Bermudian artist leaves her mark abroad
Gherdai Hassell has been named as one of “five emerging black artists to collect now” in Britain.
She fled there from China when Covid-19 disrupted the world, on the last flight out of Hong Kong before England shut its borders to flights from the East Asian nation.
Her art was simultaneously receiving accolades here. Ms Hassell has a piece on display as part of Bermuda Biennial 2020 and has also exhibited at the Bermuda Society of Arts and in Masterworks Museum of Bermuda Art's Charman Prize.
“Many people here who have seen my journey from the ground up have reached out to me, thrilled and happy that the seeds I've been sowing are beginning to bear fruit. I'm grateful,” said the 29-year-old, who is taking online classes in Britain until it is safe for her to physically return to the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou where she is a master's candidate studying contemporary art.
Interactions Bermuda, her 72in x 120in x 6in mixed media collage that recently grabbed attention here, took five months to create and over a week to install at the Bermuda National Gallery.
Like much of her work it was a way for Ms Hassell to share “untold stories and narratives”.
As described in the attached artist statement it “celebrates the black female figure” and explores “representation, perception, identity creation, and childhood”.
She said: “When making the work I was thinking about how we interact with one another as humans and how the auras we emanate can determine our physical interactions with other people and how our interactions with others can determine how we self-identify.
“The collages are an exploration of self-determination and self-identification. Interestingly, the ways in which we [connected] during shelter-in-place ... radically shifted our lives on a global level. Interconnection and interaction [took] on a whole new meaning. The work was timely and I didn't even realise.”
Ms Hassell has been interested in art “for as long as I can remember”.
“I drew a lot as a child; interestingly, I drew a lot like how I draw now. My collages are inspired by childhood inspirations. I gained a mentor in Christine Wellman when she became my art teacher at Berkeley [Institute]. We have kept in touch since then. I'm also inspired much by Sharon Wilson.”
In 2016, she got a part-time job using her art to teach English in China and moved there, determined to pursue her dream.
“I chose China because I could work part-time teaching and use my money from teaching to fund my studio,” she said, explaining that art supplies in the region were of a good quality and inexpensive.
Fortunate to find an “oil painting master” who took her on as an apprentice, she was able to build a portfolio strong enough to get her accepted into the China Academy of Art.
By then she had already begun working on the avatars that dominate her Biennial submission.
“It was a therapeutic exercise against the alienation and overbearing otherness I experienced whilst living in the city of Guiyang,” she said. “Living in that city felt very isolating. It was hard for me as one of the few black people in the city. I would step outside of my apartment and people would stare, point, take photos of me and follow me. I grew a heightened awareness of myself as a black person. I've always been connected to my blackness, but never felt so black, until I moved to China.”
The avatars were a way for her to “deal with the unwanted attention”.
Around the same time she began experimenting with Chinese calligraphy inks on different kinds of watercolour and traditional Chinese rice paper. To her work she added “a contemporary twist”.
“Because my skin in China was always a point of inquiry for Chinese people, I figured it could be awesome to investigate within myself what it means to walk in the world in a black body. I loved the way the inks allowed me to explore what it means to have black skin.
“In Bermuda, I was very much unaware of what my blackness meant in the world because Bermuda is predominantly black. Being Bermudian is something I take great pride in, it's a part of my multilayered identity. Leaving home allowed me the opportunity to investigate my heritage with a different lens.”
Ultimately, the experience of being part of a minority was invaluable to her development, Ms Hassell said.
“I was able to stay inspired because being black in China toughens you up — you either sink or swim; crack, or develop thick skin. My life and my experiences were inspiring the work and continue to push me to look at deeper connections between life and its expression.”
In January with Covid-19, it became obvious that life as she knew it would be disrupted.
“It was single-handedly the scariest thing I've ever experienced,” Ms Hassell said. “We were four provinces away from Wuhan [the city in which the pandemic began] and they began moving people from Wuhan to Hangzhou because the hospitals were filling up. They shut down the gates and we were unable to leave our dorm unless we had permission.
“I decided that I would leave the next day and, literally, I made the last flight out of Hong Kong to the UK. That morning I landed, the UK banned all flights from China. It was by the grace of God I was able to leave before I got stuck there. I've been in the UK ever since.”
In August, Widewalls, an art magazine and marketplace, put her on a list of artists people should look out for.
“I'm unaware of how they became familiar with my work but they reached out to me to let me know that they were submitting me for the list,” Ms Hassell said.
“I felt joy when I found out they considered me. It's one thing to be in the studio and making work, but it's a whole different feeling when your work is recognised outside of yourself and your studio space. I was the only woman artist that was included in the work, so I was thrilled I could represent for us women.”
• Read about Gherdai Hassell in Widewalls magazine: www.widewalls.ch. Follow her on Instagram @hassell_free. She also has a podcast, The Art Affects, which is dedicated to “the amplification of voices and creative media of black Bermudian artists”. Listen on all #podcast platforms including PodBean and the Apple podcast app