Colour, confidence and connectivity are three words that come to mind when thinking of artist Karimah Hassan. Building a community of faces in her latest online project, Strangers Yearbook, Karimah talks with us about painting her way through uncertainty and isolation.
Based in London, Hassan is known for taking to streets and the walls of venues to paint murals and live art pieces in response to people and performers surrounding her. Energetic shapes and human forms move across her paintings as Hassan subtly conveys the emotional similarities between us as people. So when lockdown hit, Karimah found herself reaching out to friends and family, connecting with their stories, and interpreting their emotions into a sketchbook of portraits. Soon enough 'Strangers Yearbook' took shape via social media, gaining attention from strangers around the world, and allowing Karimah to ask people to send her their portraits accompanied by a short description of how they were feeling.
This simple exchange has grown into a display of warm vulnerability and trust, reflective of this period of time. We asked Karimah to tell us more about her experience of creating 'Strangers Yearbook' and what she has learnt along the way.
The thing that encouraged me to pursue the painting career that I have today is finding the courage to honour that inner voice that seemed to know what was good for me long before I could make sense of it.
Could you tell us a little bit about your creative journey growing up and what encouraged you to pursue a career in painting today?
It’s always tricky trying to piece together the myriad of ways that our upbringing shapes us because, to me, everything has relevance. I’m one of six so I come from a big family! Growing up I was always super creative; I felt at home doing things with my hands, and I feel so lucky that my mother encouraged us to each follow our own hobbies. I remember that from an early age I found a lot of solace in escaping into the dream worlds that I drew. As I grew older I began to try and communicate myself through drawing as it came easier to me than talking through my emotions. From my teenage years to adulthood I went through a bit of a push and pull with painting where I went into academia, studied architecture, and stepped into the professional creative industry. It sounds cliché but that initial draw to painting never really left me. I think the thing that encouraged me to pursue the painting career that I have today is finding the courage - through life events and guides, to honour that inner voice that seemed to know what was good for me long before I could make sense of it.
What have been the greatest challenges you’ve faced as an artist in London today?
I think that there are quite a lot of stereotypes of an artist that are actually quite false and it would be a disservice not to use this question as a chance to debunk those ‘challenges’. For example, not all artists are ‘starving, wreck-less, egomaniacs.’ The most inspiring people I have met are humble, kind and generous. For me the biggest challenge is keeping a steady momentum, without burning out or becoming jaded by life’s challenges. Staying optimistic in an expensive city where social media does everything to convince you to be impatient is also a challenge.
As a painter, your work often focuses on portraiture, responding to other people’s creative practice. How does painting allow you to express yourself and connect with others?
From my experience painting, and being seen as an artist, is a great Trojan horse to connect with people in a way that is authentic and non-threatening. The nature of my process is that either I paint people I know, or, I paint strangers who reveal to me a vulnerable part of their personality; this builds trust even over social media. Even though the portraits are of real
stories, I can express myself through my signature style and colour. I think that painting adds a layer of interpretation and my own personality in a way that is often lost in other mediums such as photography.
Painting, and being seen as an artist, is a great Trojan horse to connect with people in a way that is authentic and non-threatening
With Strangers Yearbook, you encourage your subjects to tell you how they are feeling. What was the motivation for you starting this project?
The project was born out of my inherent nature to build deep connections with people and bond over universal truths. I like simple questions such as ‘how are you feeling’, or ‘what’s it like to be you’, that don’t alienate a person but instead open up ground to say ‘hey, I see you, let me in.’ I started Strangers Yearbook during the first week of lockdown because I knew so many people going through a whole range of emotions and I thought it would be a great capsule archive of the times we are in. And then more of 2020 happened and the ‘soap opera’ saga continued to unfold and it just seemed more and more important to document how people are feeling during this crazy time.
What has the response been like from people getting involved? And how have you found the experience of communicating openly with others/strangers?
It’s been so beautiful. I went into the project pretty free, without expectations. I just needed something to keep me distracted and creative. I initially started this project for myself, as a way to connect and offer a souvenir of love to my close circle of friends and family. Soon enough I had people contact me from around the world who were actual strangers asking to take part. It sounds crazy that you can build a deep connection with someone virtually who is a total stranger but that’s exactly what is happening. People who write in tell stories of loss, love, anxiety, and all of the in-between emotions. I’m learning that at the end of the day, we’re all pretty much the same. We have the same hopes, dreams, and fears.
The project was born out of my inherent nature to build deep connections with people and bond over universal truths.
What has been the most memorable moment from this project so far?
It’s hard to pick one specific thing. I’ve had a few people who have written in telling me stories that literally brought me to tears! I’ve also had participants who have told me that this project encouraged them to start painting and writing for the first time in decades, which is just crazy to think that something so innocent can have the power to spark a little bit of change in someone’s life.
How has this project helped you grow as an artist/individual (if at all)?
It’s taught me how integral creating/painting and drawing are to keeping my sanity! During lockdown I found that when I brought painting into my daily routine my life felt like it had purpose and intention. The project has been a really great tool to practice my craft daily and bring people in on that journey with me. I keep telling myself that this project is basically an open sketchbook. I share all of the paintings – the good, the bad, and the ugly, in order to stop myself succumbing to the idea of perfection. For me, this project is just about showing up, every day, and connecting with people – exchanging their vulnerability with my special talent.
To see more of Karimah's work visit her IG page @karimah.hassan
Keep up to date, and participate in Strangers Yearbook via IG @strangersyearbook