Metalsmith Roxanne Simone is a Black British visual artist working primarily within metal, with a multi-disciplinary approach to contemporary craft. Simone's work focuses on the reimagining of the Black diasporic identity, subverting the gaze and objects.
Through the acts of both observation and participation within local communities, Simone’s research methods take on an autobiographical and autoethnographic route, enabling her to create through an anthropological lens, engagement and an ethnographical approach.
After completing her undergraduate degree, a BA in Jewellery and Silversmithing from (formerly known as) The Cass School of Art, Architecture and Design in 2015, Simone was a recipient of the Griffin Scholarship for her MA in Jewellery and Metal at the Royal College of Art. Her MA project ‘Visibility’ earned her the sixteenth annual Theo Fennell Best Metal award in 2020.
You said that your practice changed during
lockdown. That you were given the agency to do what you wanted with so much
time and freedom. How did you use this sense of ‘pausing’ creatively?
2020 as a creative, was somewhat paradoxical, it doesn't quite make sense for the most part.
I developed my knowledge by experimenting with new tools and learned new skills that were largely digital to create collage, exploring the intersection of gender and race. It was a diverse way of working, as I spent the first lockdown at home in prolonged quiet and solitude, which was a first for me. As a metalsmith, creating in this way is completely alien. For example, in the workshop, the material is hard and heavy, the tools are sharp and loud, it often requires you to be focused and aware of your body and your movements when using all these materials, as well as the elements, such as fire. The making process is a mixture of practiced movements and intuitive steps, however, in an isolated working environment, in the virtual, my practice became completely intuitive. The digital offered my imagination space to think without borders or limitations of a physical object. Creating this way was something I had never tried before and it is something I am still exploring. This new way of working ignited a therapeutic state and space and revived my love of film making and poetry.
I found this period overwhelming to produce as an artist, especially as the world began circulating images of Black bodies subjected to extreme violence. These experiences and images are not new to the Black community worldwide, however, the continuation of these images being circulated on various media platforms, was a new type of traumatisation in this isolated time. This sparked up conversations between myself and others, asking the questions: Who this was for? Why did people need to see such images to believe that racism exists? What was this doing to the Black community collectively?
I didn't want to keep ingesting this pain and so I sought the permission from some great women and those who identify as gender fluid, in my life, to photograph and spend time listening to their agency. The common thread with my chosen groups is they are all participants who work within institutions. All are inspiring change with their institutions, but are unseen. For me, it was a process of connecting, this allowed me to open up my practice and enabled me to question images of Black people, the intersections at play, the consumption etc. It also became urgent that I question my position, while creating these images. I had to look into what I was projecting, the gaze and agency... I've since come full circle on my MA project where I am back at the start, still asking myself, ‘Who is this work for?’
You started off by studying and focusing on jewellery. Your mission and purpose for your practice changed when you came to the RCA. Tell us about that?
I studied Jewellery and Silversmithing at the former The Cass School of Art Architecture and Design, which had a reputation for teaching jewellery as art as well as adornment for the body through traditional making skills. It was there I developed a social practice and began experiencing cross-cultural projects and co-founded a multidisciplinary art collective called ARTAM. When I applied to the RCA, I was between Jewellery & Metal and the Sculpture department. When interviewed, I stated that I was an artist who makes jewellery and didn’t see why art jewellers, in particular, were placed outside of the contemporary art scene. I guess I’ve always been pretty direct and determined to blur the lines with my practice. The Jewellery & Metal department seemed the right place to do just that, especially as I stalked the department's degree shows for three years prior and, of course, knowing the master of patination: Michael Rowe, who was a senior lecturer on the course. I was unsure how my practice would change but I knew I was going to make bigger and unique pieces. I was firm within my belief that I didn't need to create Jewellery to create the ethos of it.
Does jewellery from historical periods or cultures influence your design and practice?
Absolutely! I’m obsessed with ancient civilisations and always curious about how much culture, history, and geography can be discovered by examining jewellery and objects. Sometimes I think I should have been an archaeologist; I would have been just as content. The materials, the stories in the decoration and traditional techniques are all fascinating, how they survive and age. The patinate are mesmerising, as I enjoy the human element in jewellery the most. For me, it's impossible to create jewellery/objects without a narrative, whether that be at the time of conception or through the generations items get passed on to. They carry layers of meaning, they are exchanged many times and often end up being preserved objects, behind glass thousands of years after they were created. I prefer for my objects to remain out of glass boxes and I make it a point to create the imperfect object. Jewellery should be made to be worn, not boxed and closed away, for this is the very point I make about the roles of museums and galleries, the lack of interaction between us and precious things. I have a visual identity of colour through patination, and pattern in my work because of the influence of my heritage, Ancient Benin, Kemet, Kushalso and also my own life in London. Patination is central to my work, I guess it's the closest I'll get to being a painter as I see colour in the colourless object and stop at nothing to try and achieve the colour I see the object being before it is finished. I really enjoy this process and also the speeding up of time on the surface of the metal, there is nothing linear about it.
You said you were always obsessed with your auntie’s jewellery when you were a child. Do you feel that we form emotional attachments to jewellery and that for some of us they become a map of us, and even of our families, and our history?
My family is dual-heritage and both cultures have a relationship with jewellery that I observed as a child. One of my Caribbean aunties had the best earring collection in the late 80s/90s and I would try to sneak into her bedroom to look at them in the top draw of her dresser. She was always so glamorous and would wear big colourful earrings that made the outfit. My auntie’s wedding band was a diamond-cut, yellow gold band that she never took off but her earrings were an unapologetic adornment of her style.
My English aunties had a different relationship, they always wore rings on every finger, they would often change them each time I visited during school holidays. These rings were a kind of currency, a way to save and then create money when it was needed, it was trading. At times I remember seeing my aunties trade with each other when they were bored of the rings they had.
The women in
my family, including my nana, had many adornments that I wasn't allowed to
touch, each piece influenced me as a child and drove my passion for jewellery
today. The adornments of the home and on the body were all objects of identity,
gifts of appreciation and cherished untouchable items. Some of them were
temporary depending on the outfit and some were a necessity to buy food,
electricity and even pay the Provident man. This was where I became fascinated
by the attachments to objects, even though their attachments were different.
Jewellery told a rich story of working-class multi-racial life in Britain, and
the significance of these items to the people they belonged to.
Do you feel that different emotions can be invoked through using different materials in the construction of jewellery?
Yes, the material is absolutely important and metal carries a memory of each technique, handling, and chemical it comes into contact with. The technique is just as important as the material and outcome. I believe that the process of making and the relationship with the material, as an artist, is one of the most rewarding parts of being creative. I've explored a few different materials in my practice but I am always drawn back to metal.
You started off studying International Relations and Politics. You said this helped you think about how your creative practice could become social. What do you mean by that?
I have areas of my practice where I have explored public, relational and community lead art and so to say my practice is social has often been the easiest way to describe it. International Relations was a window into anthropology, politics and ethical practices. Thinking about the mining process, labour and consumption, making jewellery and objects, justifying it has always been a question surrounding my practice. When creating works within communities, I tend to use what is accessible and/or recyclable materials, sometimes exploring mudlarking or household plastics. The workshops and the materials available offer a multi-layered conversation, it builds on communication among participants, innovation, and knowledge. I often encourage pairing and collaboration within groups and hope to cultivate something altruistic.
Identity and people are often central to the project/work I produce, however recently I've begun to work autobiographically, which is a process of observation of self and investigation of who I am. It's not a comfortable process but I am opening up. The work is to be presented hopefully in 2021.
We are living in a time of political and cultural tension. Where people are either very open to talking or somewhat afraid and cautious. What do you think needs to be done so that the next generation of children are exposed to positive examples of Black women, especially in creative industries?
We are living in a time of much-needed change and evolution. These changes are often disruptive and uncomfortable but necessary. If we think about the past year we are really in a place of reflection. It’s interesting to me that we label current and past experiences as being a problem or issue belonging to one cultural group, by doing that, we project that institutionalised racism is something for Black people to continue to endure, and somehow solve. In reality it is a set of systems that benefits many, mostly privileged white people, and so if we can change the language, we may be able to start to navigate towards equality. The fears and discomforts for non-Black people are there. I agree, however, to consider this to be fear that Black people simply cannot afford. We cannot not experience racism or navigate systems not designed for us, with ease while experiencing discrimination, and so to not have the conversation is to be further silenced.
Seeking knowledge about British history and present-day systems of oppression takes some effort and personal responsibility, to then question possible feelings of guilt, defensiveness, denial, anger and/or indifference, by doing this work, people can begin to see the power they have to change it. I hope people can remember that equality does not mean taking away from one to give to the other, even if it is how the current systems were built, it’s clear all of us are in need of new systems.
For many young people, the complexities of race start in the home and systemic racism within schools. Attending a youth centre as a mentor has taught me that they have another overriding system present: class. The idea that their race will be a deciding factor when they arrive at an interview for their first job or wanting to rent their first flat, for example, is not the first system of oppression that comes to their mind. It is more urgent that they believe that something is out of reach regardless of race. Due to where these young people live and what they see reflects back to them within higher education, the gentrified communities they live in that they are excluded from. For some traveling outside of their borough was not something that they had ever done outside of a school trip.
If we can do better and collaborate with communities while also being informed as artists, educators, neighbours... we can start to inspire and be inspired by the young people, who I think, are even brighter, with a more open scope, than those of before. If institutions did better we’d have a larger shift in the change we want to see.
Your metalwork encapsulates experiences and outcomes of black people. Tell us about the process you used and how that translates to a viewer of your work.
The narrative of my works is discovered largely in the process of making. I work better by making and evolving with the piece, sometimes I feel I’m not creating but rather the material is speaking. One of my favourite Silversmiths, Simone ten Hompel, spoke about how she communicates through metal, I totally resonated to that concept!
The process I’ve been using recently is called Hydroforming, it’s a process of expanding metal with water until it erupts. This is the feeling of so many at times, but also representative of the institution's role with Black and brown people. The absence of measurement, overusing and overfeeding until we twist and turn, tear and expand, the material and the effects of the process on it are a metaphor for this. I spent months thinking ‘How do I represent the emotional and bodily effects of oppression through art?’, especially intersecting oppression.
The hydroforming process spoke the language of the current time. I had to sit with it for a while to remove it from being a violent process (which it ultimately is). After I expand an object I nurture it; it’s often a broken vessel in need of repair. I identify with this process and so I repair! Days of filing, soldering new parts, but keeping the tears as evidence of the journey, like scars they are often beautiful. I then patinate which is a speeding up of time on its surface, reminiscent of life itself when we find ourselves in need of healing. Colour is my last gift to the vessels, each vessel deserving of its own identity for the journey it has been through. No other material could have done this journey with so many processes and emerged so beautifully. That’s how I feel about Black people.
As well as your jewellery and metalwork you write poetry and come from a performing arts background. Do you think you will continue to use different mediums as you go forward as an artist?
Yes, I probably write better poetry than I write emails... as a dyslexic, writing has always been super difficult. However, I have always loved to do it. I have notebooks containing thoughts, plays and essays from over the years. I was lucky enough to go to the Brit School, it is the only free performing art school in the country. I majored in Media but my passion was always drama (I am sure no one would be surprised to learn this); I wrote plays and poems as a way to express myself as I spent the latter part of my school time living alone as a teenager. I grew up pretty fast and so this became a world to escape. At the time I wanted to do more on stage but I had stage fright at every live performance where my voice would shake, so I was more than okay with being behind the scenes or camera. When I was 14 I went to do work experience at youth cable television in West London. Cable was a distant memory by then but I learned so much about film and production which I carried on in the summer, visiting whenever I could. I still write poetry and make film/videos for myself as a way of documenting my process. I have plans to make an actual film, however I do believe in working with people who know their craft, so I think a collaboration would suit the project in mind. I’m open to what feels right and do not limit my expression to just metal as the camera has given me great freedom and continues to feature in my work via photography.
What do you hope the future holds for you professionally?
I hope to have a practice that allows me to be multifaceted, exploring film, photography and the object. I’d like to explore more cross-cultural projects and am currently thinking about academic research. Of course, to have the right gallery representation, collaborate with different artists and create a studio that can support others in need are all immediate goals. I have begun to form connections with multiple collectives, some I have co-created with amazing people whose ideas echo a need for positive change and representation within the art, craft and jewellery industry. I wish to continue to work within education and to question my position within it, so my focus will be on creating new ways of delivering knowledge through making and socially, where possible. I heard the curator behind the ‘Black British Art’ platform, Lisa Anderson, say in one of her talks, that it feels like ‘there is a Black British Art Renaissance emerging’. I'm paraphrasing, but I have to say, I agree and hope among my peers as it happens.
"I prefer for my objects to remain out of glass boxes and I make it a point to create the imperfect object. Jewellery should be made to be worn, not boxed and closed away"