Sheffield metalsmith Francisca Onumah joins the Harewood House 2022 Biennial to show her beautifully imperfect sculptural pieces

As she prepares to exhibit her work at Harewood House, metalsmith and sculptor Francisca Onumah, who works at Yorkshire Artspace in Sheffield, talks to Stephanie Smith. Main pictures by James Hardisty.

There is something human inside even the hardest and most unyielding of forms – and discovering it is what metalsmith Francisca Onumah seeks to do.

“I am drawn to finding character and human-like semblance in inanimate objects,” she says. “I bring these observations into my work by creating ambiguous, sculptural objects that display an anthropomorphic disposition.”

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Francisca makes her intriguing sculptures at her studio at Persistence Works, close to Sheffield city centre. As contemporary as they are, they also have an ancient quality, as if they might have been buried for thousands of years and unearthed by an archeological dig.

Sheffield sculptor Francisca Onumah will be exhibiting her sculptural pieces at the Harewood 2022 Biennial.

She makes them from sheet metal, usually copper, layering hammered marks and patterns, creating seams, bruises and scars, which she exposes and exaggerates rather than polishes away.

“It’s a physical process,” she says. “I like to cover the whole sheet with texture, so I use hammers that I have cut into steel punches and I also sometimes layer textile textures, so I hammer net fabrics or calico into the metal.

“Then I form them into cylinders. Once I have got the shape, I use a technique called raising, done by getting a metal stake that has various shapes, and you hammer the metal onto the form.”

She uses a fold forming metalworking technique to create pleats. One of her pieces is actually called Pleat, standing about 28cm tall. It has been sold to the Walker Gallery in Liverpool and another recent piece was commissioned by the Sheffield Assay Office and is now part of their collection. She also makes jewellery, hammered cuffs and cylindrical shaped drop earrings, which have a statement industrial look while also being wearable, with a classic quality..

Sheffield sculptor Francisca Onumah in her studio at Persistence Works in Sheffield.

The so-called “imperfections’’ inherent in the pieces challenge the hierarchical nature of silversmithing, Francisca says, by noting beauty in defects. She describes the sculptures as figurative vessels and objects, characterised by vulnerable and precarious postures. Shapes lean into each other as if in conversation, complementary and mirrored silhouettes enhanced by a dark oxidised finish.

“To get the black, I used a technique called oxidising, using Liver of Sulphur that you mix with water and dip the metal into. You can get really nice greens and reds and blacks.

I am thinking of playing around with the different colours,” she says.

Some of the pieces might be the size and roughly the shape of, say, a vase, but they are not vases. “I don’t tend to make them with a function in mind,” Francisca says. “I like to think of them more as sculptural pieces, but I am happy for people to put stuff in them. The function isn’t as important to me.”

Sheffield sculptor Francisca Onumah using a blowtortch in her studio. She is also wearing her own tube earrings.

Francisca grew up in Kent, and lived in the naval town of Chatham. Her father, Gideon, is an agricultural economist and her mother, Grace, is a nurse. “My mum used to be a seamstress and I have always had creative people in the family,” she says.

She has four brothers, one older and three younger. All studied maths, science or engineering at university, rather than a creative art like their sister. “But my older brother, he’d create these events for us, so we would do mini Olympics and he would make me make the medals,” she says.

“He used to do drawing and I was inspired by that. He encouraged the artistic side of me. All of them are quite creative – they sketch and do drawing, random things, and write poetry, as a way of expressing themselves. I have always drawn, and I loved art at school. I was also interested in history so I thought I’d do that, but I wasn’t sure. A friend was going to do a foundation year, so I thought I’d have a look, and that would give me a year to think about what I really wanted to do.”

So Francisca went to study on a foundation course at the University of the Creative Arts in Rochester. “I was looking at interior design courses, but as the year went on, I started playing around with metal. UCA had a really good jewellery and silversmithing department.”

Sheffield sculptor Francisca Onumah with one of her sculptural pieces at her studio.

She was hooked and applied to study for a degree in jewellery and silversmithing at The School of Jewellery, part of Birmingham City University. “My dad did his PhD in Birmingham, so there was a link there,” she says.

“I struggled to find my style. I loved drawing but I never really knew how to interpret that into a 3D form. In my third year, one of my friends said, ‘why don’t you treat the metal as if it is a piece of paper, and use the steel punches we have to create a drawing?’. So I played around with texturing sheets of metal, with different patterns, layering on to the metal, and creating simple forms, inspired by architecture, with almost a shipyard feel to them, if that makes sense.”

Francisca then studied for her MA, also in jewellery and silversmithing. “I started looking into figurative forms and textiles,” she says. “I always loved looking at Ghanaian cloth that my dad used to bring back from travelling with his job. He mainly goes to African countries, and works with farms and organisations to improve farming.”

After Birmingham, Francisca worked in London for a while, but then moved to Sheffield in 2017 to be part of Yorkshire Artspace’s Starter Studio Programme for early career silversmiths, providing them with studio space, business advice, mentoring, tools and equipment. (Jewellery maker Jennie Gill, who hs also featured in the Magazine, also has her studio at Persistence Works.)

Her work is currently featured in two exhibitions in London, one at the Crafts Council and one at Jerwood Arts Space, Bankside. Later this month she takes part in the Crafts Biennial exhibition at Harewood House, near Leeds, where she will be exhibiting four pieces and will also be selling her jewellery in the shop, including her beautiful Tube earrings. She will be making more versions of Pleat in various sizes, including a version in sterling silver and oxidised copper.

She has made Sheffield her home and now lives on the outskirts with her partner, a 45-minute walk to her studio. “It’s a really lovely city,” she says. “It feels like a big town, because the centre is quite small. I love how friendly it is and how there is a lot of creativity going on. I love how close to the Peak District it is, so you can escape.

Close-up in the studio.

“I feel settled here. It is the kind of place that I enjoy being in, because there is enough going on. As much as I enjoyed working in London, it was a bit too intense for me.”

* See Francisca Onumah’s work at: www.franciscaonumah.co.uk

* The Harewood 2022 Biennial is at Harewood House on March 26-August 29 with Radical Acts: Why Craft Matters, which explores why craft is a radical act and looking to a future where we might live in a more environmentally and socially-responsible way. There is an accompanying series of short films and podcasts available now at: www.harewood.org/whats-on/event/radical-acts-why-craft-matters

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