London-based artist Karimah Hassan spent most of 2020 and 2021 painting portraits of people she had never met but communicated with on Instagram—creating a global community of strangers. On the occasion of her “Strangers Yearbook” exhibition at Coal Drops Yard in London, she discusses the project’s genesis, creative challenges, self-discoveries made along the way, and why, Strangers remains an ongoing project.
TEXT: Stephen Short
IMAGES: Courtesy of the artist
Welsh-born, London-based artist Karimah Hassan spent most of 2020 and the first part of 2021 painting portraits of people she had never met—creating a global community of strangers. The Royal College of Art architecture graduate-turned-performance-artist-and-painter, invited people at lockdown’s onset to DM her an Instagram selfie and respond to the question “How are you feeling?” She then engaged her protagonists in real and written conversation to better acquaint with their stories, before finally painting a portrait of each. The project is titled “Strangers Yearbook” (@strangersyearbook). The resulting portraits, of which there are more than 100, are showcased in a recently published book and an exhibition at Coal Drops Yard, London, running until 10 June 2021.
Having swapped concrete for canvas only two years ago, believing art and painting to be a gift she’s blessed with but hadn’t always nurtured, Hassan talks to CoBo Social about her art making process, the pandemic, healing, what she listens to when she’s working, and how she is aspiring to be a higher self.
Before COVID-19 intervened, what had you planned for 2020?
A big exhibition at the Lowry in Manchester; I was going to do a lot of writing-out-loud, large-scale tapestries, my biggest-ever exhibition. I had also planned two or three live-painting performances with [local] communities, and I was working on a community-building platform. All those things are now parked for the near future. They all involve public-facing, public involvement-heavy tasks, that’s why they have been postponed.
What was the genesis of “Strangers Yearbook”?
I had the idea in January before the lockdown in 2020. I’m always meeting people and it’s one of my gifts making genuine connections with people. I thought it would be a really nice painting project, but the motivation wasn’t there. At first the idea didn’t seem to flow. I parked it, and then, when March rolled around and the first lockdown happened in the UK, one of my friends said “This is the perfect time for ‘Strangers Yearbook’”. I knew it was something I must do.
So I think the genesis—and it wasn’t called “Strangers Yearbook” at that time [rather, “Strangers in the Blood”]—was when my friend said I needed to do this right now.
How long does each portrait take?
It depends. You can paint more than one a day and sometimes I don’t do any in a week. It depends on the flow. It takes about one hour per portrait. But I’m not precious and perfect about it; if I were it could take longer. Sometimes I rework one a day or two later when it’s clearer what I need to do.
How do you now feel about portrait work?
I’ve never felt comfortable doing portraits before. Growing up, I wasn’t actually allowed to paint portraits, because…in Islam, which is the religion I was raised in and practice, portraiture was somewhat frowned upon. This was the first time I’ve ever done portraits—up to now I’ve stayed away from them as a mark of respect. But I also knew that was almost an excuse—that I was avoiding something I was afraid of doing.
So to go from not feeling comfortable with portraiture to then finding my own style/voice and expression within a few months, is a big accomplishment, now that I think about it.
What has it taught you about your abilities/limitations and temperament as a portrait artist?
The project really, really helped me to remember—and this is something I say a lot, but easily forget—that creativity for me is such a healing practice.
I have this relationship with painting and art; when I was younger I didn’t know how to express my emotions, and emotions weren’t really a vocabulary that was discussed around the home. Painting was a way I would express myself without knowing that’s what I was doing, and allowed me to get emotions out. I didn’t know it was cathartic. It was just like a hobby.
As time passed, I went into different ventures and occupations. Painting remained a self-taught hobby, but also more than that; it was like a form of therapy, which I didn’t know, or had forgotten about. When I rediscovered painting two years ago, I kind of rode the wave and it became a profession, and I forgot this was the thing that heals me, and it’s cathartic and I feel safe with it. There’s a kind of familiarity in that. I re-learned that I feel good when I paint. I feel joy, I feel happy, I feel purposeful; like I’m practicing something I was given as a unique gift.
How often have you painted your self-portrait?
There’s something quite nice about being behind the painting and not in front of it. The first time I painted my self-portrait was as I was writing the foreword for the book to express how I was feeling. It’s hard to paint yourself, because you know yourself so well; it’s hard to capture the essence somehow of myself.
How do you see your role now in the art world?
My role will be bridging fine art, street art and community art, and somehow finding a new avenue, where art is not just a fine art project but a process of exploring our higher selves. I know that’s what artists have always done but I don’t know if that’s widely been recognised in the public realm.
For me, art is a healing process. And that’s where it feels right for me to journey down that road. If the road of art is purely a form of expression, it feels like I could burn out in that space. Whereas, if I see my role in art to be healing, and to go beyond myself, then I know I can sustain that until I die, almost.
Do you listen to music as you paint?
I listen to different things. If it’s music, it will be either funk or jazz or RnB, and hip hop, things you can lose yourself to but that aren’t too demanding or distracting. But then—and this is where the catharsis idea comes in—when I’m painting I also listen to talks, people reading poetry out loud, or reading philosophy out load; or I’ll listen to Alan Watts, or meditations, and that way I find that because I’m in this “Vedic state”, it’s like a cross between “dream state” and flow, that’s when your brain is malleable and you can take in information. It’s like multi-tasking where I listen to philosophy or things that will seep into my brain while I’m painting portraits and that again helps me to feel like I’m working towards my purpose, which is to grow into my higher self.
How has this year altered your opinion of art’s place in the world?
I’m a huge advocate for the basic human need of art as a form of human expression and our right within the world to exist. I’ve often been of a mindset that it’s great to democratise art and let’s do what we can to make everyone feel like they’re welcome to come to the art table and welcome to the creative table, and to recognise that creativity is just different ways of bridging gaps between different ways of thinking; you can be a scientist and be creative, or a gardener and be creative, but I know that the topic sounds fluffy, and doesn’t necessarily sit well within the art world with a big capital “A”, such as the Royal Academy, or Christie’s or Sotheby’s.
This year, I think I’ve really seen that institutions are going to have to change a lot. The idea of money and the concept of money is changing drastically. The old notions of education and work are changing. And I think we’ll see art being used as entertainment as well. If this year taught us anything, it’s that the entertainment industry is booming. And whilst there has been so much suffering, a lot of people have become more creative, I think this year has taught us that art is so vital. And that it can exist in different formats.
You produced much of the work for “Strangers Yearbook” in a small room. Can you describe the room and what there is of you in it?
The small room was first in Clapham. Then it was in Wales back in my Mum’s place. And then it was back in London, in multiple houses around London where I cat-sit. And then it was in Bethnal Green, and now it’s back in Clapham; so that’s about six or seven places. I’m a nomad. And I guess it works out so well that I can take this project around with me in a very small shoebox-sized box with sketchbooks and paints. There’s always a small desk, a small table, an iPad playing some music or talks, a cup of tea and space to chill out.
What things do you always carry with you for distraction?
There will certainly be books, poetry, like Letters to a Young Poet by Rilke, a few books by Elif Shafak; Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet, and then some small things. In terms of objects, there’s always a speaker, some incense, one or two picture frames.
While the bedrooms are always quite small, and because I love painting on really large scales, this was also a challenge; I’ve never painted on such a small scale before. I questioned whether I could paint something with intricacy and detail rather than using big gestures, and it helped me to maintain the practice, moving it around and fitting it in with my lifestyle.
How did you choose the cover portrait for the book?
When I created the book cover and poster images, there were five I was choosing from. The one I ended up using was an image not taken by me but by a non-profit organisation called “People of the Pandemic” (@peopleofthepandemic); they’re like a photo-journalist duo who were taking pictures of different people during pandemic—doctors, nurses and volunteers—and they reached out telling me they had amazing portraits and stories, and asked if I wanted to paint any.
They’ve become friends now. I went with the cover image because then it wasn’t just the Strangers Yearbook. It was another person’s project as well. And the person I painted is Brian; it has a pink background, he’s wearing a facemask, and it just epitomises 2020. It has a somber look, but the story’s beautiful. He’s a volunteer for this amazing place called Under One Sky (@underonesky_london) and his story is really strong.
How long will you continue this project?
I was going to stop in March 2021, because whilst it’s not draining, it is demanding. I don’t just paint someone; I collect their responses, and speak to them on Instagram, and if someone pours their heart out, I can’t just say, “okay, thanks”. It feels inhumane to do that. But I’m open right now. It’s a great way of documenting the world in a way that feels humane and sustainable compared to the news. The news can be polarising and fear-mongering and quite depressing, so this is a great way for me to keep in contact with the world. I do enjoy the portraits. To be continued is the short answer to that.
How did you come to be artist-in-residence at the late Lee Alexander McQueen’s Sarabande Foundation?
I found the application on Instagram, serendipitously. At the time, I was looking for a studio and needed support, so I applied online. The next step was an interview. I felt intimidated and that I didn’t belong, that it was out of my reach. But I showed them who I was and why I wasn’t afraid of being rejected, and that’s a newer, more confident mindset I’m trying to adopt. Since then, they’ve been so supportive.
Which artists catch your eye right now?
There’s such a revival in painting right now. I love a lot of the contemporary Black artists, such as Jordan Casteel, and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye; she’s one of my favourite living artists. I love the way that she captures colours and emotions, feelings and expressions. People like Douglas Cantor, and some really great up-and-coming UK painters, too.
The Strangers Yearbook
1 May – 10 June 2021
Coal Drops Yard, Kings Cross, London