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Mahlia Amatina


Earlier in January I got to talk to internationally exhibited artist Mahlia Amatina about her work as well as getting opportunities in the fine-art field.


SW

Tell us a bit more about your work.


MA


I was diagnosed three years ago with Asperger’s syndrome and at the time I didn’t know much about it. I had heard about autism, in the context of films or books, but I didn’t know anyone else who had autism. So it set me on a mission to find out how people experience their trait, whether that’s sensory overload or being quite rigid (needing structure), using a schedule, anxiety or whatever that trait may be.


I guess for me being an abstract artist I took that route and wanted that to be my approach. I wanted to use shape, line form, to describe colour and using a very non-literal form for people to relate to their autism. So that’s how the ‘On the Spectrum’ project came about.


As I’ve done a lot of work with other people finding out how they experience autism, I wanted to then reflect on my own using mark making. I just used that as a form to gain a better understanding of my autism. So that’s behind it really.


SW

You were already an abstract artist when you got this diagnosis?


MA

Yes just a few months before I’d been made redundant and I’d always been a creative person so that spurred me on to become and artist. Then it was just one thing that led to another. My work has become a lot more refined throughout the reflecting of mine and other people’s experiences of autism. Through that it’s really progressed.

SW

Do you think that understanding yourself has been key to developing your work? (Although this could be a question for most artists).


MA

Yes I’ve definitely learned more about myself. Being given a diagnosis of autism as well, you question a lot of things about your life slotting together. You realise that’s why I responded in this way to something. Or that’s why I do this. So I think it’s been a journey and interesting that I have been an artist at the same time that I’ve been given and processed my diagnosis.


SW

So do you do other stuff aside from art or is art your main pursuit at the moment?


MA

Yes it’s definitely my main pursuit at the moment, although I am self-employed as well. I do pet-sitting, house-sitting. So I have just been trying to make a life around being an artist.


SW

There are lots of artists who do a lot of other self employed other things – I speak as one of them – and I think it somehow really suits us to have that type of autonomy?


Even though there are other struggles that may come about as a result of it, and in some ways there’s a lack of security. It depends on what your freelance jobs are, and what your other situation is. I have tried to analyse it about myself sometimes because I don’t know if it’s freedom …


MA

It’s interesting because I think that artists do have the mindset where they will strive towards doing things they’re really passionate about, and then find jobs to fit in with that. It’s a real divide for me between my artist and non-artist friends.


SW

Yes I find that too. There are certain limitations you put on yourself with that lifestyle but then you also have this immense amount of autonomy.


MA

Yes I wouldn’t want to have the old lifestyle again, because it doesn’t work for me and I would rather do what I do now.


SW

I think one of the good things about being an artist is that you can be professionally curious about all sorts of things. It doesn’t matter whether you are dog-sitting or doing something else, you can be genuinely interested in whatever it is. I was thinking over the summer that because of the variety of jobs I’ve had at times, that employment-wise I’ve had so many more experiences than some of the other people I know.


MA

Yes exactly and you learn at a far greater pace as well because you are doing things for yourself and pursuing certain passions.


SW

So what made you apply for an art award? I see that you’ve really exhibited extensively, and internationally as well. So what would make you apply and why this one in particular?

MA

I was looking at opportunities, as I do from time to time. (I am trying to make that more structured from this year). But something stood out. There is a lot of debate about art competitions and how good they really are, and what exposure they give. Even if you get an exhibition out of it, there’s the cost involved. I think that people don’t utilise the online domain enough and that there is a lot you could get from it if you’re really smart about it.

I felt that was something you were doing and had a fresh perspective. It sounds so different to anything else I’ve applied for. I have applied for different competitions but this is probably the one that is memorable and stood out to me.


SW

It’s good to hear. In many ways we have a lot of experience and we’re both professional artists (the founders) but that said we are doing this into a complete void because nobody else is doing any thing like this.


MA

I know I have never heard of anything quite like it. I felt that all the other competitions are exactly the same and I question them, and I think rightly so.

SW

It is tough. Both of us actually met when we were doing postgraduate studies in art and we’ve had that experience of being unofficially taught the supposed right of passage for artists. If you go to art college then it is supposed to be to apply to some type of award, then you get the show but it took a while to realise that it probably only happens for about 1% of people. Then what happens to the others?


I think because my background before was in more commercial creative stuff anyway, I was used to getting paid for work so I never really understood what that lottery was all about. But we still don’t really know what this will lead to, so it’s good to hear a perspective from someone who applied.


With your international exhibiting, have you got advice for other artists? How did you get to do all of that international work because it’s really impressive?


MA

My latest one was through Arts Council funding. I would certainly recommend applying for that. It is fantastic help to develop your creative practice, and if you have an idea that will work abroad. They do really want people to apply for it and they’ve got the funding available. My opportunities have all be around the work that I’ve done for autism advocacy.

It’s hard because it can be daunting with a huge application but the Arts Council do say that they want individual artists to apply. It’s not just about organisations.


SW

It’s interesting because I was reading something recently siting research that a huge percentage of funding is just given to organisations over individual artists. You read that and just assume that there is no will to give it to individual artists but it might actually be that individual artists aren’t applying enough?


MA

Yes and I think that if you see the criteria they are looking for, it is easier for an organisation to make a better application because it’s not just one person writing it, and as a whole there might be more experience in an organisation. I wrote a blog post because people were asking me how I got the funding. My biggest piece of advice is to actually go to the surgeries that they hold because that is so valuable. I think if it wasn’t for me attending the one that I did, I might not have succeeded with that application.


SW

That’s really useful to hear!


MA

Yeah it’s quite simple advice but it really makes a difference because you’re speaking to someone that may well be looking at the applications. So they know what barriers come up and they can look at your application in a really positive way to help make it better.

SW

The current economic climate in the UK is very tough at the moment, not just for artists, so I think it would be good for people to know that they can actually do this sort of thing. That it’s possible to put in a good application and they might get it, and that there is help in formulating a better application.


MA

Yes definitely. Even if you don’t get it, you can get feedback and try again. It is possible and it’s great to have a funding opportunity.


SW

In your statement for us, you said that you have roots from lands afar, which resonated with me as I come from a very mixed background. One of my personal interests in using the digital for the Refresh Art Award is that we could be completely borderless. I really believe that’s where the world should go. So tell us some more about your background?


MA

My dad’s from India and my mum is from Kenya and I’ve also got family in East Africa. I’ve got friends from all over the world. I have lived in Belgium, Lithuania and Nepal… Colombia. I have lived in so many different places and learned a lot of different languages and met so many people that it has informed how I see the world. It continues to fascinate me, and I’m sure it will for the rest of my life. It has got me thinking about transitioning and people moving, and refugees.


SW

I read something… I think it was something Bonnie Greer wrote, about humans being a migratory species. It made me think that we’re not like a tiger who lives in a particular jungle, and that’s its only habitat, and we never have been. Do you think that the experience of having quite a mixed background makes us at home everywhere, or are we always outsiders?


MA

It’s a bit of both. A lot of my work has been about humanity and connectedness and how we are all essentially the same. I just did this big project on washing lines where I got 80 people from 80 different countries to send in photos of their washing lines and to answer some questions. It made me and everyone else who visited the exhibition realise that we have got the same worries. Maybe someone thinks that they don’t have anything in common with somebody living in DRC but actually they are worried about their future, or thinking that they haven’t taken the right job. They all have universal feelings, fears and aspirations. In that respect it made me realise that you can relate to anyone really. We are all the same.


SW

I think that taps in a little bit to what we wanted to do in making the art award international, trying to see who is making what where, and that it is all comparable. We love London but were also trying to get out of a London bubble a little bit by having this chance to use a digital platform.


I also wanted to ask you about how you make your work. What materials do you like using?


MA

This work is mainly acrylics on canvas but I also like using Indian ink and collage. A lot of it will depend on where I am, and what the limitations are. I always look at that very positively.


I was recently in New York and knew I was going to be able to take canvas of a particular size, and that was the size I was going to work from. It was a very odd size… very long… That sometimes influences what I am going to use because I am always working from different places, or if I’m house-sitting I’ll be in a different location.


So I try to be very versatile but to see that in a positive light; that I’ll be able to do something very different to what I would normally do and to see where that goes.

SW

I think setting parameters for yourself can sometimes lead to different work.


MA

Exactly. You experiment a lot more and you don’t know what is going to come out of it.


SW

Yes. So back home do you like to have a set studio, or are you quite nomadic in that you like to work in continually different places?


MA

When I am back at home I have a garage / studio space. It’s where I keep my work and is the main place I go to.


SW

It’s interesting because out of most of the artists that I’ve spoken to, the ones that do have a studio it turns out to be the garage. The rest of us don’t even have studios and I think that model of the artist in their studio is not a modern thing at all…


MA

Yes for me to get to a studio I’d be driving for quite a while. I need something I can get to very easily and that I’m not having to spend hundreds of pounds on every month. I don’t need a huge amount of space so I manage to make it work!




Mahlia's blog post about the Arts Council funding is available from

https://www.mahliaamatina.com/artist-blog/post/6040377581518094766 .

It's an interesting read anyway, but essential for anyone who puts in proposals for funding or projects. Mahlia very generously wrote about this experience to help other artists out, which we think is a lovely way of helping to nourish the often beleaguered art community!



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