Kimathi Donkor

Kimathi Donkor was born in England. He received his B.A. in Fine Art from Goldsmiths College, London and a Master’s degree in Fine Art at Camberwell College of Arts. Already internationally acclaimed, his work shows an engagement with social and political issues and an appreciation for historical black female leaders.

How would you explain 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, at first, placed into foster care and then raised by my adoptive parents – my Black, Jamaican mum and her white, British husband, my dad.

In addition to your background, 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. I’ve also long had family connections to Nigeria – my Jamaican-born, maternal aunt had married a Nigerian engineer in the 1970s, and, although he is no longer with us, she still lives in Kogi State. In 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, as a student, I started making small, early landscapes. 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, which 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. For one of the figures, I wanted to create a convincing study of how rage can contort a man’s face, and so I discussed this at length with my friend Ben, who sat for that particular portrait. But, during the period referred to by the painting’s title – in 1984 – the art campus of Goldsmiths College (where I was enrolled on 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 – and 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 – with both events 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. However, working with local activists, I began to use my artistic skills to produce flyers and posters designed to help develop an organized 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 over-ride 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-inexile, 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 new series of works called Fall/Uprising that was based on those almost forgotten urban conflicts, but with an artistically different approach. These new 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, as well as 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, I encountered many more, such as the formidable Brixton activist, the late Afruika Bantu – and, also, through my first marriage. Maroon communities (of people who liberated themselves from slavery in the 17th and 18th centuries) still exist in Jamaica, and, when I visited the area in 2003, the astonishing beauty of the mountainous terrain, and of its hardy, wily people captivated me. 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 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 romanticize or idealize 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–which 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 lifelike 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 which 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, symbolize the long, if often troubled, mutual 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 long-standing, 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.

So, 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, instead, 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. Historians must assess the status of the archival document, and also, whether the account it contains is a myth, fiction, parable, legend, lie, propaganda, witness statement, fantasy, hope, divine injunction or just a mistake.

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 someone who visits a new city and then, on every outing, finds himself re-assigning its landmarks with an altered significance. So, inevitably, each viewer is compelled to construct his own, highly individual narrative from his encounter with a painting, which, like the rebuilding of the Badagry well, tends to influence his artwork’s ability to effectively communicate an intelligible history.

However, with regard to Black subjectivity, because I am interested in the critical reimagination 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.

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.
Okri also claimed that the painters of the Sistine Chapel in Rome had ignored their own society’s troubles in favour of a cult of beauty. But, in my view, it was the painters’ immersion in their society’s concerns, which produced artworks that answered the demands of Italy’s dominant social institution, the Roman Catholic Church. Indeed, failure to conform to those demands could result in artists facing neglect or punishment. 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. That 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 is portrayed to enable identification with Him, but in your paintings you immortalize 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 emphasized 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. Another example would be Jean Charles de Menezes borne aloft by Joy Gardner and Stephen Lawrence.

You have achieved a high degree of luminosity in your work through several layers of transparent paint, much in 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 similarly 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 – so, when I attempt to replicate a specific effect in a new composition, the outcome always seems different. It is therefore difficult to speak with much certainty about technique, because it is never precisely the same.

I am constantly amazed by the neverending 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 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 Illiad, the Great Sphinx, or Fela’s Egypt 70 band. So, I do not question the quality of work based on the number of its 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 produce her music.

Your paintings incorporate several stylistic developments, a calm academic realism, powerful symbolism, as well as 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 (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. One 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 there is often a tension, which exists between the kind of instant familiarity that can be suggested by a photographic image, and a 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 each, single, new paradigm – such as, for example, 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 fitted 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 focussing 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. Using the same device, we can draw, talk, read, write, ogle or even ostracise, intimidate and kill. And yet, sat in this same posture, with these ubiquitous devices to hand, it is quite difficult, simply by looking at us to ascertain what exactly it is we are doing – 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 is 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 else, 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 cuts across 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 in the UK, the majority of artists choose to juggle a number of roles, balancing their studio time with activities, that can help to fund, and also, to 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 policy makers 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, furniture design and so on.

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 not 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 the 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 artists/players 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.

So, 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; and to reward productivity, innovation and ethical responsibility. I admit, they sound 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.
You are currently working towards major exhibitions in South Africa and Nigeria. Can you please tell us more about these new themes you may have been engaging in this regard? For my exhibition at Gallery MOMO in Johannesburg this year (2015), I will exhibit work that explores the ideas and communal memory of Steve Biko, who was a leading figure in the Black Consciousness Movement of the 1970s. And, in 2016, I will exhibit work at Omenka in Lagos, which addresses how contemporary society thinks about the history of Yoruba art and culture.

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