Interview with Ananya Rao-Middleton

Ananya is raw and honest with her struggle, as she tells us how painting is her therapy for Post Concussion Syndrome, a brain injury she sustained in an incident last year. Her positive perspective and strength are an inspiration!

Tell us a little about yourself and your journey to becoming an artist.

I think what really kick-started my becoming an artist was my concussion journey. I’ve been on long-term sick leave from my job as an Insight Consultant since October, as a result of an incident that left me concussed. Since then, I’ve developed Post-Concussion Syndrome, a condition that has left me isolated at home, unable to work, participate in sport or look at computer screens for long periods of time. It really, really sucks. I think I turned to art because I don’t feel like myself at the moment. This concussion has robbed me of my identity, and I think that I am looking to art as a way to regain my sense of self and reconnect with who I am.

I actually used to be big into digital art, but wasn’t able to turn to that when my concussion rendered me unable to use computers. So, inspired by my late grandfather who taught me how to use watercolours (and took up painting himself when he had to take time away from work because of heart problems) – I turned to traditional art as a way to create and heal during my concussion recovery.

What is your favourite piece and why?

My favourite piece is definitely the first piece in my latest series ‘women and their dinosaurs’ featuring a woman and a Camarasaurus chilling in a jungle! I’m really proud of this piece because I feel like it’s the first painting where I feel truly comfortable in my style. I’m also super pleased with the way I was able to capture the vibrancy of the jungle plants and leaves!

On a more political note, it’s also my favourite piece because I love that as a mixed race woman of Indian heritage, I’ve created a painting with a brown woman protagonist. She is not a muse or a subject to me, but a heroine in her own story. I’m very conscious of the way the bodies of black and brown women are frequently exoticised and hyper-sexualised, often by white male artists, so it feels particularly powerful for me to paint her. And yes, I decided to paint her nude because I don’t want to shy away from painting the nude female body. For me, painting her skin and her breast and nipple was a way for me to reclaim the brown female body through my art.

What does your work aim to say?

My work aims to communicate a kind of deliberate political ‘care-freeness’. I want to tell people: I have a brain injury, I’m a woman of colour, I’m a fighter (I practice a variety of combat sports and martial arts), I’m an Anthropologist, and I’m at peace with myself and my situation. I want to show other people with brain injuries, and also other women, that we can dare to imagine and experience joy.

What does a day in the life of an artist look like?

Haha, I think my day might be a little different from most artists! I have to work with my brain injury, because my days are shaped by me needing to navigate my symptoms. 
Mornings are the best time of the day for me – it’s when I have the most energy and am less likely to feel dizzy or fatigued. At the moment, I use this time to exercise – I go for a short jog and come home to do some more exercises. After I’ve finished that, I grab lunch at around noon and head up to my bedroom to paint. I have my mum’s old writing desk in there and have found that it’s the perfect place to just close the door, light a scented candle and paint! 
When I’m painting, I make sure to take frequent breaks so that my dizziness doesn’t get the better of me. I can’t tell you how difficult it is to paint when you’re dizzy! So, if I feel dizziness creeping up on me, I lie on my sofa and mediate for around 20 minutes.
I always take my time to paint two layers of colour for every element in my paintings. I think this contributes to the opaque and vibrant colours I’m able to achieve with my watercolours. After this, I go detail crazy! I’ll get my teeny brush and start adding things like freckles, eyelashes, rings and so on.

I try to finish up painting before it gets too late so that I have time to relax and wind down before bed. Another annoying thing about having a brain injury is that it can make it really difficult to sleep. So, I meditate every night before bed for at least half an hour.

Can you tell us about the process of making your work?

It’s fairly straightforward! I always pre-stretch my watercolour paper and tape it to a board on my desk. Before I begin a painting, I will always have done at least two mock sketches of the painting. This is so that when I’m sketching up the final piece, I am familiar with the composition and form. I also find it really helpful to mock up a coloured sketch so that I get an idea of the colour composition of the piece.

When I begin work on the final piece, I’ll sketch very lightly on the watercolour paper. After that, I start painting the background first – this usually involves laying down a base colour that sets the tone of the painting. I’ll leave each layer to dry before painting another one. If there are any people in my painting, I always paint them last, just because I feel that there is less room for error if the background is already finished.

Who / what inspires you?

Women artists really inspire me. I’ve been absolutely obsessed with the creativity of young women artists and illustrators I’ve found. When I started toying with the idea of painting in October, looking at their work made me feel like I could be a creator too. Some of my favourite artists include Janice Sung, Petra Braun, ‘Dhaka Yeah!’, Sara Barnes, Lea Augereau and my all time favourite – Brunna Mancuso.

I’m also inspired by all the women in my life. I feel that the women I have been blessed to know are very resilient, powerful, empathetic and intelligent. I feel inspired by them, and I want to translate their power into my paintings.

Why do you love what you do?

Art is healing me. I can literally feel my brain responding to what I create. It’s amazing! My brain feels more at peace when I’m painting, and I just know that it’s doing my brain injury a world of good. I’m also passionate about politics and talking about injustice and inequality. I think art is, and has always been, a powerful political tool.

Can you tell us why you think art within the local community is important?

I think art is cathartic and an important way to heal and express yourself. I also think that it is an important way to communicate political ideas. I think art within the local community is important for those two reasons. The more people are able to understand the power in their own creativity, whether that be for healing, or political expression, the better.
I think that this country is doing a HUGE injustice to its people, particularly in vulnerable communities hit by austerity, by de-funding and cutting arts and community funding. By doing so, the government is taking away the opportunity for people to be creative – and creativity is central to the way people learn and acquire knowledge. This boils down to being a malicious attack on the ability for everybody to have access to knowledge and learning. That is why it is important to situate art at the heart of community learning, healing and growth.

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