The Undiscovered Self

Heather Agyepong is a British-Ghanaian multidisciplinary artist and actor based in London. Her practice is concerned with mental health and wellbeing, invisibility, diaspora and truth. D is For… is from the series ego death and was shortlisted for the Aesthetica Art Prize 2024. It is inspired by psychiatrist Carl Jung’s concept of The Shadow.” Jung defined this as aspects of one’s personality deemed inappropriate, which may have been repressed during childhood and adolescence, family, education, social norms and external factors. Agyepong has been discovering her own shadow: unpacking ideas around shame, attempting to confront and make peace with it. Both deeply personal and universal, the work presents an exploration of self-discovery, imperfection and radical acceptance. Here, we speak to the artist about her work.

A: Could you talk about what inspired ego death? How is this personal to you?

HA: I was inspired by Jung’s concept of “The Shadow,” which represents the suppressed aspects of oneself that society deems unacceptable. The more we try to bury these parts of ourselves, the more they manifest in our lives. I noticed these aspects surfacing within me, and I realised the importance of accepting and embracing them, despite any shame attached. It’s my most vulnerable project, I think it’s crucial to recognise that the only way the ego can stop calling the shots is if we acknowledge that we’re not perfect.

A: How did you choose the seven different characters that appear in the photographs?

HA: Through dream diaries, free writing, drawing and authentic movement. I started to see these characters or versions of myself that had particular voices attached to them. By personifying and acknowledging these voices, they gradually start to lose their influence and power.

A: Some of the pieces use a triptych format. What do you think the form offers up to the work?

HA: These parts of myself are very illusive and erratic so it’s tricky to encapsulate them in one image. I started to think about both the format of a narrative with a beginning, middle and end. By the third image, the character feels like it has undergone a journey, albeit an incomplete one.

A: There’s a wonderful dusky blue that hangs over these portraits. You’ve mentioned being inspired by Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. Could you talk about your use of colour?

HA: Yes, this play was the basis of the film Moonlight (2016) which was transformative for me. I remember these blue and purple hues which signified versions of oneself that the character was inhibiting in the film. I resonated with the idea that only in the dark will the moon illuminate our truest selves.

A: Which other artists inspire your practice?

HA: There are too many to name but I adore John Akomfrah, whose work resonates deeply with me. Not only because he’s from Ghana like myself, but also for his ability to bring archives to life and breathe new dimensions to black histories. Another artist I greatly admire is my dear friend Enam Gbewonyo, a multidisciplinary artist known for her exquisite performances and textile work infused with profound heart and soul. Additionally, actors like Taraji P. Henson speak truth to power and make work for the craft, not the fame. That’s where my heart is.

A:What does being shortlisted for the Aesthetica Art Prize mean to you?

HA: As a multi-disciplinary artist, I’ve appreciated their support for marginalised artists and those whose work carries a social message. I couldn’t believe it when I found out I was shortlisted. It showed that they see and champion artists like me. I am so grateful to the judges and feel honoured to be part of such a spectacular cohort this year.

Agyepong is part of 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.