Paintings that are made to make you smile
Sabina Silver is a portrait painter exploring “gye w’ani”, the Ghanian concept all about enjoying yourself. This aim to create joyful work shines through her practice and the artist tells us: “If you see [my art] and you don’t smile, I haven't achieved my goal.”
Sabina shares her journey from working with non-profits to becoming a full-time artist over lockdown, and why art is such an important outlet for celebrating life, evoking emotion, and aiding others.
What inspired you to first get into painting?
I’ve always painted. I was born in Ghana and when I came to London when I was 10, I really struggled with language. I found that painting was an easy outlet and I enjoyed how it made me feel afterwards. It was kind of like my own personal form of therapy.
As I got older I would have loved to study it at uni but I ended up doing history and politics. The main reason was because I got a bad grade and thought “that’s it I’m done, I’m never painting again” but I knew I still enjoyed it.
“I began to discover my own personal style and the work I like to do, which is mainly portraiture. I’ve been doing that ever since.”
I painted as a hobby but never took it seriously until lockdown when a lot of things happened; unfortunately people passed and I was furloughed. I thought to myself: “I don’t feel accomplished at the point I am in my life and I would hate to pass away and feel that I haven't done the thing I wanted to do because of fear or money or external pressure.”
I started painting and created a series called ‘Children of the Sun’, which explores one’s personal journey toward self-actualization and self-love. In doing so, I began to discover my own personal style and the work I like to do, which is mainly portraiture. I’ve been doing that ever since.
You’ve mentioned that “art should be something you can actually feel” – in what ways do you use art to evoke emotion?
Indeed art should be something that's felt, sometimes I paint just for myself, works no one will ever see but it helps me work through my thoughts and feelings. Other times it's to convey something I want the world to see and feel.
When people look at my work I want them to take away whatever they want to take away. I don’t want to impose what I felt or what I was going through when I painted it. I find it fascinating what people see and how they interpret things. I guess when they look at it and enjoy it, and maybe share it or buy it, in some way that has had some purpose in their life – that makes me feel good.
“I think there needs to be space for artists, especially Black artists, to explore beyond their trauma and the things that we’re expected to.”
How do you explore “gye w’ani” through your work?
“Gye w’ani'' is a Ghanian concept and symbol. In Ghanian culture, we have Adinkra symbols and every symbol means something different. The symbol for “gye w’ani” is pretty much saying “enjoy yourself!” I really loved that because I was consuming a lot of traumatic work in between covid and Black Lives Matter, and even though I applauded it and appreciated it, it was overwhelming.
When I was reflecting on the kind of work I wanted to create I landed on the fact that I want to create work that genuinely comes from the joy that exists in the midst of all the chaos. The world is chaotic and focusing on that had a negative impact on my mood. I think there needs to be space for artists, especially Black artists, to explore beyond their trauma and the things that we’re expected to. If you see it and you don’t smile, I haven't achieved my goal.
You recently donated proceeds from prints of your work to help the victims of Boko Haram violence. Why do you think it is important to use art to aid others?
Prior to painting full-time, my day job has always been in the third sector working with non-profits so I understand the importance of giving and helping others. Even in my art I never want to take myself away from that. My art is a selfish thing but I understand the importance of giving that back: I find a lot of joy in the process. Even when I wasn’t painting full-time I would do art therapy classes with kids and I loved it.
With ‘The Chibok Girls’, that came from a very painful place because my family are from the north of Ghana. Everything that happened in Nigeria could easily have happened there. Across the board the lack of protection and care of girls is astonishing. I am also a family full of girls so I have an affinity to protect and talk about womanhood and femininity and the struggles and joys of it all.
When I created the piece there was no way I could not give some of the proceeds to benefit that cause. As artists, we have a responsibility. It’s cruel and selfish to immortalise someone's pain and benefit from it without giving back to those people and using it as trauma porn. If I’m painting and it’s directly related to something that’s happened or happening, and there’s a way that I can give from that, I will.
“My job as an artist is to just paint, like I tell everyone your job as a human being is to just exist in the way that pleases you.”
What does it mean to be an artist?
I have to be honest, I have no idea. I enjoy the fact that I am figuring things out and more than ever I am enjoying the process of understanding myself through my art and understanding the world of art.
My job as an artist is to just paint, like I tell everyone your job as a human being is to just exist in the way that pleases you. If people like it or buy it, that’s all a by-product, as long as I focus on creating and offering others the opportunity to find an outlet that allows them to centre themselves.
If you could star in any movie, what would it be?