In Conversation with Kimathi Donkor (Part Two)
We present the concluding part of the interview with London-based contemporary artist Kimathi Donkor whose work explores the history and myths of Africa and its global Diasporas, first published on Tuesday, July 30, 2019.
What challenges do you face in this regard?
The Anglo-Nigerian writer Ben Okri, in a recent article for The Guardian newspaper, warned African and Black writers in general against becoming “trapped” by difficult, gloomy historical themes such as slavery, poverty, and colonialism, instead of giving proper attention to aesthetic excellence. Although I understood the appeal of Okri’s plea for thematic diversity, I also felt that his commentary (which didn’t name any contemporary writers) showed how a lack of critical depth can be quite problematic in the way artworks are considered.
When looking at, for example, my painting Harriet Tubman en Route to Canada, which responds to the historic narrative of an immense pilgrimage for freedom, I would expect that most viewers (even Ben Okri) would eventually discover for themselves that it has more than one level of potential meaning. It could, for instance, be interpreted as representing irony, beauty, metaphor, expertise, homage, or critique—all of which I considered whilst creating it. The specific historical narratives that have informed my paintings have acted as a landing place from which to begin an onward trek and were not intended to be the sum total of their significance. So, one challenge I have faced is how to make work that, whilst being open about its own specific aesthetic and historical heritage, also produces enough conceptual “breathing space” for the viewer’s imagination to advance beyond the realm of the obvious.
In several religious paintings of the 16th and 17th centuries, such as The Flagellation of Christ, Christ’s humility and suffering are portrayed to enable identification with Him. In your paintings, you immortalise victims of police brutality and seem to represent them as saints. Can you explain your thinking?
As a child raised in the church, I became interested in those elements of Christian thinking and Catholic imagery which emphasised wider concepts such as compassion, self-sacrifice, honesty, justice, and equality. And, in fact, such noble ideals have formed the public justification for many modern state institutions, particularly the police. We are encouraged to trust those appointed as impartial guardians of the law to be knightly defenders of the weak against the unjust. But whenever such trust is betrayed, those roles are reversed, so that, instead of being defenders, the constabulary become persecutors, and instead of being saved, the weak and vulnerable are sacrificed.
During my artistic education, I began to learn more about how specific painters had addressed such themes, particularly those, like Caravaggio, Jacob Lawrence, Goya, and Titian, who seemed to be searching for spiritual meaning through their work. I think that, perhaps, my paintings about historical figures (like Joy Gardner, who was suffocated in front of her young son during an attempt to deport her from London) have also represented my attempts to address how lived experience can produce these radical instabilities of meaning, and my struggles to cope with, to make sense of, to resist, or to accept them (see: Jean Charles de Menezes Borne Aloft by Joy Gardner and Stephen Lawrence).
You achieve a high degree of luminosity in your work by using several layers of transparent paint, a technique reminiscent of the patient manner of the Old Masters. Do these techniques hold any special significance for you, when one considers that many painters working today favour a more direct “alla prima” approach?
I have become increasingly fascinated by the complexity of paint as a broad set of technologies. So I have always approached each new work as a kind of laboratory experiment, perhaps similar to the way that James Elkins compared painting to the archaic practice of alchemy in his book What Painting Is. Each new painting is, in some ways, unique. When I attempt to replicate a specific effect in a new composition, the outcome always seems different. It is difficult to speak with much certainty about technique because it is never precisely the same.
I am constantly amazed by the never-ending variety of novel forms and methods produced by painters the world over. And, for me, it is this investigation—this constant fiddling with the parameters of possibility—that lies at the heart of my work in painting. I understand that some painters prefer to “farm out” work to colleagues and employees. But, for my practice, this would be akin to asking my publishing editor to write “my” poetry, whilst still claiming to be the sole author. Undoubtedly, collaboration can produce magnificent creations, as was the case with Homer’s “Iliad,” the Great Sphinx, or Fela’s Egypt 70 band. I do not question the quality of work based on the number of authors. But, in my practice, it has been precisely in the bodily gesture of making each mark where my work has occurred—much like how, for a composer (such as Beyoncé), it is her precise decisions about which notes to sing when that produces her music.
Your paintings incorporate several stylistic developments: a calm academic realism, powerful symbolism, and almost surreal elements, including floating figures. You also engage with African mythology in works like Oshun Visits Gaba at Tate’s ‘Big House.’ How have you been able to achieve a balance, and why do these varying elements have meaning in your work?
For Oshun Visits Gaba at Tate’s “Big House” in 2013, I painted a figure that represented the Yoruba deity, Osun, using a similar, realistic style to the other figures in the composition. I wanted to suggest that Osun might be, in some respects, human—that she might share the same bodily form and space as her mortal counterparts. And perhaps representing her dressed like the devotees of Nigeria’s annual Osun-Osogbo festival was also a way to embody my respect for those thousands of Yoruba women who continue to honour their ancestral heritage despite the tremendous obstacles they face.
I think you would be right to regard this as a kind of “balancing,” as there were two quite contradictory strategies in my process. One, which was embodied in the act of painting, was to create something completely new that had never been seen either by myself or another person or by a machine, such as a camera. But the other strategy, which was embodied in the techniques of representation, was to make something that was familiar—an image that looked like a recognisable, living person. And I think that tension often exists between the kind of instant familiarity that can be suggested by a photographic image and the feeling of incomprehension which we might experience when encountering an abstract mark. Perhaps some of the pleasure which we experience when looking at paintings, drawings, and carvings is produced by the way we, as viewers, feel off balance as our perception totters between unfamiliarity and recognition—in the same way that, as a child, I would always walk along the top of the high stone wall that surrounded the local churchyard, balancing precariously between the realms of life and death.
But when it comes to questions of style, the American philosopher of art Arthur Danto proposed a matrix of possibilities for artists, which, by using mathematical logic, suggested that the art world doubled the number of possible styles with the discovery of every single new paradigm, such as the paradigm of expressionism. Even in 1964, when Danto wrote “The Artworld,” this phenomenon had caused such a proliferation of styles—dozens, if not hundreds—that it was already difficult to plot where any given work fit into his imaginary matrix. Today, I think many painters no longer pay too much attention to style in the Modernist sense addressed by Danto, partly because it is not credible to claim knowledge of the myriad possibilities. Instead, we seem to work according to the methodical logic of a process, and then guide—or perhaps push—as our art emerges from the warm, dark womb of that process.
You have recently turned to watercolours, presenting sketches of girls on laptops as finished works. How does this theme compare with previous works that embrace historical narratives?
The motif of the woman or girl with a laptop is certainly addressing a kind of historical narrative, but it is a narrative which is becoming so hyper familiar that it might even slip from view. It is the global tale of becoming captivated by the flat screen, touchscreen, keyboard, and mouse pad—of focusing all of one’s attention upon a single class of object, the personal computer. It is interesting that the laptop presupposes a certain kind of posture, which is associated with a very specific cultural form—the upright, seated position, which creates a lap, the bodily area that supports the device. So, to use the laptop, we are encouraged (if not compelled) to assume this very specific position (which also seems to echo the position adopted by so many Madonna and Child images, whether produced as carvings in pre-colonial Nigeria or by Roman Catholic painters).
Adopting this fixed position, we are prepared to sacrifice our bodily freedom because we believe, with good reason, that the device affords us new powers of communication, learning, entertainment, and productivity. We can draw, talk, read, write, ogle, or even ostracise, intimidate, and kill using the same device. And, yet, seated in this same posture, with these ubiquitous devices to hand, it is quite difficult to ascertain what exactly it is we are doing simply by looking at us—and thus, it also becomes a centre of surveillance as corporations, parents, peers, and states attempt to probe and map our identity.
But unlike much of my work, none of these ‘Notebook’ and ‘Tablet’ series are drawn from life studies. Instead, the images are created from the pencil and paper interface with hand, imagination, and memory. I recall or invent hairstyles, clothes, chairs, and figures. I am intrigued by the great wonders, or the amusing trivia, which these figures are creating or enjoying on their amazing devices, but because the women are drawn in profile, the screen is always held at an angle that prevents me from seeing what they see.
In 2008 you curated the touring group show Hawkins & Co at Liverpool’s Contemporary Urban Centre, featuring 70 works by 15 artists, including Raimi Gbadamosi, Keith Piper, George ‘Fowokan’ Kelly, and Chinwe Chukwuogo Roy MBE. How do you maintain an active studio practice that includes painting, installation, and lens-based media with teaching and your curatorial work?
Curating is a very demanding profession, but when I accepted the commission for the Liverpool show, I felt that my experience of working with curators, both as a solo artist and in group shows, meant that I had a decent grasp of what was involved. And, because I also took on the role of exhibition organiser and graphic designer, I was, in fact, doing three jobs at once, although the role lasted about a year. (Actually, I’m not entirely sure how I coped at all, as my first marriage broke down in the middle of the process, so I was very grateful to the family and friends who supported me.) I was determined not to replicate some of the organisational problems which I had witnessed as an artist, such as a lack of professionalism, poor funding, poor communication, or an uncertain concept.
With regard to teaching, it can be immensely fulfilling to empower students as they investigate, learn, and create. I think that the majority of artists in the UK choose to juggle a number of roles, balancing their studio time with activities that can help to fund and inform and broaden their creative practice. I do make a lot of photographs and have often used my photographic studies to inform my painting. But, although I have screened a few short films, and exhibited some photography, I have not yet fully committed to creating a complete immersion in either form, partly because I am still so deeply engaged in exploring new possibilities in painting.
What is your assessment of the contemporary African art scene?
I am greatly encouraged by the continued emergence of new artists, institutions, galleries, art fairs, biennials, curators, writers, and publications as well as by an increasingly demanding and discerning public in a number of flourishing centres, such as Lagos, Dakar, Johannesburg, and Nairobi. I would like to learn much more about the teaching institutions and would love, at some stage, to get involved in art education in Africa, particularly at the university level. But it is also important that, at the earlier stages of education, art resists exclusion from the school curriculum because policymakers do not fully appreciate its positive value. Good art teachers encourage young people to be innovative and creative, to respect indigenous as well as foreign cultures, to develop powerful communication and practical skills. Art and design education, in general, doesn’t only benefit the gallery system, but also produces the talent for such industries as construction, publishing, marketing, graphic and industrial design, fashion, ceramics, and furniture design. Art education, just as much as engineering, agriculture, or medicine, is one of society’s crucibles of excellence.
I think, though, that I would be naïve to underestimate the problems which the African art world faces. As one of those pitiable creatures who can’t help watching football, I can see how art appears to function quite similarly to the football world, with a similar danger that much top talent can find itself drawn permanently to the wealthy clubs/galleries of Europe and America. But it would be wrong to unjustly castigate the players/artists who choose to migrate as being motivated by greed or disloyalty when they are doing no more than trying to improve their circumstances by seeking out greater appreciation of their hard-won skills, even if it means the loss of home and community. Instead, I think that government and business must radically improve their investment in art infrastructure, and artists must collectively resist the devaluation of their social contribution.
The opportunities which are available to the African art world are similar to those which face most high-skill industries globally: to train, reward, and retain the best talent; to encourage investment and build resilient institutions; to remove stifling regulation and stimulate demand and competition; to reward productivity, innovation, and ethical responsibility. I admit, that all sounds a bit like corporate/political jargon, but if it continues to be implemented, then none of what I have said will prevent African artists from continuing to create challenging, stimulating, and beautiful work, nor will it prevent the public in African countries from enjoying those artworks.
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