PAST: GENDER AND THE JUSTICE SYSTEM
100x100cm, spray paint and markers on canvas
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ABOUT THE WORK
In Unity's own words
"Not an isolated incident..." This work presents women killed by men as individual names rather than statistics.
There is an artist called Dinah Vagina, and she made a piece for International Women’s Day. It was 118 small women made out of clay to represent the 118 women killed by men the previous year. It really touched me and I wanted to do something to compliment that. Just around the corner from where that work was displayed I had set up a legal wall the year before. I put a call out for writers and we painted all of those names on the wall. A friend of mine made a video, we had a poet performing a spoken word piece too.
The year after I was asked to do something for 8th March in Swansea and so I painted those names on the canvas live during the event. An audience member came up to me afterwards and opened up about her domestic abuse, and that was massive for me. I realised that if I can touch just one person with this work then it is definitely worth doing.
Unity grew up in Mid-Wales and now lives just outside Cardiff. Best known for murals, she is passionate and progressive about graffiti as a means of community engagement. Initially favoring spray-paint on walls, her installations, 3-D pieces and projects challenge stereotypes and encourage debate. Her work can be seen in hospitals, art and community settings in Wales as well as on public walls across the UK and as far afield as Hong Kong and Bangkok.
(image credit Suhmayah Banda)
We had a short chat with Unity to get to know her better
What has been your creative journey?
My father painted portraits, and my mother was very musical and later on she painted on silk, so as kids we were always drawing. Art has just always been there, it was never a moment of choosing it - it always felt instinctual.
In school I hated my art teacher, it was actually my graphic design teacher who was really influential. It was an option at GCSE to do graphic design, which was more like technical drawing. I took my projects in a very artistic direction like sculptures, and the teachers just let me roll with it.
I applied for illustration at university, but I didn’t get in so I ended up doing design studies. It was a range of disciplines like product design, fashion, architecture and packaging. I really enjoyed the breadth of knowledge and getting to sample all the different approaches, but at the time I really had no concrete creative direction.
When I moved to London I started drawing lettering on bits of wood I found in skips, it was quite an unconscious process. One day I was at my cousin’s house and I saw a Graffiti magazine and that’s when I had the lightbulb moment - I was drawing my version of that style. I guess the main thing that I took away from GCSE graphic design was the lettering. I remember on all my projects in the portfolio I would go all out with the titles, I was always fascinated with letter forms.
So once you made the link with Graffiti through looking at the magazine, how did you get into it?
All through uni I was around people who were DJing, so I bought some third hand decks when I was in London. When I moved up to Cardiff, I got chatting to the guys in Oner Signs (paint 7 print shop) whilst browsing their records and they told me a place where you could go and spray paint, so I went and started experimenting and meeting people who were also into it.
Were you into Hip-Hop?
Yes! Music came first. I was buying records before I even had decks, then once I had my decks and learnt how to play I got more and more into the culture and started experimenting with all the elements. The sense of community was definitely what drew me in, it’s like having an extended family all over the world.
Did you learn graffiti through the community too?
There was a place called the Boiler House, and they used to have events there. One of the events was focussed on women in Hip-Hop and I got talked into painting with Little Miss, Lou Lockwood (who wrote Enta) and Jodie. People had mentioned Little Miss to me before, but we’d never met. We ended up forming a crew called TLC, and it was through painting with them I learnt how it all works and the rules of painting graffiti. The whole painting with other people was massive for me, and still is really. I’d much rather go paint with people or at a jam - that sense of togetherness that is so present in Hip-Hop.
How did you transition to working on canvas?
My mother passed away about 8 years ago now. I had done canvases before, but after she passed away I started working on this canvas and I was just frantically painting canvases. It was winter so I couldn’t really get out and paint on the walls, so I was painting on canvas as a way of working through stuff.
Having all these canvas pieces developed into wanting to exhibit. At the same time I started to realise that painting was a way for me to work through emotions so I started analysing my work a bit more. I was able to start painting consciously and predetermining what I wanted to paint about.
What does art mean to you?
We have a saying in Hiphop culture 'each one teach one'. As well as my own work I do a lot of community engagement projects. I always try to create a long-term legal space, opening opportunities for others who may be talented but have never had access to a legal wall. It’s important within my practice to encourage others to continue their creative journey.
Painting is crucial for my mental health. If I’m not creating I start to feel really down. Painting lifts me up - that being in the moment when nothing else matters and it’s just you and the wall.