In Conversation with Kimathi Donkor (Part One)
Kimathi Donkor was born in England. He received his bachelor’s degree in fine art from Goldsmiths College, London, and a master’s degree in fine art from Camberwell College of Arts, London. Internationally acclaimed, his work shows an engagement with social and political issues and an appreciation for historical Black female leaders.
Tell us about your Ghanaian, Anglo-Jewish, and Jamaican family heritage.
From my mother’s side, I have English and Polish-Jewish ancestry, whilst my father was from Ghana. But, in my infancy, I was placed into foster care at first, and then I was raised by my adoptive parents—my Black Jamaican mum and her white British husband, my dad.
You are married to a Nigerian, are widely travelled, and have lived in Zambia and the English West Country. What influences have these varying cultural exposures exerted on your art?
My adopted father was an agricultural vet, so my earliest memories are of farming life near the town of Mazabuka, in Zambia. When I returned to England, my imagination had been stimulated by memories of sugar cane plantations and vast ranches, as well as by Zambia’s cultural riches and the excitement of savannah wildlife. And I’ve long had family connections to Nigeria—my Jamaican-born maternal aunt had married a Nigerian engineer in the 1970s, and, although he is now no longer with us, she still lives in Kogi State. During my teens, I often received gifts of ornate Nigerian clothing from them, which helped stimulate my continued interest in Africa’s proud visual arts heritage.
Perhaps, though, the many sky, land, and seascapes in my paintings reflect my youthful exploration of the hills, beaches, cliffs, and rivers of the English West Country, where I started making small, early landscapes as a student. But, I also think that my artistic interest in the shared history of Africa and Europe stemmed from learning how to navigate the complex social landscape of England as an emerging, post-imperial nation.
My wife’s parents are Nigerian, but she was born and raised in the UK. Visiting her family in Lagos (a wonderfully hospitable, Igbo/Yoruba, Catholic/Muslim mix) has been brilliant. We are both inquisitive travellers, and my journeys through countries like Cuba, Jamaica, and Ghana have been influenced greatly by my artistic interests and have also informed them. So, my 2012 painting Yaa Asantewaa Inspecting the Dispositions at Ejisu used studies that I made whilst in Ghana. And the reclining figure in La Nueva Cuba (2007) was from a series of photographic life studies, which I made in Holguin Province, Cuba. On the other hand, the facade in my 2005 work Coldharbour Lane, 1985 is based on a prominent building in Brixton, London.
Your work shows an engagement with social and political issues, including the racist abuse of minorities in Britain. How early did you take an active interest in politics, and when did you first reflect this in your paintings?
My 2005 painting Helping with Enquiries: 1984 recalled a violent incident which I experienced whilst unjustly detained in police custody when I was a young art student. During the period referred to in the painting’s title (1984), the art campus of Goldsmiths College, where I was enrolled in the fine art degree course, was close to Brixton, an area of London with a large African and Afro-Caribbean population. Many in the Black communities regarded the (almost entirely white) Metropolitan Police as an overtly racist institution, which was manifested through patterns of oppressive, discriminatory behaviour towards young, Black men. This had led to civil disturbances in 1981.
Then, in 1985, on a street close to Goldsmiths—and to my own home—police raided the house of Cherry Groce, an innocent Black grandmother, shooting her and paralysing her for life. The following week, another innocent Black working-class grandmother, Cynthia Jarrett, died during a police raid on her Tottenham home. Both events were followed swiftly by local protest demonstrations. Street clashes then escalated, leading to the deaths of a policeman and a journalist. It was a moment of social unrest and personal tragedy. Working with local activists, I began to use my artistic skills to produce flyers and posters designed to help develop an organised response to abuses of power.
One of the things that struck me, though, was the apparent indifference of many of the art students and tutors towards the social turmoil, which, quite literally, was unfolding on their doorstep. I realised how an atmosphere of entrenched privilege could override empathy for one’s neighbour. On the other hand, I was inspired by a slightly older group of African-Caribbean artists, such as Donald Rodney, Eddie Chambers, and Keith Piper, who were much more engaged. Encouraged by one of my Goldsmiths tutors, the South African exile Sarat Maharaj, and also by the South African artist-in-exile Pitika Ntuli, I began to formulate my own artistic response to these events. So, my degree show in 1987 featured large paintings and drawings in response to these epic, brutal encounters between the state and the citizen, as well as an archive of my campaigning designs.
Then, in 2005, on the twentieth anniversary, I decided to “return to the scene,” creating a series of works called ‘Fall/Uprising’ that was based on those almost forgotten urban conflicts but with an artistically different approach. These paintings included Under Fire: The Shooting of Cherry Groce. Whereas, at Goldsmiths, I had put aside my youthful command of realistic portraiture in favour of a more brusque, expressionistic, almost naïve technique, my 2005 works produced closely observed studies of form, light, and colour—one might even describe them as “forensic” in their investigation of memory and myth. So, for example, in my preparation for On Duty: The Fall of PC Blakelock, I made studies of the estate where the unfortunate policeman was killed, incorporating the concrete brutalism of the Broadwater Farm housing complex and the eerie, orange glow caused by the sodium street lights and petrol fires which illuminated his final moments.
You have an appreciation for historical Black female leaders considered national heroines, for example, Nanny, the 18th-century Maroon leader in Jamaica; Harriet Tubman, the African-American abolitionist and humanitarian; Yaa Asantewaa, the Ashanti warrior queen; and Nzinga Mbandi, the Queen of Ndongo and Matamba. What do you hope to achieve by portraying them in your paintings, and do the countries they represent also hold a personal meaning for you?
Of course, my adopted mother and her sister are the two Jamaican women who exerted the strongest influence on my early life. But later, after I settled in London and developed ties with the community there (and also through my first marriage), I encountered many more, such as the formidable Brixton activist, the late Afruika Bantu.
Maroon communities (people who liberated themselves from slavery in the 17th and 18th centuries) still exist in Jamaica. When I visited the area in 2003, I was captivated by the astonishing beauty of the mountainous terrain and of its hardy, wily people. So, it was definitely the proud spirit and unbowed determination of women I had encountered in Britain and Jamaica which helped me to re-imagine what kind of a person Nanny of the Maroons might have been. My painting Nanny’s Fifth Act of Mercy (2012) represents the enigma of somebody who, although she had been almost lost to recorded history, has nevertheless achieved the mythic status of a powerful liberator, warrior, and leader. I envisaged her as a person of aristocratic bearing and great wisdom, which, in turn, implied how traumatic the indignities and brutality of racial slavery must have been.
I think, then, that it was no accident that Yaa Asantewaa, the leader of the Ashanti’s 20th-century war of resistance against British occupation (in modern Ghana) was probably from the same cultural background as Nanny. Of course, I did not wish my work to overly romanticise or idealise the everyday lives of African and Caribbean women, but, for my painting of that heroine from one of my ancestral homelands, I also wanted to represent and celebrate that similar sense of liberation and self-confidence that is still opposed by the remnants of patriarchy. Indeed, the same was true for my paintings about Harriet Tubman and Nzinga Mbandi, which also depicted illustrious women carrying weapons or employing other instruments of power.
This does not mean that those works should necessarily be read as literal calls to arms, nor even as pure celebrations—far from it. But my imagination is informed by my experience, and by the knowledge that our common humanity is greatly diminished by all of the unequal restrictions on female participation. I insisted on painting life-like portraits of my friends, colleagues, and relatives because I wanted my work to embody the unique, personal reality encountered in the physical presence of free, powerful women. I wanted to record my own respect for, and interest in seeing, learning about, and representing the individual self-possession and beauty of my sitters, just as the ancient sculptors of Ile-Ife, Kemet, and Nubia wished to document their own encounters with the irrepressible individuality of their subjects.
How important to your work are the several iconic Western paintings you also reference?
My appropriation of motifs and tropes from the canons of Western painting takes many forms. In my ‘Queens of the Undead’ cycle, I wanted my work to enter into a dialogue with the art of painters who were themselves contemporaries of my historical subjects. So, for my three paintings about Njinga Mbandi, I reproduced imagery by Frans Post, Veronese, and Velasquez, who were all contemporaries of the 17th-century Angolan ruler. In fact, the Dutchman, Frans Post, did depict Africans enslaved in Brazil, many of whom were Njinga’s Angolan compatriots, and whom I included in the painting When Shall We 3? Similarly, her two biographer-priests, Giovanni Cavazzi and Antonio Da Gaeta, both came from aristocratic Italian families. So the incorporation of imagery by the Italian painter Veronese speaks to the African queen’s strong Italian connections.
My central figure in Nanny’s Fifth Act of Mercy appropriates imagery from a painting by Nanny’s contemporary Joshua Reynolds. The robe and pose were based on his 1778 portrait of the English aristocrat Jane Stanhope, who visited Jamaica with the British army. So, my appropriations from Western painting have not been arbitrary but have reflected profound, artistic parallels and links to my Africana themes—which, in turn, symbolise the long, if often troubled, history shared by Africans and Europeans. Given my personal and family history of travel and relationships crisscrossing the Atlantic, the Mediterranean, and the Sahara, I think that these references probably symbolise my own transnational identity and locate such connections not as a kind of odd anomaly, but instead as a longstanding and central theme of social and artistic discourse between peoples and places.
Do you also aim to reconstruct an alternative historical narrative more sympathetic to Blacks?During a visit to Badagry in Lagos State, Nigeria, my in-laws and I were told by a tour guide about a local well where the waters supposedly caused prisoners to forget their identity before they were deported to Brazil as slaves. A historian proper would want to know about the evidence for this account of the well. Was it an oral tradition? Did a specific person learn it from their great-grandmother? Is there any written documentation or datable physical evidence? Has the well been tested for contaminants and so on? (And, if contaminated, should it be closed down?) Are there similar accounts from Brazil? And so on.
But, as we approached the well, we saw two labourers who had just finished demolishing the old, red clay brickwork and were painting new concrete bricks red. Our tour guide appeared to be in a state of shock. The irony was that the physical body of the well itself was presented to us as an archive—a source of memory about a story of cultural forgetfulness—even whilst its status as a literal “well of memory” was being erased before our eyes.
I draw a distinction between the scientific apparatus of a historical narrative and what I prefer to call a historical imaginary. The construction of historical narratives is primarily a role for historians, rather than for artists, who work with the imaginary. A historian proper has certain clear ethical duties, which artists are not necessarily bound by. Such duties include making a distinction between statements that are supported by archival evidence—documents of one kind or another—and those which are conjecture.
But, unlike the linear, moving narrative, which many histories attempt to reconstruct, the stillness of most paintings encourages the viewer’s gaze to wander across their surface, much like somebody who visits a new city and then on every outing finds themselves re-assigning its landmarks with an altered significance. So, inevitably, each viewer is compelled to construct their own, highly individual narrative from their encounter with a painting, which, like the rebuilding of the Badagry well, tends to influence the artwork’s ability to effectively communicate an intelligible history.
However, with regard to Black subjectivity, because I am interested in the critical re-imagination of historic figures, sites, objects, and events, I try to guard against the kind of complacency that accepts false stereotypes and corrosive racial myths. So, in my preparation for each new body of work, I do pay close, critical attention to the historically documented details of my theme. At times, this has meant adopting temporarily the critical stance of a historian in an attempt to understand discordant narrative threads, which then serve as conceptual material for the construction of a new artwork.
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