Local voices: artist Jessica Akerman on Bristol's contemporary art world

Jessica talks about her work, inspiration and the Bristol art world ahead of the Soapworks Centre of Gravity exhibition

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Jessica Akerman

Jessica Akerman is based in Bristol. She makes objects and images that bring together social narratives, pattern and colour. She explores systems, structures and histories and how these are communicated. Themes include: the staging of power dynamics in national identity, women’s working lives and military engineering. Her first solo show was at ArcadeCampfa, Cardiff in 2019, and she presents new work at Cork Midsummer, Ireland in 2021. Find out more at http://jessicaakerman.com

October 8th, 2020

Can you tell us a bit about your work and what inspires you?

The artworks I’ve made for the Centre of Gravity exhibition at the Soapworks (2 October - 1 November), the Grade-II listed building being redeveloped by First Base, include a sculptural installation made out of display walls from the old Gardiner Haskins furniture showroom, a set of ceramic and salt dough objects, and a pair of wall hangings, designed using Microsoft Excel. 

I’d say my approach to art-making is eclectic! I love exploring materials and resources, but my work is often characterised by bright colours and playfulness. I have a strong interest in modes of communication, place, local histories and feminism. When I was making these pieces, I was thinking about the multiple histories of the building and its occupants – as a place of manufacture, dream building, productivity, shopping, waiting, wandering, working… The building is so visually rich, I took a lot of inspiration from the forms, colours and patterns within.

I’ve also made a drawing with Frea Buckler in the entrance area, using a builder’s chalk line. We were socially distanced at either end of the string, making marks on the wall over the course of three hour-long stints. 

Jessica Akerman - Bristol artist
Jessica Akerman

What do you like about living/working in Bristol?

I’ve found Bristol a really welcoming and friendly place to work as an artist, with individuals and organisations open to conversation and sharing. I think I’ve been lucky in meeting enthusiastic and generous people and organisations (Caraboo Projects, Bricks, Knowle West Media Centre, Press Play at Spike Print). 

I went to Radmin last February at the Arts Mansion which included workshops and seminars by radical thinkers and artists. That was inspiring, and made me realise how much is going on here. Exploring my neighbourhood during lockdown was an unexpected joy. There are so many green spaces within the city. Oh, and cold water swimming – we’re very well placed for good swimming spots!

Jessica Akerman - Where We Used To Go
Jessica Akerman - Where We Used To Go

Why should visitors be excited about the Soapworks exhibition?

Well, the building itself is incredible! It’s HUGE and you can see the layers of history (literally) peeling away! I love a nosey around anywhere that’s usually off limits so exploring Soapworks has been fascinating. It's great to explore before First Base transform it into its next incarnation. 

And in terms of the art.., well! There’s such an exciting energy to the way the Centre of Gravity team and the artists have put the show together. There’s a lot of ambitious artworks that have responded to the building – its history and materiality, and you get a sense of that in the temporary but animated quality of the show. It’s all quite different too, and there are opportunities to participate, some beautiful and reflective artworks, some visually joyful and playful work. 

Soapworks Old Market Bristol
Soapworks, Old Market Bristol

What are the must-dos/must-sees for an art-lover in Bristol?

It’s a bit strange at the moment because a lot of artist-led or smaller-scale events and shows are having a break. That’s what makes the Soapworks show so exciting. Aside from seeing the big shows at Arnolfini and Spike Island, I always enjoy a visit to the minerals section of the museum, where my children and I delight in the different gems and formations, and also try to find the most cringey, revolting lumpy ones to torment each other. 

The Caraboo Loops podcasts (which I was lucky enough to be involved with) are really interesting, such as Fozia Ismail’s Cassette Letters, looking at the role of cassette tapes in Somali and other diasporic communities. I’m currently producing Bricks Artist Programme; we’ve just started a weekly programme of artist talks (Wednesdays, 1pm). I love hearing about artists’ processes and ideas. We’re very lucky here to have excellent programming across many arts venues here: The Wardrobe Theatre, The Cube, The Watershed as three examples. Let’s hope it can continue beyond Covid…

                             Read our Bristol and Bath itinerary for art lovers here

Arnolfini Bristol Photo by Hannah Atkinson

Who are your favourite West Country artists?

My favourite artists tend to be those I’m inspired by at any particular moment in time. There are loads of great artists who I’m getting to know through Bricks, and I’ve really enjoyed the intricate drawings of Anouk Mercier and Freya Gabie over recent months, and love Dorcas Casey’s folk-inspired sculpture. Non-Bristol current favourites are Jonathan Baldock, Candida Powell-Williams, Felicity Hammond, and a long-time fave, Francis Upritchard.

Do you have any plans to exhibit in Bristol or the surrounding area in the near future?

I might be doing a low-key group show at Kosar Contemporary this month… There aren’t masses of opportunities to show at the moment, but I’m hoping that some of the projects that have been postponed, such as a solo show in Cork, Ireland, will happen in 2021. 

Find out more about Jessica Akerman on her website: http://jessicaakerman.com

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