Ayan Farah’s large paintings are stained, soaked and dipped with natural pigments sourced from across the world – plant dyes, clay, mud, terracotta, ash and India ink. You might imagine the works to be visceral and messily expressive from this description yet Farah’s patchworked pieces are tightly constructed and neatly stitched. Made up of small square and rectangular fragments of antique cotton and jute (remnants of the artist’s previous paintings), these scraps are assembled and stretched into coherent surfaces – irregular grids in a variety of greys and creams, faintly suffused with delicate shades of yellow, orange, pink and blue.
The works appear like fields as seen from the air – a patchwork spread of tiny abstract landscape paintings that confuse scale, place and perspective. Farah’s practice is informed not only by the history of landscape and colour field painting in a formal sense and by aspects of land art in a material one but by various traditions of weaving, quilting and embroidery. Look closely and stitched details can be found within and upon the surface of the old linen – little, almost abject forms that look like silk worms, for example, or the monogram of a previous owner. Farah’s fabric pieces are pressed flat or heavily creased; others have degraded through time and use, thinning until the woven threads are ready to tear. There is a literal stitching together of personal histories, techniques, materials and diverse frames of reference within the work, all underscored by the history, geography and politics of gender, ownership, labour and production.
Farah’s exhibition at Pippy Houldsworth is titled ‘Maps’ and that the artist’s pigments are sourced from locations including Mexico, Israel and Iceland is significant. Farah was born in the United Arab Emirates to parents from Somalia, was raised in Sweden and has lived in Hackney for the past sixteen years. This globalised view, marked by vastly different landscapes, climates and cultures, feeds the work. She says “The works represent all these different elements of places and time and borders and conflicts … a lot of the places [from which] I’ve sourced material are around the Middle East and Africa [and have] since become impossible almost to travel to.” There is something of a reclaiming at work here. Through a collection of material (mud from the Dead Sea, for instance) and a reclamation of place, Farah makes an attempt to chart and perhaps to optimistically or naively re-assemble the broken places that fill our news feeds. This is a reconfigured global map, a newly stitched skin of the world that rejects territorial conflict and the control of natural resources – a reimagining and realigning of borders.
Though the paintings appear to be cool and restrained, an effect emphasised by the white cleanliness of the gallery context and the geographical distance the materials have over their origins, they are not. The colours, textures, scents, sounds and stories of their sourcing, are all embedded in the paintings in traces or more explicit marks. While these aspects are variously visible within the work, they remain present nonetheless.