Farrah Riley Gray (b.1992, London) is a Lewisham based artist employing weaving, textile and audio in her exploration of the intersection between race, gender, mental health and craft. Her practice focuses on black hair as the subject of cultural anxieties as well as a lens for the black female experience. In her work, hair is a means of preserving narratives that have long been absent from archives.
Riley Gray’s early practice utilised film and photography, yet she was searching for a medium that would work around her disability. She found weaving was a practice that built on her existing interest in women’s craft and by working with black hair she was able to centralise the black female experience. She began weaving only a year ago, yet she describes it as a natural transition since the techniques were similar to braiding hair; a skill she already possessed. Using synthetic black hair was also an obvious choice for her, allowing her to work with “a material that universally related to black women”.
This year she graduated from Goldsmiths with a BA (Hons) in Fine Art and won the Christine Risley Award on the merits of her degree show. This has led to an exhibition at the Constance Howard Gallery, entitled Knotted, displaying her textile and audio works. She describes winning the award as an affirmation of her work, since the practice and material were new to her. Yet, her uncertainty is not visible in the work which navigates complex histories and politics with ease. I Exist as Cocoa Butter and Mangos, 2019 is a blanket woven from synthetic black hair consisting of 196 individual squares, created on small hand loom, woven together. The work took 1500 hours to create, which forefronts the unseen labour and skill that goes into maintaining black hair for it to be deemed socially acceptable.
The work Mapped, 2019 consists of intricately braided hair woven into a pattern. The piece refers to a practice originating in 17th century Columbia in which enslaved women would have maps braided as cornrows into their hair as a means of escaping. This history exists in journals and testimonies, however the patterns themselves were largely ephemeral. Riley-Gray described the difficulty of finding sources that depicted the original patterns used. Mapped reconstitutes this history, preserving it in hair; the form in which it originally existed. In Riley Gray’s work, hair is a potential material for archive.
From her time working in film, Riley Gray developed an affinity for narrative and sound. The audio piece I Dream in Shea Butter and Blue Magic, 2019, was originally a companion piece for I Exist as Cocoa Butter and Mangos but now soundtracks the entire exhibition. In the audio, Riley Gray’s voice is heard describing memories from her childhood intercut with sharp commentary on cultural appropriation, misogynoir, fetishisation and pressures to conform. These incisive observations embody the focus of Riley Gray’s practice; her untangling of ‘hair politics’.
Farrah Riley Gray currently has a solo show titled Knotted at the Constance Howard Gallery, Deptford Town Hall until 4 November 2019. She will be holding a workshop at the Wellcome Collection in January 2020.