Meet the Artist: Jamillah Knowles

Our Q&A with artist – and main prize winner at the 2022 Friends’ Exhibition – Jamillah Knowles…

“….  I love that focus on science, mathematics and tech’s impact on society. That doesn’t feel like the career of an artist, but I have drawn all my life…Maybe everyone who has this drive to make things should be called an artist…”

Based in Bristol, Jamillah Knowles is an artist, writer and the former host of BBC Radio 5Live’s Outriders program. With a special interest in technology and a degree in artificial intelligence, her work uses images, sculpture and multimedia to challenge popular ideas around AI. Jamillah is also a Friend of the RWA, and at the 2022 Friends’ Exhibition she won the Niche Frames ‘Best in Show’ prize for her striking work using embroidery on a printing screen, AI Riot.

Here’s our Q&A…

When did you realise you were an artist?

I am still unsure some days. I have a degree in computer science with a focus on AI. For work I write about technology a lot and I love that focus on science, mathematics and tech’s impact on society. That doesn’t feel like the career of an artist, but I have drawn all of my life. As a kid I would spend my time making pictures, I draw cards for everyone and often share cartoons on social media. Last year I started an MA in illustration with Falmouth (distance learning) and that has really helped to consolidate my skills and ideas. Am I an artist though? Maybe everyone who has this drive to make things should be called an artist.

In one sentence, why do you make art?

I can’t not make art, it’s something I hope I will always be able to do.

Jamillah Knowles, AI Riot, Embroidered printing screen

Your work AI Riot won ‘Best in Show’ prize at the 2022 Friends’ Exhibition. It is in an unusual medium: embroidered printing on screen. Can you tell us something about that process – and is that medium typical of your work?

I have been embroidering since I was a kid, taught by my mother and shaped by my aunt – both of whom make art through craft, drawing and ceramics. I did follow a textiles line for my arts foundation course but it didn’t feel like a path to storytelling to me back then. 

I draw, paint, use inks and papercraft, it really depends on what I am trying to portray. The screens were an unexpected addition, someone was selling some online and I took them with thoughts of embroidery. They’re a challenge though! The screens are very delicate and transparent, so I can’t have the messy backing that I usually make when embroidering on opaque materials. The needle leaves holes too, so you have to be intentional about each stitch and be relaxed, too much tension will rip the screen. That makes it all sound like a total fiddle, but it’s really satisfying when it all comes together. AI Riot is one of my smaller screens, the big ones are harder to handle and some stretching (me, not the screen!) and sitting on the floor to support the frame is usually required.

Can you tell us something about the inspiration of AI Riot, or what you were seeking to communicate or capture?

AI Riot is part of an exploration of images relating to AI. I have a good understanding of this technology and I continually watch the ways in which it emerges in our lives. The straight lines are based on neural network diagrams, the silhouettes are people who may be affected, connected, catalogued or watched by systems that use AI. 

There are a lot of ways in which AI is not being used well, it can be a lazy technologist’s tool, a buzzword for tired marketers or the basis of activities like surveillance and data collection. I am exploring how we depict this by working with a brilliant organisation called Better Images of AI. We have such a visual culture that our understanding of tech can be led by the images we see. Pictures of the Terminator, robots that don’t exist and strange cliches like interpretations of the ‘Creation of Adam’ from the Sistine Chapel with a human and robotic hand all illustrate a point but I don’t think they help everyone understand something that they’re probably carrying in their pocket as part of a mobile device.

Jamillah Knowles – ‘Our network shadows’, Drawing
Jamillah Knowles – ‘Black Box technology’. Embroidery.

What does winning the Best in Show prize mean to you?

This has been an enormous surprise. The exhibition has so much incredible work and I was happy just to be a part of the show! Being Best in Show has given me more confidence about my ideas and skills and it will push me to make more. The Friends Exhibition show is a great way to see what an amazing creative community there is here and it’s encouraging to be a part of that.

What are you working on now?

I am continuing with the silk screens and with the AI theme – but in separate streams. I have another large screen on the go exploring the role of women in storytelling and fairy tales and a canvas which I will embroider to further explore how AI connects with people’s lives. 

The MA continues too and there’s always a lot of work to explore through that. AI will be my main theme but the course has provided some really brilliant and challenging briefs that have taken me to all sorts of different places

A fairy godmother waves her magic wand and says you can own any artwork in the world. What do you choose?

Oh my goodness! This is really hard. I love art and images, I might want to return to my highschool love of Rossetti’s ‘Proserpine’, or dive into the beautiful graphic space of a massive Bridget Riley. I also love comic book art and an original Moebius would be wonderful. 

If I had to choose one today though it would be Lucian Freud’s ‘Two Plants’. It might not have an obvious narrative, or display an epic landscape or drama – but I have seen it once and I couldn’t look away. I am astonished that it took three years to paint and the ongoing details just keep me coming back to look at it – even versions online. I would be very happy if a fairy godmother wanted to give that to me – I think I would  be happy to look at it for the rest of my life, still finding something new in the frame.

Lucien Freud – ‘Two Plants’ (Tate. Image credit)

You can see more examples of Jamillah’s work on her website  and follow her on Instagram.

Photo top by Fran Jones

The Friends of the RWA is an independent charity that supports the Royal West of England Academy, Bristol’s first art gallery. 
For just £35 a year Friends can make unlimited visits to RWA exhibitions and enjoy a host of other benefits, as well as making an important contribution to the arts in Bristol and the South West. Find out more and join up here.

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