Interview: 10 Q’s with Naomi Wanjiku Gakunga Artist

Tushauriane- Let’s Talk About It is at the October Gallery until 29th July 2017.  This will be Naomi’s second solo exhibition in London.

  1. When did you realize you were this talented and creative?

I grew up in Gacharage village, Kenya, where I was introduced to creativity at a very young age. I observed women painting their homes with clay, constructing granaries, weaving baskets, and making nearly everything else they needed from string: from the light mũkanda rope that girls skip with, to the strong-as-steel mũhĩndo rope for carrying water or tethering the family goats. I was introduced to the practical side of making things. I made all my own skipping ropes and dolls from an early age. For me, creativity was an activity that was always fun.

2.What do you want people to take away when they see your exhibition Tushauriane- Let’s Talk About It as a body of work?

I have deliberately used diverse materials. The assemblage of the materials involves a thoughtful combination of elements to create something new and original. There is struggle, effort, and time involved in bringing together different and diverse materials. This is very like how we have dialogues in life.

In a dialogue, you listen to each other, “not with a view on how to respond, but with a view to comprehend why a position or a belief makes sense to another person.

3. Talk me through Ndumo-The Girls Dance, it is a magnificent piece one of many. How did the idea start and how is it constructed?

The material is sheet metal, known in Swahili as Mabati. In Kenya, it is used mainly for roofing materials and walls. Sheet metal is particularly associated with Mabati Women’s Groups of the 1960’s in Central Kenya. These grassroots groups organized to improve their communities by upgrading the roofs of their homes using sheet metal.

I observed the success of their efforts, the harvesting of water from the new roofs, and the consequent ageing of the material itself. I mirror these effects in my own artistic process that weathers the surfaces of the materials.  I occasionally add dye to create color and more complex effects. The delicate transformations etched in metal by the effects of weathering, chance, and time emphasize an ethereal, transient beauty.

The work Ndumo is constructed by cutting, linking, stitching and crocheting Mabati pieces together to form a complete whole. The final work reflects both the Mabati’s enduring functionality, and its fragility. The fragile quality of the material is crucial to how my work deals with passage of time.

4. Your work is inspired by interesting stories what is the back story to Before Winter and how long it did it take to create?

Before Winter deals with the notion of preparation. Preparation for a new day, a new week, a new season. The harvesting of a new crop, the arrival of a new baby, or a new job. We are always in preparation mode. Most of my art takes many months and in some cases years to come together.

5. Kimsooja is known for her polka dots and Warhol Campbell soup. What distinguishes your work?

As an artist, my responsibility is to be creative, to keep pushing myself to the next level. The art historians and art critics are the best people to describe what distinguishes my work.

6. Why did you move to Texas, how did that happen and is it easy source the materials you need in the USA?

I arrived in San Antonio about 17 years ago when my husband was offered a job there. I have deliberately set up my studio in San Antonio, Texas. The Texas environment has not only reawakened and inspired me to use Mabati, it has also played a part in the transformation of the weathering processes of my materials.

The materials that I use, Mabati, sheet metal, are practical, and are commonly available, even in the USA.

7. Talk me through some of the main materials you use and why you have chosen to use them?

One of the main materials that I have used is the rope or string. This is the same string that my grandmother constructed to weave her basket. It was intertwined in her daily activities, and her history. The string is the ongoing dialogue that connected her to her past, kept her grounded in her present, and becomes the metaphor that she passed on to her grandchildren and great grandchildren.

8. As a child were you exposed to the work of other artists in Africa who influenced or inspired you?

I’m often asked which artists have most influenced me. The truth is, I grew up in a place where there were no museums or galleries and therefore no ‘artists’ as such. Encouragement came from my grandmother, but she wasn’t an ‘artist’ in the western sense.

One major source of inspiration came from African literature and the Kenyan writer, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. I first read him at primary school and still love reading his work today. Very early in my career as a visual artist I decided I was going to use Gikuyu or Swahili titles for my work, and that was Ngũgĩ’s direct influence. Although he’d written many plays and novels in English, in his later work Ngũgĩ returned to his own language, Gikuyu. As a visual artist, I borrow all the time from literature, theatre, dance and so on, but I feel immensely privileged to follow in the footsteps of this great African writer.

9. Did your parents encourage you to go in this direction?

No, they did not encourage me to become an artist, nor did they discourage me. I made the decision to become a visual artist, and it has been an amazing journey.

10. How do you think the African Art scene and the appreciation of African artists has changed/grown in the last 10 years?

I am not an expert on the African art scene, so this is my opinion as an artist; there is a new generation of creative artists coming of age in the African art scene today. The art critics and art historians have the responsibility to share the history of African art, this information might open the space for these artists. This will allow the artists to share their art with the world.

Address: October Gallery 24 Old Gloucester Street Bloomsbury LONDON WC1N 3AL

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