In Conversation With:
RAYVENN SHALEIGHA D'CLARK
interviewed by Hannah Green
From hyper-realistic severed feet and eerily life-like faces to smooth, graceful busts and interactive digital sculptures, Rayvenn Shaleigha D’Clark’s work is intriguing and challenging in equal measure. Rayvenn is a Digital Sculptor, writer, researcher and curator, whose practice employs the ‘digital hybridity of sculpture’ to create an ‘elevated reframing of black autonomy’.
After studying a Foundation Diploma at Central Saint Martins, Rayvenn completed both an undergraduate degree and MA at Chelsea College of Arts, graduating in 2018. In addition to a number of exhibitions, solo shows and curatorships across London, Rayvenn’s work has received media attention from the likes of Elephant Magazine, London Art News and Dazed. It’s easy to see why.
Rayvenn describes her work as ‘contextually abstracted from traditional representational aesthetics’ combining 3D digital processes and traditional handmade sculptural techniques. This allows audiences to ‘break free from reference once and for all in a new form of hybrid realism.’ Although Rayvenn’s work is intimately bound up with theory, her pieces nonetheless speak for themselves as objects of strange and uncanny beauty.
We speak over Zoom, after two weeks, countless emails, and 10 minutes of looking blankly at my own digital reflection before realising I actually had to let Rayvenn into the Zoom call. Luckily, she is forgiving.
I ask her how she defines her practice - does she think of herself primarily as a sculptor, or is it more holistic than that? ‘It is multidisciplinary,’ she tells me. ‘I write, and I curate, I do quite a few things so I never consider myself to be any one thing. If I had to define my practice in terms of outcomes, it would be sculptural, but I don’t know if I’m a ‘sculptor’ in the strictest sense … it really just depends on what the focus is and what the narrative is and whether it needs to be a defined artwork or whether it’s something that needs to be written and explained.’
'it really just depends on what the focus is and what the narrative is and whether it needs to be a defined artwork or whether it’s something that needs to be written and explained.’
My Head Hurts, My Feet Stink And I Don’t Love Jesus, 2017
I Don’t See Colour, 2018
Untitled, 2019. Monochrome Lenticular Print
'it’s almost like giving birth every time. You have this initial idea, and it’s like a bug in your brain. You work through it, you work through it, you work through it, and then you bring it into the world. And then for some reason - you’re really overjoyed - people like it. Then there’s a whole secondary process you have to go through where you negotiate giving it away’.
Rayvenn is a prolific writer - her website is full of links to articles and essays. She tells me that writing functions as a way for her to work through complex ideas. ‘It’s really important,’ she says, ‘especially for someone like me who’s gone through the art school system, where there’s not so much emphasis on writing … for me, where my work was actually super theoretical, and where it’s hard to convey a lot of ideas in the sculptural form, writing has actually been quite imperative, not only for me to be able to work through whatever I’m trying to make, but also to give myself more context and more theory’.
Critical (Race) Theory, ideas about the Body Politić, simulacra and hyperreality are grounded in very practical, very urgent conversations about how we examine and manifest black people online, how black creatives move through the art world, and how the hyperreal can disrupt assumptions and reframe narratives. ‘Writing allows me to, in my mind at least, contextualise what I want to make, and then the outcomes will flow from that. It just depends whether I feel that it needs to be defined as an artwork, or maybe if it needs to be a curated show, or collaboration, it really does depend on what I see as most necessary.’
Rayvenn’s interest in discourse exploring how simulacra (a copy or imitation of a person or thing) function in online spaces was sparked by a compulsory unit brief about the digital. ‘It really kind of put me on to this idea in terms of what we are doing and what we are building when we engage with this digital landscape, particularly when we’re discussing bodies’.
Ideas about simulacra have been used in various different ways, but the most useful one for thinking about Rayvenn’s work is in terms of French post-structuralist philosophers Baudrillard and Deleuze. Baudrillard suggests that a simulacrum becomes a truth in its own right, subverting the original object: in its hyperreality, it becomes impossible to distinguish between the real and the representation. For Deleuze, this offers the opportunity to overturn accepted ideas and privileged positions. This, I sense, is the way in which Rayvenn plays with these contexts - by presenting her subjects as hyperreal, digitised objects, the viewer must necessarily engage with them in a different way, rethinking accepted narratives and assumptions.
Rayvenn’s 2019 lenticular, ‘Untitled’, came about after considering ways in which she could express the fluidity of the simulacra (the process of real objects becoming digitised, remade, then becoming objects in their own right) through the static medium of sculpture. A lenticular is a process of printing which uses layers of images to create the illusion of three-dimensionality, movement, or revealing a hidden image when moved. Think novelty postcards or bookmarks which, when shifted side to side, show dolphins jumping in the water or a woman losing her clothes.
‘I think it’s one of my favourite objects right now, actually,’ Rayvenn says of her own lenticular. ‘There’s a lot of optical lenses and there’s a lot of refraction of light. To me, it just felt really in tune with what I was researching … which was this subtlety and this way of seeing that almost tricks the eye. We all know what things look like in real life, but when the same object is presented online we never quite know if it’s real or not, if it’s doctored or not, and I felt like the lenticular was a really good way to play on that moment of questioning.’
‘The object itself slightly pivots, people aren’t expecting that. It’s an A1 image, and then all of a sudden it starts to shift and people don’t quite know what’s going on.’
Rayvenn sold the original sculpture at Saatchi the year she graduated in a group show titled ‘Abstract:Reality. Does she find it difficult to part with her sculptures?
‘Going through art school, they prime you to be an artist in the sense that you’re selling work, you’re making money, you’re living off your art … but the way I describe it to my friends who might not necessarily make art, is that it’s almost like giving birth every time. You have this initial idea, and it’s like a bug in your brain. You work through it, you work through it, you work through it, and then you bring it into the world. And then for some reason - you’re really overjoyed - people like it. Then there’s a whole secondary process you have to go through where you negotiate giving it away’. Rayvenn is particular about where her artwork ends up. In setting prices, she is able to ‘semi-vet’ who buys her pieces: ‘if someone says, you know what, I’m willing to pay for it, I think it’s worth it, it’s a bit calmer in my mind.’
How does she feel like her practice has changed since finishing her MA?
‘I think a lot of people will probably tell you art school is a huge comfort blanket. [It] is three or four years where you’re just in a bubble, you really are … being out in the world is something really, really different, and not only financially speaking, but in the way of opportunities. And I think that your practice does have to change accordingly, unless you’ve already got the finances to afford it. And so I have definitely become a lot more selective in the things I take part in, a lot more selective in the people I collaborate with, and just a lot more sensitive to the idea of what money is and what money can cost.’
‘I think your business head kind of kicks into gear once you leave university because you’re no longer making work for a final exhibition for your peers, but you’re making work to potentially sell to the public. So it is a really hard and fast transition, because whilst university does imbue you with a sense of wanting to make and create, the business side isn’t quite there … You realise ‘oh god, I have to register as a sole trader, and oh god I’m going to have a VAT number and I have to pay taxes, and self file’. Those are the things that really hit me hard after university … you do definitely learn to think on your feet; DIY culture I jokingly characterise it.’
Rayvenn is still producing work, but there’s a lot more to balance. ‘You’re living now, you’re actually an adult, you’ve got to do all these other things, as well as maintain an art practice … you have to be really particular about when you release new artwork, and how. They’re not always completely new objects or new narratives, but they’re renditions [of previous objects] because that’s what you’ve got to hand.’ This has been particularly true over the past few disrupted months: ‘I was really looking at what I had on my hard drive and thinking, you know what, I don’t think I’ve properly worked through that object, let me do a piece of writing about it, or let me make plans for a new object, but work through doing something else in the meantime.’
Many of Rayvenn’s monochromatic pieces have a distinctly renaissance aesthetic, and I ask her if this is intentional. She tells me that it was more of a happy accident thanks to limited resources and criticism from tutors. ‘It was a really interesting stance for me to figure out the relationship between [my work] and more traditional Renaissance sculpture when I’m doing a similar technique, a similar aesthetic, but actually I’m swapping what would be a greek figure (white and male) for a black woman with a headscarf. What does that mean and what does that look like in real terms?’
‘Colour is so important to people for so many reasons; it’s so visceral, and in removing that in some respects, I guess I’m probably giving myself an easier time, but I’m also asking people to slow down and look at the aesthetics of the object, look at the woman as a figure unknown to the viewer, observe the individual I’ve sculpted, think ‘why’, think ‘how’ and unpack that without the necessary connotations that come already loaded with colour. Because you know, everyone always asks me, what colour was her headscarf? Is she light skin or dark skin? And for the black community these things are really important, but for me to allow as many people to be receptive to the work as possible, I felt like there needed to be a minimising of that’.
As a black sculptor, conversations surrounding statues, anti-racism and the Black Lives Matter movement are particularly acute. ‘It’s a strange one’, she tells me. ‘I think I caught wind because everything blew up around the Marc Quinn sculpture in the news’. When the Colston statue was taken down by Black Lives Matter protesters in June this year, artist Marc Quinn, without permission from the city authorities, installed a sculpture of a protester titled A Surge of Power nine days later. The sculpture was removed by authorities later that day.
Marc Quinn’s temporary replacement, whilst a powerful statement, does not exist outside of a paradigm of race and privilege. Quinn is a wildly successful white male artist. As Thomas J. Price notes in The Art Newspaper, ‘the insidious nature of racism affects Black people’s access to opportunity and resources. This is why there are so few Black sculptors working in the public realm and less so one’s [sic] with the finances to immediately take advantage of the opportunities that arise’. In the wake of the sculpture’s installation and removal, Rayvenn was tagged in a post suggesting various black sculptors who could have been commissioned to make the sculpture instead. Rayvenn had been an admirer of Quinn’s work for years early in her practice, but she thinks on this occasion ‘it would have been more useful for him to have moved aside. He already has his fame, wealth, notoriety, he already has his legacy. I think it would have been more useful for him to have said, ‘you know what, thank you, but here is a list of other people who could also make that sculpture’.’
‘As a sculptor, it didn’t upset me, because I’m at that stage now where you’re like ‘ugh, that makes sense,’ when misguided things like this take place, or [when] you see people clearly aren’t thinking very hard. But at the same time, I guess it was hurtful, because for the first time (and for me, Black Lives Matter started in 2014, 2015) everyone is cognizant to what is going on surrounding decolonisation movements and wider, global calls for social justice and anti-racism … and in this respect the Marc Quinn became just another instance of people not reflecting upon a long history of disadvantage that is still affecting a lot of people today, in a lot of different ways, both in the UK and the US.’
When I ask Rayvenn if she considers her own work overtly political, the answer is complicated. ‘It’s a difficult one, I think, when anyone chooses to focus solely on black bodies it becomes a political act … when I was eighteen, nineteen, I was just saying well, I’m a black woman, this is my perspective, so of course, these are the people I’m going to be sculpting, but then it became this whole other thing.’ Although Critical (Race) Theory is central to her practice she admits that ‘ I never, in that moment, felt that I was doing anything political, but it was always read as very political, and I guess in a weird way I kind of got pushed into that frame of reference … it wasn’t a bad thing, at all, but I feel as if I never really have a choice.’
‘For black people, especially those who choose to speak about the uniqueness of the ‘racial universes’ or parallel social realities, whenever it emerges in contrast to the dominant mode of discourse, it just is political. Whilst I can sit here and go, ‘no, it’s not political’, and all these things, it’s always going to be read as such, so I’ve had to take up that mantle … and that’s why I enjoy writing, because it is my moment to really hammer home and personally get to grips with what the narrative of the object is, or what I’m thinking about or what I’m looking at in this very particular moment. I can further build my knowledge, and say to audiences ‘hey, you see the object, if you don’t quite get it then here’s a piece of writing that will give you a bit more context’, and maybe it might pique their interest.’
Rayvenn began writing for website Shades of Noir in the last few months of her Masters beginning as a content developer and moving up the ranks to the position of Junior Editor. She now, in part, manages a team of student content developers - ‘it’s just a really beautiful position to be in because you’re there to - not make people better, because I don’t believe I’m better than them - but to really see their growth … I really enjoy it because people come from such different backgrounds, and they speak really beautifully about their own perspective and it’s really nice to have that insight. It’s been a really nice way to gain some extra theory and knowledge that I just didn’t have the time to or that is largely absent in a very whitewashed curriculum and erased from many modes of British teaching. So I’m really thankful to Shades of Noir for giving me that opportunity to really grow with them over the past two years or so.’
Rayvenn is currently training to be an Associate Lecturer in Cultural and Historical Studies at London College of Fashion, and her studies, as well as multiple invitations and collaborations, have kept her busy over lockdown. ‘A lot of projects got postponed, however, I’m actually working through some of the exhibitions that I agreed to do what feels like a long time ago and potentially making new artwork for those showcases. I’ve got a recurring collaboration with a fantastic organisation called The Auction Collective, so I’m going to be doing two exhibitions with them. One is currently on at Brown’s Fashion in East London. The other one I’m doing with them is called ‘To My Twenties’, and that is going to rehash some of the photography I have in the archives of my studio. I’m really looking forward to that because they’re actually still doing a physical exhibition, so it’s going to be nice to see my work actually up in a physical space and not mediated through a digital platform such a VR or Instagram.’
‘Right now I’m really focussed on doing more writing, I think it just really encapsulates a lot of the thoughts that have been swirling around in my mind during the lockdown, as well as allowing myself greater space to plan for the future … I really want to set some things in place so that maybe towards the end of the year, if things resolve themselves, and moving into next year, I can hit the ground running and put everything into action.’
Auction Collective will be exhibiting at The Gallery at Browns East until December 2020.
To My Twenties is on show here, with a virtual auction on the 21st October.
'I never, in that moment, felt that I was doing anything political, but it was always read as very political, and I guess in a weird way I kind of got pushed into that frame of reference … it wasn’t a bad thing, at all, but I feel as if I never really have a choice.’