How Issues of Misrepresentation in the Media set Aislinn Finnegan’s Creative Flame Ablaze
As a young woman, Aislinn Finnegan saw gaps within the art world early on. Working to grow her visibility became quite the task as she travelled the world and began to see a lack of diversity among her fellow creatives. Growing up, Aislinn’s interest in art was supported by her father, who made it their “thing” to visit art museums and exhibits when they would travel. Being able to see the world allowed for Aislinn’s world to expand beyond her immediate surroundings. She began to really see the beauty and variety of art but also discovered the lack of representation for the artists that looked like her.
In university, Aislinn pushed through the challenges of uncovering her true artistic passion and explored many new creative avenues which eventually led to digital art. Painting, textiles, and print were just a few of the different mediums that Aislinn studied. Now an exhibiting illustrator, Aislinn tells her story.
Tell us, how did you get started as an artist?
Growing up, my dad’s job meant that we as a family moved and travelled around a lot. From a young age, my Dad nurtured my interest in art and it became “our thing” to visit the galleries everywhere we went. When I came to do my GCSE’s and A-Levels I wanted to draw inspiration from non-western art. However, I found the syllabus strict and limiting, as I was being encouraged to keep things simple and realistic by only working on topics like flowers, landscapes, and architecture.
When I joined the university in Manchester, everything changed for me. I began my course extremely interested in Textiles, but I soon became dissatisfied and began working with mixed media pieces, which eventually led to an interest in drawing and illustration. Moving to such a busy and international city made me question, research and discover so much more about my identity and where I come from. I became very aware that I was a Northern Irish-Zambian, bi-racial, “third culture kid” living in the “Western” world, making art.
As a result of my experiences, my artwork focus only shifted during the last few months of my last year from generic floral embroideries to portraitures celebrating black women. In the beginning, it was a struggle to find my own artist's voice and be able to articulate myself as I constantly left lectures and group meetings without much helpful advice on artists of colour and my topic of interest. I wanted to make work that I could see myself in and connect to, which was confusing to some peers and tutors. By the end of my final year, I got tired and decided to ignore criticisms and enjoyed making art for ME. Surprisingly I ended up doing really well and ended up being grateful for my tutors for helping me get there, but it was definitely not an easy journey.
“White walls, White wine, White space. I rarely saw my narratives, experiences or looks in the various institutions I visited.”
Who or what inspires you to create?
Seeing the obvious lack of representation and issues of misrepresentation in the media and within art made me want to create and play my part in helping to change that. As I travelled around the world, falling in love with the works of Egon Schiele, Gustav Klimt and Lucian Freud, I started to realise that as many exhibitions that I went to, there was always a shocking imbalance of BAME artists and muses to white artists and muses.
As a young woman in a white male-dominated space, I think it's important to support, inspire and empower each other as BAME artists. I definitely get a lot of my inspiration from women around me, magazines and going on social media. Art from the African Diaspora was rare to come across when I was in school in Northern Ireland, so Instagram and Pinterest kept me in the loop so I could share and be inspired by various works and artists.
Although a lot of the traditional galleries will never really change their problem with representation, on a contemporary level, galleries are slowly changing for the better, so it is becoming more normal to see more BAME artists and topics. During my degree, the Manchester Gallery was always a go-to place to get inspiration for me as they have a focus on specifically the works of BAME artists - this is where I first saw the powerful work of Sonia Boyce that definitely helped to give my work and views direction. I'm now moving to London to study a Masters in History of (African & Asian) Art which I know will inspire me as well as help me to further my knowledge.
Tell us about your showcase at Leaf on Portland Street. How did you prepare for showing your work and what is a major factor in deciding what to create for showcases?
The event at Portland Street for Big People Music was a great experience and seek lately a learning curve. It was my first exhibition since university, so I was doing this all on my own - having to choose and print which images would work well together. It was interesting to walk into a space and decide what to do with it and how best to exhibit work, keeping in mind the other artists' work in the group setting. I really liked helping to organise and set up the place, and it has sparked something in me that wants to continue working with curating in some form or another and events sometime down the line.
At the beginning of the night, we had a "networking" couple of hours, something I had never really done before. It was interesting to meet and ice-break with a range of creative and like-minded people that were all in one room.
“Throughout art history, black women have stereotypically been portrayed as angry, over-sexualised or as the help/servant”
What do you hope to portray through your artwork?
In my work, my focal point is studies of black women. I try to portray the beauty of being a black woman in this day and age as each of my illustrations is elite portraits of adorned and decorated women. My afro-futuristic images fight for representation and diversity for women of colour within art. Throughout art history, black women have stereotypically been portrayed as angry, over-sexualised or as "the help/servant”. In my work, I challenge this and aim at showing women with more dimensional emotions and neutral, melancholic and thoughtful expressions.
By using the literal colour of black for the skin, I try to show all the glory and beauty in blackness. I try to empower and celebrate women of colour so that my audience can be provoked and question themselves about the Western beauty norms and expectations that are pushed on us daily.
I also acknowledge various elements of black and African culture in different ways in each of my pieces using African-inspired adornments and hairstyles. Afro hair is such an interesting concept, as its versatility means that there is a never-ending list of hairstyles and textures that I can explore. Although breaking away from one-dimensional representation in the art world will always prove to be difficult, I'm hoping my work helps to inspire others to celebrate themselves and question art on a historic and contemporary level.
Your bio mentions that you are a textile grad, has that skillset been a factor in how you create today?
The biggest thing I learned through textiles is how important attention to detail is. In textiles, one wrong stitch can completely ruin a fabric. There's a lot more preparation in making work, unlike drawing. I had to think of what thread worked well with which fabric, and why this is. Although there still remains a love for textiles, the anxiety of working hours on something, only for it to not work altogether is too much for me. With drawing, it's easy to go back and edit something that you are unhappy with. I've also always really struggled with colourwork and how to put good colours together. I learned that the best way to work on this was to experiment with as many colours as possible and choose the colour schemes that work best. Even now, all of my illustrations follow around the same colour palette of a swatch grid that I created during my degree, as I know that the colours will definitely compliment each other this way.
Your artwork beautifully represents the current times and depicts women of colour in very abstract ways, what do you hope to be creating years from now?
When I was studying for my degree, I feel like I didn't use my resources and opportunities wisely. I didn't know what I wanted to do but that I just wanted to make art, and I nearly dropped out multiple times. I was extremely insecure and unsure about my art as I hadn't really created any art that I was proud of or that meant anything to me (or anyone really). I definitely missed out on a lot of classes and opportunities that could have helped me out, especially when it comes to what I work on now with photoshop and illustration. I miss being able to experiment and learn new methods and I would love to be able to work with different mediums again; textiles, screen-print, etc. I've also always loved painting and would love to go back to that if I ever get the time and patience to do it again!
Is there anything special you think the public should know about your work that we don’t?
I am still a fairly new illustrator, but I do truly feel that representation is key and means a lot more than people think. Throughout the past few years, I have had an 'identity crisis' and art helped me find myself and think differently. The direction of my work has allowed me to learn and appreciate so much about my culture, and to be proud of my heritage and journey. I believe that there are artists in all of us of some sort, be it in the form of being able to paint, take a photo or making music - and it's important to nurture and play with this. I just think it’s important to take the leap and do what you want to do even if it's down a path that not many people tend to go or believe in. One piece of art can change the way that someone thinks entirely, so it's important to just create as much as possible.
Aislinn’s work can be found in here and displayed on social media @aislinn.art
Well, as her dad I am just so proud of the journey that Aislinn is on. “All her own work”, as they say, and it’s just fabulous to see how she creates and runs with her innovative ideas and approaches. I learn so much from her – and she has so much further to travel. Keep progressing Aislinn.