that wants to include even the most excluded members – its prisoners!

How did you first get involved with work in prisons and what myths were compounded or dispelled in your visits?

I watched an old episode of The Outer Limits, called ‘The Sentence’ – then I had a dream I was in prison. When I woke up, I wrote the dream down. I started looking for ways to help prisoners; involving myself in chaplaincy work, pen-pal-ship, and prison library schemes. Later, I came across The Welcome Directory which is an organisation that enables faith communities to become places where people who, upon leaving prison, can find acceptance.

I have since worked alongside pressure groups within the school-prison nexus; incorporating youth education, gang mediation, and team sports. I am currently looking at how to create real opportunities for real talent among the artists with less access to professional training in the arts. I am developing a platform for the service and have set up a consultancy that is wild. Only for the brave. Join me, if you dare. Or just subscribe to my newsletter. OK, hyperbole aside, I am truly grateful for any and all support, as all the myths, as I understand them, are not myths at all. The prisoner’s reality is worse, much worse.

The platform sounds inspired and a great way to deal with mentoring a people who will eventually have to re-join a society outside prison. Let’s discuss your art now, particularly your poetry. You have an interest in using the first person POV. Tell us why and what you have gained from sharing such work.

Thank you, John. It’s all linked. The platform is a space for fellow artists to feel free to tell their stories the way I feel free to tell mine. I use first person a lot because all stories I create are mine to tell, no different than acting. This does not make all my stories autobiographical – contrary to popular belief. Also, I am one of those people who never finishes a project. I have the prequels, sequels, spin-offs, backstories, hidden histories, Easter eggs, and more. I don’t like endings!  

We have spoken off record as to how the popular belief of a first person POV can present problems in communication. Care to be specific about such incidents? Perhaps your followers and ours might gain from your insight.

I have died a thousand deaths in first person fiction, due to my lack of imagination, apparently. Why can’t I empathise with my character enough to write from their perspective? I find it fascinating that people who know me really well think I have this whole other life that I’m writing about in my fiction, solely based on my use of the word “I”. If one more person asks me if a story is autobiographical I’ll scream “Reshma is dead to me!” Only joking, but it is a somewhat emotionally charged poem, that one – Published at the height of the first lockdown.

Hopefully this interview goes some way in highlighting this occurrence. You have quite an integrated online community that orientates on the working and use of poetry. Do you seek interactions via face to face with fellow poets? I’m sure the pandemic has been a factor in this regard, yes?

Yes, fear is a factor. I think artists ought to be innovative and flexible, so it’s a crying shame if an artist hasn’t found a way to adapt to the times. OK, the galleries and theatres were closed for a few months, but outside spaces and digital spaces were not – and they are great for creativity. Site-specific art, responding to the environment, outdoor exhibitions, filmed exhibitions, online exhibitions, virtual exhibitions… I can make this list longer. Also, I am part of a tribe for writers called SCRIBAL. We work together online and offline. We collaborate with other artists, so it’s not just writers. We exchange value using our digital currency ‘Salt’ mined via investing our energy. If you’re ready for this way of life, you are invited to join us.

It would be a missed opportunity to not enquire as to how you discovered SCRIBAL and how it’s affected your output and sense of artistic community… Do tell us more about Salt as well, since potential followers may indeed be interested.

I was developing my own NFT platform and seeking the right professional team, when I met Andrew and Eliziam. They were about to launch a unique community platform, based on human creativity and connectivity. In them, I knew I had found my new tribe. The currency we use to exchange goods and services is called Salt and Pepper, in full. I call it Salt because I don’t like pepper. It’s an eco-friendly digital currency that creates itself out of positive human activity within the community. It’s a beautiful thing.

Could you quantify this ‘positive human activity’ via an example? This sounds like the work of magic dispensing elves or futuristic alien tech. Should we be concerned?

Sorry, John. I think this interview is over.

Reshma’s NFT platform will launch via very soon.

Interview by John Clay
Image: ‘Searching for Reshma’ by Ramon Sutton

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