INTERVIEW // In Conversation with Michaela Yearwood-Dan

Laura Franchetti and Fred Shan

Portrait of Michaela Yearwood-Dan
Fig. 1 Portrait of Michaela Yearwood-Dan. Photo: Sølve Sundsbø / Art + Commerce. Courtesy of the artist, Tiwani Contemporary, London and Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York and Aspen.

Michaela Yearwood-Dan is a London-based fine artist specialising in painting and ceramics. Her practice reflects on subjectivity and individual identity as forms of self-determination through abstraction. Whilst her work may be underpinned by an expansive and multivalent repertoire of cultural signifiers – borrowing freely from blackness, healing rituals, flora, texting, acrylic-nails, gold-hoops, carnival culture – they enable her to present and privilege the variance of her own individual experience. She defamiliarises many of these reference points in her paintings, resisting the clichés and strictures of representation. Talking with Associate Editors Laura Franchetti and Fred Shan, Yearwood-Dan muses on her practice, identities and the wider questions surrounding art and educational institutions.  

Michaela Yearwood-Dan is represented by Tiwani Contemporary, London and Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York and Aspen. Her first US solo exhibition Be Gentle With Me opened at Marianne Boesky Gallery in New York on 9 September and ran until 21 October 2021. Other recent exhibitions include The Great Women Artists III, Palazzo Monti, Brescia, Italy (group – 2021); Laced: In Search of What Connects Us, New Art Exchange, Nottingham, UK (group – 2021); In Situ, Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York, US (group – 2021); Ancient Deities, Arusha Gallery, Edinburgh, UK (group – 2020); Clay TM, TJ Boulting, London, UK (group – 2020); The Green Fuse, Frestonian Gallery, London, UK (group – 2020); No Time Like the Present, Public Gallery, London, UK, (group – 2020); Begin Again, Guts Gallery, London, UK, (group – 2020); After Euphoria, Tiwani Contemporary, London, UK (solo – 2019); One English Pound, Sarabande, The Lee Alexander McQueen Foundation, London, UK (solo – 2019).

What Have We Really Got to Lose, 2021
Fig. 2 What Have We Really Got to Lose, 2021, acrylic, ink and oil on canvas, 200 x 300 cm (diptych). Courtesy of the artist, Tiwani Contemporary, London and Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York and Aspen.

Thank you for speaking to us today, Michaela. You have garnered an international following with your signature abstract paintings, in which various visual and textual motifs intermingle in swirling, mesmerising configurations. Yet, you did not always work in the abstract style. In an interview with Micha Frazer-Carroll for The Guardian (25 July 2020), you stated that you were ‘most proud of [your] choice to move away from figurative work’ which enabled you to ‘make [your] vulnerability visible to [your] audience.’ How does abstraction allow you to express vulnerability in a way that figuration cannot?


In moving away from figurative work, I felt like I was shedding this external layer of having to speak on behalf of a wider group – of being a woman, being black, being queer – all those other personas that I embody. By removing myself from this figurative context, which facilitates the continued commodification of the black figure, I was able to create work that felt more honest to me in terms of what I enjoyed making.

Typically, when we discuss representation, we’re often focused on aesthetics: who we are seeing, what we are seeing and what it looks like, rather than perhaps a more introspective type of representation. My work doesn’t show my figure or the black figure; it doesn’t show women in that kind of figurative context; it doesn’t show spaces and scenes and landscapes. Those subjects are not present in any direct way. But integrating my practice within a larger context of abstract art and deviating from the ‘norm’ is in itself the manifestation of a different kind of artist, a different kind of figurative mould that the artist is meant to inhabit.

My use of text also contributes to developing this different type of self-representation. Text imbues this biographical energy in the work which I think is more personal and intimate. The words I use do not necessarily feature in the pieces themselves. They are not often the most articulate, well-formed prose. Quite often, they’re colloquialisms, slang, or song lyrics. Bringing them into my paintings, then, feels like introducing a non-elite or non-traditional fine art way of existing through language, both visual and literal.


Michaela Yearwood-Dan, The Only Way is Up, 2021
Fig. 3 Michaela Yearwood-Dan, The Only Way is Up, 2021, oil, acrylic, ink and gold leaf on canvas, 200 x 150 cm. Courtesy of the artist, Tiwani Contemporary, London and Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York and Aspen.

Your titles often pose humorous direct questions to the viewer. Historically, for many works of abstraction, a painting’s title often anchors or determines how the viewer experiences the work. Do you see them serving a similar purpose?

Sometimes. Sometimes it’s more comedic, other times it’s a play on language. I find language quite interesting. I also am dyslexic. Although I speak English as my main language, I enjoy playing around with words and phrases from other cultures and languages, for example, from my Caribbean heritage or from South London, which is where I grew up.

Much of my recent work incorporates more visible direct questions, which are written onto the body of the painting. These can feel very loaded and are often open to multiple interpretations. I spend a lot of time on my own in my studio, so it’s important to be playful and comedic with myself. Many of the questions being asked in my work are a homage to this artistic tradition of philosophical introspection. But we’ve also been in a global pandemic, so I’ve had a lot of time on my hands. I have re-watched the whole of Sex and the City and I’m just doing ‘Carrie-Bradshawing’: asking my audience poignant questions that have no answers. Following Bradshaw, one of my works asks: ‘Where do we go from here? Where do we go now?’ As a playful response, I titled the work The Only Way is Up, which is both an affirmative sentiment but also the number-one song by Yazz and the theme tune from The Only Way is Essex.

Michaela Yearwood-Dan, Come on Ol’ Blighty, 2019
Fig. 4 Michaela Yearwood-Dan, Come on Ol’ Blighty, 2019, oil and mixed media on printed fabric, 250 x 180 cm. Courtesy of the artist, Tiwani Contemporary, London and Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York and Aspen.

Do these humorous references to popular culture constitute a playful subversion of the cultural elitism often encountered in the art world?

I feel like I’m sitting on this weird precipice between these different spaces: on the one hand, I’m very thankful for the affluence that elite spaces can offer me. On the other, I’m very aware of how hard I’ve worked to be within these spaces and often resent them for being so exclusive. I have occupied elite spaces of some kind for my whole life. I went to a very white infant school and was into art, music, and theatre as a teenager. In this way, I feel like I’ve always been part of these communities, while simultaneously not fully belonging in them. The incorporation of popular culture in my practice pokes fun at the elitism within the artworld. I enjoy this humorous dialogue that I can have in my work. It is for my own as well as others’ enjoyment. It also allows me to signal that I’m not one of them. 

More recently, you have also begun to experiment with ceramics, where you combine your signature abstract style with an exploration of three-dimensional form and tactile materiality. How do you view ceramics in relation to your painting?

When I first started working with abstraction, colour and texture in my painting, it felt like a great cathartic release. Then, as people then came to know my work, my paintings started to become something that was solidifying my position within this industry. When the pandemic started, ceramics became this new emotional outlet that I could enjoy, which no-one else had direct access to. It was something that I got to do on my own. As to how they inform each other, it was a natural progression to make the pots; the ceramics and the vessels look very similar to the paintings. When you are making them, you’re struck by their physicality. You’re turning them around. You can only see one side of the pot at one time, but you’re constantly moving; and you can make these long continual strokes simply by moving the apparatus around. I brought this energy back to my paintings.

When I’m creating a certain amount of works for an exhibition, the paintings are what I primarily focus on, because they are part of my practice that is most familiar to the audience. So, getting to work on ceramics becomes a reward. It becomes a very intimate process, and the ceramics capture these introspective moments.

Michaela Yearwood-Dan, A Conduit for Joy, 2021
Fig. 5 Michaela Yearwood-Dan, A Conduit for Joy, 2021, oil, acrylic, ink, gold leaf and Swarovski crystals on canvas, 200 x 300 cm. Courtesy of the artist, Tiwani Contemporary, London and Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York and Aspen.

Tell us more about ‘All That Glitters Ain’t Gold’ (2021), which you created for the Whitechapel Gallery in response to their recent retrospective of the British-Argentinian painter and photographer, Eileen Agar (1899-1991). Has Agar been a source of artistic influence to you?

I was invited to collaborate on that project. I was familiar with Agar’s work, but I would not say her work influenced my practice before that point. What I really enjoyed about Agar’s work, and what I tried to draw into my practice, was very simply her use of collage and the colour blue. Collage has been a prominent part of how I work for a very long time, be it how I devise my works or how you can interpret collage in the form of painting. For example, using oil on top of an acrylic base to build up layers of painting, or adding texture to the work’s surface with adhered crystals and gold leaf. With All That Glitters Ain’t Gold (2021), the title of the work comes from the fact that I was employing these collage-based techniques to add gold leaf to the work.

Michaela Yearwood-Dan, Feather (A Salute to You, Mr Magpie), 2020
Fig. 6 Michaela Yearwood-Dan, Feather (A Salute to You, Mr Magpie), 2020, oil on canvas, 170 x 120 cm. Courtesy of the artist, Tiwani Contemporary, London and Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York and Aspen.

Which other artists do you look to for inspiration in developing your practice?

I’m very lucky in terms of my contemporaries; many of us are doing very interesting things. I’m quite fond of being part of an existing community of young artists who choose not to view each other as competition, but instead learn from and inform each other’s practices. My absolute favourite artist growing up was Chris Ofili. His work is incredible, and he also made me understand that this industry was accessible to me in some way. The work of Matisse and Hilma af Klint were also both very formative for me. Although I make abstract work, there is a lot that you can take and learn from figurative artists such as Noah Davis. I also recently saw Jennifer Packer’s show The Eye is Not Satisfied with Seeing at the Serpentine Gallery (2021) for the second time. I wish I could paint like her!

Let us talk about your personal experience in the artworld thus far. At what point did you decide to become a visual artist?

I grew up immersed in the arts but when I was about sixteen or seventeen, I decided that I liked visual art more than anything else. When I finished my degree, I didn’t really think about what was going to be next. From 2018, I began to seriously believe that I could become an artist. If I were a different type of person, art would not have been a very good option for me, compared to all the other subjects that I was good at. But, because I’m quite headstrong and don’t take no for an answer, I was able to build a career out of a BA in Fine Art.   

Growing up, how has your family upbringing impacted your aesthetic sensibility and creativity?

My dad was a teacher for many, many years. He’s also incredibly skilled: a trained carpenter who also used to make and sell silver jewellery. He would take me to museums and exhibitions growing up. He’d carve sculptures out of wood but, even to this day, he would never call them art or call himself an artist. But he is. My grandmother was also a seamstress. My mum can make anything grow. She has over eighty house plants! She’s always painting the house. It’s also interesting to think about the craftsmanship and artistry that goes into styling black hair, for instance. My mum was the person who people would take their kids to, so that she could do their hair. Going back to my earlier comments about elitism, it’s interesting to consider what we choose to label as ‘fine art’, because these things are all art in my opinion.

You have previously discussed how non-white students are actively encouraged, if not straitjacketed, into making race the central theme of their works, particularly within the art school environment where, as you point out, most lecturers are white and male. Can you expand on this and how it relates to your personal experience?

When I was at university, there were very few POCs [people of colour] on my course. During my final year, I was the only one making works about my identity. Originally, that work wasn’t figurative, but the tutors and my white peers at the time, who weren’t able to engage articulately in conversations around race, found it too difficult to understand racial commentary beyond figural representation. Their argument seemed to be: ‘if you’re going to talk about this racial identity, you must do it in a way that the audience will understand’, instead of encouraging the audience in this highly educated space to learn how to engage with these topics beyond something that was painfully obvious to them.

With the current resurgence of decolonisation campaigns across British universities, what changes do you think need to be implemented to contribute to the diversification of visual arts education?

Sadly, I have little faith in institutions, especially educational institutions. How many black heads of departments are there? How many South Asian or East Asian heads of departments are there? How many queer heads of departments are there? How many permanent full-time members of staff are there? Especially when it’s a university, where the curriculum is not as prescribed as in school; it’s a privatised sector, but the education is so stale. Everyone learns the same things and we are hypnotised into thinking that those traditional western areas of art – although all of them very interesting – are fundamental to understanding and developing your own practice. Especially in fine art degrees, it’s very odd to me that the sculpture courses at my university did not include any expansive study on West African sculpture. That is baffling to me. Italian and West African sculpture probably informed contemporary sculpture the most, so it’s funny how only one of the pair is studied and held in such high regard.

Do you think an important factor in this is the hiring policy?

Yes, absolutely. Institutions always say that they’re looking or that that they’re hiring, and then they say that people aren’t applying for the roles. But they’re asking people to jump into shark-infested water, so obviously people aren’t applying. It’s important to then ask: what are you doing to encourage people to apply? What are you doing to ensure that things will be better when they apply? There was a recent survey that found that more than 50% of black people preferred working from home rather than having to navigate the workplace as a black person. And that’s just dealing with everything from questions like ‘Oh, your hair grew!’ or ‘Can I touch your hair?’ to people denying your experiences of racism and microaggressions. People aren’t applying to these roles because the spaces aren’t being made for them. So, with all these efforts to decolonise, let’s wait and see.

In previous interviews, you have discussed how, even as an established artist, you continue to deal with myriad microaggressions and imposter’s syndrome. What are your coping mechanisms for these? Do you process them through your work?

I have a very good support system around me in my friends and my gallery. However, I also don’t think that there will be a point in my life, unless the world significantly changes, where I will no longer face those issues. It’s a sort of trauma response just to be able to brush it under the carpet. My work touches upon many different central themes, and sometimes they do cover race and my existence within my black body, and wider conversations about racial inequalities, but sometimes they are also a celebration of race, which can be seen, for example, in my use of patois. I guess race does inform my work in that kind of way but, ultimately, I just try to not let those people live rent-free in my mind.

You talked about not wanting to speak for an entire population, whose diversity and individuality are perhaps being reduced by the tagline of black British or BAME. As such, you adopt an intersectional approach where race is but one of many crucial concerns you explore, including love, technology, feminism, and the body. How did you formulate this approach and how has it evolved over the years?


It is that thing of ‘yeah but I’m still black, right?’ I remember in school, all the people that were extremely into any kind of subculture were black. Everyone into anime was black. All the people who liked American football were black. It’s very telling that the western society we exist in chooses to fixate on this pigeonholed idea of blackness, of whiteness, of Asian-ness, of queerness. It’s incredibly narrowminded and boring. I exist to live authentically and make authentic art. And that can have absolutely nothing to do with blackness. But because I’m black, it is still going to be ‘Black Art’. It is still going to be politically black because I am politically black.


That ties well into your earlier comment about how once you take figurative representation of black bodies out of your work, people do not know how to engage with it.

They are very shocked by it. I remember, not too long ago, I posted an older work of mine on social media that was more figurative. I received many messages from people telling me that I should do more work like this. I have a lot of peers and people that I love who are making great figurative work, which is predominantly about black bodies. But I feel like my black body is so scrutinised all the time for the depth of my skin tone and my body in its fatness. I just think, I’m not giving you any more body – more figurative body – to make comments on. Instead, I will hone my mind, my humour, and my intellect. People can take it or leave it. And people have been taking it, which is quite nice!

Following the Black Lives Matter protests last summer, institutions across the west have faced a public reckoning. Galleries and fairs are among those that vacillated between signalling a progressive stance and maintaining a profit-driven neutrality. During this protest period, you publicly called out 1:54 Art Fair for financially profiting from diversity, while refusing to act in support of the cause. Now, over a year later, do you think much has changed? How could the art world ecosystem foster a sustainable and supportive network for diversity?

I compare these situations to how corporations now engage with Pride. People are trying to jump on the bandwagon. It was good to have that exchange with 1:54 at the time because it validated those feelings that people only care when the clout comes knocking. With big institutions and corporations who claim that they support certain things, you have to think and look: ‘Who are they giving their jobs to?’ ‘Who are they giving their money to?’ Then you’ll have your real answer: your non-Instagram feed, non-Twitter feed answer.

I think a lot of smaller-scale institutions – more mid-sized galleries, or individuals within institutions – have the best interest of diversity and accessibility in their hearts. My gallery works predominantly with artists from Africa and its diaspora, which is just a tag line for saying ‘we work with black people; we work with black artists’. Seeing the responses to these conversations from our communities and the networks I’m working with makes me confident that, on a micro-level, people are doing the right things to enact some change.


Michaela Yearwood-Dan, (Baby) We've Come a Long Way, 2020
Fig. 7 Michaela Yearwood-Dan, (Baby) We've Come a Long Way, 2020, acrylic on clay, 22 x 20 x 9 cm. Courtesy of the artist, Tiwani Contemporary, London and Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York and Aspen.

These days, artists – and in fact anyone with a public-facing career – must construct and maintain a certain persona on social media. You are very active on Instagram, which is the preferred app of the art world. How do you approach this platform?

I probably approach the platform too personably. I don’t really care a whole deal about social media. I like to put my art out there, as many people cannot afford my work. They might not be able to see my work in person. But they can afford to have an Instagram account. This is how I like to interact with people and ensure that there is a level of accessibility for a broader range of viewers. People often come to discuss things with me in my DMs [Direct Messages] – I like to call it my ‘DM Discourse’ – and they often assume, through the aesthetic of my work, that I am gentle and soft. But you should never make assumptions!


You have taught fine art courses at several schools and institutions. How have you found being on the other side of art education?

Throughout my artistic practice, working with young people is something that I have always enjoyed doing. I used to be a nanny; I used to work at ‘Art Weeks’ in primary schools. I give the occasional lecture about my own practice and run seminars and workshops for some universities. Over the last years, I’ve worked with UCL, the University of Edinburgh, and Nottingham Trent University. Having been to a university where, for three years, I wasn’t taught once by a single person of colour, I don’t want to snub my nose and decline those jobs. Because that would only perpetuate the current vicious cycle. For that reason, it’s very important to me to take on these opportunities.

I also recently taught a course at Elephant Academy. Teaching that course as a black abstract artist was really fun, because from lesson one, I made it clear that I was going to be showing them new artists. I wasn’t going to show them the same line-up of white male artists. I managed to do that well. In a ten-week course, where each week I was giving students references from five to ten artists, I maybe only mentioned three or four white male artists, and even then, I never fixated on them. That’s how I navigated that space. I am simply who I am, and I don’t try to perform this idea of what an intellectual person acts or looks like. I don’t know the most about abstract art and I learned a lot doing that course. I know a lot about my own practice, and how I work with paint. And although I don’t know all the established techniques of mixing colours, I know how to create them in my own way. And I know how to encourage people who aren’t from a creative background to ask questions.