It is 12:30am, and Hannah Hill is just on time.
Hill is the second interviewee in our series of discussions with participants from the Tate’s new initiative 'Beyond Boundaries', a project which involved inviting five budding artists to work alongside five established mentors to create public art installations located across Southwark - each of the artists leaving their distinctive fingerprints everywhere from Gambia Street to Bear Gardens. Starting an Instagram account at the age of seventeen, wittily coined @hanecdote, the now twenty-six-year-old Hannah Hill caught the attention of the internet when spinning a popular meme on its head; the familiar image of Arthur the Aardvark's hand balled into a tight fist sitting next to the caption: ‘When you remember that historically, embroidery hasn’t been taken seriously as a medium because it is ‘women’s work”. Naturally, the image itself is embroidered.
Upon speaking to Hill, one word stands in bold when attempting to articulate what it is to be in their company: she is (simply and utterly) compelling. Toeing the line between blunt and earnest, she discusses social change with frankness and devotion, communicating in an idiosyncratic manner that could convince anyone that the moon is, of course, made of cheese. She is matter-of-fact, unabashed and humorous, artistically affirming their forward-thinking views through the form of embroidery and drawing. Their Instagram is made up of a thousand different shards of playful colours, bold phrases throwing themselves into my eyeline, most of them orbiting around the same key touch stones: body positivity, feminism, mental health and perhaps even theology - judging by the image of the Virgin Mary on their Instagram, seemingly impaled by knitting needles (and understandably looking quite solemn), a pink and red heart sitting sweetly on her tunic, a piece created by her mother that she posts multiple times, a palpable pride emanating. Hill contributes zealous discourse on a number of topics, but none with such force as the interrelationship between the perception of embroidery and misogyny – a medium so often disregarded due to the fact that its history leaves a trail of predominately female artists, even the punctuation scattering itself around haphazardly, making way for Hill’s passion as she becomes animated when asked about the topic. Standing next to feminism in the line of topics she discusses throughout our conversation is her love of history, her chronic disability, and mental wellbeing, each subject tinted by her informed, self-assured and straight-to-the-point demeanour.
Working alongside their mentor on the project, artist and educator Sharon Walters, ‘He (Art) is Everywhere’ pays homage to its surrounding area and the inhabitants of Great Suffolk Street, the work’s location until Spring of 2022. The same way passing the right musician at the right time, busking on the street cheerfully, magically casts a smile over one’s face, Hannah Hill’s ‘He (Art) is Everywhere’ leaves my cheeks lightly aching as I walk away, cutting through the greying bustle of London, mentally carrying with me something very special: the buzz of hope.
To start off with, tell me a little bit about what led you to becoming an artist?
Hannah Hill: ‘I have always been creative and doodled. My grandparents are architects, and my mum does sewing and knitting, so there has always been art, design - creative thinkers around me from a very young age. I struggled with mental health issues at secondary school: I only got my maths and English GCSE. I then did a college course and that is when I discovered embroidery. But the answer is... I have, really, only ever had art. I was part of Tate Collective and I got the opportunity to curate in 2015, which was just amazing.’
So, moving on to a question about your routine. Are there certain things you can do, personal rituals before you start work, that can make you feel more creative? On the other hand, are there things on the other hand that can kill your creativity?
HH: ‘You see, it is a bit tricky at the moment because I have been dealing with chronic pain for the last three years so I just haven’t been making as much as I used to be able to. So, [laughs], chronic pain certainly kills creativity. But this commission with Beyond Boundaries is only my second commission since I graduated in 2017 - I just haven't been able to commit to many commissions because it is just hard to understand or know my physical ability in terms of timing, it being so unpredictable. This project was really... very out of my comfort zone, but also my first bit of work since I co-curated a project with the Tate at the beginning of my disability coming into my life. Now my disability has to be a big part of my routine. My chronic pain got worse and worse, to the point where I simply couldn’t make much hands-on work, so this project was the first time in a while when I have had to have a bit of a conscious routine.’
What is it like dealing with a disability with your art? Is it emotional?
HH: ‘Yeah, yes, very. I am an emotional person anyway, as I said I have suffered with mental health issues since I was a teenager, and it really did throw me. I had a big identity crisis – a lot of my identity was tied up in being an embroidery artist and really pushing this medium because it has been side-lined and rejected, alienated, in the western art world’s history. It also went hand in hand with my journey with feminism and having an understanding of that, something that really hit me in art school when learning about how women artists are presented, how embroidery is received in the art world, how men have written about embroidery and textiles... even men talking about women artists in general. All of these things spurred me on, I have a deep passion and commitment to embroidery. People ask me, ‘why not use a sewing machine?’ - I have always had a fight against people’s opinions on it, so often they don’t realise the reason why embroidery is looked down upon - because it is gendered! It is sexist, and there is also classism in there. If there is a painter, and they spend hundreds of hours, or fifty hours, or what have you, on a painting, I do not think I have ever heard anyone ask ‘why have you dedicated that time to your skill?’. But when it comes to embroidery, people automatically question why we even bother, and it is very frustrating. When I wasn’t able to do that due to my disability, it really made me feel dejected. But it has also made me develop, I have always been very anti-technology, sewing machines, iPads, all that – I find it quite scary, hand embroidery being the historical action it is, only needing a pointy thing and a bit of string to create - but with this disability I have been drawing on my iPad, something, again, I haven’t liked to do in the past because of the stark contrast between such a historical action and something so modern, but as the pain first hit my hands, I couldn’t even cup things, do anything, as it triggered cramping: The iPad meant drawing was easier. So, I got one, and practiced and practiced and practiced, which still gave me the therapy of making art, being still able to get out my emotions, concepts, in a much faster way – to complete something and feel the satisfaction. After a while, I was able to sew incrementally, for example sewing two minutes a day, which was depressing in its own way [laughs], to only do two minutes! But the drawing has led me to this commission and now I realise that I can be an amazing artist in lots of areas, not just embroidery, so although it was emotional, I did at least get something out of it.’
You spoke about technology and how it can feel sterile. With something like Instagram, a tool to promote your work, how do you feel about it?
HH: ‘I have loved it in the past but it has really changed over the past few years with censorship and people buying it out, rules changing. I am very body positive, so even before posting art, I have been posting myself – those kinds of things are censored a lot, even though I have built my platform on those same things. I even put a post up the other day, and I must have made some generalisation about men and despite the comment being harmless, it got removed for hate speech.’
HH: ‘Yes, I was shocked. It was upsetting and a bit ridiculous as it was such a positive post about me feeling ok about having hairy legs, like – there was no way you could cut it to make it look like any form of hate speech! But going back to having any sort of social media platform, being a woman or marginalized community of any kind, you do receive bullshit from people online. I do find my mind being blown by the Instagram rules more often than I used to, which is sad because I have been so emotionally attached to the platform and the community that I have built on Instagram. But before Instagram changed, I was giving it praise because I have found such positivity in the past. I really did build a community, people were very invested in my art and I feel blessed with that community, so in answer to your question: I think it is a... good tool - but it has changed a lot.’
'My work is mad, it is a whole mash up of different things
So, talk to me a little bit about Beyond Boundaries and how you became involved?
HH: ‘I am so excited by the whole project. It has been a whirlwind. So, as I said, I co-curated a project with Tate in 2018, so I had to interview for that. I was already part of Tate Collective and did this interview for this project that surrounded my two loves: feminism and London. It made me so excited, but I was also a little depressed. I thought to myself: ‘Usually, I would be creating this piece of art. And this is wonderful, but now I am curating’, so there were a lot of emotions. At one point, Tate turned to me and said ‘Look Han, there is a conflict of interests here. You have to choose; do you want to be a curator or go fourth as an artist?’. My colleagues all said that I would benefit more by staying as a curator, and so I stayed, and took that really very seriously. That happened in 2018. I applied for random things here and there, and suddenly I just get this email from Tate saying that they had invited me to join this project. I believe that the Tate again went through Tate Collective, who suggested artists, and that is how I then got involved.’
Tell me about the mentorship [by Sharon Walters]. How was that?
HH: ‘So, yes, part of it was getting mentored, and that was with Sharon Walters. She was incredible. After the three years that I have had, you know for a year I couldn’t leave my house because I was in so much pain, it has been tough, and so my confidence was - you know, I had just graduated and within six months I couldn’t work. In some ways, I needed Sharon’s mentorship on the mental side even more that the creative. She was just incredible, of course I had her by myself but we also had group mentoring sessions on zoom, and those were also just so fulfilling. It was an experience I have never had before in art in general, even art school. It was truly special. The group that they put together... it was special’.
The answer I have been getting a lot in response to the question ‘what is art?’, is ‘art is everywhere’. What is it like for you to be a champion of a marginalized art form like embroidery that is so often not seen as art?
HH: ‘It is incredible and something I have taken really seriously, something that is an honour for me, and I am sure that is partly why I got so depressed when I couldn’t sew that much. Even in my bedroom, I’ve got art that I have made since 2015 – it feels beautiful to look at my labour and hours of work and feel proud of myself. Although with this commission, as much as I love embroidery, I do feel able to branch out. I am going to go on a little tangent, is that alright? I know you did ask about embroidery...
HH: ‘Ok, so, it is true that art is elitist. It is true that institutions have been known to not welcome some people in, but fundamentally: art is human. Like you say, art is everything, my mural is about art being everywhere. Because of that elitism, so many people feel that they cannot partake in art, or that they can't enjoy it or even have an opinion on it. You know, I am allowed to hate Mondrian! You are allowed an opinion on it, you know? And having that message, as you say, ‘art is everything’ - for me, with embroidery, I am just trying to push the boundaries. I have embroidered what I know and what I love, which is my life around me and that includes things that I haven't really been embroidered. So, that statement spurs something in me: art is everything. There, tangent over.
'It comes down to the idea that people believe that needlework takes zero creativity and zero skill'
What would you say are the key themes in your work?
HH: Politics and history. It is human experience. Is that too broad?
Of course not.
HH: Well, it is human experience then. My work is mad, it is a whole mash up of different things - my brain is very ‘organised chaos’, but generally I am quite an intense person [laughs]… with my art.’
You have such a beautiful relationship with history. Would you be able to expand on the social links between feminism and embroidery?
HH: ‘Be warned, I can really talk about this at length. So, it is a combination of that fact that embroidery – well, women have been excluded from the art world generally – but embroidery in itself has been massively gendered and therefore disregarded. You know the phrase ‘not your granny’s knitting’ or something along those lines? That sort of expression is used by people who try or do sewing or embroidery and try to distance themselves from the stereotype of the medium. To be frank: it comes down to the idea that people believe that needlework takes zero creativity and takes zero skill. This is purely because women were doing it in a domestic sphere. They we doing it in their homes. Or, it was working class people. Please note though, this isn’t just with embroidery, I link these ideas with quilting - bearing in mind that we are talking about the western art world as across Asia and other countries, surface embroidery and fabric is looked at very differently as both genders perform it - but in England and America, it is the women at home sewing, knitting, whatever; it is seen as a totally ‘gentil’ thing like, ‘Oh, she is quiet, she is occupied, knitting, how quaint!’, before it was garnered as a way for women to make money and gain a little independence, but from the start, embroidery in the west – there is a wonderful book called ‘Subversive stitch’ that basically maps out the sexism and classism involved in work with fabric and how everyone sees embroidery – was seen as totally skill-less, and void of any creativity or artistic importance really. As I said earlier, people have these stereotypes against embroidery and yet I don’t think they have ever really engaged with it. The ideas surrounding it make virtually no sense – anyway my brain is a little bit of a mess, but I just have such a passion and interest for the history of embroidery and its links with feminism.’
Film or Digital photography?
HH: ‘Digital! [laughs], can I expand?
Of course, you can.
HH: ‘Look, I love fu- sorry I shouldn't use bad language. I love film, but I hate how technical it is! I have a draw of my grandpa’s slides – he has thousands of slides from back in the day, London photography, people photography, I love it, but for me... I love shooting on my iPhone. Sorry, I know it was a this or that!’
Music or no music while working?
Anything in particular?
HH: ‘It really depends – actually, I have been getting into podcasts more recently, but grime does energise me, I love any west Indian music, anything upbeat really, keeps me energised.’
Tate Britain or Tate Modern?
HH: ‘Tate Britain, got to love the historical art. They have stuff from the 1500s!’