Agents for Change

Ayrton Mendes, also known as SAM, is a Portuguese artist based in Manchester. He intricately explores the intersections of race, sexuality and gender through diverse media including video and scultpure. His practice weaves a unique perspective, rooted in personal experiences and a profound interest in African and urban cultures. Ayaba – Rainha – Queen, shortlisted for the Aesthetica Art Prize, is a film that advocates for Black women’s experiences by illustrating the intersections they face due to their race and gender. Using archive materials and digital techniques, the video evokes empathy and empowerment in the face of prejudice and stereotypes. In this interview, we catch up with the artist on his inspiration behind the work.

A: Tell us about Ayaba – Rainha – Queen. What sparked the idea and what did the process look like?

AM: The video Ayaba – Rainha – Queen is part of a project developed for my undergraduate exhibition, exploring the intersection of stereotypes and reality concerning race, sexuality and gender – with Black women as a focal point. Employing video-collage and storytelling techniques, the video amplifies the narratives of Black women, presenting their experiences as a poetic visual narrative. It raises questions on the challenges faced by Black women in a society historically prone to marginalisation. Through the appropriation of found videos, images, and archives, I aim to illustrate the ongoing struggles and contributions of Black women to society, addressing their underrepresentation and frequent sexualisation. Additionally, it delves into the enduring impacts of colonisation on the marginalised status, examining societal and gender roles alongside self-representation. Ultimately, the film challenges existing power dynamics and advocating for a more compassionate and equitable future.

A: Who – or what – are your biggest creative inspirations?

AM: My primary creative inspirations are drawn from trailblazing artists and activists whose work has been instrumental in advocating for equality and social justice. I’m influenced by pioneers such as the British Black Art Movement, including Donald Rodney, Claudette Johnson, Keith Piper, Maud Sulter, and Lubaina Himid, as well as influential figures like Basquiat, Andy Warhol, and James Baldwin, I am motivated to create art that is both thought-provoking and impactful. Moreover, the theoretical frameworks of Franz Fanon and Stuart Hall regarding cultural identity, alongside the study of semiotics, have highlighted the transformative potential of art as an educational tool and catalyst for social change.

A: If you could sum up your practice in one sentence, what would it be?

AM: My practice aligns with the principles of issue-based art. I aim to develop a language that resonates with contemporary society, contributing to ongoing conversations about equality and cultural awareness.

A: What have you learnt from making Ayaba – Rainha – Queen? What’s next for you?

I’ve learned the profound importance of challenging stereotypes and having vital conversations about narratives that are frequently marginalised. Moving forward, I am committed to continuing this journey as an artist by expanding my research through art and engaging with communities and young people. Collaborating with diverse perspectives will deepen my understanding of the impact of art, guiding me to create works that are not only meaningful but also agents for change. By inspiring dialogue, I aim to contribute to a more inclusive society, leaving a lasting impact for future generations.

A: What are your highlights of the Aesthetica Future Now Symposium and Art Prize Exhibition?

AM: The Future Now Symposium and Art Prize Exhibition provided invaluable opportunities to engage with fellow artists and professionals in the field. By interacting with other creatives, I broadened my own understanding of contemporary art and discover new ways in which my practice can intersect and relate with others. The exhibition also allows me to explore how my work resonates with the public, fostering meaningful connections and sparking dialogue about the issues and themes addressed in my work.

Mendes features in the Aesthetica Art Prize 2024 Exhibition at York Art Gallery from 16 February – 21 April. Plus, meet over 250 longlisted international artists in our new online gallery.

Want to get involved? The next edition of the Prize is open for entries. Submit your work by 31 August. Win £10,000, exhibition and publication. Find out more here.

All images courtesy of Sam Ayrton Mendes.