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PORTRAIT OF AN ARTIST:
SERWAH ATTAFUAH

A peek inside Serwah Attafuah’s surreal paradox of safe havens.

Being born to a graphic designer for a mother and a sculptor for a father, it’s no surprise that Serwah Attafuah has become the astonishing artist that she is today. From creating artworks since the age of 8 to being featured in the lineup in Sotheby’s first-ever NFT auction, the Sydney native is no stranger to expressing authentic creative genius, harbouring a unique sense of artistic composition and a surreal visual patina of vibrance and alluring beauty.

Serwah’s work, motioning away from serving as a political statement, operates under a notion of unity and intimacy almost—juxtaposing bright vibrant colours and atmosphere with sombre subject facial emotions. In her 3D renders, there is a lush expression of luminance and an abundance of unapologetically strong female characters, all beautiful rooted in her notions of healing and free-spirited existence.

We caught up with Serwah Attafuah to talk about experiential codes of the new art scene, creating timeless work, and the shifting conversations surrounding new technology that excites her.

Hey, Serwah! Thank you for making time today, before diving into the deeper stuff—summer’s just started, we’re coming out of COVID lockdowns and everyone is flooding back into the physical world. How are you and what’ve you been up to lately, both work and in general?

It’s been pretty good so far, in the very recent time, this past weekend, we did a crypto art show here in Sydney which is kind of the first of its kind here, and it was really amazing. We had all kidneys of people show up which was amazing. Just really keen to get back into the world, visit other cities, and collaborate with more artists both here and around the world, as we’ve sort of come out of COVID. I think I actually loved the lockdown though, it gave me time to work on my own art.

Speaking about collaboration, how would you describe the current art scene in Sydney and what has been the response from the community in regards to the swift rise of NFTs, Web3, and the Metaverse?

It’s certainly still a small scene and a bubble, but that’s sort of with everything in Australia, in comparison to the rest of the world. There are some pretty iconic projects coming into place, and much of them started even before I came onto the scene, so it’s great to see the OGs still contributing and creating that space over here. I think that response also works better in time with everything, as it took us only up till recent years to truly take in and appreciate rap music, in comparison to most of the world. I like the fact it doesn’t pop off too fast though, because it does give people like myself and people who are truly passionate about it to find a space for themselves and a chance to really express that outwardly.

There’s also a great presence of First Nations and Indigenous people standing at the front of the art scene in Australia. And much like Black art in America for example, in recent times, has constituted reshaping, recontextualizing, and ultimately reclaiming the dynamics of how Black art is portrayed, would you say that the Indigenous society of Australia shares that same underpin with the work they’re doing?

I think in the beginning it was a bit just to save face, in the sense of, the public was in some ways trying to culture vulture which was quite sad. In very recent times, I think now people are starting to open their eyes to the struggles they’ve encountered and been through. It’s also just the beauty of their artwork which is amazing beyond what anyone has seen yet. There are artists touching on all sorts of subjects, mediums, and messages so it’s great to see that taking shape.

And does your work, in any way, touch on that same concept of portraying their stories or struggles?

I think there are boundaries I can’t touch on, myself being a settler in Australia, so there’s only so much I can cover without being disrespectful or inappropriate. Though I was in a band a couple of years ago that was fronted by a few indigenous members, and most of the music was about what they’ve been through as a people and culture, so all the shows we never took a penny. All of it went back to their communities. So, I use my music more for that stuff and activism. It’s also something I want to work on; merging both the music and art, fusing both worlds which is something I think would be very beneficial to the larger music scene too.

Are there any individuals or entities that you feel strongly played a role in your development and exploration as a digital artist?

I think I was a very stubborn kid, I didn’t do well with people telling me how to learn. At the time too, digital art was very niche, so not having the access to proper resources forced me to come up with my own approach and unorthodox methods, which over time was good, in some ways. When getting client commissions too, you force yourself to learn how to do something, so I used that as a way to push myself to learn things that weren’t getting through my head while working on my own art.

Prior to our conversation, you mentioned being able to sit through the lockdown was good because of your social anxiety, which in some way, speaking to other artists, it’s become apparent that using their work as a conduit for communication or simply their daily expression to the world became primal. Is this a fair observation in your case?

I think it’s a bit of both because most of my art does touch on mental health. It’s quite bright and happy with a visually optimistic look, though there are undertones if you look at all the faces of the people. They’re always pretty sombre and lonely, so I think my work is all about the juxtapositions. I think COVID definitely amped up my social anxiety, so I was channelling a lot through my art at the time.

And with the juxtapositions of the concept and portrayal, how are you able to effectively convey your message while subverting any form of misinterpretation?

As I mentioned, my music was quite political and quite controversial at times in the mainstream society of Australia. When I stepped away from the band, I didn’t really want my art to be political. I wanted it to be a sanctuary or a healing space, and then in doing that, having my art as a sanctuary, it almost became a political statement in itself: Why do you have to hide your realities to feel safe? That is also where the juxtaposition arose in my work.

On a philosophical approach to analyzing NFTS, speaking on Marshall McLuhan’s theory, do you think art being morphed into NFTs, essentially lacking tangibility, affects whether or not there is more of an emphasis on the medium of communication or the message being communicated, especially yourself as an artist whose work touches on empowerment or social commentary?

I think I  focus on the medium, but subconsciously the message comes out, which I think also comes as a result of the fact that I usually don’t plan my artwork. I just black out for like 12 hours and finish it, and then I’m done, in most times, with the realization that I don’t know what I was trying to say but then I come back to it. It’s almost like remembering a dream. So yeah, the emphasis is definitely on the medium and trying to make things look good, in turn letting the message truly come out.

Going back to the concept of the medium and message, it’s without a doubt that tangible art: the paintings in galleries, sculptures, installations, and more of that kind are able to hold their cultural relevance or timeless both due to their history and tangibility. And on that case, acknowledging that digital art or images across a screen are slightly less holistic in their construction or existence, how are you able to create work that exudes the times and holds its purpose and meaning even as time goes on?

I think being a true believer in the work that you do is more important than ever. I was in the first Sothebys NFT show and it was interesting to see the lineup they put together, so I think we’re on board to listen to what the community is about. They were able to get the first NFT that was made and were able to sell it, and the same for other art pieces from such a while back, so I definitely don’t think it would fade over the years. I think, if anything, it would only become even more relevant, because of the protection it has from being destroyed, in comparison to physical pieces. I think always speaking your truth helps it stand the test of time too. An example might be Van Gogh whose work originally wasn’t appreciated, even spoken down on at the time, and now look at where his work ranks amongst the greats. You also just never know where the world is headed.

Does the NFT space for artists and the art world, acknowledging art houses such as Christie’s and Sotheby’s embracing the new technology, have its own experiential code, in the way that the physical world and gallery spaces have rules about how to engage with the work, the artists, and its audience?

I think I’m starting to see it now more than ever. For the past two years, it’s felt more like anything can go, but now there’s a developing code of what can go and what can’t, who’s gonna do well or who isn’t, which is sort of frustrating because it defeats the whole point of the metaverse and NFT space. I don’t know if it’s the market causing it, or the lockdowns ending, but I really don’t know.

What excites you most about the future of NFTs and the Metaverse? And also, on the other hand, what might your fears be?

I’m most excited about the music NFTs, coming from a music background. I think artists definitely need to adopt that a lot more. I think one of the few things I’m scared of is definitely a developing hierarchy in the NFT space that is similar to what we’ve had over the years that art has been around in the real world.

Words by Olisa Tasie-Amadi Jr. / art by Serwah Attafuah

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