Hannah Nijsten is a self-taught artist based in London who has dedicated her work to exploring unique techniques in painting to express herself. Two years ago she embarked on a body of work aimed at drawing attention to the creeping racism within football in the UK. She was inspired to speak up after many conversations with black football players she knew who were having a very tough time. 

Her collection named ‘Standing With You’ launched recently. It is a collaboration with professional footballers past and present including Ross Barkley, Gary Lineker, Andy Cole, Anton Ferdinand, Kieran Gibbs and Shaun Wright-Phillips. 

Two years in the making, the collection coincides with the Blackout action on May 1st where a coalition of English football’s largest governing bodies and organisations including the Football Association, Premier League and EFL will go silent on social media in a show of solidarity against racism. Hannah explains more about the evolution of this collection below.

Thoughts on The Blackout

“It’s a great way of showing the power of people working together for an important cause, it also shows the game is willing to take proactive steps in the continued fight against racism. I think a weekend of silence is good, but I do think continued efforts of the clubs coming together will be needed to make a larger impact. 

The European Super League is a good example. Fans were able to come together within just a few days and force a retreat by that planned league. If fans and clubs were to unite with the same energy towards racism as they did the European Super League, we’d see racism disappear far quicker”.

Getting support for Standing With You

“To get the right people involved, I was helped by long-standing friends within the football industry which very fortunately, snowballed to other people within the football world lending a hand.  I was quite taken aback that people were so forthcoming.  They loved the concept, the artwork and my passion on the subject and it was amazing having people really go above and beyond for the project”.

Response to Standing With You

“I’ve been really impressed by the response to this collection because I was really worried about the amount of heat I was going to get from a lot of angles. The response has been great and really positive which is amazing because it means we have been able to get the message out there clearly and it has really resonated with a lot of people at a very challenging time”.

Working during the lockdown

“Prior to the first lockdown, March 2020, I had created the ‘Standing With You’ collection which is 11 pieces of artwork for 11-a-side football.  Each painting within the collection being a visual representation of the power of people coming together to create a positive change.  As the paintings themselves were completed I focused fully on setting up the project and the campaign surrounding it.

Although creating the project was more difficult during lockdown it had its benefits as collaborators of the project had more downtime for me to play with.

Artists all rely quite heavily on social media whether we want to or not – but that is the way of the world now, especially whilst galleries have been closed to the public for the majority of the last year. What is challenging for me as an artist is trying to get across my personality and the feel of the work, the integrity, depth and provenance in a deep and meaningful way using the 2D representation that social media is. My work is better seen in the flesh where you can see and feel the richness, roughness, undulations and contours – as in this body of work. You want people to see and feel your work in its purest form. Having said that, my team is always challenging me to portray my work in new ways across social media, it certainly keeps me on my toes and often out of my comfort zone”.

The Back Story

“Through my school years I had a passion for art.  Furthering the study and going to art school was the dream but getting into a heap of debt for university especially because I had no desire to become a lawyer, or engineer just didn’t sit right with me.  It is a very well known fact, it takes many years for artists to start earning any money, my goal was to try to save enough so I could finance the first couple of years as a full time artist.

After A levels I moved from a little town in the countryside to London and started working. Stunned by how expensive living in London was, I ended up working both a day job and a night job for the first couple of years just to get by.

My last employment was on a very high pressured trading floor.  If I wasn’t spending my evenings working or taking clients out to dinner, I would be locked up in my tiny box apartment trying not to ruin the floor with paint.  As space wasn’t in abundance I used to create very small abstract paintings with lots of vivid colour (a nice contrast from the greys of the city).  It became an everyday ritual and a joy.  Every day, after work, for many years, I just kept creating and my work kept on growing, developing and evolving.  I eventually reached a point where I felt like I could leave the ‘9-5’ and focus fully on my passion”.

Shining a spotlight on racism in football

“One of the guys involved in the project has been a friend of mine for nearly ten years now.  Over those ten years, I have heard so many stories of what he and his family have had to endure on and off the pitch. I’m always shocked, every time they tell me a new story.

I don’t want to sound cliche or naive but I was brought up around a huge diversity of families and when I was young I didn’t quite understand the magnitude of what was going on.  Once I moved to London, I started seeing how bad racism truly was and how institutionalised it is.  When it came to football, I kept hearing the same thing: black footballers receiving racial abuse on and off the pitch. The worst part was it was becoming more frequent as the years went by.  Having friends within the industry made witnessing racial abuse first-hand even more upsetting.  I had a burning desire to make a stand with them in a sincere way. This came through my art and this is how the collection came to life. I just couldn’t stand by in silence.

Before starting the project I asked the opinions of friends within the football world whether they thought the concept could help raise awareness on the matter, and the support was unanimous. Having now completed the project, I truly hope to inspire other people to use their voices too”.

Are you worried about any blowback or trolling this collection may cause?

“I will never be able to truly relate to what black players go through day to day, but I can’t live in fear of potential backlash or hate when I am speaking from the heart and trying to do something positive.

When I first started creating the ‘Standing With You’ project, I did get quite nervous at times, however, after speaking with the people involved who were extremely supportive, I became less afraid. I’m not worried about any blowback from online trolls because there are bigger issues at play here than online hate from someone with no profile picture.  Black footballers should no longer feel they have to shoulder this alone”.

Watch the video below…

For more information see www.hannahnijsten.co.uk / Instagram: @hannahnijsten

The footballers involved in the project received the original Hannah Nijsten paintings. A limited-edition print series is available for purchase with a proportion of the sales going to The Black Heart Foundation  

Footballers pictured, in order: Shaun Wright-Phillips, Kieran Gibbs, Gary Lineker, Ross Barkley, Andy Cole and Anton Ferdinand.

Interview by Davis Mukasa