Recent CSM fashion grad Sandra Poulson’s The Ladder, part of her project, An Angolan Archive, has been on everyone’s ig feed lately. Nominated for the prestigious MullenLowe NOVA award, this piece documents how she climbs into and wraps herself in a lime green garment surrounded by a ladder, cube, and stack of beer crates on a roof. The Ladder relates to power and the lack of mobility that it implies. ‘The objects of the piece are restrictive’ she has said, ‘they are the space in which political power operates, a space in which actions are difficult but words are easy. Speaking is often the only thing that can be done in this realm.’ In this conversation between the London based creative and where’s the frame?, we talk about her time at CSM, the importance of decolonisation, the ways she stays focussed to optimise artistic creation, keeps connected to her family at home in Angola, and a surprising studio hack.
Can you please describe your workspace for us? Are there any boy band posters, plants, or a family picture?
Well I have recently been working in a slightly nomadic way, as before covid I had a set working area at the studios at CSM, and as lockdown started I relocated to my living room, and then to the roof of the flat next door to where I live in London. I am someone quite aware of the materials I have, and usually don’t like to see them constantly, I also don’t ever put images up in the walls or have long term mood boards. I feel that if I constantly look at the same images, or text I end up looping in in my work in ways I don’t want to. As an artist, I don’t feel that I need to be constantly surrounded by my references or ongoing work. I actually don’t want to see it, which keeps me feeling like I still haven’t achieved anything.. haha which helps me continue working. I also don’t put family pictures up, as it would make me extremely nostalgic and homesick, so I usually tidy the space where I work as much as possible to erase any evidence and keep myself on my toes. What I do is to record self motivation quotes I come up with when I feel good, and put them up, so I can see them when I don’t feel great. One of the notes I had during lockdown up in the wall was ‘Take it easy on yourself, that’s the quarantine rule’, I also remind myself of the neighbourhood I grew up in Luanda on my morning alarms on my phone, which is quite effective in making me leave the bed.
Do you have any rituals or routines before you start working? Scrolling through TikTok or Instagram, maybe?
The moment I prep to start working, is usually the night before, when I have just finished working. I update and re-write my ‘to do lists’ every night, which helps me have clarity in the morning and not faff around. If I have too many things to do, and need to be strategic with time, I also write down the order I want to achieve things to try and optimise my time. The order often changes. Before starting work in the morning I usually say ‘Bom dia Família’ on my family whatsapp group, and during the day I sometimes send them photos of what I am doing, and have loads of fun with the replies. Instagram every morning? Yes. Posting things everyday no. During lockdown, I was also quite reliant on coffee, getting dressed and styling my hair in the morning despite working at home.
You were trained at CSM as a student of BA Fashion Print. What have been the highlights?
Woww, the whole 4 years were a roller-coaster. I did my first year in the BA Fashion Design with Marketing, and changed course in the second year to Print. So starting print as a second year with no experience in printmaking was quite scary. But I was lucky to be paired in a group project with an expert printmaking student, Thora Stefandottir which taught me all of her tricks and techniques, and eventually became a really close friend. The placement year was again challenging, as I was just starting to understand how to carry, curate and develop my practice, alongside fulfilling the requirements for working in the industry. Ended up being an incredible year where I got many opportunities to make and showcase my work both in London and then Lagos. I also used the end of that year to do a 1 month research trip to Luanda, which culminated in the An Angolan Archive. Now thinking, the main highlight of my time at CSM, was meeting, exchanging and spending time with amazing peer artists from across courses. Those friendships are also incredible professional relationships, that contribute until now to the course of my practice and how critical I am able to be about it. I won’t name people, but they know who they are.
Your final project at CSM ‘An Angolan Archive’ (2020) was beautifully done. Can you tell us more about the process during the pandemic? How did you adapt since the studio space in CSM is closed?
At the beginning of lockdown it was really challenging to even imagine continuing the work without access to workshops, as my work in process involved using wood, casting, metal and screen printing workshops. It was also particularly difficult due to the large scale of some of the items such as the ‘Colonial Column’ which I managed to fit in my bedroom. Eventually, after a month of debating with myself about a disused roof terrace of the building next to my flat, I decided to occupy it, using it as my studio, medium, and to some extent subject. The project evolved in ways that I could not have imagined outside the circumstances of lockdown. I began the gesture of the ‘Roof occupation’ that at points I argue, having been the actual work. As I navigated this uncontrollable environment I realized very quickly that there were now many factors I could not control. Among them the unpredictable London weather and the fact that at some point the owners gave me a 2 day notice to end the unauthorised occupation as the renovation of the flat that the roof belongs to would resume, and the construction workers would return. The roof became consumed with the construction workers with which I had to negotiate space, and tea. This process revealed to me the opportunity that lack of resources can be for self and professional development, and fairly, it made me feel like I can do anything.
How do you feel about the recent uproar of online activism after BLM within the fashion industry?
My practice has always been focused on micro political moments and tensions and how they reverberate into macro politics. It focuses on analysis and discussions about colonialism mostly interested in the relations of coloniality between Africa and the West. Therefore my work demands the task of decoloniality as a praxis, a lifestyle and a mission that we all have to adhere to. The moment that we are living, is now offering an opportunity for this conversation to be ‘The Conversation’, but I it should always have been. The fashion industry adhered to the visible online display of acknowledgement of the problem, which is in fact unrelated with being part of the solution. What is important to reiterate is that this fight is not a trend, and the fashion industry should be taken accountable at all levels as the problem systematically affects all stages of employing, designing, producing, marketing and profiting. To dismantle racism, the industry and people will need to revisit themselves in order to take real progressive steps rather than ticking the boxes once again. This is not a trend.
In the 2019 Lagos Biennial together with Raul Jorge Gourgel, the work ‘Plastic Broken Chairs, Juxtaposed’ constituted 8 suspended red dresses that intensified the stillness of the venue. Did the dresses signify the certain societal role or expectation for Women in contemporary Angola?
The installation, film, and photographs shown at the Lagos Biennial were the result of further documentation and work of research done in Luanda with Raul, which started with the series of red dresses ‘8+1’ shown at the Lethaby Gallery in London. The project started as a commission for the exhibition at the Lethaby which was the first student led exhibition at the Gallery and the opportunity was granted through an open call to UAL students. A group of 25 students of which I was part, applied and won the open call. Eventually after a process of about 9 months of negotiating the route of the show, among students, only a number of people were able to participate in the show. The series of dresses aimed to bring back to the gallery the ‘bodies’ of students that for various quite political reasons, never ended up benefitting from the opportunity. Each one of the dresses, has a small screen printed name, of a student that did not show. The work then travels to Luanda, where it is documented in the context where the feelings the work dismantles have started for me. Continuing the conversation about conflict resulting from opportunity, and particularly looking at the processes around the Angolan civil war. The women wearing the dresses, were in most cases photographed on their work or hanging out environments, in Chicala an informal neighbourhood in downtown Luanda, and sometimes in the city centre. The apparent misplacement of the garments, worn by women in informal situations operate as a reflection about the aftermath of decades of conflict between Africans, and the dynamics of such conflict often being fuelled by the west.
You often reference theories of decoloniality in all of your work. How do you use your voice or work to move away from Western art/fashion standards?
My work being committed to the task of decoloniality, finds itself in constant battlefield with what it needs to unlearn. In a way I feel that I haven’t even seen the tip of the iceberg of what needs to be discussed and dismantled. I have always been interested in my heritage and ancestral political existence beyond colonization, and often reference and study the ways of living and seeing the word the people from my region had before the arrival of the Portuguse. But for this to be truly effective I feel the need to go back some millenniums. Which has made me really committed to researching and cross-examining the history I find. History is like anything, someone wrote it, which means it can be questioned. There is a saying in regards to Angolan history particularly, ‘it's unpredictable’. Even as it regards the past, it is always told from a particular angle, perhaps agenda. Which again takes me to the use and analyses of symbols implanted by the west in my childhood memories, which my work then questions and studies in a semiotic and material culture perspective. An example of this is the ‘Halo Trust Waist Coat’, which growing up I saw as a doorway for the hope of seeing my region develop. The Halo Trust has been key around the world in removing active landmines from previous areas of conflict, preventing people from losing their lives from an old landmine on their way. Which is obviously a necessary and crucial work to be done. In 1997 Princess Diana visited Huambo in central Angola, and walked through an active landmine field to raise awareness about such issues in the region. The photographs of the occasion, are to this day the most requested and paid for images for press worldwide in what regards #Angola. In this case my work is particularly interested in the body at the centre of the Angolan narrative, as a ‘relevant body’ to raise awareness. While at the same time, the organization itself is mostly funded by countries that have not only been colonizers, but remain perpetrators of the relationship of coloniality between Africa and the West. By this I mean that, for my work part of moving away from the western ways of operating, is to dismantle it.
Do you have any life soundtrack? Like when a sad song comes in and you pretend that you’re in a music video, kind of song.
Já Respeita Né? – Bruno M. (Angolan Kudurista)
What is the weirdest thing that you've ever encountered on the streets of London?
The fact that it is weird to speak to someone you don’t know, unless you are in a party’s smoking area.
What are you currently working on? Any projects we should know of and that you can reveal?
I am currently working on An Angolan Archive, producing new archival pieces. Working on a publication for the Archive, and a couple of other projects for which I have signed non- disclosure agreements, so can’t really mention them.
The full video of 'The Ladder' can be found here.
To follow the projects Sandra is working on , you can visit her website here.
Images: courtesy of Sandra Poulson - All Rights reserved to Sandra Poulson 2020.