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lime Exhibitions Interview: Shiri Achu

Lime interview - Exhibitions

Shiri Achu

words by

Adelaide Damoah

Reporter: Adelaide Damoah
Adelaid Damoah’s work can be found here

Beauty, confidence, exuberance, intelligence and tenacity. These are just a few adjectives I would use to describe this talented artist. 

Born in the Cameroon, West Africa, Achu came to the UK at the age of nine. An inquisitive and creative child, Achu used found materials to start making art. Gaining A grades at both GCSE and A level art, Achu decided not to follow the path of art education that her mother wanted for her and went on to study and qualify in architecture. Achu worked in the field of architecture until the economy collapsed in 2008 when she was made redundant.  Achu's first exhibition entitled the “30th Act,” took place in April of 2009, coinciding with her 30th birthday. Achu's career has been on the ascent ever since. 


Are you doing art full time?

Yes, but I also have private architecture work. I have private architecture contacts that I am working on in Ghana and Cameroon. 


Excellent! Are you planning on pursuing the two career paths simultaneously?

Yes. I aim never to sleep! The thing is; I have always wanted to be both an artist and an architect. Right now, the ratio is roughly 70 per cent art and 30 per cent architecture.


Does the concept of money and sales come into your definition of what it means to be a successful artist?

Not necessarily. For me, it is more about people recognising my work. For example, a friend of mine who lives in Australia has recently become my representative over there. Once she told me that she mentioned my work to somebody and they knew who I was. I was in shock! I did not realise my work had affected people as far afield as Australia. That was really cool. One of the reasons why I paint what I paint is because I want to bring African culture to the Western world and educate about our culture. That is more success than just having money. 

Are you concerned with gaining recognition from and being accepted by the art establishment or are you more concerned with creating your own market?

It would be easier if the people within the establishment were open to help. Saying that, I am not afraid of creating my own market and I am working very hard to make it succeed. 


Going back to your definition of what it means to be successful in art, do you consider yourself to be successful?

Not yet. I was asked this question in another interview recently. That question came up, but the interviewer put it in a different way. She said, “When was your big break?” My response was, “I have not had a big break yet!” I am getting there because I am lucky enough to have had exhibitions in places where people buy my work, but I don't think I am there yet. I am not happy with where I am at the moment.


Looking at “successful” black female artists who have been validated by the establishment, think Wangechi Mutu, Rene Cox and Sonia Boyce, what in your opinion does it take for a black female artist to be accepted and validated as successful within the art establishment? 

I know that Wangechi Mutu's work has a good message. It is a little bit controversial, it is unique and because of her style, you do not automatically assign it to the African market. I think those things may contribute to her success. Her message is unique, it is a little bit different and I have not personally experienced that kind of thing, not until I saw her work. 


What would you say is your ultimate dream for your art?

I would love to have a major retrospective showing my growth over the years. Not right away because I don't think I am ready. Maybe in about ten years. I would like people to know me! When I paint, as much as it is to educate, it is for the people here who have never been to Africa to think that after seeing my work, they would love to go and see Africa. 

You mentioned musicians; it only takes for one major celebrity to endorse your work for their friends and everybody else to take notice and asking them, “Oh darling, where did you get that fabulous piece?”

Well Faith Evans bought one of my paintings and nothing really came out of that.


Yes, I did hear about that. But Faith Evans is not as familiar now as she was maybe ten years ago. She does not have the same relevance to the general public. Maybe if you got someone like David Beckham to buy a piece?

I would not be impressed by David Beckham buying a piece for the sake of it. I would rather he bought it because he appreciates it rather than just because he thought to himself, “Shiri Achu work is supposed to be cool, I have got some money, let me just buy one.” I want people who are going to appreciate my work to own my work. 


I was reading something today about an artist who discovered for the first time that one of his paintings had been put up for auction.  He said he felt hurt by it even though it is in a lot of ways a marker of success for many artists.

It is a way of knowing that you are getting there isn't it. It is a great signal to show when you are actually there. Or getting there.


Exactly. Because that is a very tangible demonstration that a market for your work exists. Imagine a young female comes to you and says that she wants to follow your path, in your footsteps and pursue her ultimate dream which is basically the same as yours. What advice would you give to her?

Whetever it is, make that work recognisable. Create a niche for yourself.  You must have a passion for it. If you do not have the passion, you cannot do anything. I can stay up all night working because I love everything that I am doing. I work very hard at it, because I don't feel that it is work. If you are going to be a painter, I think you should find what you love to paint and paint. You have to find marketable tools. It took me a long time before I started selling prints because I was intent on just selling the originals even though my friends had encouraged me to sell prints. I had an exhibition and a few small paintings were sold. I had a guest book out and people were writing their comments. I had so many comments stating that they really liked particular pieces but just could not afford them. I then decided to make the prints! I started off printing onto canvas and people were still not able to afford them so I then went to fine art prints on paper. It has been a learning curve but now I make signed limited prints on paper and they still hold a certain value because they are limited edition. I learned my market. You have to know your market and understand what sells. 


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