Jamiyla Lowe: Magical bestiaries, rainbow acrylics and challenging the gatekeepers of academic art

Catching a glimpse of Jamiyla Lowe's paintings is like stepping into a mythical world where quirky skeletal creatures dance in tropical caves and swing amongst tiger lilies without a care in the world. Born in Montréal, Jamiyla has developed an extensive portfolio overflowing with screen-printed rainbow bestiaries of magical beings, surreal circus acts and bizarre dreamscapes. I sat down with her to chat about freelancing, the freedom of experimentation and challenging the gatekeepers of academic and commercial art. 

What’s your take on the art scene in Toronto?

There are so many people making art in the city that it’s hard to see as a specific scene. It can depend on what medium you work in, or where you went to school or what spaces you have access to so it is pretty broad...I sometimes don’t feel as engaged as I should be because the work I do is pretty solitary and I don’t go out much. But as far as institutional settings go, galleries and museums are definitely more difficult to navigate because they can feel exclusive. It’s sometimes nice to see work outside of that context.

How do you think that inaccessibility can be challenged?

A friend of mine Zanette Singh, runs an organization called CUE, which is where I first applied for a grant. It helps in funding young artists that might lack access in one way or another, if you’re a person of colour, queer, or maybe you don’t have a traditional arts education or you live outside of downtown and haven’t had the opportunity to show in commercial spaces and make those connections ... Anything that might create barriers to having your work seen or promoted or talked about. It was great, because when I first applied I had this idea in my head that grants were for a certain kind of art that was maybe more 'high brow' or academic. I never thought I was eligible to apply for certain things and it helped because I could invest in projects I wouldn’t be able to otherwise. It’s also nice to see art from artists that are based in the GTA whose work I hadn’t seen before. It felt more representational of art in the city as a whole.

Also having Instagram makes finding artists and sharing work easier, I feel like you can build an audience without worrying about how to get your work seen in the right spaces. It gives gatekeepers a little less power.

How would you define an emerging artist?

I think it has to do with people starting to become familiar with what you do, when you’re starting out and trying to do as much as you can to make your work visible. I think you have a bit more freedom to experiment and do whatever you want, especially if you don’t have galleries or publishers who are heavily invested in you. But maybe you can be an emerging artist forever? I’m not sure, that period seems like it can go on forever.

Do you struggle with staying in tune with your personal expression?

I don’t think I have that much of a problem, I don’t have pressure coming from anywhere to do a specific kind of work. I kind of do what I feel like at the time which is nice. It makes working easier to not force myself to stay in certain parameters or always deal with the same subject matter. I’m not officially represented by a gallery or anything. It would make working more difficult if I felt like I had to meet expectations.

Do you find yourself pressured or expected to create ‘politicized’ work just because you’re a person of colour?

I used to feel like it was more of an expectation but now that black artists and artists of colour are becoming more visible in the city and online there’s room for us to do whatever we want. I’ve definitely had it happen, where people have made assumptions about what my work should look like or be about. I also don’t necessarily consider my work to be entirely apolitical, but no matter what we do it will most likely be read in a politicized way, so I figure if it’s where your strengths are then great, but if not don’t force it.

Do you tend to work with other people?

I mostly avoid it, I like the idea but it’s hard to agree with other people about what something should look like. I think it would depend on what kind of project it was but for the most part I prefer to work alone. I did live in a shared live/­work studio for about two years. It seemed ideal at first because there was a lot of space, but there weren’t many windows and it was grubby and distracting and actually harder to get work done. It doesn’t always work as well as you’d think, especially with people coming in and out.

How would you say your art has developed through the years?

I used to mostly do black and white drawings and everything was dark and gloomy all the time, I feel like what I do now is still dark and gloomy but with really bright acrylic colours. (laughs) I went to school for illustration and when I finished I started out doing odd freelance jobs and making screen prints as a way to make and sell my work. I think I mostly just wanted to be an artist and be in shows so I started to focus on making original work and painting and trying to have more of a sense of humour with what I was making.

What other mediums would you be interested in exploring?

I’m trying to learn very basic animation in photoshop, I’m terrible with computers and not very good at it so I find it both fun and time consuming. A couple of years ago I made a board game, which was really fun to work on. The process of finding all the materials to put it together was difficult and I think I underestimated how hard it would be to make it look like an actual game, but it worked out in the end. I really like making fun interactive things.

Do you tend to share your process or do you prefer only displaying a finished piece?

I mostly display finished work but sometimes I show work in progress... I’m still getting used to sharing unfinished work on Instagram and Tumblr. I just always felt like nobody want so see that, but people seem like they’re really into seeing how things are put together.

You can stay up to date with Jamiyla's art and projects on her website and Instagram