A Conversation With Artist Leila ElManfaa

22-year-old Leila is an artist from Philadelphia who has adopted Bristol as her home and has also found it a source of community and inspiration. I had the pleasure of sitting down with Leila to find out more about her journey, her inspirations and hopes for the future.

Like the artist herself, the artwork is truly magical. Leila says, “It’s an invitation to step back from reality and go into space, just for a little while to forget about how manic, how chaotic real life can be and to indulge in the imagination”. Her work is full of imagination, attention to detail and mystery.

It’s an invitation to step back from reality and go into space

Born in Philadelphia, Leila grew up in unstable environment although her mother was her absolute rock; “She gave us everything that we needed but we never had any money. It was like, we are here in Philadelphia and have been here for generations, you’ll grow up, probably not go to college, you’ll enter the workforce, have kids really young and that is your life”. After seeing generations of her family repeat this cycle, she knew this wasn’t the life for her.

She describes knowing from an early age that she wanted to draw pictures for a job, as others around her wanted to be Doctors or ballerinas. She was told, like so many people from marginalised backgrounds are “people like us don’t get to be creative”. This was something she did not understand as a child and didn’t let it stop her. Leila recalled; “I never understood that they were so deep in this mire that was Philadelphia. People often ask me why I live here instead of America, and I cannot stress enough, the oppression, the capitalist culture, it stamps out any light of life. It’s horrible”.

At 18, I felt like I had two choices. I felt like I was staring at the edge of a cliff of everything that I ever knew

Leila saw her chance at freedom at 18, when other students were choosing colleges, she decided to go to Germany to do a free scholarship as part of a cultural exchange with the school, where she got to live and make art. She describes this as; “the best decision I’ve ever made”. This set off a domino effect for her. She was encouraged by her mother to leave Philadelphia, “My mum saw that I was incorrigible, I was not going to be a normal person, I wasn’t going to give up on my dream. At 18, I felt like I had two choices. I felt like I was staring at the edge of a cliff of everything that I ever knew. One path I could take was to go to college, stay in Philadelphia, do the thing that everyone else was doing because it guaranteed security and safety. The other path was to jump off the cliff into the abyss and hope. I think that was the best decision that I ever made, genuinely”.

When you’re young, broke and brown, the world does not encourage you to be creative

Speaking to Leila you can hear the passion and the sacrifice in her voice. We sat and with ease discussed the shared experience that many young girls of colour experience, a lack of a role model in society, especially one who looked like us. Leila says, “I never had a role model when I was younger. I was standing at the edge of everything I knew, looking out for anyone who had done this before, for reassurance and there wasn’t anyone. I just had to do it. I want to be that person for kids, who are that age, that came from where I came from”. This was another moment where the passion in Leila’s voice was palpable, I could hear the vulnerability and the longing to change the narrative we were forced to digest as young brown girls. She says, “When you’re young, broke and brown, the world does not encourage you to be creative. I want kids to know that creativity is for you, it can take you anywhere you want to go”.

I want to inspire people to enjoy their own magic

Her artwork is heavily influenced by the renaissance era, and storytelling artists such as Gustave Dore and the Pre Raphaelites. Leila is currently working on a graphic novel and a series of illustrated poems and fairy tales. When asked about her inspirations, she said “another reason why I want to give back is because of this style of artwork. It is Renaissance, it is Baroque. It is from an era where old white men ruled the world, now it’s brought to you by Leila ElManfaa’s brown ass”. Although she is driven by her life experiences, the art itself is not all about her struggles. She says “I was never interested in making art about my struggles. Not because I’m ashamed of it, but because I have so much more to offer. I have so many more stories that I want to tell. I want to write ridiculous fantasy crimes. Some of my stories will have something to do with my life but I want to inspire people to enjoy their own magic. As opposed to feeling like the only way that they’d be valid as an artist is by struggling”.

Looking at Leila’s work up closely, was to see first-hand into an imagination in full bloom.

I asked her about her first exhibition in Bristol, which was held at Centre Space Gallery in 2021. With a smile she says; “it’s the most love I’ve ever felt”. Despite being in Bristol for only a short time, the exhibition was full of people she had met here, her new community. “It was the moment I knew I was putting down roots in Bristol” she says.

During our conversation I was struck by how knowing she was at 22 and how much she has endured and accomplished already. Throughout everything she has remained strong in her convictions and deliberate in her intentions. It was inspiring to be around someone who was so clear in where they were meant to be in life. To me, sitting across from her, I felt she was already a role model, in so many ways. Many of us merely dream of using art as an escape and here she is doing it. Leila also stated one of her goals is to become an art teacher. With such a clear passion, vision, and life experience at just the age of 22, I have no doubt she will accomplish this.

To see more of Leila’s work, follow her here.

Conversation and Edited by Lucy J Turner.

All images owned by Leila ElManfaa.

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