Tai Shani on art as a career

  • Image courtesy of Tai Shani
  • Image courtesy of Tai Shani
  • Image courtesy of Tai Shani

In the run-up to our event on Monday on the commercial aspects of art practice, we spoke to the artist Tai Shani, who also teaches in Photography at the RCA. She works with experimental narrative forms, across many different media: installation, performance, film, and so on, drawing on ideas of gender and subjectivity. She shared her thoughts on professional development in fine art with FuelRCA editor Hannah Black.

Do you conceive of your artistic practice as a career or a profession? If so, how so? If not, why not?

It is a career from the moment you begin to engage on a public platform. Your visibility and the context for that visibility is always in flux. That flux is a “career” that I carefully navigate not to only sustain it but also to establish a career that I feel comfortable with, a sense of integrity. I slightly wince at the idea of it being a profession, because a career alludes to a form and trajectory of engagement with your audience but a profession implies a method of making the work, a set of decisions that are made based on a projected outcome in terms of engagement. I really reject this position. For me it is only a profession when it comes to acquiring skills, be it techniques, a specific vocabulary, writing proposals etc. Foremost, I conceive of my practice as the interface with which I am able to understand and be part of the world.

What was your route into working in an art context?

I was never interested in anything else! There are many artists, writers and actors in my family, which made it easier as I was never questioned about those choices. There never was a decisive moment. I always wrote as a child, then when I was 12 I convinced my parents to enrol me in an art school, when I was 14 I used to sell customised sunglasses to designer shops and make my own clothes to go clubbing in, later I became a fashion photographer... Then at some point I felt like I had exhausted what I wanted to explore in that context and a series of encounters and serendipitous events brought me to a point of changing and exhibiting my work.  

How do you fund your practice and/or financially support yourself? 

I have found myself in a lucky position where I don't have to fund my work anymore, because the nature of my practice means that the work I produce is usually commissioned and paid for. However, it is very rare that I make any money on these commissions. I teach and help run an arts venue to fund my life in London.

How does the work you do for money interact with your practice as a whole?

The teaching is something I am very passionate about and committed to. The conversations and interaction have a profound effect on my work. Teaching helps me look at things in a different way, and the scope of problems, concerns and methods among my students is very stimulating. I believe that even if I was in a position where I did not have to teach, I still would, because it keeps your mind flexible, your eye keen and fosters a tangible connection with a much broader narrative.

What particular skills do you think have been central to your achievements as an artist? How did you learn and develop them? 

Perseverance and determination. The perseverance to see projects through and the determination to start again after failure. This is developed through experience and a willingness to fail, I guess, but most importantly for me by being brutally critical towards my own work. This has allowed me to keep a constant level of judgment that is not easily swayed by praise or criticism. I really think that having a solid “inner truth” and being responsive to it is essential to developing an interesting practice.

Looking back, what misconceptions did you have, when starting out as an artist, about the profession or industry? How have you corrected these?

When I started out I was extremely naïve compared to young artists today. I was not aware of market forces, consensual approval or gender attitudes and positions in the art world. I was very romantic and full of belief. I was desperate for affirmation and I had very little cynicism about success. Things have shifted, and it has become important to me to have a political position in my work and to situate my practice in a political feminist narrative. The desire to challenge authority in various forms is something that experience has offered me. The desire and the sense that we are responsible to try to create contexts for our work, particularly as women – that was a fundamental shift in my perception and understanding of art making and the potentials of its role in culture. This objective has completely made all my other concerns about success and affirmation irrelevant.

What advice would you give to artists at an earlier stage of their practice today?

To take risks yet be rigorous. Make sure something is at stake at all times. Be ambitious about the aims of your work and be independent. More practical advice would be to create a supportive community with peers, initiate your own opportunities, self-organise structures that challenge the establishment and to take full advantage of all opportunities no matter how small to be ambitious and develop your vision.