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  • Carola Kolbeck

Feminist Activism: Kerdisha Lets Her Art Do The Talking

Meet Kerdisha, the Nottingham artist who lends a voice to those who are afraid to speak up.

Sitting in front of a wall of colourful artwork is a slight young woman who smiles at me when the video call connects us. It’s not the first time I’ve spoken to her. I connected with Kerdisha months ago after spotting her art online and instantly felt drawn to it. When we first spoke back then, we chatted for over an hour, and we could have easily filled another hour putting the world to rights.

Today, Kerdisha proudly tells me that she now has a studio in her apartment, a dedicated place where she comes up with her thought-provoking and no-nonsense art. At 25 years old, she speaks with conviction and a force that I am in awe of.

Kerdisha’s art is not just a vehicle for change in a society that has become more divided whilst also showing signs of inclusivity and acceptance. Her paintings, most of which contain bold messages surrounding body positivity, consent, feminism, and LGBTQIA+ rights, are also form of protest for all the injustices and inequalities that still plague our world to this day.

Although Kerdisha’s life was always surrounded by art, thanks to her mother, a graphic designer from Zimbabwe, it wasn’t until her GCSEs that she noticed that her art had the power to change misguided and harmful narratives that circulate in society. Having always been drawn to women’s body shapes, their curves, and all the geometric shapes you can see in them, Kerdisha selected to draw the female form for her final exam. But, instead of unwavering support from her (male) art teacher, she was met with a firm denial to proceed, with her teacher calling her project suggestion pornographic.

Outraged, she vented at her psychology and sociology teacher, who suggested she’d pick a different topic from the exam paper, namely that of a recent political movement.

“I told her that I don’t care about politics,” Kerdisha recalls. Her response was asking me whether I had paid any attention in our sociology classes. She told me to do the ‘Free the Nipple Movement’! What a genius! And so, instead of getting modestly-drawn women, my art teacher got just nipples!”

Kerdisha tells me that her art teacher refused to mark her work, and the school had to enlist a female art teacher to grade her project. Rather than avoid further uncomfortable situations, Kerdisha started to research the female form and why it was so overly sexualised in society. She continued campaigning for change throughout university but was often met with hurdles and obstacles.

A key moment for Kerdisha and her art was the kidnap, rape, and murder of Sarah Everard in South London by a MET police officer in March 2021. Kerdisha was shocked by online comments made about the victim, asking what she was doing at that time alone at night on London’s streets, why she had gone with the police officer in the first place, why she hadn’t held any pepper spray, and what she had been wearing. Horrified to notice that some blame was put on the victim, Kerdisha began to draw.

The drawing, a generic face of a woman, was covered in post-it notes that carried messages all women know too well: Avoid alleys and doorways. Don’t drink too much. Hold your keys like a weapon. Watch what you wear. Text me when you’re home.

“It’s basically all the crap society tells women that we have to do in order to stay safe rather than holding the attackers accountable", Kerdisha says. The fact that women still get blamed for violent crimes against them made her incredibly angry. Her post, however, spoke to many others, who were equally as angry about what had happened, and the response online was overwhelming. So Kerdisha created more art that was vocal about women’s rights and societal injustice, and the followers kept flooding in.

“The feedback was so positive,” she recalls, “with so many women saying that they’re so glad they found my account because I was saying what they felt. I was like their voice. So I just started making more and more art like that.”

Women’s safety and rights are not the only things Kerdisha feels passionately about. The Nottingham artist regularly shares art about bodily autonomy and body positivity as a result of current affairs and having been bullied as a child. She was ridiculed at school for being petite and skinny and endured nasty comments and personal jokes about her weight. Yet, equally, Kerdisha recognises that on the opposite side of the scale, plus-size women are targeted and bullied just the same. “Whether you’re a big or skinny person, you’re gonna get bullied regardless,” she says. “Society is never happy with us. Yet you don’t hear that kind of criticism against men. So we just need to love ourselves and tell everyone else to shut up!”

While Kerdisha is hell-bent on changing the narrative for women across the world, she also understands some of the sticky points that can hinder activism and stop conversations before they’ve even started. For her, it’s about working together, listening to each other as well as being able to admit that you’re wrong. She doesn’t believe that being radical is the way forward. One of the biggest mistakes made by some feminists, she believes, is declaring that they hate men. "If you’re telling the people who you want to listen to you that you hate them, then why would they listen to you? Why would they want to be on our side? She points out that this kind of approach puts people straight away on the back foot, especially since many men do listen, are supportive, and want to help implement positive change.

“We're not fighting each other, we're not against each other! You have your issues, and we will fight with you for them - if you fight with us for ours.” It’s about breaking down those walls and instigating societal change. Otherwise, says Kerdisha, there won’t be enough badges, stickers, and posters to make a change. People need to start to listen and open their eyes to what’s really going on.

However, this doesn’t mean that bold messages and blunt statements haven’t got a place. Kerdisha openly states in her art what many people think. Beating around the bush is not part of her repertoire. From Fuck the Tories on badges and fridge magnets to Ask for Consent on art prints, the young activist says it as it is and thereby becomes a voice for those who may have been too afraid or shy to voice their opinion on those topics.

No matter how difficult the topic, she tackles it with aplomb, clarity, and conviction. Lately, she has been particularly engrossed in the horrific overthrowing of the Roe v Wade legal case in the USA. Whether social issues happen here or anywhere else in the world, Kerdisha understands that fighting for women’s rights has to transcend borders and thousands of miles. “Abortion is Healthcare” matters everywhere, and for the 25-year-old, having this basic right snatched away overnight sets a precedent of what could happen anywhere else, even here in the UK. Activism, therefore, has to be worldwide because not only can it happen to everyone in any country, but also, as Kerdisha asks: “Do we not care about those women!?” To her, it’s very simple. Unless all women are free, none of us really are because we’re all in this together.

I ask Kerdisha whether there’s anything she struggles with or feels uncomfortable about, given the high-profile topics she handles with such mastery. In a surprising twist, which makes her even more lovable to me, she tells me that she actually really struggles with social anxiety. During her first Pride event last year, when she was selling her art at her stall, she got so overwhelmed that she hid underneath her table and cried. She also admits that, although she has no problems promoting other people’s work, she finds it difficult to accept that people want to buy from her because they adore what she does.

She recalls a situation where she tried to talk a customer out of buying her products. “This one girl came over, and she said, ‘Oh, I love this print. Do you have it in a bigger size, because I’d like to buy this as well?’ And she had other bits in her hands, stickers, and badges. And I turned round to her and said: ‘You don’t need all of that!’” Eventually, she tells me, one of her friends sent her away from her stand and sold the customer everything she wanted and more. “She hadn’t seen the fridge magnets, so she left with a load of them, too," Kerdisha laughs.

She also mentions the constant battle with social media platforms, especially TikTok, that take down her art for allegedly breaking community guidelines. “I posted that dead people have more body autonomy than women because unless you consent to give up your organs, no one can take them. And they (TikTok) took it down. I appealed against it, and they allowed it back up. But the majority of them, they just get taken down.”

Despite those little setbacks, which she tackles with humour and the endless support of her partner who champions her and spurs her on, Kerdisha loves what she does, is fired up by the positive feedback she gets from existing and new fans, and loves connecting with new people through her art.

Kerdisha is more than an artist, feminist, and activist. She is a warrior who champions those who are oppressed and suffer, she stands with those who need a voice, and she calls out society’s bullshit, asking us all to join her. She doesn’t believe in alienating others but rather wants us to open up conversations, listen, and stand firm when it comes to being an ally to those who need it. Best of all: She lends her voice to those who sometimes can’t quite find the right way to say how they feel and what they support. Through her art, all of us can do the talking.

You can find Kerdisha on Instagram and TikTok

You can also meet her at Nottingham Sherwood Pride on 15th September 2023.

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