Since 2012, artist Phoebe Davies has been collaborating with groups of women in different contexts and locations through her work Influences; a pop-up nail bar run by participants that forms a site of exchange exploring attitudes to feminism, female expectations and aspirations. Influences makes its first appearance in Birmingham over two days in two different locations.
I arrive at The Edge, the Fierce Festival hub. I am a bit nervous; I am on my own and not sure what to expect. I am greeted by a member of the Fierce team, who asks if I would like to have my nails done at the Influences nail bar. “Ooh, yes please!” I exclaim nervously. The bass beats, electro synths hover through the air. The nail bar is illuminated by the glow of different colour lights. As I wait, I look through the nail bar menu: I can choose from eight nail wrap designs each featuring inspirational Birmingham women. Through a process of collaboration with Davies, the women featuring on the nail wraps have been nominated by the participants, from women’s peer support initiative Sister Act, drawing on their own personal experiences of issues affecting women across Birmingham such as gang culture, mental health problems and forced marriage.
I decide to have a nail wrap of Anisa Haghdadi, founder and CEO of arts-based social enterprise Beatfreeks.
A space becomes available at the nail bar. I am invited into the work and sit opposite my manicurist. I comment on the dismal state of my nails. We laugh. This seems to break the ice. We talk about Anisa as she is carefully wrapped onto one of my nails. We talk about the other women on the designs, gender equality, feminism, role models. It feels strangely alluring to speak to a stranger in informal salon chitchat about these issues. I decide to get all of my nails painted to extend the conversation.
The second showing of the work takes place at the Library of Birmingham. The building, atmosphere and audience are much different. So too, it seems are the participants; they appear more confident and emanate a transmissible energy as they recall the buzz of the previous evening at The Edge. Here, I am afforded a deeper look into the work as the girls tell me their own stories and aspirations, and I watch the work unfold over the course of the day.
I am moved to discover that the project has inspired one participant - just 13 years old - to facilitate street dance classes and to speak to fellow students in her school assembly about this. Another, a 23 year-old single working mother wants to start her own business, something, they tell me, that does not normally happen to people ‘like them’. Nails are wrapped and discussions continue throughout the day with audience participants; age, gender and background does not matter here. At some points, there are so many people gathered around the nail bar that I cannot get through.
Influences impacts on multiple levels: through nuanced collaborations between the artist and participants, extending to the audience as they become participants themselves. It is enjoyable, thought provoking and deeply profound; a subtle yet powerful site for exchange and consciousness-raising platform, one that engenders discussion rooted in highly personal life attitudes, relevant social issues and much needed change.
And this is just one iteration of an ever-expanding project.