Mid-way through 2021, it is clear that Bermudian artist Gherdai Hassell is having an extraordinary year. In March, her first solo exhibition, I Am Because You Are, opened at the Bermuda National Gallery. The exhibition, which has been greeted with a rapturous response, led to her being named Visual Artist of the Year in the 2021 Best of Bermuda Awards.
This was swiftly followed by the purchase of two of her artworks for BNG’s permanent collection and a commission for an installation at the National Museum of Bermuda. All whilst completing her MFA at the China Academy of Fine Art remotely from Manchester, England, where she has been sheltering from the pandemic, having fled China several weeks after the initial outbreak in Wuhan.
We caught up with Gherdai as she prepares to join her first artist residency at the Chatauqua School in Upstate New York, to discuss how redefining success on her own terms led her to where she is today, the role that mentorship has played in helping her to find her own voice and the importance of “finding your why.”
BNG: In your artist talk at BNG you spoke about how art is something that you have enjoyed since you were a little girl, yet you originally took a more academic route before returning to art. Why do you think this is and how has your path changed since you made the decision to pursue art full time?
GH: I took a more academic route because I didn’t believe that a career in art was viable. Young people have a blueprint of what they’ve seen as possible based on what others have done. I didn’t know any artists, so I didn’t know that this was an actual career path. Further Bermuda’s economic environment favors careers that are finance, medicine and business. You can see that this is true just by looking at how many scholarships are available in these industries as opposed to the funding offered to young people for the arts. Once I did away with society’s idea of success, and redefined it for myself, my path drastically changed.
BNG: You were self-taught until starting your MFA at the China Academy of Art a couple of years ago. In what ways has the programme helped you to develop your practice?
GH: The programme has helped me to get more experience contextualizing and talking about my work. Masters programs in art are more geared toward this, as opposed to learning techniques which is how bachelor level programs are. So, to a degree I would still consider myself to be self-taught, because technique wise, I haven’t learned much more. But my program has helped me to discover and develop the why behind my work, which in my opinion, is far more vital than technique.
BNG: You are currently working as an artist full-time which requires a lot of self-motivation and self-discipline. How do you structure your time in the studio?
GH: I show up every day. Some days I go to the studio and don’t make anything. But I am tinkering. And thinking, even if I’m not making. I don’t have much of a structure, but my daily collage practice that I have implemented has propelled my practice in ways I didn’t realize was possible. It has increased my productivity, connecting of ideas, and pushes me through creative block.
BNG: Working with you on I Am Because You Are was a fascinating insight into your process. How do you develop your ideas and how do you know when a piece is complete?
GH: Pieces are complete by a feeling I receive. The work speaks to you, as you’re making it. If you listen, it tells you where to go, what it needs, and once it’s reached completion.
BNG: You held an Artist Talk at BNG earlier this year in which you mentioned that Instagram has been invaluable platform in terms of promoting your work. Indeed, it was thanks to Instagram that your work was included in the Wearable Art Gala which was a turning point in your career. What advice do you have for emerging artists in terms of how they can use the platform?
GH: I would encourage artists to take advantage of the visibility that Instagram provides. Before galleries were gate keepers, to select who and how artists could have a career. IG has leveled the playing field. I have received many of my opportunities through the connections I’ve made with people through Instagram.
BNG: You were awarded a grant from the Bermuda Arts Council towards the framing of your work for I Am Because You Are. There are many outlays, such as framing and materials, when it comes to producing artwork, not to mention all the hours that go into it. Grants such as this are key to making it happen. Do you have any advice for emerging artists as to how they can find and secure funding?
GH: I would say that artists should focus time on activities such as networking, applying for funding and searching for opportunities to get their work out there. Being an artist is about 60 percent making work and 40 percent the admin and business side of being an artist. Spend time getting the work out in to the world. There’s no point in spending all of this time making work that no one will see. Update your CV, prepare an artist statement and have a solid body of work that can be used in applications.
BNG: Artist in residence programmes, such as the Chatauqua Visual Arts Residency, which you will be attending later this year are also important as they provide both time and studio space to dedicate to your practice, as well as invaluable networking opportunities. How did you find out about the residency programme and what are you hoping to gain from it?
GH: I am always searching for opportunities. Some speak to me more than others, so I don’t apply for everything. I’m selective, but I apply for opportunities that resonate with me and I spend time preparing a good application. I am very excited to be a participant in the 2021 Chautauqua School residency program. The cohort is a talented and very diverse group. And I’m looking forward to being a part of the program.
BNG: Artists, especially today, are entrepreneurs. You already have several strands to your work – exhibiting in museum spaces such as BNG and selling original artworks via by a commercial gallery. You also have your own online store which sells limited edition prints alongside a range of merchandise – from colouring books to sweatshirts – inspired by your Alibi series. This allows someone to own a piece of your work from as little as $35 for a tee up to the purchase of an original artwork for three figures at the opposite end of the scale. Why is it important to you to have such a broad offering?
GH: I think that art should be accessible. Art is all around us, it’s culture, it’s music, it’s visual, it’s visceral. I think that everyone should have access to experiencing parts of my practice. It’s cool to have works that sell for thousands of dollars, but the work that people can readily experience resonates with me too. Because when I first started out, the barrier I faced was lack of access. Leveling the playing field is an important thing to consider for any business who wants to reach more diverse audiences. I’m considering many with my offerings.
BNG: You have several mentors who have helped you to develop your practice in different ways, including local artist Sharon Muhammad. Could you please tell us about how the mentor/mentee relationship works and why mentors are so important?
GH: Mentorship is one of the most important relationships to have, no matter the career path. The relationship allows you to talk though ideas and to develop your practice. The advice given aids you on you journey. It saves you time, provides your focus and foundation accountability. I find that mentorship relationships are always a two-way street. Your mentor can learn from you, just as much as you can learn from them. Consider what you also bring to the table, and what you can offer the relationship.
BNG: You opened your first solo show earlier this year and have just completed your MFA. What’s next?
GH: I am working on my second solo exhibition of the year, an installation that will be installed at the National Museum of Bermuda in Commissioner’s House in Dockyard next month. I am very excited to install the work.
BNG: Do you have any other advice for emerging artists hoping to follow in your footsteps?
GH: A career in art is possible. But it does require swift action, the making of good work, perseverance and vision. Find your why: why you’re making the work you’re making, get a mentor, keep making the work, apply for opportunities and get enough sleep. It’s good for your mental health, work-flow and skin!
Photographs by Brandon Morrison for Burnt House Productions. I Am Because You Are by Gherdai Hassell is on the Bermuda National Gallery through to the end of September.