You can’t drive through Bristol without spotting one of Farrah’s incredible murals, making buildings look vibrant and alive. You can certainly see how movement of our bodies and the natural environment inspire her stunning work and convey her adventurous and freedom-loving spirit.
In the second Body Story from our Making Waves series, dancer and contemporary artist Farrah tells us how the freedom of her childhood, her travel adventures and her passion for the health of people and planet bring her artwork to life.
Can you tell us a little bit about what you do?
I juggle a little bit here and there, but I’m mainly an artist at the moment, concentrating on paintings, murals and commissions that come in. It's a bit of a funny one because my mural jobs are slowing down, so I have more time to focus on my own work on big, round canvases.
Have you always been artistic?
Yeah, I remember being the little artist in the family. My uncle was an amazing artist. He was born in Kenya, and I remember seeing this amazing oil painting of an elephant with Kilimanjaro in the background and I was like, wow, I can’t believe you painted that. I really looked up to my Uncle Shafi; we were really close. He died a couple of years ago, but he was my inspiration and I used to think I wanted to be a painter like him.
As a child, I didn’t actually paint, I was always sketching. I would sit with plants or bowl of fruit and create a still life out of it. It was my favourite thing to do – a bit like what my daughter does now.
I was the only one of my siblings who was like that, and I think my parents just thought it was a thing I enjoyed – they didn’t encourage me to pursue it. But I had an aunt and uncle who thought that I was gifted and they would buy me sketchbooks and pencils to develop my art. At school, I remember winning art competitions all the time, which I was very proud of.
How did you feel about yourself growing up?
I was really happy, contented and free as a child. I was always an explorer. I remember going off with my school friend, getting on her bike as I didn't have my own bike, and going exploring in the neighbourhood for hours. I think because we didn't have much, no gadgets or anything like that, I had to make the most of what little I had and my imagination would run wild. In those days, parents didn't worry so much. It would be totally different now. We lived in a brand new estate, but with marshland behind it and it was so underdeveloped and unknown territory; it was a world to be explored.
It's so funny how out of four siblings, I was the one who was like that when we were raised in the same way and given the same things. We never went away on holidays, but every weekend and at half-terms, I couldn't just sit around I had to go out and explore or paint or be active climbing walls and doing cartwheels at every opportunity. I don’t know why, but I was very different from my siblings; I was always excited about nature and the world around me.
Going back and thinking about those days is really lovely. Childhood is so special as I got to be a free spirit.
Did all that freedom to be a child affect how you felt about your body growing up?
I did have issues with my body. When I was very young, I had this conflict. On one hand, I was really content and confident in myself. But on the other, people in the family nicknamed me Fatso because my sister was very slim and I was younger but bigger and taller and I loved food. I wasn’t obese; I was just a normal healthy child, but I got that nickname. I remember that it was always the men. Older cousins and uncles would pinch my chubby cheeks and laugh at me. Even though it was with a strange kind of endearment, I think that really messed up my confidence and gave me a complex about my body throughout my life and into the present day.
I'm now really wary of this because I have my owns kids. I avoid comments on people's looks, especially using the terms fat and skinny. I despise those words because I always thought I was too fat, especially compared to my sister who was also given an awful nickname of Tinso. Do you remember Laurel and Hardy, the 1920s comedians? One was very slim and the other very round. And so we were also nicknamed Laurel and Hardy. And one year, I even got a birthday cake with their faces on it as everyone found that hilarious apart from me and my sister. Can you believe that?
I was also tall for my age so people thought I was a lot older than I actually was. I remember having another nickname, High Tower, at primary school. Having these sort of nicknames undoubtedly made me rather conscious of my body shape. I just wanted to be a child; I didn't want to look like a woman so early. It made me think about sexuality younger than I needed to also.
Growing up as a teenager, comments on my looks continued. ‘She so pretty, she’s tall, she’s lost weight’ etc. Luckily, this didn't have a huge detrimental impact on me. I think I'm a very grounded, stable person. And also luckily for me, I was growing up in the 90s, so big t-shirts and baggy jeans could hide my body.
When I was sixteen, I ended up getting into catwalk modelling for Asian wedding fashion shows. I remember that a famous Asian hairstylist commented on my thighs. He was doing my hair and he said that I had chunky thighs. So after that, I worried about my legs being too big.
It’s relentless how I continually got labelled growing up. I didn’t know if I was coming or going: I'm a child, I'm a woman, I'm fat, I’m too tall, I'm beautiful. It was totally bloody bonkers.
It interesting that you say so many of those comments came from men.
Yes, and I think that girls get labelled in a way that boys don’t. It makes me very protective of my daughter now. People commented on her shape when she was a lot younger, saying she was too skinny. I’ve had to firmly dismiss them and tell them that means nothing. She's fit and healthy. She's active, athletic. That’s the most important thing.
Despite negative comments, you stayed grounded. What helped you with your confidence?
I always loved dancing. After I had my daughter, I went through a lonely period which a lot of new mums go through. My other half worked away quite a lot and I was at home with a new baby girl in a new city. I felt more lonely, even though I loved every minute with my baby. But I would put on music and we’d dance for hours. And then I got pregnant again, but the second pregnancy was really hard on my hips and I actually ended up in a wheelchair with pelvic girdle problems. I saw lots of physios and doctors who tried to help me get stronger but with not a huge amount of success. Then I got thinking: I can't put up with this, I need to get fit, I need to get strong. I thought about music and dance and how it had helped me and how there were no dance classes in the area for kids. And so, I set them up myself.
I found a hall down the road and it the kids classes became a massive hit. I couldn't believe it! The classes were packed with 40 kids. I was so excited. My son was one-and-a-half, so I’d plonk him down or I had him in my arms; it was totally bonkers and quite tricky some days, but it worked.
Instead of putting the children in childcare, I managed to get some regular freelance graphic design work. I’d work after they went to bed until midnight. After a few months, it just felt so wrong to be sitting down and working on a laptop; I had to be active. I wanted to fix my body from the problems I'd had from having babies. So, the dance and music were my way out of it.
It was a weird time in my life. I didn't plan on becoming this fit person, but as I got stronger, people then started commenting on my weight again, saying I’d got too skinny. I mean, it was no real surprise; everyone's commented on my fucking looks throughout my whole life and they continue to do it. I was personally very happy to be getting fitter and get my body stronger, but it annoys me even when people comment on my looks now.
It sounds like a really pivotal moment in your life. Were you still painting?
Yeah, I was still painting as a hobby, but I thought the dance workshops were going to be my main thing. When we went into lockdown, I felt that people needed them even more and I still needed to earn a bit of money, so I ran workshops through Facebook Live and I was getting people from around the world tuning in. It wasn’t about the money though; I really thought that was my purpose, helping people for their mental health. So, the dining room became this kind of Joe Wicks studio – it's hilarious what you can do within four walls. We went bonkers with kids dressing up in all sorts of costumes, streaming it out to the world.
And then it dwindled because everyone started doing online activities. I carried it on as much as I could; I needed it – the fitness, the fun and joy to just get me out of the tough time I was going through. Dancing is so joyful, isn't it?
The dancing is relatively new compared to painting, so I was painting as well because I couldn't not paint. When I was in Cambridge years ago, I decided to paint on canvases because I needed to do something creative. Then a café down the road exhibited them and I sold a piece, and I was like, oh wow, I’m getting money for art, this could be a little hobby. I didn’t it seriously; I thought I could never make it for living out of it, so I carried on working in graphic design and also painting. I then exhibited in galleries and sold a few pieces which was amazing, but I never really believed in myself.
It wasn’t until lockdown when I painted the wall outside my house that it all changed. The Windmill Hill art trail had been cancelled that year because of the pandemic and I still want to do something arty, so I thought, why not just paint my wall? And that's how my murals took off. Lockdown time was absolutely madness.
Dance, movement and water is really present in your work. How was this an influence?
It was a big thing. After going to Australia and swimming in the Great Barrier Reef, I was just blown away. I thought: oh my gosh, so many people will never see what I'm seeing; the colours, the fish, because of global warming and therefore coral bleaching. I had all these visions that I wanted to come back to the UK and paint what I saw. So, my art changed from very intricate, Asian influenced designs like henna designs to big, colourful paintings. I remember learning more about the climate crisis because of this one trip. I thought, when I’ve got kids, they’re not going to see this. So that's why I had to paint them, and that’s why I paint with so much colour.
The environment is my passion; I thought I'd donate 10% from my paintings to the Rainforest Alliance, so it’s not just about painting, but also talking about helping the environment and donating to charity
You’ve won awards for your work at Upfest, Bristol’s celebration of graffiti art. Can you tell us about that?
I did my first large mural for them in 2021, which was totally unexpected. Basically, Upfest had this huge wall part of their 75 walls in 75 days art festival. But its owners didn't like what the first artist was proposing to put on it. So, at the last minute, they asked me because the owners liked my work. I’d just had Covid and I had literally had to work in two weeks time to paint it. I was going to be on scaffolding, which I’d never been on in my life. It was insane; the pressure, the excitement, all the emotions. Then, there was one in Weston-Super-Mare a couple of months later. They wanted me to paint this big wall on the sea front. And lastly, the third wall last year which I did for United Nations.
Your Van Gogh work was amazing too; how did that come about?
Again, Upfest got touch to say that this exciting immersive exhibition was coming to Bristol and they’re looking for a Van Gogh type artist and I came to mind. I was just overwhelmed; I couldn’t believe it. Then they met me and said, it's got to be you. That was last year and it was amazing.
Are you still painting and dancing?
The painting has slowed down a bit now. I think people in lockdown were stuck within their own four walls and so they needed something cheerful and happy to look at and bought my art or commissioned me to paint murals. But things have changed a lot this year. People don't have that disposable income. It’s getting tough and that's why I'm focusing on my canvases again now and trying to get back into my dance again.
I want to do a lot of stuff with kids. Through art and dancing, you can help children learn about environmental issues and help their mental health. I'm working with my son's school for art workshops in September which will be fun and nurturing.
I went to the nursery part of the school and asked me what I could do on their wall. I saw that they've got the numbers one to 10 on blank wooden boards to help children learn numerals. I worked with a men's mental health organisation called Talk Club back in May that asks, how are you out of 10? It works on the idea that if someone asks how you are, you say fine, but if you have a number, you can say, I'm a five today. Then you can say, oh that's not great, and that leads to a discussion. So, I talked to the nursery teachers about doing that with those numbers. So, every morning the kids come to school, they pick a colourful number, and say how are they are out of 10. Kids that are moving to brand new nursery or school can have a lot of anxiety, sadness, etc, but might not be able to communicate how they're feeling. With this little project, the staff will see how the child is feeling and maybe it prompts them to spend more time with that child that day.
So, things like this happen naturally and I feel that's my new path now to help kids with their mental health.
It’s so interesting to hear about your background after you did the D&B shoot. How did it make you feel?
I want to be proud with whatever shape I am because it's not about what I look like. But it did trigger me a bit; it did make me worry about how I’m going look in the photos. Also, it's a thing culturally to pose in a bikini. I might get to the point where I can show my mum, but definitely not my dad. But, what I'm taking away from it is that I enjoyed it and I’m actually more comfortable than I thought. Ten years ago, I would have been really uncomfortable and I'll probably would have said no. But you get more comfortable with age, and after having kids. All I want to show them is that I can, to be a role model. I want to say, actually don't be afraid; you can do these things; you know you're not perfect, but it's about the story. For me, it's also about working with ethical people and things I believe in. So, it was amazing.
I loved the bikini. It really does compliment my body shape and I was just really comfortable in it; very elegant, really lovely shapes. I love the plungy-ness of the one that I've got. I didn’t realise how much I’d love the colour, but it was perfect for me.
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Farrah wears The Plunge Bikini in Plum and the X-Back Swimsuit in Scarlet in a 12 Monroe.
Did you enjoy reading this Body Story? Discover the other stories in our Making Waves series, and read about amazing women whose life-changing work inspires and moves others.
“I had a giant mermaid sculpture made of recycled plastic to highlight the plastic pandemic, and I swam the length of the River Thames as a mermaid. Then, one day, I rescued a drowning cow and my story made it into The Sun newspaper.” Read Lindsey’s story.
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