“Community is really what feeds our soul”: Lakwena’s artwork puts people at the core
The multidisciplinary artist – whose work can be seen across murals, buildings, cars and even an electric substation – tells us how she challenges monopolies on speech, and why she loves to “reappropriate” the bold visual language of old-school advertising.
When viewing the artist Lakwena’s bright, bold and technicolour portfolio, her being a ‘pessimist’ is perhaps that last conclusion you would come to. But, this is in fact exactly how she describes herself. “I tend to be a bit of a pessimist, and I like to see problems,” she begins our conversation on an unseasonably sunny February morning. “My work, from quite early on, has been a way of trying to counteract that, trying to speak hope, truth and light into the situations that are difficult.” Naturally, such a focus combined with the artist being something of an “introvert”, means that art has provided her with a way to connect with people, and thus engage with the communities that surround her. “I’m very aware that I don’t make work just for myself,” Lawkena outlines. “We’re surrounded by images in our culture, and I think a lot of them are looking to tear things apart. I’m looking to build things up.”
Slotting in alongside Lakwena’s passion for uplifting communities is her love of language, wordplay and bold messages. And when discussing her love for language, it seems Lakwena’s passion is endless; she enjoys words on a technical, academic level, the process of learning new dialects, and importantly, its poetic potential. “I think it’s an incredible thing,” she ponders. It’s fitting, therefore, that in June of last year one of Lakwena’s artworks featured on the front of the last ever printed edition of Time Out London – London Rising; a polyphonic, accessible publication that speaks to the varied cultural perspectives and narrative experiences of the vibrant capital.
“We’re surrounded by images in our culture, and I think a lot of them are looking to tear things apart. I’m looking to build things up.”Lakwena
Perhaps one of Lakwena’s most impressive and persuasive blendings of communal perspectives and language is her exhibition HA–HA, which is showing at Yorkshire Sculpture Park until 19 March. The exhibition as a whole has its foundations in wordplay. Its title HA-HA refers to ha-ha’s, 18th Century walled ditches with links to the Enclosure Acts of 18th and 19th Century, which accelerated the privatisation of rural land. Alongside this, HA-HA signals the physical act of laughing – when you walk throughout the exhibition the sound of laughter is audible. These themes coalesce into a critique of public speech, public spaces and openness, and what Lakwena describes as the now much more “nuanced” and “subtle” expressions of colonial legacies, espoused by a privileged elite. Pieces feature the colourful declarations of ‘Do Better’ and ‘Re-Educate the World’, and are tied together by a kaleidoscopic statement wall, a cacophony of HA-HA’s creating a mesmerising, staggering pattern.
Challenging structures of power and monopolies on speech has always been a key facet of Lakwena’s work. In fact, it’s an incentive she sees as really spurring her practice. “I was trying to process being a minority, you know. This was 20 years ago – that’s the context that I was in.” Lakwena reflects. “It was all about race for me at that time, trying to understand my place in society, feeling like an outsider, processing it and trying to overcome it.” Now, Lakwena sees things as having significantly shifted. While before she was “challenging from a position of no influence”, she now no longer feels like an outsider. Existing with a new generation and increasingly being given “positions and platforms of influence”, she views HA-HA as the “crux” and powerful amalgamation of these previous experiences and expressions with the present; a powerful declaration of changing times yet a prescient reminder of how far we’ve yet to go.
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Lakwena: This Will Be a Safe Space (Copyright © Lakwena, 2020)
While Lakwena may be receiving exhibitions and positions at some of the UK’s most esteemed art institutions, she’s keen to express that she’s still very much interested in engaging brand partnerships. In the past, she’s collaborated with the British institutions MINI, where she designed a custom car, and Beefeater Gin for whom she created a limited edition bottle label, and the Italian clothes brand Fiorucci. This desire is rooted in two facts, one being that Lakwena admits to being the type of person “who gets bored easily”, and is thus invigorated by spreading herself across mediums and projects. And secondly, her history as a graphic designer, the discipline she studied before becoming a practising artist.
Lakwena’s background in graphic design not only influences her love of letters and words, but also gives her an understanding of more commercial and advertisement-based means of creative expression. Such a grounding gave a young Lakwena what she describes as an “introduction to image making that was much more democratic, or had more of an everyday angle”. And so, the “hierarchies” and elitist persuasions that often pervade fine-art institutions held much less significance to the artist. Lakwena summarises such thoughts by identifying that, with commercial projects, “it just means that there is a whole other audience who are going to see your work, who wouldn’t necessarily go to an art gallery”.
The world of advertising played a significant role in influencing Lakwena’s most recent and largest (quite literally) project yet. For Here we come, here we rise, Lakwena wrapped an electric substation in her trademark slogan-based artwork; located in Brent Cross Town, the permanent fixture now exists as one of the UK’s largest public artworks. Made in collaboration with architects at If Do, when approaching the project Lakwena was intent on “responding to the space”, specifically, the various ways in which the substation would be viewed – by train, car and foot.
One of the primary sources for Lakwena throughout the project was the 1972 book Learning From Las Vegas, by the architects and theorists Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour. Described by The New York Times as a book that argues for “understanding cities as they are rather than how planners wish they might be”, Lakwena was inspired by the text’s positive portrayal of colourful, old school advertising and Las Vegas’ iconic billboards, which visually inform the project. Leading on from this, Lakwena began to explore rotating billboards, before then landing on a lenticular form that would give the impression of animation when travelling past. Here we come, here we rise, shows Lakwena’s ethos at its best. Bold and beautiful work that reaches a wide, varied audience and that sparks joy in the most unsuspecting, everyday moment and space.
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Lakwena Maciver: Here we come, here we rise (Copyright © John Sturrock)
Following such a momentous year, Lakwena has some big changes in store. Not only is she in the process of moving her studio back to the central East London hub of Ridley Road, she’s also expecting her third child. This, expectedly, calls for what the artist describes as “slowing down for a season”, and seeing what ideas may come from a period of rest. But looking to the future, community still sits at the forefront for Lakwena, how she may “grow into it”, and enact “hands on community engagement”. In her mind, this currently looks like creating a nonprofit organisation running from her studio that engages people who may not otherwise have access to the arts. “The older I get, the more I realise that we’re made for community,” Lakwena muses. “Community is really what feeds our soul.”
Lakwena: Nothing Can Seperate Us (Copyright @ Lakwena, 2020)
About the Author
Olivia (she/her) joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in November 2021 and soon became staff writer. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh with a degree in English literature and history, she’s particularly interested in photography, publications and type design.