KIARA MOHAMED is an artist that is shaking up and rearranging the art world, with love, to represent everyone. Speaking about her most recent work, Letters To My Sister – in which Kiara handwrote personal messages of support in sealed letters – she told me, “I was hurting and sad, and realised a lot of people are hurting and sad, so I gave them something I wish I had. Someone else’s kindness.” This multidisciplinary artist’s work has earned her a reputation for the ability to formalise compassion; by the simple power of speaking in her own voice, her work resonates with the experiences of people of colour in this city. Aside from this, she has been successful in provoking empathetic responses and recognition in overwhelmingly white art spaces and institutions. She is a woman of infinite creativity, who uses whatever medium will best convey her message. She spreads positivity through her work in poetry, film, photography, drone photography, performance art and more.
I met Kiara through ROOT-ed Zine earlier this year – she was one of the first to answer our call for submissions when we were making our very first issue. Soon after that, we very quickly and naturally became really good friends. Kiara has endured more than the average person, yet she smiles and is more positive than the average person. The vivid kindness and warmth of her personality informs the momentum of her artistic enterprise; in her work, form and function unite. She attains a balance between creating things that are aesthetically beautiful and having a strong message.
Over the past year, Kiara has worked on numerous projects. She made Black Flowers, a short film about Liverpool’s colonial cultural history, shot by Charlie Granby and edited by me. In both the subject matter of the film, the place where it was filmed and the space in which it was first screened, the project is an exploration of how black artists can intervene in historically white spaces to shape environments where people of colour are counted. The film takes place in Liverpool’s Town Hall, which was built using profit from the transatlantic slave trade. Kiara invited black people from Liverpool into a historically white and colonial space and directed several scenes of them taking up space and being unapologetically themselves. People were walking barefoot, clothed in African printed cloth and dancing. Kiara wrote a moving poem that played over the visual she recorded at the town hall. The poem delves into several issues including slavery, love and forgiveness.
The problem with underrepresentation of minority artists is one faced by all artists of colour in the city, and one that we have been trying to tackle with ROOT-ed Zine. It is a vicious cycle – when you don’t see people that look like you succeed in a certain area, it makes you believe that maybe that thing is not for you. However, if you decide against all odds to pursue that thing, you face the hard truth that you will not get work as often as others, be paid adequately, or treated differently in certain settings.
Kiara spoke to me on the challenges she has faced as a black woman in the arts: “As we all know, the art world is majority white – like every other space in society. The challenge is to get work and to be given the same chances as other artists. Often for marginalised groups, big art institutions use the idea of exposure in return of labour, and payment is the ‘opportunity’ given. The challenge is not to be seen as the token black artist and to be valued all year round, and not just in Black History Month.”
The short film was a community effort, with Anna Rothery (mayoral lead for equality and race in Liverpool) coming through to help Kiara with getting the space at Town Hall at no cost. It has since been shown in Tate Liverpool, the British Museum and The World Transformed festival. The film really challenges, in quite a polite and poetic way, institutions to look at their spaces and see whether they are giving artists of colour space, time and consideration which is needed for us to move forward as artists.
The drone camera has come to bear a symbolic significance in her work; Kiara uses the distance and perspective of drones, which reduces people to little specks in a vast carpet, to consider compassion itself. Humanscape, another of her exhibitions, was shown in St John’s Market as part of this year’s Independents Biennial. In this exhibition, she asks us to look at a series of Liverpool landscape photos taken from a great height, and try to consider the people that it is made up of. So often we live our lives with a great distance placed between ourselves and the world, allowing us to live without the discomfort of recognising that things like forced marriage and FGM are happening in our communities, and to the people around us. Looking at Humanscape is an exercise in compassion, and this very much describes Kiara’s mission statement.
As she explained to Bernadette McBride, the Independents Biennial’s writer-in-residence, her work “humanises the experiences of minorities and giving them the platform to not just be heard but to heal”. Vocal political critique is the element necessary for humanising women of colour to the wider population, and this certainly describes the public-facing aspect of her work. However, the other purpose of her art is to heal, and create a safe space that is not purely about justifying the existence of people of colour to white people. She achieves this by radiating unadulterated love, positivity and warmth to the women of colour around her, and making that the focus of her work. Young Goddess was a photo series which presented young black girls as deities. Read politically, we can see how this project addresses racism by suggesting that black girls, often historically excluded from representations in religious iconography, can and should be thought of as powerful and ethereal beings of light. At its core, though, when you look at the photos, there is a raw feeling of love and appreciation in how these women are framed, as Kiara captures beauty and affection that is clearly an everyday part of her life.
Her most recent body of work fully embodies this impulse of sincerity and support, perhaps more than any of the previous. Kiara’s Letters To My Sisters is an interactive and performance art piece which invites women from all walks of life to take a letter that has been hand written by Kiara, sealed with wax and decorated with pieces of flowers, plants and leaves. Each letter contains something written with the aim to comfort, encourage and spread love to the woman who opens it. “All my work is about love and how we can continue to love and change through art,” Kiara says. “I suppose you can say I’m an artivist.”
Kiara is a shining example of how artists and their work can create positive social change, especially when collaborating with others. Whether that change is in one person’s life, a small community, a city, or universal, this is the type of art that endures in people’s hearts, because it addresses a desperate need we all have from art: to feel seen. Despite the alienating whiteness of the institutional art world, Kiara maintains a deep belief in the transformative power of art: “I feel that art can create a revolution because it has the power to inspire. It has the power to deeply move people; and so, yes, it can light the spark that creates social change. In the age of memes, I see that as an art form [too], and it’s changed culture, and has inspired more art.”
Kiara Mohamed’s work is featured in ROOT-ed Zine’s exhibition which runs between 24th January and 3rd February at OUTPUT Gallery.