Fit to print

BLM, Covid and a period of furlough conspired to lead Liverpool artist Sumuyya Khader to refocus her artistic practice

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Posting a daily Instagram illustration led to artist Sumuyya Khader being much busier during lockdown than she expected. Furloughed from her full-time job at Granby Workshop, a community-led ceramics manufacturer in Toxteth, Liverpool, Khader started to express her feelings about the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and the black lives lost through Covid.

“Before lockdown, I was ticking along and selling the occasional print,” she says. “I’d also contributed to local exhibitions at galleries such as the Bluecoat. But I found the fine arts scene in Liverpool quite closed and hard to enter into, and getting an agent or gallery representation hadn’t really entered my head.”

After a degree in fine art at Liverpool Hope University, Khader, now 33, started working as production and operations manager with Granby Workshop, set up as part of the Turner-prizewinning Granby Four Streets renovation project.

“You come out of your degree full of ambition and then reality hits – you have to earn a living,” she laughs. “I realised I was much more interested in finding ways to reach out to and work with people, and how you can create something powerful that can stay in your community and be passed along.”

Then BLM and Covid highlighted the devastating effects of institutionalised and endemic racism. “The two things combined made people more interested in following black creatives,” she says. “My work is a representation of what is going on in people’s lives and in society, and people started to get in touch and ask if I took on commissions.”

Her colourful, powerful prints can now be found far beyond her local area, despite lockdown. Still committed to the idea and innovative power of culture rooted in local community, however, she has also set up Granby Press. This risograph printshop has been financed with nothing more than a GoFundMe page.

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“I started small with family and friends, then other arts practitioners pitched in, all with small donations of around £20 each, until I had enough to buy a risograph printing machine,” she says. “I couldn’t believe I was able to achieve this. It’s been incredible.”

A risograph is a cross between a photocopying and screen printing, she explains. “You can print in minutes, but because you can separate the colours it gives depth and texture. The ink is soya-based so you can also create interesting effects and mix colours.”

Independent print and presses are enjoying a resurgence, but Granby Press is very much a community resource. The medium is print, but the outcomes can be many and varied.

“It’s not just art prints – it could be a community newsletter or self-publishing, where a writer could team up with someone to visualise their story,” she says. “I am still at an early stage, recording and researching what people are asking from it, what they would like it to be able to do. I see my arts practice as a listening and learning exercise.”

With artists unable to access physical spaces, new ways of reaching out to people have been explored and discovered.

“We have seen how mass media is not for us – we recognise this now and value what is happening on the streets around us, and how this is shared and read back to us.”

Book cover design is another strand to Khader’s work that has taken off during lockdown. She has illustrated A Fire in My Head, the new poetry collection by Booker Prize-winning writer Ben Okri, for publisher Head of Zeus. Two existing images were also used for a couple of reprints of his books. Then Penguin Books got in touch to ask her to design a cover for its new series, Black Britain: Writing Back.

“It was a whole different way of working for me, and it also made me take my work seriously, perhaps for the first time,” says Khader. “I’m an avid reader but the cover can be an entry point into the story, to intrigue people and draw them in.”

Khader is now back at work at Granby Workshop, working four days a week, with the rest of her time taken up with commissions and the Granby Press. She is happy to be back among people, where possible.

“People are my inspiration – seeing them, listening to them, talking to them – and if lockdown has taught us anything, it’s not to put too much pressure on the moment.”

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