Ayan Farah makes unconventional mixed-media paintings, as well as installations, photographs, videos, and sound pieces, through which she explores the overlap between natural and manmade environments, and notions of chance and control. Her work, in her words, is “about weight and weightlessness, the making or the unmaking of the work and its nature, its cause and creation.” She is especially known for her work with textiles, which she weathers, stains, and otherwise alters with materials including terracotta, salt, vinegar, and ash. Working both inside and outdoors, she has buried textiles in the earth, left them outside to be beaten by wind and sun, and manipulated their surfaces with a mixture of acidic substances in her studio. Farah then drapes them onto wooden stretchers, where they appear as luminous abstractions, resonant with the time-based process of their making.
Born in the United Arab Emirates in 1978 as the daughter of Somali parents, she grew up in Sweden and Denmark and currently lives in London. She works all over the globe and her pieces bring together the various cultural perspectives of her life.
She studied Fine Arts at London’s Central Saint Martin’s College of Art and Design, followed by Painting at London’s Royal College of Art.
Farah is an alchemist and a researcher; she creates unique of paintings made using unusual materials ranging from mud sourced from the Dead Sea to terracotta from Mexico and clay from Sweden. Each piece, each material, has a specific origin before being carefully treated by a different process. Her processes, though unorthodox, are tailored to produce a range of formal effects drawn from the traditions of painting. For instance, she might leave a canvas in a dried up well in the Somali desert or she might procure a piece of 19th Century Belgian fabric before carefully bleaching it in the sunlight of a specific location to obtain a very precise optic effect. As a result, each piece of fabric has its own story – its own history – before being woven together to create a single plane.
Despite carefully controlling and experimenting with the effects of different environments on her fabric, Farah’s process is ultimately dependent upon chance. To leave the final result of the work to the effects and whims of nature is to treat them as effects of nature. Although her placement of each material is carefully thought out, once she leaves the fabric in a natural environment she surrenders it to the influence of the elements. In this respect, each scrap can be considered a recovered – rather than a manufactured – artifact. Farah is as much the archeologist as she is the alchemist.
She is particularly well known for her works created by sewing together different fabrics (such as ‘Tahon’, featured by Blond Contemporary and pictured below). By sewing these different pieces together, Ayan Farah unites everything together on the same plane, both physically and conceptually. Because each fragment possesses an almost monochromatic colour, it’s individual history and the process behind its creation is not overt – it is left disguised. Until we know its story, each piece’s origin and creation story remain optically concealed.
This is very much intentional. We live in a society where most of the labour of productions outsourced. To the average individual, precisely this kind of labour and the history, use and value of materials and techniques are occluded.
Ayan Farah’s process is also clearly personal. As she brings the diverse histories of her fabrics together on one plane or into one exhibition, she unites them to create a single piece; each fragment contributes to the same work of art. In this respect, Farah’s work is almost autobiographical. The multitude of nationalities and cultures which shaped her up-bringing (UAE, Somalia, Sweden, London) all combine and contribute in different ways to shape her sense of a single, unique identity. Each piece of her history is an additional patch in her tapestry. Moreover, the artist often uses fragments or surplus cuts from her earlier artworks, weaving her creative past back into her present creative process.