The emotional and spiritual power of the written word can’t be underestimated. There is a potential for unbound joy when the right combination of words are used as a form of expression and, in creating her work, Lakwena almost always starts with words. “I’ve always been interested in words and letterforms and the power of the written word,” says the London-based artist. “Writing, prayer, meditation, listening to music. That’s how I work out what I want to say. Then I work out how I want to say it.”
Born in North London, Lakwena spent time growing up in Uganda and Ethiopia. On returning to the UK, the artist’s work became “a reaction against her experiences here as a minority” an attempt to “recreate my happier earlier childhood memories,” she describes. Creative work soon became a way for Lakwena to channel her voice and find space for herself, “and the images I made were to encourage and empower myself.”
Today this approach can be seen across the artist’s works, each one often centring a message to uplift and inspire from “the best is yet to come” through to the unifying “nothing can separate us”. Always bold in her hand-painted or printed colour combinations too, Lakwena’s aesthetic approach was first informed by signs she saw in East Africa, “definitely an influence visually” she adds. Their immediacy as she describes – both “as a medium but also the immediacy in their ability to communicate” – became a driving force in her work, as well as the medium’s ability to carry a connotation of home.
Outside of this aesthetic approach, Lakwena also notes figures such as Emory Douglas, who became the Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party in 1967, as a figure whose work she admires. With work centring around the empowerment of Black people, Douglas’ work became a way to deconstruct the myth of white supremacy. “I understand my work now as being about using painting as a means of decolonisation, deconstructing mythologies,” adds Lakwena. This deconstruction then points towards the task of finding joy in the artist's work as “Paradise is something I've been interested in for a long time,” she explains. “I think it connects with this desire to recreate good memories. And I see paradise as being uncolonised. I think that's where the two connect.”
For instance, take her panel paintings and murals currently on view at Hastings Contemporary, titled Homeplace. Like her other works these pieces started with words, this time from the writing of Bell Hooks. Referring to Hooks’ 1990 essay Homeplace: Site of Resistance, the exhibition’s title references the essay which speaks about Black women creating spaces at home for “protection, affirmation and healing”.
During the lockdown of last year Lakwena’s husband Mark wasn’t able to pursue his work as a barber due to restrictions, but was able to look after their kids as she painted, making the pieces featured. Creating during this period held its own meaning as, during the pandemic, “the concept of spaces of protection and healing took on an even wider meaning,” the artist describes. “As the Black Lives Matter movement began to move increasingly into the foreground, both in the US and globally, the work felt even more significant and timely.”
For example, Lakwena’s painting This Will Be A Safe Space is a direct response to these feelings. “For me there was this feeling of old wounds being reopened, and I wanted to use my work to respond to this and to process this,” she describes. “It was about stating my intentions for my home, laying out boundaries and saying that this would be a place of sanctuary, not only for my children but also for my brothers and sisters and anyone else in my community who needed it.”
“Your love keeps lifting me higher” reads another of these paintings. Using her work not only as a statement but as an expression of her intent falls in line with how Lakwena got into painting in the first place. “I studied graphic design because it seemed accessible to me. Like I could make a living out of it. But I ended up making paintings because I wanted to make work that wasn’t ephemeral, that stood in its own right,” she says.
Now reflecting on this practice as a source of enjoyment, noting the immediacy being a factor of attraction, the colours in her work synchronise effortlessly, showing her keen eye for contrast between harmony and dissonance. The hand-painted quality of some letterforms adds life to her vivid use of words, mantra-like phrases. Altogether Lakwena’s practice shows us what paradise might look like.
Lakwena: You've Got The Love (Copyright © Lakwena, 2020)