A Grade A-Level Fergal Nesbitt

Julie Crowley, Deputy Entertainment Editor, interviews Fergal Nesbitt, the cover star of the London Royal Academy of Art’s A-level Summer Exhibition Online

The Royal Academy of Art’s A-level Summer Exhibition Online is a showcase of the UK’s young artistic talent. Over 2000 entries were submitted by artists aged 16-18 who attend sixth-form colleges or schools in Britain. The submissions were judged by Royal Academician Mali Morris, curator Desirée de Chair, and RA Schools student Hamish Pearch. Running from 12 June to 19 August, it coincides with the 250th Summer Exhibition (the world’s largest open-entry exhibition) which contains more than 1300 original contemporary artworks “made by internationally renowned artists and exciting new talent” (information can be found at www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibition/summer-exhibition-2018 ).  The Summer Exhibition is held in the Royal Academy, (Burlington House, Piccadilly, London) coordinated by English contemporary artist Grayson Perry. The RA installed an iPad in its London gallery so visitors can interact with it to view the online A-level exhibition, which focuses on the art of young people from all over the United Kingdom. 42 entries were chosen by the judges for display in the online exhibition. There is also an online gallery of 19 commended works which were shortlisted by the judges.

The students used various media for their artwork: painting, prints, photography, animation, embroidery, textiles, etching, and sculpture. Their work tackles complex themes of gender, racism, mental health, nature, surveillance, family, isolation and belonging. One of the judges, Mali Morris RA, stated that the judges were all “… amazed by the strength of the shortlisted works, by their energy, inventiveness and sense of exploration. Every kind of feeling was here, from tenderness to rage, solemnity to hilarity, in a wide range of materials and processes.” The exhibition title (All Eyes on Me) and the categories (At Ease, Smile, We’re Watching, and Squids) are all taken from the titles of the students’ entries. Morris said that the borrowed titles “seemed to suit, and we liked the ring of them.”  The online exhibition shows incredible creativity and talent; it deserves to be as well-known as the Summer Exhibition. The online exhibition’s cover photo is one of the featured entries: a striking monochrome photo Self Portrait with Headdress by Fergal Nesbitt. He is an 18-year-old student at Bideford College, Devon. He studied French, English language, and art for his a-level exams. He used his brother’s Fujifilm DSLR Bridge Camera in the photoshoot. I spoke to him about his photography work.

Being selected for the exhibition out of 2000 entries was a surprise, to be sure, but a welcome one. He had completely forgotten about the exhibition after submitting his work until one busy morning when he checked his phone and noticed that it had 9 messages and 4 missed calls from his friend Alice Guymer. “I called her and she said ‘Have you seen it?’ I said ‘Seen what?’ and she said that we’d both been selected for the exhibition.” It was exciting news for them both.  Alice, who also attends Bideford College, created an embroidered textile piece titled “Binge.” It depicts a food-strewn table after a typical binging session by someone who suffers from bulimia. Despite Fergal’s prominent appearance in the exhibition, he doesn’t feel particularly scrutinised because the exclusively online exhibition is slightly more obscure in comparison to the more mainstream fame of the Summer Exhibition.

He studies art and has experience in drawing and painting, but photography is a recent interest for him. I asked him about his artistic influences. “I’m inspired mainly by creative individuals, people who have expressed themselves through their art to the point where their output becomes popular culture.” This androgynous photo from his first photoshoot was inspired by the work of Robert Mapplethorpe and Peter Hujar: “I did a series of self-portraits inspired by their work blurring gender and that image was one of those.” He aimed to create “images which reduce perceived differences between genders with an androgynous visual tone.” Mapplethorpe was a New York photographer who rose to prominence in the 1970s, known for his monochrome pictures of artists, musicians, actors and members of the underground S&M scene, and his self-portraits and still lifes of flowers.  He photographed the cover of Patti Smith’s album Horses. Mapplethorpe was Fergal’s most significant artistic influence: “His work is incredible, especially his documentation of the underground S&M scene of 1970s/80s New York which blurs the line between beauty and the disturbing, and his self-portrait work which is perfectly striking.” Hujar was another American photographer famous for his black-and-white portraits of people, animals and landscapes in the seventies and eighties. His portrait Candy Darling on Her Deathbed (1973) was used for the cover art of Antony and the Johnsons’ album I am a Bird Now (Darling was a transgender icon and a muse of Andy Warhol in the 70s New York underground art scene). Fergal recreated some shots of their work in the photoshoot before moving on to spontaneous poses inspired by their “mood and style.” The Self-Portrait with Headdress was one of these original photos.

He is also influenced by music and the artists behind it. “I love the 1970s punk movement plus the spawned post-punk / new wave / Goth genres, the artistic expression within these was incredible.” Music is an important inspiration for him when creating art: “a song that really inspired me would be something like Search and Destroy by The Stooges, the energy and power in that song always makes me feel like getting up and doing something, and I always listen to music loudly when I make my art, so I feel the music I listen to and what I create are very closely linked.” His use of makeup was inspired by David Bowie, The Stooges (led by Iggy Pop), and The New York Dolls, who blazed a trail in the early 70s rock scene.  

Creativity runs in the family. His parents encouraged his art. “I was always encouraged to be creative, and always loved drawing when I was young.” They are also involved in creative fields. His Irish father is a caricaturist known by the pseudonym “Luke Warm” (http://www.caricaturesbylukewarm.co.uk/). The headdress worn by Fergal in the self-portrait was handcrafted by his mother (a former costume maker) when she was in university. I asked him about his other artistic pursuits, which are varied. “I paint, recently it has been paintings based on my photography, two tone negative images of my portraits.” He also paints in a more abstract and expressive style, and he paints, stencils, and embroiders clothes.

At the time of writing, US President Donald Trump’s recent visit to the UK has caused controversy domestically and abroad. Fergal was in London recently for a week but left the day before the anti-Trump protests began. I decided to ask his opinion about it. What did he think of Trump’s trip to the UK? “I understand the nature of his visit, and that it’s kind of necessary and a formal process, but I dislike the reception from May, the hand holding etc. as it defeats any sense of resistance against his policies/viewpoints.” So what does the future hold for this promising young artist? I asked him what his plans are after graduating secondary school. After he has received his a-level results in August, he will study art. “I’m doing an art foundation course for a year at the local art college, then I’ll move to London, either to do some art degree or just to move there, I’m honestly not too sure.” He is considering studying fine art in university later. “If I did go to university it would probably be to do fine art, although ideally I’d somehow skip that but still work doing something I like.” We wish him all the best for the future!


The exhibition can be viewed online at www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibition/a-level-online-2018

More of Fergal Nesbitt’s photos can be seen on his Instagram account at www.instagram.com/fergalnesbitt/?hl=en/