Known for her pen and ink drawings, artist A. Maria Raithatha recently released her latest series of artwork on BetterShared. After an almost sell-out success of her second collection, we sat down to catch up with her over Zoom to talk about her drawings which are largely inspired by her Caribbean heritage.
"I started doing art around three years ago simply as a love letter to my relatives, to my grandparents."
Image; A. Maria Raithatha
Your drawings reflect your Caribbean heritage, what is your favourite childhood memory?
Well, I grew up with my grandparents. So, it was my grandparents, my six uncles, my mum, and my sister. We were all packed into one three-bedroom house, and it sounds really crazy, but I would say that I had one of the best childhoods going. A lot of my childhood memories are just sitting around, in the kitchen we had this big wooden table and we all tried to sit around it on a Sunday for Sunday Lunch, and for me that’s one of my best memories.
Your work is littered with hidden meaning and symbolism obviously referring to the Caribbean’s colonial history, what are the themes that your art explores?
There’s this debt that we have. This country has a debt to a lot of people from the Caribbean that I feel has never been repaid. However, I have a debt as well because obviously everything that I’ve done is because of my grandparents and my mum. Now that I’m old enough to understand they’re not here for me to turn around and say “thank you”. They made this massive sacrifice knowing full well that they were not going to get any payment from it. As I say, my recent artwork has been a love letter to my grandparents. There are conversations that I never had where I should have asked questions, but I never did because I was a child. Sometimes when I’m doing my artwork, I think about the pain that they must have felt, and the insults that they had to put up with.
What I find equally painful is that for me I find that we don’t want to talk about that sort of pain. Everyone wants to focus on the positive, but we don’t want to talk about the atrocities that happened. In the Caribbean, there’s a group of people that don’t want to acknowledge that pain as well because the tourism industry is so big, so they want to smooth over that. It’s quite interesting, you’re stuck in this middle where everyone knows about it, but people don’t want to talk about it.
Image: A. Maria Raithatha
In what ways do you think your work comments on current social issues?
I can’t speak for everybody, but there is generational pain because if things aren’t addressed, it just carries on into the next generation. A lot of the social issues that are coming up now are because things weren’t addressed before. Everything has a knock-on effect. I know people want to move on and focus on the successes and that’s brilliant, but there’s a whole group of people for whom there hasn’t been any successes. They’ve really struggled, and their children are still struggling. It’d be wrong simply to say, “oh, well I’m doing really well. I pulled myself up, you can do it as well”. You can’t really say that because there is this pain, and it carries on. People don’t realise that sometimes others don’t see that what they’re experiencing now is because of something that happened 50 or 100 years ago that still hasn’t been addressed.
I’m hoping that my artwork will start a conversation, without sounding pretentious. When people first look, it looks really nice and ornate and pretty, but when you look closer there’s a deeper meaning. That is actually a reflection of the Caribbean. When you go to the Caribbean as a visitor, the first thing you recognise is its beauty and everyone loves it, but then you have to look a little deeper and ask questions.
What do you think attracts people to your art, and has anyone ever had a particularly memorable reaction to your work?
One of my most memorable moments of seeing someone react to my work was actually at a BetterShared Network exhibition a few years back where I sold my first piece. The people that bought it were there, and I was so excited that I probably scared them. But, it was the feeling of knowing that people got it, and then that people found other things within it that I didn’t really think about.
"In fact, in schools during Black History Month they usually teach slavery, people coming off a boat, and then they show a picture of Linford Christie- that’s black history. "
Is there an element of the creative process that you enjoy most?
I’m doing more research now because with my early work I would have something pop up in my head. For example, something that my grandparents might have said, or my mum might have said, and I would just get it down onto paper. Now however, I’m almost slowing myself down. I’m really thinking about the things that were said, and then I go and research more about the issue. I’m really getting into all the history programmes that are currently on BBC iPlayer. I tend to watch a lot of David Olusoga documentaries, and there’s a lot of free courses available through Future Learn. They’ve been running a lot of courses on black people during the Tudor era. When people think about the black presence in Britain, they think about slavery and then later on Windrush. They don’t often think about what came in-between.
A book that I’m reading at the moment is Black Tudors: The Untold Story, by Miranda Kaufmann. London was obviously very small in the Tudor times, and if you’ve got a big minority like that and they’re settling in London and having children, the black presence in London especially was actually a lot bigger than people believe.
I also enjoy people-watching and studying people’s features and working out people’s hidden heritage. It’s quite interesting when you speak to people who can retrace their ancestral line, it’s just amazing. Once I know more about the image in my head that I want to get down, it really does help me to produce more of my better artwork.
Is there an artwork that you’re most proud of?
This piece actually came about quite quickly, it was literally about getting it down on paper. The piece was inspired by a holiday that we took in St. Kitts. In the capital, there’s a place called Independence Square where people can sit, it’s a really lovely place to be. It wasn’t until later on that I realised that it was where they used to sell the slaves. It’s a tourist spot now, but it gave me this really weird feeling. If you go on Trip Advisor it will suggest it as a nice place to go and relax, but the place is drenched in blood and tears. There’s lots of places like that in St. Kitts, and all over the Caribbean.
Image: A. Maria Raithatha
Obviously, I like watching all of these history programmes, but if you go to the museum there’s loads of artefacts from the Vikings and any invasion that happened in this country. If you try to find anything from slavery or from the black presence in Britain, it’s hard to find. There’s isn’t many people digging up parts of the Caribbean to do research, there doesn’t seem to be much effort being made to find out how people used to live, or what their names were. I know it’s hard because the people there were treated as not human, so there wasn’t much kept but there needs to be more research done. We need to find names of people, so people like myself can hold onto them and acknowledge that they made it through. They’re the people that I want to know about, they’re the successes that I want to know about.
What does success look like to you as an artist, and how do you see yourself developing in the future?
Success for me is to keep going, and hopefully to make other people think. I hope there will also be people who have way more influence than I do, taking this message on and doing it better.