“I Surrender My Body to Water and Fire” by Daniela Yohannes: A Response to the Discourse of Migration

Raised in London and currently based in Guadeloupe in the French Caribbean, Daniela Yohannes (born 1982) reflects upon the identities and movements of the African diaspora—using her own Ethiopian-Eritrean heritage as lens—across multiple media. In her series “In Surrender My Body to Water and Fire” (2022), she explores the events of displacement across dramatic land-and-seascapes.

She explains: “This body of work is a response to contemporary migration discourse, rendered through a personal, emotive and Diasporic lens. These paintings meditate and lament issues around politics of place, freedom of movement and the desperate actions people take to survive. I explore the hardship of a severed connection with homeland and community, while also confronting the devastating impact of treacherous journeys of migration. These paintings bear witness to the perils of the Eritrean and Tigray people, with whom I share an identity and a homeland.”

Black bodies floating in the dead of night © Daniela Yohannes 

Feelings of loss and uncertainty are felt throughout the series but the vivid oranges and blues look strangely promising. They emanate an energy that conveys hope, and the powerful conviction that no matter what, we will be able to survive and thrive. Also, in the paintings, the individual and the collective blend in such a manner that it is difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins. The loneliness within the images is alleviated, if not completely eliminated, and bonds are forged through an awareness of the fact that this is an experience lived by many others.

While her early collages and paintings of mystic figures were situated in dream spaces, of late Daniela has been engaging with the tensions of her real world surroundings. In both fury and despair, she has watched as the media presents images and stories that reinforce the notion of otherness and feed the rhetoric of nativism, divisively reinforcing a denial of humanity by portraying the migrant as an inconvenience, or a potential danger to Europe and the broader Western world.

If we are not claimed by the desert © Daniela Yohannes 

Daniela’s journey as an artist has been unconventional. She was trained as an illustrator—having attended Camberwell College of Art & Design and Kingston University in the UK—and meandered through different disciplines before settling upon her current place of focus and purpose.

Since her move to the Caribbean two years ago, her surroundings have found their way into her creations, spiritually and aesthetically. She describes her inspiration as that of the invisible; the forces and concepts that drive and surround us: unseen but constantly at work on our bodies and minds. Her paintings are witness to the expression of nature; explorations of the intimate experiences that are shared only with the elements: earth, air, water, and magic. She is keen on confronting themes of consciousness, race and ancestry, the ethereal nature of the cosmos and the plurality of the individual.

In addition to I Surrender My Body to Water and Fire, Daniela’s solo exhibitions are The Fall: A Woman’s Descent into the Unconscious, Addis Fine Art Project Space, London, UK (2019), and Beyond Voudou, The Pikture Gallery, Bangkok, Thailand (2010). She has also participated in a number of group shows, exhibiting in cities across the world including Influence Project, Real Music Rebels East Wing Takeover, Somerset House, London (2018), House of Wahala Project, Texas, USA (2017), Untitled Black British Art, Latham Watkins, London, UK (2016), AfrikBytes Exhibition, Afreaka Festiva, São Paulo, Brazil (2016), What Will Survive of Us is Love, The Invisible Line, London, UK (2012).

Links: Website (danielayohannes.space) | Instagram (www.instagram.com/painteroftheinvisible)

I surrender my body to water and fire © Daniela Yohannes 
Kanza © Daniela Yohannes 
In the shadows © Daniela Yohannes 
Beneath the Pelagie © Daniela Yohannes 
Drifting © Daniela Yohannes 
Then by the sea swallowing us up whole © Daniela Yohannes 
Dallol raging fires © Daniela Yohannes 
Ontological Terror © Daniela Yohannes 
But don’t believe it © Daniela Yohannes 
When dreams turn into nightmares © Daniela Yohannes