Interview by Hannah Whitlow, article and photography by Evan Soule.
"It is important that art can be used as a medium for something important and ask ‘what are you practically doing to support communities'."
Efea Rutlin is an artist, designer, curator and advocate for social change. In her art practise Efea explores social and personal narratives through a range of different processes. Amongst her own work she was has worked with so many other great people like No Borders. Harris Young Producers, JCWI, Polyester, Commonword, Edge Control and many more.
In her own words Efea describes her work as "an extension of me and what I feel. I just like to draw." Her wonderfully naive painting style allows the political and social messages behind her work speak louder than others. With a massive love for poster paint, pens and pencils we can see why so many people love her work.
Currently she is studying for an MA in Art Gallery and Museum studies and this had led to her to delve deeper into the philosophy and theology of digital versus physical art spaces. These spaces are stereotypically for a specific part of the community and have a history of racism, homophobia and classism and Efea is trying to challenge against these norms by asking the question of the digital space.
Hannah Whitlow interviewed Efea and as you read on it feels like two artists talking as honestly as they can about the world around them. The struggles of post academia artistry, the struggles of culture as a whole coming out of a pandemic and how we can all move forward together. Efea's beautiful openness allows us to step into her mind for just a moment and it's lovely.
HW: Tell us a bit about yourself and what you are passionate about?
ER: I think I'm always finding new things to be passionate about or different rabbit holes to dive into. Recently I’ve been looking a lot into crypto art, I really didn’t know much about it but there is so much out there on the internet which is like a whole new world with forums of people playing games. There's like pieces of art inside these games that you can buy and it’s cool
HW: I haven’t even heard of that!
ER: For my dissertation I’ve been researching a lot into digital exhibitions and this whole new way that we can view an exhibition, rather than it being a physical space it becomes a virtual world because it’s a similar concept of choosing your own avatar and I think it’s cool.
HW: Is that something you’ve made before or would be interested in making now?
ER: Yeah, I think I’d like to. I think the way digital art is going is cool, you can draw 2D on your tablet but it’s really cool next step to be able to make these 3D animations and I really want to explore that. Most of my work, when digital, has just been 2D or a different version of what I would have made if I were using a pen and paper.
HW: So what sort of work do you currently make?
ER: I think generally illustrations about my life, I’ve been on a lot of nice walks recently, of course. I’ve been in awe of a lot of trees recently. Me and my housemate will go out and take sketchbooks and be like “Ooh look at this nice little tree!”.
HW: Reconnecting I suppose and taking it back to basics. I’ve found myself doing that well, being inspired by nature, super nice.
ER: I think the term is called ‘green blindness’ because we are not used to seeing trees as separate things, we don’t recognise the details and I think we have managed to change that for ourselves by going out and drawing them.
HW: That’s a really interesting idea. Never thought of it in that way. Or we’ve just totally disregarded them. And now we have been forced to slow down and go on a lot of walks, because there’s not much else to do, so really taking notice and being aware, appreciating and being grateful for those things
ER: I think it’s quite fun as well because it’s a good excuse to do nerdy things like that. It might be funny to say otherwise but I was like, “Yeahhh, everyone’s getting into gardening!”.
HW: Yeah it’s true! I know there’s something around that idea of highbrow and lowbrow art and what does it mean or what is the point in it but actually it’s just really cathartic and feels good, so why not just do it?
EF: Yeah definitely! Being bad at things is good sometimes because of the pressures of producing or sharing.
HW: Having space to fail and that be alright and not having that pressure from yourself is important for any creative. What sort of stuff do you get inspired by? Is it autobiographical or just about you? Is there any other social or political things going through your work?
EF: I think there always is political stuff going on, there just has to be when you exist. I don’t know. I feel like I do make art with messages but don’t really think about it or why I’m making it. I think in the normal way that that is how life goes, the things I read or the spaces I go into are political.
HW: It’s not the reason for doing it but it’s always a big driver with a message, making art for change. I’ve seen you’ve worked with the JWI, tell us more about that.
ER: They are a charity called The Joint Council For The Welfare of Immigrants, they do a lot of legal representation, that is their speciality. That campaign was against the ‘No recourse for public funds’ rule. Which means if you don’t have citizenship then you can’t receive benefits, which is really horrible when you’ve been living and working in a country especially if you are a key worker, it just means you can’t get the things that you should have. I think it was a pretty good experience, it was nice working with them and knowing artwork actually goes out there.
HW: Yeah, it’s a powerful vehicle. I think I’ve seen, going back the political message of or the challenge of norms within the patriarchy or stereotypical ideas around femininity, what is your view on that?
ER: I read a really interesting article on Novara Media talking about the limits of digital activism, which I thought was quite cool. After the whole Chidera Eggerue, Florence Given thing, I did follow at the beginning and then stopped because it seemed pointless? I stopped following because it seemed pointless after a while to get that involved in other people's lives especially with such select information. But it is important that art can be used as a medium for something important and ask ‘what are you practically doing to support these communities’ especially when there is a particular social media aesthetic and you are conforming to that, in some ways it’s still a norm.
HW: How can you then back up what you’re putting out online with tangible actions and living by those values rather than it just be a performative thing.
ER: Things are different when you are a freelance artists and then come into this collective, it is nice to have the extra man power, people to bring with you to different spaces and really support you.
HW: I’ve been following it the whole way that thing that unfolded online, if it was anyone else online speaking out then Florence Given would absolutely be an ally ‘we’ve all got to do better and pay reparations’. But now seeing it is someone challenging her and it throws out all these things she talk about like holding white people to account for example. However she’s not actually living up to those things so it all crumbles when it is put in the spotlight and it’s interesting that you talk about this new wave of digital activism
ER: We are not expected to be everything and see everything. Then there is an acknowledgment that that has come from a product and a personality. I guess it depends on what you’re experiences have been.
HW: I’ve loved that series you created of a visual diary of day to day, are you carrying on with or is it something you’ve always done?
ER: Yeah that’s something I’d like to do more of that and I will. I have but I guess I haven’t really put it anywhere.
HW: It’s that thing of creating but thinking you’ve not put it up anywhere, your work is still of such value. Thinking about ideas of our productivity or our worth being valued by our productivity or what we put out but actually it is still really important that you still created it.
ER: You are a freelancer, how have you found that compared to the rest of life?
HW: Compared to an organisation?
HW: My personal output has actually gone down because the expectation of being able to keep up the Monday to Friday 9 till 5 -where I support other people's creativity- and I am really passionate about my day to day role of supporting young people, they are the next generation! But it does take so much energy to facilitate other people's creativity and then you end up putting your own on the back burner, something I’m really trying to bring back. I do find inspiration all over by looking at other artists like yourself and whatever that innate drive was and that sole purpose of why we were drawn to the creative field or creativity. The power that art has to transform, engage and connect.
ER: I say this a lot because I’ve been doing a lot of reading but what is art? What can it do? Why does it exist? And it’s interesting to see the theories of how it has meaning and why it has meaning and they don’t necessarily need to exist or get it through that classic framework, it just has meaning because it does. It doesn’t change whether its a replica because it still had an effect on you.
HW: That is so true. What are some of the things that you’ve been reading?
ER: Yesterday I read a book that had a very provocative title, ‘Why Are Artists Poor?’
HW: I’m currently reading Kae Tempest’s book on connection. It’s really interesting to see their take on how the arts ultimately connects and binds and how when we tap into that creativity it doesn’t matter who you are, it is something that so deeply ingrained in us. It comes back to the thing that we have just lost sight of the joys of existing, especially not being connected to nature.
ER: Is it autobiographical?
HW: Yeah it draws on Kae’s experiences of being on stage performing spoken word and music. It draws on a lot of things as well as references from other artists and how bearing your soul on stage means that you are vulnerable and it open up a lot to other people with real deep human connection. Which is something we are really trying to find at the minute, feeling that palpable energy of being in a room with someone and seeing a live performance or an art piece.
ER: I’ll add it to my list.
HW: So you’re based in Manchester and come here to to study, how have you found the creative scenes in Manchester?
ER: I think it’s pretty cool. I enjoyed everything before lockdown. Going to events and recognising the same faces gave me a sense of affirmation, knowing I was in the right place. Just getting around and seeing what was going on.
HW: That’s a nice way of putting it, ‘the right place’, being involved in the scene. My tutor always said, “Be seen in the scene!” So what is it you are studying at uni and how does that tie in with your practise?
ER: I am doing an MA in Art Gallery and Museum studies because I thought it would be useful and want to stay in the artistic world whether or not a producer myself and I think it's good to have both sides of understanding things. One of my modules this year involved writing funding applications which was really useful and have that application assessed. Obviously my income doesn’t depend on it but I will be able to us that in the future.
HW: That’s so valuable, something you don’t get from a fine art course, you’re not really set up for the real world, especially when you then have to navigate the myriad of the art world, and funding which is so crucial. So valuable. Do you just create in your spare time?
ER: Yeah I do it part time amongst doing other things. I think I would have really liked doing a fine art degree, like when visiting peoples studios I have ‘wow, this is great, why didn’t I do this?’.
HW: So what did you do as an undergrad?
ER: Politics and International Relations. Which I really enjoyed! It has really informed my ability to be really critical and show me ways to interrogate the world around me, which is important. It’s also related to everyday life.
HW: Everything is political, and art as well, so plenty of cross overs throughout. So when all of this is over do you have anything planned, anything you are working on or in the pipeline?
ER: I think keep my eyes out and bookmark various people, who runs events that will eventually happen. Creative projects wise, I have one of my house mates that embroiders and I shamelessly copied her, which was actually really nice.
HW: Taking it back to the handicraft. My grandma always used to say “We didn’t have television, we would sit in front of the fire and spend hours doing needlework.” So it’s interesting that things are coming back.
ER: The things you may not have tried otherwise, you now have the opportunity to.
HW: It’s strange that the trends do emerge, like rug making has really blown up at the minute.
ER: I’ve seen that and wonder where it started from, like who was the first putting to put up their tufting videos?
HW: It’s interesting though because on Instagram and the internet and dissemination of knowledge makes it really easy for someone to say ‘Oh, I’d like to try that!’ And it just spreads. It does look cool, but it does take a lot of patience.
ER: That is probably why it is so satisfying.
HW: So MUKA is still really young, but as an artist living in the city what would you like to see from us, the platform and the community?
ER: I think the networking and connecting is really valuable, especially in the arts and especially when there aren’t events to chat to random strangers at. If this is the only way to do it then we have to. I think it is always fun to find new people, someone who you can follow that can show you those new people.
HW: Networking is important. We have our directory which we are constantly adding to, whether its artists or shops or anything. We are seeing it as a Yellow Pages of creatives.
ER: Now that would be cool!
HW: Just a tangible thing. One thing that we do ask everyone that we talk to us to recommend us 3 people, organisation, bands or artists that we should know about in Manchester?
ER: I don’t think in Manchester but in London I could, I’m so bad at remembering names. I have a friend of a friend called Josie Toothill is in Manchester doing cool work, she knows loads of people. I always forget where I met people or how I came across them but I do have a few! Pluto The Astronaut, Millie Robson, Sadé Mica and Iceboy Violet.
HW: Anything else you want to get off your chest or just talk about?
ER: Because I am graduating soon it does feel like, ooh career, so I’d like to know more about how people got to where they are so it’s good to know how people got where they are.
HW: That could inform a series perhaps? There are so many access routes and not linear, there is no blueprint, that could be really interesting.
ER: I definitely think you need some reassurance on stuff like that. I’ve been to a few lectures and talks and it seems that people do just fall into what they do but they didn’t know that at the time and it's only in retrospect that they know that. So as a younger person it feels good to know something can happen as long as you keep trying, otherwise I’ll just be enjoying myself.
HW: It is a snowball effect. You begin and then people get to know your stuff, then you network and people understand you and I suppose it is trusting that process, which does seem scary. It does happen and it will happen.
ER: It’s scary.
HW: It’s about having that self belief. Some days you say what is the point but others you muster that strength.
ER: There is just so much pressure and there are expectation sf what to achieve by a certain age.
HW: It’s arbitrary and the rise of Instagram because you can find inspiration and motivation but then end up comparing yourself to other artists, ‘I’m older than them, how have they done that? They did that solo exhibition!’, but you have to stay true to yourself really.
ER: See what happens!
HW: Trust the process.