Self portrait in Purple Wig, 2018. Oil on Canvas.

Saint Akua (saint ekuja) is an artist from a Ghanaian background, inspired by her Ashanti culture where use of symbolism play an important role in her paintings.

At university she learned how to communicate to an audience, as a graphic designer. But as an artist she started to have a fascination of portraiture and she wanted to explore and capture the unseen about the sitter. 

Stephanie and I met randomly at Big Shop Friday, in Milton Keynes. We bonded because she currently works at the University of Hertfordshire, where I studied. I’m in complete awe of her work and how she speaks about it. A true inspiration ︎.

︎ You were born in Amsterdam?

I lived there for eight years or so, until my family and I moved to Northampton and then Milton Keynes because my dad got offered a better job. I remember a bit of my time there. Watching cartoons and playing outside in the middle of a block of flats. I still speak dutch. My mom, my dad and my brother speak it as well but my two younger sisters were too young, they don't speak as much.

When we moved to England, I thought I spoke English. I was speaking to the kids but they didn't understand what I was saying. I just remember that confused face of ‘what the heck is this girl talking about?’. That's when I had to start taking lessons. Cat in the Hat and Sat and those English things.

︎How did you decide to study something creative?

In sixth form I chose a really broad range of courses. Maths, psychology and graphic design. I legit did not know what I wanted to be. I just loved and hated all my subjects. I wanted to study fashion so bad but none of the courses in Milton Keynes did fashion then I decided to study Graphic design at the university of Derby.

In my second year, I got the opportunity to go do a year abroad in Belgium. It was so much fun. They didn't just do graphic design. It was design and essays, but they also have art classes. Their level of education is completely different. The art teachers would encourage us to experiment and try different things. That’s when I started painting. If I hadn’t studied there I don’t think I would’ve started painting.

︎ Belgium sounds so dreamy! What happened after you came back to the UK and finished your degree?

I have a lot of job stories but I got an internship for three months at a charity as a social media, graphic design person. After those three months, I was coming home and there was nothing. I ended up getting a part time job at TGI Fridays, it was fun but hungry people are the worst people to deal with.

I got another job in London, as a personal assistant at an art school. It was better paid but it did not go well. I got fired after two weeks. It was a combination of like travelling, commuting to London every morning, being there for 8am was tiring. I think I messed up on some student portfolio and that was it. I was really emotional and crying when it happened. Having to come back to your parents and tell them “you know how you guys invested in me? I can’t do it because I got fired”

It was rough but I started volunteering, which helped a lot. I would go to art galleries and volunteer as a front desk person. It helped me stay motivated, especially when you're applying for jobs, because it can get really dark when you're just not getting answers from anybody. It can feel like you don't have a purpose at all.

I got a job in London again, but it was at an advertising agency. They were advertising medical products. I was the junior intern making corrections on prescriptions and changing words and letters. That was the best job I've ever had. They allowed me to learn, I didn’t have to be really amazing. They just trained me up. After three months though, I got made redundant. They lost a big client so they couldn’t afford to pay me.

After that redundancy, around May 2019 I got a job as a customer service person at MK gallery. It was just really fun,  there wasn't any pressure to do design or be good. You meet people and talk to them, overalll it was fun. I worked there until December when I got my current job at the University of Hertfordshire as a Marketing design assistant.

︎ You’ve really been everywhere. What does your current job entail?

Before quarantine, I was doing poster designs for their events and social media. If there was an event, I'd go take photos and talk to people. Broadly, the main categories of my job are: social media marketing and design.

︎ What do you like the most about your job? 

Before quarantine, I really liked interacting with people and talking to students. I'm the youngest in my team so I think I found students relatable because I’m just a couple of years older than them. Now that we're in quarantine, the best bit is, social media. That's my own form of communication with people and I like that. Responding to comments that people actually engage with, it’s nice.

︎ What’s it like to look back at university life and students daily?

It makes me miss uni. Did I appreciate it enough? No. I was so stressed all the time. I could have done so many things. I didn't need to stress. There was no need. I think it's the environment. They make you believe that if you don't pass and fail, then you won’t get a job. There's so much pressure to deliver. I guess it’s because we're all competing for the same things.

︎ Did you feel sad when you didn’t get time to paint?
I felt like I was always meant to paint. That's my purpose. My purpose is to paint and communicate through painting and spread that love or joy, whatever vision or beauty, through my paintings. When I'm not doing that, for lack of a better word, I feel gross. I feel like I'm not myself.

︎ I love that so much. How would you bring yourself back to painting when you were too tired?

I try to set up a schedule. For example, if I worked in the evening, during the day I could do something even if it's just starting a painting.

Quarantine helped because in the evening, l don’t have to commute anywhere. I can just turn around and that’s literally all I need to do. It's all set up. It's against the wall and I can just sit down and paint.

Matriarch, 2019. Oil on Canvas.

︎ Do you ever feel stuck?

Yeah, yeah, I get like that. I guess when I haven't painted for a long time. I lose the sense of why I'm painting. I can not paint, it's the getting back into the flow, being creative, it’s hard to remember why I was painting.

I have a Pinterest board where I just look at all the things that inspire me and I think of concepts I want to investigate. It's not drawings that help me paint. It's actually reading or looking at things. I don't like sketches much, I’ll write about what I want to do and symbolise and then I paint it.

︎ What is your biggest fear?

Being in a place where I can't do what I want to do, or someone is constantly telling me what to do, and I don't have a say in what I do. I don't know if that's a fear, but I don't want to be in that position.

︎ Is there anything that you struggle with or that you would like to improve on when it comes to your creativity or your practice?

I would like to bring people into the start of my work, because the way I paint is very isolating. It’s just me and my mind, there’s no one else who contributes to it. I don't think that's a bad thing but a lot of my other friends are very good at sharing stuff. I don't tend to do that.

︎ What do you tend to paint?

I like to paint people, but when I was going to art museums, I realised that portraiture is very much, to me, very superficial, just a painting of a person. That's it. That's nice, but I want people to look at portraiture and see themselves in the portraiture, but that's quite hard because it's a painting of a person.

I decided to not include pupils. I went to an art talk once and there was this surrealist painter who would just paint people but without any features, just blank. She said that that’s not really a person, it's a concept. I thought that was quite interesting. I still want to paint people, but I want people to see themselves in the portraiture, but not make them completely human. The eyes are the windows to the soul, so without eyes it's just a soul in person.

I do a lot of portraiture, mostly of black people who are around me, my family members and friends. Recently, I started looking at hands. I used to hate drawing hands but I think they can say so much as well.

︎ I really love your portrait series, Noire Flower Boy!

Thank you, I really like it too. I started that series when the stop and search in London was increased, and I just didn't get it. I never really understood that sort of policing of black men. I can't imagine seeing them in a scary light because they’re so sweet, so nice, so happy, they’re my friends.

I decided that I would paint them how I see them because I don't think the world sees them how I see them. I started interviewing them and painting them. I learned a lot about my friends from that series. I think I might continue that in the future.

Tulip Noire, 2018. Oil on Canvas. From the series ‘Noire Flower Boy’.

︎ In the past, we’ve fought so hard for the world to see women equal to men, but in that process we’ve become obsessed with results, neglecting our feelings and emotions. What do you think about it?

Yeah, I get that. You see a lot of that in business, CEO women don't tend to be very feminine. Because you are seen as weak when you are feminine, sensitive or you cry a lot. We are told that we shouldn’t be like that because you have to be strong. You have to be better.

I think there is a lot of strength in being vulnerable. Crying in front of someone is the hardest thing you can possibly do. I’m so good at burying my feelings that bringing them out it's so hard. It's so easy to just deny yourself compared to actually speak out and say things. Expressing yourself through words in front of someone else, that's quite hard for me to think. Yeah, feelings.

︎  I totally agree, being reserved is easy, It’s actually explaining your feelings that is hard. Do you think that's a way that we could change the way things are at the moment? Being a bit more vulnerable around people in general?

I think so. But I think other people need to be receptive of that. If you're gonna open up your feelings and they don’t validate you, then don't open up your feelings to them. Because you're just hurting yourself if you know that they're not going to be accepting of who you are. I think you should find a safe space to be vulnerable. I wish everybody was into feelings, but not everyone is. Finding the right people to be vulnerable with and not be scared to be vulnerable, It's a good step.

Dandelion Noire, 2018. Oil on Canvas. From the series ‘Noire Flower Boy’.

︎ It's specially difficult in the workplace. Family can sometimes be challenging but it feels like in the workplace, you can have no feelings.

Yeah, if you're, for example, the girl that cries, you are seen as weak. It's unprofessional to cry and be upset because emotions are weak. However, I’m guilty as well of judging people based on the environment. If someone is angry at work, for example, I’ve thought “oh, what’s wrong with them?”.

︎  I think we are all guilty of that because that's the norm, you know? We’ve all done it. However, I’m currently seeing that we can find a balance of feelings and professionalism at work. My current boss it’s actually quite good at saying when he doesn't feel okay. He’d say that he feels overwhelmed, or stretched, for example. I never perceive that as unprofessional though, it’s actually humanising. It’s been really refreshing to see that you can be open about your feelings but still be respected.

I think that's quite cool. If more bosses were open about their feelings and saying they’re overwhelmed, I think that would be good. Because when you see, for example, your mom cry, it makes you realise that this person who's a rock, can be vulnerable. It’s a similar thing with the workplace, if someone expressed that they don't feel great. We would be more accepting of it because it’s perfectly fine to not feel great. 

︎  Is there anything in particular that you do just because of the experience, and not the result?

I'm actually learning to play bass. But as I'm doing it more, I thought I could start playing for church. It's becoming this thing where I need to achieve a certain level so that I can do something with it. I think we need to check back on that, there’s no need to monetise, every single thing we’re doing.

Same with painting, I started because it's fun. I like it. Now I'm just wondering how I can capitalise on this thing? I guess in our culture if we don't do that, it's almost like you're wasting your resources like you're wasting your goods. If you aren’t making money off this thing, why aren't you doing that?

Paintings by Nadia Waheed.

︎  Are there any women or non binary creative you look up to?

Yes, I read an interview on WePresent with Nadia Waheed. She makes these massive paintings of asian women. It’s interesting because you can see they’re asian, not because of their skin tone or anything, it’s almost because of how they are. Her pieces seem very vulnerable too. I'd love to go to an exhibition of her work.

I'd say some artists just let their paintings do the talking, that's it. Nadia however, I feel like gives the whole experience from her. From the interview, I learned about what she's doing, her concepts and ideas. She's very open to sharing things and very political as well. I’m a big fan.

︎  What’s your dream?

It would be great to get a job that supports me, but I'm not so invested in, so that I can still have loads of time to do art. I don't want my paintings to be my main money income because then I feel that I'll be pressured to do things to make money not just because I want to paint, but because I have to paint.

︎  What would you tell your younger self?

I'd say relax. Don't be so anxious all the time. Don't stress over the future because I don't know. I mean, I don't know the future from now. But from then to here, it was okay.

This interview dates back to June 7th, 2020. Under the COVID-19 pandemic and Black Lives Matters movement. The next questions focus on these issues. 

︎  How are you feeling, working from home now because of COVID-19?

In the beginning, it was hard. I struggled with not having separate spaces, my work is my home now. I can’t leave work, at work. Making that distinction between home and work was hard because I felt that I could still work even after the work day was over. Now I just clock off on time. I’m starting to realise that there will always be work. No matter how much work I do, there's always going to be more work. It's fine, I shouldn't feel guilty for not doing extra work.  

︎  Because we don’t have as many distractions as before, we’ve been forced to face certain thoughts and emotions we would normally avoid. Has anything specific come up for you during this time?

I used to not eat regularly. I would realise I was hungry but think it didn’t matter because I was working. Within the first month of working I would just forget, then realise I’ve been really hungry all the time. I can't just be starving myself because I'm working, I have to deal with that, too. Now I’ve started cooking more and that’s really helped.

Rose Noire, 2018. Oil on Canvas. From the series ‘Noire Flower Boy’.

︎  What do you miss the most from pre-covid times?

Hugging people. I’m a hugger. I think hugging for the first time after this will be an adjustment, realising that this is okay, this is not bad. I can be in the same space as someone and not hurt them and they're not going to hurt me.

︎︎︎ Do you think we can learn something from this whole pandemic situation going on?

Yeah, I hope so. I hope we learn that we need to be connected to people. It was very easy before to just work, go home, and then not really talk to people. If anything, we actually do need people time, even if we're in the pandemic, we need to be connected, regardless.

︎︎︎ How do you feel right now with all the protests and everything that's going on in the United States?

In the beginning I just felt numb. I have family in America. What's the difference between them and George Floyd? Blackout Tuesday happened. I'm on social media. That's my job. I just see loads of videos and things constantly, it's awful. I can't be on social media that much. I need to just not be there because there’s a lot happening.

I'm really grateful people can go out and protest. I can't protest, I can't go out. if I could, I would. I think the protesters are so brave to go outside. I just hope things will change. We need to implement that in the smallest of ways. Not only will communities start educating ourselves, but educating our children, so that next generations won't do the same thing.

It's the same with any major thing that happens. The Holocaust, for example, we teach our children about it so that things don't happen again. That's the same mentality we should take on those major things that happen that affect people. Don't pass it on.

︎︎︎ Yes, we need so much more education about it. It feels like no one taught us about black history.  It should be taught and it should be talked about because we do learn about the Second World War.

I was actually at the protest today. It was so great, it felt like people wanted change and they were all there for change. It was incredible, especially after so long without being with people, to be with so many who all stood for the same cause, was very powerful. 

Yeah, because of the pandemic, I like that we're still together. We're still together physically as well.

Peony Noire, 2018. Oil on Canvas. From the series ‘Noire Flower Boy’.

︎︎︎ We talked a bit about social media and Blackout Tuesday. It's been really great to see that people are trying to educate and sharing resources. In your opinion, what can people do to help right now?

Listening. I think you can educate yourself, but also not be afraid to be wrong. It’s a good thing to accept that we’re still educating ourselves. There's still so much to learn. I'm not white, but I'm still learning things.

I still feel like I need to look at myself and see what I'm doing as well. It's a constant thing of educating yourself and educating other people. We're all trying our best. For example when people posted black squares on Blackout Tuesday, still tagging #blacklivesmatter, feeds were just clogged with black squares. Then everybody learned to not use that hashtag. It's a case of just being okay that you're going to be wrong. Let’s be open to learning, listening and making mistakes.

︎︎︎ How would you personally feel supported right now?

Family wise, it'd be a case of just having talks about all of our experiences and being in spaces with similar people as me talking about our experiences and things like that.

In a workplace, I’m currently the only black person in my team. It’s hard because I’m the spokesperson of every single black person. Obviously I'm not. It would be easier with a more diverse team. However, they could support me by listening and educating themselves.

︎︎︎ Do you have any ideas on how we could change these injustices to keep happening?

America for example, really needs to review their laws and how much power the police have. Other countries shouldn’t think this is an American issue. It's everywhere. Injustice happens. I think we need to review our own laws and things we do. Reflect on ourselves. It's a time to learn from others so we don’t make the same mistakes.

Thank you so much Stephanie. I love your work and your vulnerability in this interview!  

More of Saint Akua below:

by Luthiem Escalona