Lena Yokoyama on making art with scarce resources in a retreat to the Colombian mountains
“In Colombia, the weather was too great to be working on my iPad and there weren’t any print facilities, so painting was a great option,” says the Riso illustrator-turned-painter.
- Joey Levenson
- 29 March 2022
So much of London-based artist Lena Yokoyama’s work stands out for its texture: each work laden with careful colour, shape and print choices that make them feel surreal yet tangible. Even better is the artisanal effects of Lena’s works being elevated by the themes they seek to portray. “My themes are usually related to culture, community and communication, whereas the visual rendition of these themes may often vary,” the illustrator and Riso-printmaker tells It’s Nice That. Often, these themes guide Lena around the world from Japan to Austria, London to Colombia. “My work is very inspired by location and by the available materials,” she says. “It adapts to the feeling of a place as well as its colour scheme.”
Lena's latest work in Colombia particularly stood out to us, wherein she's swapped digital and print-based works for painting. “I don’t usually work with paints and my access to materials or wifi was very limited when I was up in the Colombian mountains,” she explains. “There weren’t any art shops around and the place was too remote to order anything, so I had to work with the three tubes of blue, red and yellow that I managed to bring with me.” The limited materials allowed Lena to decide on a strict colour palette early on during her time there, and it also brought a more cohesive nature to the series. “In the nearest town, I found a children’s school supply shop where I bought some crayons to work some texture and shading into the paintings. I worked with whatever I could find, including leftover materials from previous artists, materials found in nearby towns and the small amount of things I brought with me.”
So where and when was such a series produced? Well, it was all thanks to ArteSumapaz, an arts centre in Cundinamarca, Colombia – way up in the Andes. “I went to ArteSumapaz with the intention to learn about a culture and a country through visual recordings, which would become translations of my experiences,” Lena says. “For a long time, I was just experiencing the beautiful nature around me, making little sketches in my sketchbook.” She also recorded every interaction she had whilst in the remote area, and after two months she had translated them into paintings for a visual series.
“‘Visual translation’ is a term I had used previously for other projects related to language and communication between different cultures,” Lena explains. “By going to Colombia, I wanted to explore this term further and see if I could apply it to a culture I hadn’t previously known much of.” Fending off the preconceived western stereotypes of Colombia, Lena settled into the culture and became enriched by what the country had to offer. “Through visual translation, I was exploring and at the same time telling a story about my experience in this unfamiliar space,” she says. “I was living on an old coffee plantation high up in the Andes, about five hours drive from the capital, Bogotá, over very rocky and hilly streets, that had been converted into a small artist residence.”
On her signature and always-evolving style, Lena points to her background with Riso printing which she first developed whilst studying at Camberwell. “I loved it so much that I acquired my own machine in my second year,” she recalls. “For this type of layer-based printing with semi-transparent inks, I had to start thinking creatively in layers when building up my images and about how different colour layers may interact when overlapped. As a result, my work has become quite minimal in colour scheme, using only two-four colours generally – flat and shape-based.” No better can we see such a beautiful style than in two stand-out pieces: Mujer con Fruta, a self-portrait that manifests Lena’s discovery of Colombia’s incredible fruit and veg diversity; and Guitarist, an elaboration of a local artist who created songs inspired by the Andean language. Both are paintings which stir movement in the heart, whilst also being deceptively simple to look at. They are, and remain, intricate pieces of work – as is the entire series.
Lena Yokoyama: Botero's Mountains (Copyright © Lena Yokoyama, 2022)
About the Author
Joey is a freelance design, arts and culture writer based in London. He was part of the It’s Nice That team as editorial assistant in 2021, after graduating from King’s College, London. Previously, Joey worked as a writer for numerous fashion and art publications, such as HERO Magazine, Dazed, and Candy Transversal.