“The wellbeing of people is paramount.” – interview with artist Sumuyya Khader

Painting of a black woman with an afro hairstyle, very piercing eyes and a very serious, attentive expression, she is wearing an orange top. There are some circular shapes in the background, alongisde birght yellow flames, or what looks like the suggestion of flames.

‘Focus’ by Sumuyya Khader, 2021

‘Always Black Never Blue’ is the title of Sumuyya Khader’s upcoming first solo exhibition at the Bluecoat in Liverpool. Through illustration, print and painting, the exhibition explores Black lived experience and identity and importantly, after the last 18 months of world changing events, it is a celebration of Black joy and care.

Sumuyya Khader’s show at the Bluecoat is significant not just because it is her first solo show in a public gallery: “The Bluecoat in Liverpool, specifically for the Black community, is a significant building. It was owned by somebody who was part of a horrific trade that took place. It’s also an arts institution that is well regarded, but probably isn’t showcasing local talent as much as the city of Liverpool would like it to. So it felt like a really beautiful opportunity and I was really honoured to be asked.”

Studio view of a painting in progress. The canvas is on the wall and depicts a black man with spiky hair and a leafy pattern in the background.

Sumuyya’s studio, credit: Rob Battersby

Khader’s show follows an initiative in October 2020 when she curated ‘Celebrating Black Liverpool Artists’, an exhibition on the Bluecoat’s exterior wall as part of Liverpool City Council’s ‘Without Walls’ programme, to showcase the work of six black Liverpool artists. The exhibition of Khader’s work alongside five Liverpool artists both aimed to showcase the artists’ work and highlight the lack of visibility of black artists in the city: “Sometimes you feel very alone as an artist. I know black people in particular are going through a tough time. My mental health was in the gutter. I wanted to do something. For me, the beautiful thing about lockdown was making friendships online. A lot of that was by email, asking people how they are and sharing work. What I wanted from (the exhibition) was for people to be more aware and to realise that art is what we write, it’s what we watch, what we listen to. It’s not just somebody painting a picture, there are so many more levels to it and there are a lot of us out here doing it. We should be able to acknowledge each other and lift each other up.”

Khader’s solo exhibition ‘Always Black, Never Blue’, focuses on Black lived experience and identity. Her practice spans both commercial illustration and fine art and these themes cut across both as well as the resolve to empower and care for others after the impact of the last 18 months: “Everything I do is about engaging in conversation through visual language. Whether it’s a print, a painting, or a commercial piece of illustration, I’m hoping to start a conversation that sometimes, verbally, I find difficult. It’s an entry point and whether that entry point is how I identify being a black woman or how I identify being in a city or the surroundings I am in, I hope in those mediums, even if it is to a brief, there’s a component of that language that comes through.”

Painting of a black person in a green hat, with purple lips, in a bright yellow top. There is a red background and the word black in capital letters on the left hand side. There are two xs in the top and bottom right corners.

‘Identity’ by Sumuyya Khader, 2021

“With everything that’s happened over the last 18 months – lockdowns and pandemics and uprisings and marches – to me, Black joy and care is everything. The wellbeing of people is paramount. In these paintings, whether the figure in them is me or somebody else, I’m asking ‘are they okay, are you okay, are we okay? What can we do together to make this better for us all?’ That’s the broader conversation, beyond race even, although that is a topic that needs to be discussed, but it always feels like it’s on our shoulders to do it. So, I like to focus on the care and the joy and the spirit of it more than anything.”

The exhibition title speaks to that sentiment. It is ambiguous and open to interpretation. This is something Khader intended. “It sums up how I feel. There are a few avenues to it. Blue is often associated with feeling blue or sorrow and at the moment a lot of us are processing those mental health feelings. We’re coming through a period where there’s been a lot of alone time and getting through that. Also, obviously, blue is for the colour of our police force and you know we’re always going to be black, it’s always there, and I’m proud to be that. I think it’s one of those show titles where people will walk into the space and everyone will read it completely differently and that’s what I want, but also I want to have those conversations.”

Artists studio with one painting on an easel, and another one propped against the wall. There are big windows and nautral light coming in, there is a table at the front with a painting in progress.

Sumuyya’s studio, credit: Rob Battersby

Khader is exhibiting alongside London based Rosa-Johan Uddoh and US based Deborah Roberts, whose work explores the formation of identity. She reflects: “I hope people take more away from it than ‘oh, they’re all black’. I think it’s more a take on contemporary art today, whether it is through film and storytelling and looking at the old to reimagine it similar to what Rosa does, or whether it’s through the medium of collage and the playfulness mixed with the political. I hope people get that. I am so excited and so completely in awe of the work that they do.”

Alongside her practice, Khader has a number of projects on the go including Granby Press, a community press that empowers creatives in L8 to create their own materials, zines, community newsletters and artist editions. She is very aware of the challenges in maintaining her practice as a visual artist and making ends meet.

“We all work. It’s rare to find somebody who just has an art practice. Art is about finding joy and being able to converse with people. Let’s find the best way of doing that. After going through any turmoil people need to get that out in whatever medium. I think that release can be supportive for people. It’s important to acknowledge things aren’t right. I’m pro-change, I’m active. I’d like to continue to be active and to be supportive and that’s what it’s all about.”

You can find more of Sumuyya’s work on her website. ‘Always Black Never Blue’ opens on the 15th October at the Bluacoat.