Layla Andrews was just 19 when Barack Obama wrote to her telling her he loved her work. The British artist, whose portrait of the then US president had caught the eye of the man himself, was on holiday at the time. She logged onto the WiFi to find her mother had left her 24 missed calls to let her know she had a letter from the White House. The letter was read out over the phone.
“Where you are and what’s happening right now doesn’t have to determine where you end up. If you have faith in yourself and hold onto the courage and resolve that’s brought you this far, I’m confident you’ll reach your goals. Thank you again for thinking of me, I’m inspired by the strength and resilience that comes across in stories like yours and I wish you the best for your future.”
Andrews didn’t come from a standard artistic background. She was raised by her mother and her grandmother in a council house in Hampshire. Her father, who she describes as “not a good guy”, has never been in the picture. She is of mixed heritage – although Andrews was born in the UK, she is part Arabic and part St Helenian. She loved art from an early age, but her family wasn’t in the position take her and her sister to London art galleries. Her school wasn't overly encouraging and didn’t approve of the way she used her fingers rather than a brush to paint. Creativity looked different in the Andrews household. Every weekend, the close-knit family would go to car boot sales, where the kids were encouraged to find pieces to build sets or create costumes. All her art supplies, from canvases to brushes, were bought in local second-hand shops. By the time, she received Obama’s letter, she had already had to work doubly hard for her achievements due to the art world’s enduring classism. She is, as she says, the "double whammy of being mixed-race and working class".
“His letter is still on my mum’s mantlepiece,” she says. “It gave me a real bolster. Obama is someone I admired so much. He came from a non-nuclear family, his grandparents were super important to him, he didn’t really have a dad in his life, and I felt that there was a mutual understanding. You don’t see that many people in these sorts of fields who haven’t come from ‘normal’ backgrounds, so when you do it’s heartening.”
Andrews’ mother and grandmother were driving forces in her success. They might not have had the connections or means to ensure she became an artist, but they filled her with the confidence and motivation she needed to keep going. “I’ve been very inspired by mum and nan because they were very resourceful people,” Andrews tells us inside her Brixton studio. “Nothing was a problem – we might not have had the money to buy something, but we’d just make it instead. I had the same as everyone else, but second-hand, and I didn’t need to ask anything from my mum. It was a way of feeling independent and equal to everyone else.”
Her big break came when she was just 15. For a school project, she painted a portrait of Nelson Mandela. Her mother contacted the South African Embassy about it, who bought the work. It was due to be presented to Mandela himself at what would have been his last state visit to the UK. Tragically, he died before the trip, but Andrews and her mother were invited to his memorial at Westminster Abbey and the art was auctioned off for his children’s charity. “It gave me a sense of legitimacy,” says Andrews. “I just couldn’t believe any of it.” Collaborations with big charities such as WWF, Pride London and Choose Love followed.
Andrews is entirely self-taught. She didn’t go art college but carved out a distinctive abstract and expressionist style that signals her out from her contemporaries. “I love experimenting with faces and filling out the abstract parts,” she explains. “Colour has always been important to my family. I often see a colour out and about and I can see immediately where it’ll fit into a painting. It’s odd, but useful.”
Second-hand stores and her family helped her break down the class barriers that surround the art world, but it’s been difficult. “I had to start years before my friends were even thinking about their careers,” she says. “When I was 15, I would come up to London on my own to networking events, going to galleries and trying to get into private views. I knew it wouldn’t be easy, and if I was going to get there, I’d need to start early to make those connections because I didn’t have any. All my friends that I’d grown up with came from wealthy families where dad was arts editor at the Guardian. That doesn’t devalue their work or experiences at all, but I always knew that it wouldn’t be like that for me.”
In her late teens, she travelled to the US to stay with her mother’s friend in Ohio. Andrews was due to go backpacking when the family put her in touch with a friend who worked in Washington DC. That friend turned out to be head carpenter at the White House, and Andrews shadowed him for a week. “It was such a great time to be there,” she recalls. “The staff were really cool. They all knew each other and would carpool to get to work. The dogs would be running round.” One day, after Andrews had left, the portrait of Obama, which her newfound contact and friend had hanging in his office, caught the eye of the president himself. “It says so much about who he is and what he’s like that he had the time and courtesy to do that – to write a letter to a young artist who wasn’t even from his country,” she says.
Back in the UK, she’s hosted a number of small exhibitions, and support from Stephen Fry who reached out to her in 2020. Despite her talent, issues surrounding her background have cropped up again. She recalls one showcase at the Oxo Tower where she was nearly prevented from attending the press preview because of she didn’t come from the right pedigree. She asked, ‘who is she, who are her parents?’ My friend replied saying that I had been raised by her mum and nan, to which this person said, ‘no one will be interested in this artist, people want to know who she is and who her family is.’ There have been a few variations of this story. A lot of galleries will shout about supporting one Black artist, but they don’t go beyond that.”
Next up is an intimate show, which tells vivid family stories from St Helena, at The Old Bank Vault in Hackney called Ahzun. The word stems from a mispronunciation of the word ‘ours’, which has become a part of the Andrews family language. “My granddad’s St Helena accent is so unusual, and he often gets his English words jumbled,” she says. “When he and my nan bought their first house in England, he looked at it and said to her, ‘it’s ahzun’. My nan was like, you mean ‘it’s ours’ and we’ve used that word ever since.”
She hopes that going forward art will become more meaningfully inclusive. "There’s such a lack of resource and opportunity in the arts and the track record for working class people, especially mixed raced working class people, is so low that they don’t even want to try," she says. "There’s a huge lack of diversity in art, in women, in colour, in class. We need to strive for more. We’re going in the right direction, but we could go further."
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