Art is Music to the Soul

Published 16 May, 2011 at and for the BBC’s Show Me The Monet coverage

Sound Artist Ashwan doing what he loves


 Barcelona-based artist Ashwan made it to the final cut on BBC 2’s fortnight-long series of Show Me The Monet, which launched on Monday and is proving increasingly popular up and down the country. Facing the Hanging Committee, Ashwan was the first contestant in the series to receive yes-votes from all three judges. His piece, “Return Of The Life” was valued at £2900

I am catching up with Ashwan to find out more about his work, his appearance on Show Me The Monet and what message he is trying to convey through his work. Born and raised in Liverpool, Ashwan describes himself as a painter and sound artist. His background is something of a classically free spirited individual, travelling the globe and living in colourful places; he lives and breathes his work. Ashwan is somewhat of an enigma. When I ask him his full name, he replies “Ashwan, nom de plum!”…and when I try to establish his age he responds “Too old! Put it this way, when I was born the Beatles were still together…just.”

As a young child growing up in Liverpool, Ashwan found himself drawing on literally everything by the age of 13. Aged 16, still avidly graffitiing,  he remembers the turning point of his life, when a physics teacher threw his graffiti-covered exercise book at him in sheer frustration, shouting “Go and take that to the art teacher, you will get an O level out of it”…so he did. He now has a foundation degree from the University of Newcastle and a Masters in fine art and painting from the Art Institute of Chicago. He displays his work on a corporate level and exhibits private collections internationally.

It is time to chat to the man himself, but firstly, allow me to ‘paint’ the scene. Gold and green-speckled rooftops on stylish brick-red coloured buildings stretch into the distance as far as the eye can see. The periphery of this pretty urban sprawl is laced with a dreamy haze of mountains that form part of the Collserola mountain range, on which the city of Barcelona is situated.

The city spreads over an area of 10.096 hectares and is 5km in width. Overlooking Barcelona’s San Pau hospital building that looks more like a historic museum in terms of its grand and majestic architecture, Ashwan’s studio is creative chaos – the floor is covered in sand, and as my heels scrape across the gritty floor, the grinding resonance creates a soundtrack representing the cutting-edge persona of this place. I feel like Ashwan is trying to achieve some kind of urban-beach-feel, but I’m not entirely sure why….

View from Ashwan’s studio – Photography by Ron Davies

‘Ash’, as he is more familiarly known, sits back in his chair while sipping on a San Miguel beer “I really need to tidy up in here” he says. “It is at the point where I cannot move forward until I do…plus I have a studio visit of one of my main clients late next week. This is generally the way I work in my studio, it gets messier and messier until it almost explodes and then I empty it and literally paint everything white, the floor included. I do it for when I get my work photographed as well. Ron [Davies] does my photos.” There is a philosophy about Ashwan and I am sucked in by his cool, collected, yet artistically distant presence. Though there is a misty enigma to him from the outside looking in, he sees the world clearly from where he is sitting and is quite the master at expressing it.

Ashwan: art is a musical journey is it not?

I’m not sure…art is anything that you make and you really give something of yourself. It is energy and works best when it has a decent rhythm, so from that perspective, I guess it is, yes.

I found myself typing away in my Culture Corner the other day and getting lost in the groove of the hip-hop beats from your website.  Tell me more about these productions.

I think the project you’re referring to was my ‘Inheritance Wax’ mixtape.

I was working with the elderly and when they passed away, families would turn up and trash almost everything, including books and records. As a DJ and producer, seeing vinyl being thrown out is sacrilege, so I would always ‘rescue’ it from the skips.

In that first mixtape, I have taken most of the 7 inch records and remixed or mashed them into a new audio piece as well as re-packaging them with hand-painted sleeves.

I wanted to bring some of the intimacy back that lost ‘physical’ relationship that most people used to have in their music collections.

I admit to being nostalgic for the days when you would walk into a person’s place, glance at their vinyl and bookcase and have an idea of what they were about. Now most people have iPods full of music they don’t even know and most of it they don’t like.

How is that healthy?

Art seems to be heading towards cross-medium experimentation. Where do you stand in that debate?

There is no debate as far as I can see. Art is just energy.

Which genre does your art fall under?

I have had people say to me that my work is pure post-modernism…but I feel more like a modernist in terms of seeing that my work is some kind of progression in an art historical context. Visually my paintings look closest to the abstract expressionists as a genre…but that is not completely accurate.

What inspires your fluid style? Some of your pieces seem to have a kind of liquidity flowing through them such as trickles of colour thrown across the canvas for effect.

This is a loose painting technique consisting of drips, giving the paint enough room to let it finds its own peace or tension. These are all important elements in what I do. My favourite work is often the work that has a lot of grey in it. This has to have something to do with having been brought up in Liverpool, with 350 days of pure greyness. While I hate that kind of weather, I do think it has a certain matter of fact-ness to it. A realness. That is important to me. A lot of my paintings could be seascapes.

What are your painting techniques, tools and materials?

Oil paint, acrylic, inks, house paint, marker pen, sand, canvas…pretty much whatever is close at hand in my studio! I usually work 4 or 5 paintings at least at any one time.

Ah, that explains the sand surrounding us at this moment in time! Where have you exhibited your work to date?

Quite a few places, though just with solo shows in the U.S., Spain and England.

Which was your favourite exhibition experience?

Probably a show I had in Chicago in 2001, called Fat Caps. I knew the gallery manager really well and he let me take a lot of control over how things would run. I had one of my favourite DJs play and a lot of good friends there.

You have also done some outdoor work: I liked your art during London’s Green Park elephant parade in 2010. Yours was called In Your Trunk (Turn the Bass Up). What was the motivation behind it?

I got asked to paint one of these elephants, and I had a few ideas about how it could look but then was looking for some kind of tenuous link between what I do and what the Elephant Parade people needed. I used a line from a Nas song that says ‘…in your trunk, turn the bass up’. Trunk as in boot of a car. Tenuous, but enough to give me an excuse to paint on an elephant. The project was a lot of fun…plus raised 10 grand towards the 4 million that came from the London Elephant Parade.

Did you also work on a London Underground piece?

I had a billboard in 2001 at Bank Underground tube stop. Unfortunately I was living abroad at the time and didn’t get to see it.  It was part of a group show organised at the Hiscox Gallery.

You have indeed travelled and worked abroad: what made you decide to move from place to place?

Just a yearning really, I always wanted to see something a bit different…though my main influence has been the hip hop subculture, inevitably being drawn to New York and then I got the chance to move to Chicago for a while. How can you say no to that?

What brought you to Barcelona?

I first visited Barcelona in 1991, just before the Olympics. It was NUTS and a place I knew I wanted to come back to. How I ended up living here has more to do with love than art though…

Oh? How did you end up there?

I met someone here, we were friends for years and I kept coming back to the city for mural work (commercial). Each time I visited we would hook up just as mates, but a few years ago, we were both out of relationships and it all just happened.

What is your favourite part of the city?

It depends what you are looking for! I love Poble Nou as it feels like New York in the 70s. That would be a hot spot right now.

How is your Spanish?

Muy basico! I do not have a propensity for languages, though I really enjoy having fun with it and making mistakes. I have a real laugh with the locals as I will combine speech and body language to explain what I mean, like a real idiot! I am gradually getting better though.

Keep at it: multilingualism is rewarding. I detect somewhat of a rebel in you, with the art and hip-hop combination: who are your influences both musically and artistically?

I am not driven by rebellion, but I don’t try to conform either. Influences artistically would be the graffiti artists of the 80′s, Picasso and Turner; musically DJ premier, KRS-One, Public Enemy and New York hip hop in general.

What did you like most about Chicago?

Living by the lake and having access to so much city, but so much space as well. Chicago felt like home to me.

Some of your work includes verses and lyrics. What is the general vein of the messages that run through your work?

This is a huge question. I could spend a year answering this! I will keep it to the lyrics though: Using lyrics is a way to make references that the audience that I want to be interested in my work will get. However, they also function subconsciously, even on people who do not directly get the reference. They conjure up a general gist of the feel and vibe that I want. It’s like using a certain amplifier or drum machine during music production – it gives the listener a ‘feel’ for what I am trying to communicate. The way that I present it is important, but I have tried using my own text or random words and it does not function in the way I want.

What are you working on at the moment?

I guess at this very minute, the single thing I am doing that is very different from my past work is that I am working on some round paintings. I love the square. It is a really important format to me, but obviously, the circle and the square have a very close relationship! I have two on the go in my studio at the moment.

A lyric by the band Travis goes something like “There is no wrong, there is no right, the circle only has one side”. Do you see a circle this way?…and how is a square close to a circle anyway?

Ha-ha, that’s nice. It’s totally true too. It does only have one side….unless you count the inside and the outside. The circle fits in the square perfectly and although physically a lot smaller, a circle with a diameter of 4ft fills the same kind of space in the mind’s eye on a wall as a 4ft x 4ft square painting. I find I rotate my paintings a lot when I make them too…so somehow they have a circular feel to me when I make them. Actually, when I first exhibited the painting I had in Show Me The Monet, it was hung upside down.

Tell me about your Show Me The Monet experience on the BBC…

It was funny because Chris Hollins was feeding us some real wind up lines to un-nerve us, but actually I was more nervous about being on camera than I was of fearing the Hanging Committee.

What is the colour of your soul?

Ha-ha, it’s clear!

What would the world be like if it were transparent?

In a purely physical sense, it would be like jellyfish!

How can fans of your work and art collectors contact you?

With pen and cheque book in hand! I also accept all major credit cards…even diners. Visitors can find me through one of my galleries or on the contact page of my website:

Ashwan’s work will briefly feature on the art show as the series concludes towards the end of the week. Show Me The Monet is aired weekdays on BBC 2 at 5.15pm.


Return Of The Life as featured in BBC 2′s Show Me The Monet. Photography by Ron Davies 
Inheritance Wax – Photography by Ron Davies 
Things Fall Apart 4ft x 4ft – Photography by Ron Davies 
Will o’ the Wisp 4ft x 4ft (2008) – Photography by Ron Davies
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