There’s nothing like a Bahati Simoens painting. Her use of dark shadows, soft colours, and beautifully disproportionate bodies connected with either their environment or a loved one are deeply moving. Beyond this, Simoens' work remains charged with an important message of inclusivity. Ahead of her exhibits in Cape Town, Los Angeles, and London, Bahati talks about her dissatisfaction with traditional art institutions, finding inspiration, and cultivating spaces for black creatives.
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Your artwork is so striking and feels entirely unique. How do you describe your style to people?
I would say it’s my visual language, a love letter to the black body. And I like to look at it as daydreaming as well when the sun is at her highest bringing bright light and dark shadows.
I read that you were born in Munanira (Burundi) but then moved to Belgium with your family when you were still very young. That’s quite a large cultural shift for a young person to experience. How do you think this impacted your artistic style and self-expression?
I grew up in a very mixed environment in Burundi. Black people, white people, Greeks, Pakistani... I really felt out of space in Belgium and it pretty much stayed that way until I was about 18 or 19 years old. Especially because I remember there being one kid who kept calling me the n-word for months when we first moved here... So, it was a very nice and warm welcome (laughs).
It definitely had a huge impact on how I moved through spaces for a long time, as well as how I started creating art. I created my one little world, a safe space for my soul. Closest to my heart, I’m an artist and I feel most connected to my African heritage. It is the centre of my being, what I’m most proud of and everything I create evolves around it.
“Closest to my heart, I’m an artist and I feel most connected to my African heritage. It is the centre of my being, what I’m most proud of and everything I create evolves around it.”
You’re also a self-taught artist. What is your relationship with formal training, and why did you seek to avoid the help of institutions when you were cultivating your own style?
Listen, I tried (laughs). But it was only slowing me down and blocking my mind from creating as freely as I wanted to. I believe it can be of added value for some, just not for me. I’m not grateful for these institutions. Most of my teachers were white male figures and the things I was taught weren’t reflecting my reality nor the contemporary society we live in. Which still is my biggest issue with institutions these days, the lack of representation.
Art shouldn’t only be taught through a white lens. If you’re still not recognising the importance of showcasing or teaching your students the value of showcasing the experiences of those who haven’t felt historically welcome in museum spaces, then what is it you’re doing exactly.
Another thing I’d say is a lot of people lose their own sense of creating during their studies. They get pushed towards one specific style and at the end, every single one of them has the same exact style.
You’ve said before that a lot of your work is created out of your own unprocessed traumas. This last year has been traumatising for many of us, to varying degrees. Do you find yourself being more inspired in this climate, or has it become difficult to find inspiration?
It doesn’t bother me so much being at home. Surprisingly, I’ve never been as productive as now, I’ve grown a lot as an artist. Until March of last year, I was only painting illustrations on paper and I felt scared to start painting bigger pieces. Then Jacob Banks asked me to make his artwork which left me no other choice.
Although the first few months of lockdown were a lot emotionally, they had a positive effect on my creative mind and finding there’s beauty through sadness. It has been a healing period, to say the least. But I’m a sucker for sunshine and warmth, so Winter’s always a bit harder. I’m trying to keep myself focused and inspired, but I feel a vacation somewhere warm would be nice to re-energise my mind. Travelling feeds my mind.
Your artwork usually features very bold, vibrant, and loud colours. What artists have inspired your aesthetic, and is this visual style indicative of your own personality?
Vibrant and soft yes, but I wouldn’t say they’re loud or at least not my choice of colours. David Hockney and Paul Gauguin were two of the main artists that inspired me when I first started painting, as well as all the beautiful colours nature gives us. And I’d say it is part of who I am as a person and how I choose to communicate, which are two things I believe you can’t really separate – the way you communicate through visual language and spoken words.
I’m kind of an introvert, yet very present in my own safe spaces. But I will always try to choose my words very wisely, kindness is way less energy-draining.
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The characters in your paintings having large bodies and tiny heads have become a signature of yours. How did this style originate?
Everyone keeps asking me, but there ain’t that much to it. I started drawing these figures 4 years ago and I liked it so I never stopped. Though the bodies have gotten bigger, as did their limbs. So, who knows how they will evolve a year from now.
Your work has always celebrated Black bodies. Recently I’ve noticed your work is referencing inequality and current events more explicitly. The figures in your paintings sport tattoos which say ‘Protect the Black woman’ and wear clothes with Breonna Taylor’s face on it. What role do you think art plays right now in bringing about real change, and who are you making art for?
It’s hard to quantify the impact of art. I feel like people return to the arts in times like these and some people underestimated the power of it, even I at times. Art is such a wide platform, it makes one feel and think differently. I’m very grateful, being able to express myself through it. Plus, having the privilege of sharing it and people actually responding to it. A few weeks ago, I read a comment somewhere saying my work and words are "so powerful and needed." I literally almost choked on my food.
My main first reason was just to hold up a mirror to myself, making art as a form of self-expression. Then the mirror got bigger and wanted other non-white people to feel seen. And now it’s turning into this mirror house, which feels quite scary at times.
Last spring and summer I felt so exhausted and I was pissed at the world. I’ve been very vocal on racial matters on my socials the past 2 years, losing a bunch of followers as a result per usual. Now we’re living in a post-George Floyd/Breonna Taylor area (among too many others) and all my last fucks given went out the window. I keep saying this, but I think it’s almost impossible not to be political as a Black female artist. I only choose to communicate in a more subtle way, through softness, because it is still important to be kind to yourself as well.
Your artwork feels very centred around identity. Has painting allowed you to explore and better understand your own identity over the years?
If you mean identity in the widest sense of the word, I’d say yes. It gave me the freedom to express myself going through it all or at my happiest. And it taught me how to communicate my silent thoughts. But if you’re asking only because I paint Black bodies as a black woman, my answer is no.
I’ve never had a moment in my life where I wasn’t proud to be a Black woman or where I questioned my Blackness and I needed some soul-searching. Growing up, I never learnt how to communicate my own feelings and having a predominantly white environment made it hard to keep the same proud energy in the outside world. Only because there weren’t any or hardly any people to identify with.
I’ve always wondered why everything was always white. I had to do my own research and look for people that looked like me as role models to look up to. Once I started reading Toni Morrison and Audre Lorde, I began looking for more Black artists in all art forms. I was silent and alert for a long time and painting gave me a voice when I was too afraid to speak up.
“I think it’s almost impossible not to be political as a Black female artist.”
Social media is slowly changing things, but for now, the art industry is still dominated by white creatives and white bodies. How do we change this narrative?
A lot of unlearning has to be done, which will take a lot of time. But there have always been Black creatives. I believe it’s up to these white spaces and institutions to push the envelope, creating safe spaces without there being any tokenism. As well as more spaces created by Black people uplifting other Black creatives, like Home in London. BIPOC shouldn’t have to wait around for whiteness to step up and yet again ‘save’ us or hand us something to be grateful for.
You describe your paintings as work which seeks to challenge how the media portrays people who look like yourself. What feeling do you hope to leave with viewers after they look at the figures featured in your paintings?
I want my viewers to move through my work, organically, without it getting superficial. And I just want black people to feel seen, sharing our joy as well as our pain.
What’s next for you? Do you want to continue working in Belgium or do you wish to travel whenever it’s safe to do so?
I can’t sit my ass down in one place for too long. I know it sounds cliché but home is where my heart feels at ease, and Belgium isn’t adding much to my inspiration. So, once I’m allowed to move more freely again I’ll be travelling around. I’m exhibiting at the Cape Town Art Fair this May with Botho Project Space and I have my first solo exhibition in Madrid this June at La Causa. Along with a solo exhibition at Home by Ronan Mckenzie, January 2022 in London.
These are all projects where I would love to be physically present if possible, manifesting those thoughts.
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