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IN THE KNOW: We need to talk about black British female desires and aspirations

Ceramic lips from We Need to Talk by Sharon Bertram.
Written by
Sarah McLean
Published date
14 July 2017

Artist and educator Sharon Bertram graduates this summer from MA Fine Art Digital at Camberwell College of Arts with a powerful final work that focuses on amplifying the voices of young, black women.

We Need to Talk, an installation including a wall piece featuring porcelain lip sculptures lit from behind by slowly changing LED coloured lights as well as documentation of work by several young women who have worked with the artist, originated from conversations the artist had with black women where she invited them to discuss themes of identity and culture while making – in this instance, using ceramics.

The form of the lips came from these conversations, Bertram explains. “In terms of black women’s physical features, it can be seen as stereotypical to focus on the lips but to me and these women it was also seen as representative of our desires and our aspirations – something to celebrate.”

Bertram grew up in Peckham and actually first studied at Camberwell 20 years ago when she completed a BA in Graphic Design. She went on to have a successful career in design and in the gaming industry where, when she started, she was the only female designer in an office of men. She is now an educator in south London, and her experiences of first accessing creative education have a big influence on her work. “For those students who are focused on art, it’s important that they have something to relate to” she explains.

“Growing up, I wasn’t aware of many black artists, even though at the time there was a black arts movement going on. In terms of the curriculum and the visibility of black and female artists, these are exactly the kinds of things I’m exploring with my students. I regularly see young people who are confident and aspirational but art is not considered a core subject for them. The young women I invited to take part in We Need to Talk are sixth form students going on to higher education, and I specifically wanted to encourage them as aspiring artists to help them find creative ways to articulate their identity, make it understood and make it visible.”

Another of her works, Navel,  explores a more person exploration of the link between her identity and her ancestry. In this piece, her own navel is shown as surrounded by pigmentation in the shape of Africa. For Bertram, this is a central place, as was her naval when she was pregnant with her children. It represents her concerns about she she would ensure her children would have a cultural link with her family history and ancestry.

This is a key concern of Bertram’s work: the cultural heritage of passing on meanings and messages, often through storytelling, combined with shining a light on young aspiring artists and helping them to find new ways to communicate their identities. Indeed, when she explains how she talked to the young women about how to draw lips, she describes the process as “Mountain, mountain, horizon, lake: the mountains represent life’s climbs towards aspirations, the horizon represents the goal that lies ahead and the lake the wealth of information and culture that came before us”.

You can see We Need to Talk at the Camberwell MA Summer Show 2017 which runs until 19 July 2017.

Installation shot of ceramic lips lit with LED lights from We Need to Talk by Sharon Bertram.

Installation shot of ceramic lips lit with LED lights from We Need to Talk by Sharon Bertram.

Sharon installing We Need to Talk.

Sharon installing We Need to Talk.

Navel by Sharon Betram.

Navel by Sharon Betram.

See more of Sharon Bertram’s work on Instagram

MA Visual Arts: Fine Art Digital