For the 26-year-old artist Tanoa Sasraku, coming of age in Plymouth had its challenges. As a biracial, gay teenager, few people looked like her, and her desire for romantic love went unanswered. Instead, she found kinship not with a person, but a wilderness. “I constantly fantasised that, if I just got out of Plymouth, I would find this intangible thing,” she recalls. “I didn’t know what it would be, but accessing rural landscapes helped me understand what it might feel like.”
At 13, Sasraku joined the RAF Air Cadets and discovered the moors, “an unpredictable place”, where she witnessed animals being born or drowned in mires, where fog suddenly and the horizon might erupt in flames. This deeply personal engagement with rural Britain – its ancient sites, buried histories and lore – fuels an innovative art practice that is fast garnering accolades. Last year she won the Arts Foundation Futures award and this month at Bristol’s Spike Island, she opens her first big solo exhibition, Terratypes.
Terratypes are what Sasraku calls her unique hybrids of print-making, textile processes, painting and sculpture. They are created from many sheets of thin newsprint paper, which she hand-stencils and colours, sews together and then rips, revealing layers of pigment and pattern. She describes it as “subtractive painting, gesturally tearing away. I have to be very exact. There’s no going back.” Finally, her works are soaked in a river, sea or bog: a transformative ordeal that leaves them stronger and denser.
Their excavated layers suggest a journey into memory and earth that has recently taken on a literal dimension. Her latest terratypes’ deep blues, rusty ochres and granite grays are created with million-year-old pigments foraged from riverbeds and eroded land around Dartmoor, the Jurassic Coast and the Isle of Skye. She credits the process with bringing “some sort of peace or reconciliation” with her formative years. Scotland, too, now holds a special place for the artist, whose partner hails from there. “With her I’ve been able to take a leap to the Highlands and feed the desire I had as a child,” she says.
It is part of a shift for Sasraku from broader commentary to more intimate territory. In previous projects, the artist explored her west African heritage and the spectre of colonialism. Earlier banners fashioned from newsprint sheets referenced the Asafo flags made by the Fante people from Ghana’s central coast, while her acclaimed film O’ Pierrot satirised racist caricatures. Lately, though, she has been pursuing “something that feels very present, not referential in a historical sense to Britain’s past. It’s from a very personal place.”
A constellation of terratypes forming the shape of a horse’s head, for instance, was inspired by a childhood encounter on the moors. Losing her way in the mist, the artist fell into a bog and came face to face with a dead horse. It’s a scene worthy of a gothic novel, but Sasraku “wanted to honor the horse and the other animals that die alone in these mires”. Towering above her memorial will be new sculptures created on site from terratypes’ remnants and reminiscent of the standing stones she first saw on Dartmoor. While those mysterious totems conjure longstanding fantasies about British heritage, for the artist they became “markers for new feelings I was experiencing in terms of identity.”
The lithographs “are like strange portals, slightly sci-fi, of the past and future”, she says. Indeed, it’s these ancient sites’ potential for relevance now that her works most clearly speak to.
Tanoa Sasraku: Terratypes is at Spike Island, Bristol, to 17 July.
natural beauty: four key works by Tanoa Sasraku
Terratype soaked in the Sligichan river, Skye (2022, above)
Sasraku’s stenciled geometric prints are partly influenced by tartan and evoke her “first real lesbian relationship”, with her Scottish partner. Textiles have long been of interest: her father was the Ghanaian fashion designer, Kofi Ansah, an intermittent glamorous figure in her childhood after her parents parted. She says: “When I’m sewing I feel I’m communicating with my dad.”
Blue Gate (2022)
The artist was moved to work with ultramarine and intense reds after creating workshops in a psychiatric unit in Torbay. “I wanted a more optimism color palette,” she says. “I then soaked the terratypes in
a body of water, Plymouth Sound. It felt like a final ceremonial act.”
Gray Wet-Cell and Red Wet-Cell (2022)
Sasraku conceived her bronze batteries as her exhibition’s power cell. They are inspired by the Baghdad battery, an ancient rudimentary form of battery formed from clay pots, iron and copper rods, found in Iraq, which may have been intended to raise the dead.
O’ Pierrot, 2019
In Sasraku’s earlier film O’ Pierrot, she plays the sad clown “to give license to black melancholy. In Jim Crow-era depictions, black people’s emotions were framed as anger, stupidity and sycophancy.” The antic villain, Harlequin Jack, “is a frazzled black man, driven mad by his quest for British acceptance into white society.”