North London based artist and activist Rachelle Romeo’s work caught our eye with its powerful and poetic use of embroidery. Romeo’s stitched stories of trauma, belonging, and becoming are literally mapped onto the landscapes of London and the UK – striking visual reminders of the brutal colonial legacies and ongoing trauma of the Windrush scandal that scar society, despite the government’s efforts to cover them up.
We caught up with Rachelle to find out more about her practice and influences…
Could you tell us a bit about who you are and what you do?
I am a mixed media artist with the focus of embroidery. I create pieces based on my own personal experience and social commentary. I write poetry and I incorporate it in my pieces, hoping to create an emotional connection with the viewer whilst they are engaged in my work. I also am an activist of sorts, not only in my art practice, but in recent years I have spoken at events due to the fact my family were affected by the Windrush Scandal.
What was your route into becoming an artist?
I studied graphic design when I left school age 16 in 2000, I did very well but when I tried to continue my studies as an apprentice I was often shunned, despite being one of the top in my class. My tutor of English descent was frank with me and shared he felt I was being discriminated against; he is still a friend of mine 20 years on. I then left the dream of working in the creative industries and drifted into retail, banking and then education where I still remain. It knocked my confidence and I felt I wasn’t good enough to progress in the field I was drawn to until I was given a cause.
I decided to enrol on an Access to Art and Design course (Working Man’s College) when I was 24 and pregnant with my first daughter, whilst working in an Education provision in Camden for young men with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties. I studied for two years in the evening alongside working full time and graduated whilst pregnant with my second child. I was offered an unconditional offer by UEL, and I graduated with my BA as a single parent with 2 children in 2013. Being a mother gave me the confidence; I wanted to do everything I could for my children and be an example, everything I did from that point of become a positive role model for them. They gave me the strength to be the best version of myself, therefore my art enhanced me wholeheartedly so why continue to stifle myself? I feel that when I began uni, I became a practising artist and I never stopped.
What influences the designs you create for your work?
When I was a child, my father on our weekends would take me to craft stores and I would normally walk out with a cross stitch set, so I guess it started from there. The aida and thread creates a very graphic style; pixels are squares so it developed an aesthetic I enjoyed and felt comfortable with. A lot of my subject matter is inspired by my own experiences and social commentary. I write a lot of notes when words spring up in my mind and normally an idea evolves from the words. I have quite a literal and illustrative mind, I have been told I am quite quick witted and I feel that transpires in my work and my process. I only use sketch books to get an idea down; I only research to enhance an idea, but not always – I don’t spend a long planning which is sometimes a downfall, but my brain doesn’t work that way. I would rather grab at materials and watch the piece progress while in mid-creation, let it take me where it needs to go.
If you look at ‘Identity’ (2018), that was written whilst I was walking around central London and this mirrored in the speech/ poem ( I originally wrote it to share at Diane Abbott’s event in Parliament in 2018). London is my safety net, my home. I know no other home, being part Antiguan, part Mauritian Creole and being born in Islington, so we have a real love-hate relationship. A place that was my home, which I loved, was also making me question who I was as a person and whether I had actually been fooled all along. In regards to the design aspect, all I could really envisage was London and to use the words to create the image of my beloved city, yet the words were painful. I enjoy creating pieces that from afar means one thing and up close transforms to another.
We love the poetic quality of your work. Can you tell us a bit more about your process – which comes first, the words or the design?
The words tend to come first, I tend to be impacted by something I have experienced or seen and compose prose, which then supports the development of the design. I tend to always jot things down and revisit sometimes to use, but sometimes they remain dormant. I lacked a lot of confidence with my writing as I was schooled in the 1990s in Edmonton and I don’t recall being taught a lot about basic grammar. I think taking the plunge has really been educating in incorporating more spoken word in my visual practise. Then the words in my mind will twist and turn into an image and I then plot to action. When I use colour, I always refer to Plutchik’s wheel of emotions to ensure the colours I am using reflects the emotion I am trying to share (unless it’s a portrait of sorts).
Your pieces key in to embroidery’s long history as a radical, political art form in a powerful way; for you, what makes it a good medium for exploring the politics of identity, race, and gender?
I think as women we have always been forced into needlework due to the sexist narratives around it. It’s a medium we have been forced to own, therefore it’s perfect to use it to share our experiences, our voices and opinions. Thread is strong, just like the women who stitch it. It’s delicate, colourful and yet pliable which is what women has to be seen as due to narratives for years. It’s beautiful; it takes time, patience and skill which isn’t always taken into consideration. When I thread my needle and use my hands to build a piece, it’s therapeutic as I am not only creating, I am exercising my views, and I am sharing and connecting with others like an extended sewing circle.
I am a womanist, I am an humanitarian; I would love to see the day where people will be seen for who they truly are and not the outdated rhetorics that surround and determine our paths in life. I am using the tools I have been urged to learn due to my gender to make big changes for all genders in the future. Creating aesthetically pleasing tapestries, sharing hard hitting messages that need to be heard. The beauty entices you but the closer you get to the truth is what emotionally grabs you and leaves you reflective. Art is meant to provoke an emotion, so I can only hope what I do is right.
Who – or what – inspires you right now?
I enjoy the works of Ellen Gallagher, Judy Chicago, Cindy Sherman, Sonia Boyce and Kara Walker plus many more (male identified artists too as it looks like don’t – I do!). Alas, I feel inspired to create when going to shows, but it doesn’t necessarily inspire a body of work.
I currently feel inspired by by my own life and my trauma mostly, working through it and writing down my truth. I have worked in pastoral roles for the past 15 years and, although still in education, I’m in a more administrative role now. Prior to my current employment, I worked for ChildLine for three years; it was the best job I have ever done, but due to the trauma of the Windrush Scandal, I could not continue any longer.
Using my own life experiences, I would hope to perhaps support others to make them feel less alone. Sometimes, we feel so alone because we have been isolated with negative feelings due to taboos. I want to connect with more people from all different walks of life and make my work accessible and meaningful for various people. I have lived quite a colourful 36 years and I don’t think it all happened in vain, so I am using it to hopefully empower others
How has your work developed since you began making art, and how do you see your practice evolving in the future?
I think it has developed a lot. I think professionally I have developed and that is down to being more honest with myself and not being afraid, that for me has come with age and self development. I found a balance in my life which allowed me to feel at peace and comfortable with sharing parts of my life so openly. I have also surrounded myself with like-minded people and been very careful who I have in my social circle and they empower me. I think vulnerability has so many negative connotations, but resilience is a powerful tool. By using my vulnerability and resilience; being frank and open has supported my practise to evolve and I am really looking forward to the future.