Karimah Ashadu is a British-Nigerian multi-disciplinary artist. She currently lives and works in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, where she is completing a two-year residency at the world-renowned De Ateliers. In her quiet and refined reflect Karimah’s inquisitive observation of the world around her.
From behind her computer in her huge studio overlooking one of Amsterdam’s major canals, Karimah tells her story.
Have you always wanted to be an artist?
I was born in London, lived in Nigeria until I was about 10 and then moved back to London. I did a Bachelor of Fine Arts in History of Art and Architecture and my Masters at the Chelsea College of Art in Spatial Design. I wanted to be an interior designer.
During my Masters I started to work with film. My teachers said “We’re not quite sure whether this fits into spatial design thinking; it kind of does but it’s really abstract. Why are you doing spatial design, why aren’t you doing art?”
And then I worked at an architecture firm for a year. It was something I had wanted to do for a really long time but it just didn’t feel right. I was finally there in a great firm and I wasn’t 100% happy. So I left and went to work for a branding firm.
I thought I needed to make a living and I didn’t think I could be an artist. But all this time I’d been making films on the side, travelling to Lagos to film and showing my films in film festivals. I’d come back and I’d had such a great time. And my boss was looking at my social media. We were friends but I guess she didn’t find it cool.
So I got fired.
When I left I was still in denial. I was like ‘Ok, this is bullshit. I’m going to go look for another job because I need to support myself.’ My sister (who had moved back to live in Lagos) was like ‘What are you doing? You’re getting fired because you’re too much of an artist. Don’t you think this is something you need to just do now? You’re 27 and you need to just stop and be an artist.’
When I got fired I panicked because I was scared of the lack of security. I realize now that that sense of fear and adrenalin is a good feeling, for me anyway. By that time, one of my films “Lagos Island” was getting a lot of attention at film festivals. That one came about in Lagos. One day, watching a guy playfully rolling a tire with a stick, I thought, what would it be like if I put my camera in a tire and rolled it? I found a carpenter who kind of fashioned this thing from an old tire so I could push it along. I found this group of migrants who had settled on Lagos Island from Togo and they had made these makeshift homes, so I filmed them with the tire mechanism.
How did you get to Amsterdam?
I started to realize that I was searching for a way to tell stories through a medium, give my point of view through something. So instead of looking for a job, I applied to several art residencies. In February 2014, I did one month in the south of France near Marseille. I love France. Then I went on another one near Toulouse in a place called Saint-Cirq-Lapopie. It was voted the second most beautiful place in France and it was really, really beautiful – like breath-taking stuff. And everyday I was there I was like ‘this is amazing!’ I just couldn’t believe that I was getting paid to do what I love. In August I went to Johannesburg to do a project with the Goethe-Institut.
And then in September I started this two-year residency at De Ateliers in Amsterdam. When I got accepted I was like, what are the odds? You have nearly 1000 people who apply and they just choose 10. And So I thought ‘Well, maybe I’m not so bad.’
How do Europeans react to your work?
I realized that I have this great position where I’m a British artist but I’m also Nigerian so I have access to both worlds. My films have no narrative at the moment; there is no dialogue, no script. It is really experimental documentary, a platform for observing. They are about nothing but then everything at the same time.
The kind of work that I produce is quite simple, and paired down. I let things speak for themselves. I’ll make these things I call mechanisms, like the tire contraption, that kind of act as directors that move the image in such an intriguing way – giving the viewer access to a different world through exciting perspectives.
I get three typical kinds of reactions to my work.
- Normally I will get ‘Wow, this is great!’ or ‘We love this!’ or something along those lines.
- Or I’ll get someone that goes too far and says, ‘Wow, it is a commentary on colonialism…’ That’s not what my work is about.
- And then I’ll get something like: ‘What is this? This is completely voyeuristic. You haven’t decided your point of view; you haven’t told me what I’m supposed to look at.’ I usually get that from people who think that Africa is a country, people who don’t really know how to feel about Africans or black people: I’m not telling them how to feel and that makes them very uncomfortable.
What has it been like to work in a new country?
My first year in Amsterdam I found quite hard. I just came with a bunch of suitcases. I felt completely panicked, but excited as well. I knew nothing about the Dutch culture. I’d never been to Holland apart from my interview.
I had this huge studio and I didn’t know what to do. I came here and everything felt so slow and everything was so white and I didn’t know where all the black people were; I didn’t know where to go. I didn’t come with any footage so I was very challenged when I first got here. Early this year I ended up going back to Lagos to get footage to work with. Because I’ve settled into Amsterdam and am beginning to know how things work, I’m now starting to research a project that I would like to do here.
Amsterdam is a great place to be. It is in the center of everywhere: the airport is 30 minutes away, and you ride your bike to get around. It’s really great. And there is so much to do – there is always something to do. But although I’ve come to love Amsterdam I realize that I won’t be staying. It’s why I never learned to speak Dutch.
So what’s next?
I’ve learned a lot from my two-year scholarship at De Ateliers. You have access to quite a lot of great thinking through contact with huge international visiting artists or curators or writers. I’ve been showing at festivals for about 3 years and I’m now at the stage where they are starting to contact me for work. That feels really nice. I’ve won some nice prizes. It’s good.
After this, I don’t want to move back to London. I lived in London for over 20 years: I want something new. I want to experience a new culture and learn a new language. I’m thinking of moving to Germany – my guy is German. I also have a home wear and accessories brand that I’m building up called Pieces of the Cloud – POTC. I work with artisans in West Africa to craft handmade jewelry and blankets and baskets. It’s on a small scale but it’s gotten a lot of great feedback and it’s picking up.
I want to make it on my own – I want the independence. So, yeah, I’ll get a place and a studio and just continue working – as an artist.
To see more of Karimah’s art, go here:
De Ateliers is an internationally renowned independent artists’ institute that focuses on the artistic development of young, talented artists from within the Netherlands and abroad. IT provides beginning artists with space to independently explore their work and get critical guidance. For more info: http://www.de-ateliers.nl/en/de-ateliers