London-based artist Larry Achiampong uses film, sculpture and performance to create work that draws on his own Ghanaian heritage, colonial history, and his experience of growing up in Britain.
Known for exploring ideas around class, race and cultural identity, his previous commissions include the Jerwood Visual Arts 3-Phase programme, Pan African Flag For The Relic Travellers’ Alliance at Somerset House , and the Diaspora Pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale. He was also nominated for the 2018 Jarman Award for his collaboration with artist David Blandy.
Here Achiampong discusses the cultural and class-based issues he experienced in education, the impact of his degree on his current practice, and how his education has also influenced how he approaches teaching.
Where did you study and how did you find the experience?
I did my BA in Mixed Media Fine Art at the University of Westminster between 2002 and 2005, which was followed by a Masters in Sculpture at the Slade School of Fine Art between 2006 and 2008. Looking back, the time I spent on both courses really helped to push but also shape the way that I think as an artist.
It was almost an incubation stage, from situations such as having conversations with other peers, through to having the space and time to consider what you want to do – it was a great place to experiment with ideas. There’s also the time you have when you’re not studying, and even that is a new thing in the whole process of development.
I still approach things in the same way now. You are always learning – whether that be the way that you make films or are collaborating with other practitioners or partners. Doing that at art school on those courses, there were some things that I learnt that helped to push me further and begin to frame the way that I think about my practice.How well did you engage with the other students on your course?
I’ll be totally frank with you. I knew loads of people on both courses but on my BA I spent more time working on my own. I didn’t feel like many of the other students got me or understood me. Also, I was studying in a place where there were fewer people of colour and from working-class backgrounds. That was a culture shock for me.
Some people were there to just piss around, and that made me quite angry. Before I started my BA, I was helping my mum out with cleaning jobs and it was drilled into me the importance of working hard to try and get somewhere in life. Then you get onto the course and for some people it’s not much of a vocation, it’s just that their parents wanted them to do a degree and they can afford it.
In the MA, things opened up a bit more and I spoke more to other people. But even then, there were aspects of my practice that I wouldn’t even bring to the Slade. During the day I was working on certain aspects to do with writing, drawing, performance and sculpture. But when I got home and in the evening I would learn beat making and instrumentation such as the bass guitar. These things were happening side by side, but one was self-guided whereas the other was taught.
This was important for me, being able to see how things worked within an institution, but then also thinking on a very independent basis about things that were guided by my curiosity. To this day, the latter still inspires my creative process.
I got on with my tutors across the board, but that doesn’t mean we weren’t occasionally at loggerheads. Particularly on the BA, they wanted me to explore my identity through different projects, but at that stage you’re really only at the beginning of developing your thought processes. By the time I reached the MA I’d learnt to drive myself much more.
This didn’t mean I avoided tutorials, but there were certain things that I wanted to do and I felt more confident about what I wanted to get out of the course. On the BA it was much more a process of listening and learning about what contemporary art actually is. I mean, I didn’t visit the Tate until I was 18, so a lot of that stuff was very new.
On the BA, the learning process was very much directed by the tutors, whereas on the MA I was certainly more confident or willing to drive my own developmental process.
What was the worst and best thing that occurred on your BA?
Apart from one particular tutor who I am still good friends with, I don’t think most of the tutors really got me. That really came down to a cultural and class-based point of view. I was a young black man from Dagenham in east London, so I was in a minority not just in terms of the students, but also who was teaching me.
It would have been great to have a person of colour who was teaching on the course from the beginning to the end. We had one black tutor who had us for one module, and that was it.
Representation in that respect can be important for a student, whether that be from a similar background to my own, or LGBTQ, or class. You need someone there to have empathy in relation to your situation and have a conversation around ideas and what you are thinking about. When we talk about art practice, a lot of it is mental and if we are not approaching the environments that surround the people who are studying, then it becomes very ignorant of what those students have to deal with. So, for me, that was definitely a negative thing.
The positive thing that I pulled out from the course was seeing the varied approaches that I could apply as a practising artist. Under the title Mixed Media Fine Art we could really explore a range of things. At that time, editing film from a manual perspective was still around so I got to experience those approaches.
On the course we literally only had one module that looked at the possibilities of film making, and that only lasted six weeks, but I was so glad that I had that little nugget. Even with my own personal interest in films, whether that be lo-fi art house through to big Hollywood productions, the course had a range of different things going on that allowed me to think ‘I don’t have to be a painter, I can do many different things’.
It provided the foundation for the way I practice now as an artist. I don’t call myself a filmmaker because I make sound works as well as objects and a range of other things. The course allowed me to think about the fluidity of being an artist and creative person.
Did they teach you much of the business side of the art industry?
Not really, but that is probably across the board for art schools. Some people might read this and think ‘come on, you just have to be creative’, but I’d argue there is a lot to deal with. Things like management of personal time and being self-employed, through to assessing what is a good offer or deal in terms of a commission and being paid appropriately – you don’t get taught any of that.
I had to learn so much myself and I got burnt a lot when I left art school. I wish that we had had even a module that looked at this. On the BA we had a work experience module, but with that we were pretty much just used as free labour.
Being able to learn the hustle of the game would have been useful. I’m still doing my thing, but it took a lot of unnecessary mistakes. I’m not saying that there isn’t space to make mistakes because we are always learning, but there were ones that I could have avoided.
You now teach at the Royal College of Art. Have these experiences enhanced your abilities as a teacher?
I remember back when I was being assessed, we used to get into arguments about what I’d made, and I thought, ‘If I ever get chance, I’m going to teach like this’. I see it as being similar to chatting to peers, in that I’m there to have a conversation and work out the groove that the student is in. I’m not there to tell them what to make, because that isn’t useful for anyone. I don’t want anyone else to make my work, so why should they?
In many ways it also keeps you on your toes because students are constantly looking for references, so it pushes you to expand your own. I do see myself continuing to teach, at least on a part-time basis, if those opportunities continue. It probably won’t be full-time, because I want that focus on my practice.
Do you think the cost of education has resulted in a shift in the mindset of students?
If I was being critical, there’s almost this thought that if you put money down on something then you should have that qualification. But it doesn’t work that way.
It creates a very exclusive environment and I’m not sure a younger version of me would be able to do a degree right now. I did my BA at a point when you could get a decent student loan and it was before the tuition fee hike – the tuition was £3,000 a year whereas now it’s £3,000 a term.
With my MA, I got that through an AHRC bursary. If I hadn’t had it, there is no way that I’d have done that course. I think the atmosphere has changed and you’ve got more privileged people there. The unfortunate thing is the government doesn’t seem to care. They are driving up the prices and universities are playing for the big business now. It’s a big problem.
Does art education need to change?
I think the approach to education in general has to change and universities could look at how the presentation of art has had to change in the last few years. Basically, the internet is the place where people are having conversations, and there’s definitely more of a level ground for people to have a voice. In contrast, universities offer the opposite.
Part of my own journey has been an example of this. I learnt music production and scoring by watching YouTube videos and using the internet.
It would be great for lots of different types of people to be able to study in a place where there are loads of other people making. But the fact is that isn’t going to happen. The changes that are happening will instead be across the internet. Nowadays, you don’t need to spend £100 on a book, you can just get things online. It opens up that possibility of access to information.
Did you see your degree show as the end or beginning of something new?
With my BA I was so green. It was at that time of New Labour and there was an attitude of if you get a degree then you are going to make it. I felt I was going to sell work as an artist and I’d done the thing that would give me the credentials to do it.
But it didn’t happen. Not many people came to our opening at the Westminster campus in Harrow and I felt a lot of disillusionment, quite a bit of anger and also some depression. I ended up unemployed and on the dole for about a year.
I didn’t know what the hell was going on at times and felt like I’d got this degree that was supposed to allow me to do things that I couldn’t do without it. I had to go back to the drawing board and was thinking ‘What am I doing this for and what does it mean?’. I didn’t know whether I would ever study again.
By the time I decided to do an MA I came back with the mentality that I’d learnt through growing up in east London and Dagenham, which was to hustle. I thought about the environment and how it works, and what I needed to do to be successful within it, which meant rethinking what success means. Success is way more than just making something that looks good or saying the smart thing at the right time. It is also listening and learning to adapt to your environment.
I had my first child quite early on and some of my peers said it was impossible to be a successful parent as well as an artist. In order to support us, I got a part-time job teaching kids who had been excluded from mainstream education how to make films. I would either have the late evenings when I was cradling my son, or literally one day a week to make work.
Although it was tough, it’s all experience and I don’t think I’d be where I am today without it. Ultimately, there are things you don’t get taught in art school that in a weird way you bring from your own experience. But that is what makes you who you are.
What current projects are you working on?
I’ve got my first comprehensive solo show at Primary in Nottingham which runs from 25 April until 22 June. I’m also in a show at Somerset House called ‘Get Up, Stand Up Now’, which opens 12 June. It’s a big seminal show that brings together a lot of black British-based activity, particularly in regards to what is happening now. I think it’s going to be quite a groundbreaking show.
I’m also really excited about a commission I’ve been given from Art On The Underground. I’ve been asked to create work for Westminster underground station, and specifically to redesign the London Underground logo. I’m thinking very much about the designs that I’ve realised as part of the ongoing ‘Relic Traveller’ project, which looks at ideas of displacement, fallen empire and lost testimonies.
I visited the TFL archives recently and noticed that the colours of the logo – red, blue and white – are imperial colours. Going through the archives you realise there is a lot of propaganda, and I’m interested in opening that up and questioning who gets placed in history, or is erased. The logo and design for the London Underground is amazing as it’s so synonymous with travel, but there is a lot going on in there that can be opened up.
Larry Achiampong was speaking to Jack Hutchinson.
1. Larry Achiampong, Relic 3, 4k colour video with stereo sound, 2019. Courtesy: the artist and Copperfield London
2. Larry Achiampong, Relic 3, 4k colour video with stereo sound, 2019. Courtesy: the artist and Copperfield London
3. Larry Achiampong, PAN AFRICAN FLAG FOR THE RELIC TRAVELLERS’ ALLIANCE (MOTION), banner flag, 2018. Courtesy: the artist and Copperfield London
4. Larry Achiampong. Photo: Roger Sinek