Artist Navine G. Khan-Dossos’ Polychromy Plays is the result of a six-month residency at London’s St Mary’s Hospital, in collaboration with The Showroom gallery and The Imperial Health Charity. Working in the hospital’s paediatric ward, a series of workshops and conversations with patients and staff culminated in the creation of Polychromy Plays, a functional colour palette chosen and named by patients at St Mary’s.
“I’m interested in how colour can influence space,” Navine says, of what inspired Polychromy Plays. “Most of my work is a lot more decorative, but I wanted to work with flat colour; to see what happened when you introduced large expanses of colour to a communal space” she explains. “I wanted to see if it was possible to develop — through play really — a colour palette that could resonate with patients and staff, which could give agency to everyone involved.”
The residency being so focused on communal knowledge, situated, as it is, both literally and thematically in the hospital ward, was an opportunity for Navine to get to know not only the patients but also the staff, the space and the nature of the hospital as “a complex system,” she points out. “If you give me a wall, I want to paint it. My initial thought was to do this research and then realise it on the walls of the hospital. But from being in the hospital framework I understood more about the nature of how it works as a complex system” Navine tells It’s Nice That. “Every space has a predetermined plan — there are already plans for an interior designer to come in and overhaul large sections of the paediatrics department. It wasn’t a case of getting a muralist to come in and paint loads of empty walls. It was about creating something that would work as a functional tool.”
Navigating the hospital context became as much a part of the work as the colour palette itself: “The NHS is a complex system and when you try to create a space for art, and interaction with art within that, it has to work within many different realities. There has to be constant dialogue and communication. It was a challenge to find a space where I felt like I was responding to that complexity, but also able to maintain a space for myself within it.”
Navine handled that challenge by literally being in the space, something that she’s used to doing: “The notion of the presence of artists is something I deal with, through murals, because I’m often in a place for several weeks at a minimum. There’s a real place for integration into the system of the building, it’s a durational process that involves continuous presence.”
In the case of her time working with St Mary’s Hospital, she stepped away from the mural process and spent her time there on workshops and conversations that meant her presence was felt through the development of ideas, even when she wasn’t there herself. “In this project, we had to work around these ideas of presence and dissemination in a different way. Living in Athens, I couldn’t be there continuously for six months; but I grew up in north-west London, and I feel like that knowledge never goes away. I could drop in very easily – my flight would land at 6am and I’d go straight into the residency for a few days.”
One of her main references was Poul Gernes’ Herlev Hospital project, for which he painted the interior of the Danish hospital over a period of years: “He painted 10 floors or something crazy. For me, what was really amazing, was not just what he created, which has an absolutely amazing use of colour and shape and design; but also that he had this continuous presence and relationship to the space, he was part of the materiality of the building.”
Navine’s own way of becoming part of the materiality was through the dissemination of the work produced during her residency. It went through several iterations before she settled on producing a newsprint documentation of the colour palette generated by the hospital patients. “The main output was 36 beautiful collages that were made with the patients” Navine explains. “They’d all worked on the same size piece of paper, which I’d drawn a grid on, to which they fitted colour samples I’d collected. The children and young people could approach it in any way they wanted: they could explore how they want the walls and the floors and the ceilings to look; they could create a scientific chart of colour, or just fill it in with their favourites.”
Recognising the impossibility of recreating children’s art, Navine didn’t try to analyse or create her own version of it: “I didn’t want to impose too much structure, and when I saw the work coming together, it was so beautiful in its own right. You can’t recreate that energy and instinctiveness.” The newsprint poster was an opportunity to show not only the final colour palette, but also the collage and development work that led to it. Navine was inspired by Agnes B’s le point d’ironie – a free magazine featuring a particular artist in each edition, which could be picked up in store: “This way of disseminating a project really resonated with me. As a teenager, I used to collect la point d’ironie, it had a quality of both having value and throwaway.”
Polychromy Plays was printed in an edition of 500, to be given away to participants, and in the hospital. “Making a limited-edition print didn’t feel like the right response,” says Navine. “I wanted it to be something that didn’t take much investment, it’s something you can just pick up and have a look at, it has a lightness of touch to it. Newspaper is non-hierarchical, it’s easy to dispose of, you can use it as wrapping paper or you can frame it… it can exist as many different things” she continues.
The work is grounded in Navine’s time spent with patients, and she wanted Polychromy Plays to convey their role in the development of the colour palette, give them agency, and deliver a horizontal hierarchy in relation to the work. “I wanted to show the different stages of the work, and this body of 90 colours that could be a reference for designers [working with the hospital], or for patients to use in their own home” Navine explains.
She’s also been able to introduce it to the walls of the hospital, in an initial test of a bright, banana yellow: “It was really nice to see what the introduction of colour did for the people in the space. It’s hard to think about abstract colour, and even putting that bit of yellow up, it made it jump off the page.” The project opened up the vast potential of democratic decision-making for Navine: “I’ve thought about how many really interesting ways there can be for letting people decide what they want, you could actually paint a corridor as a colour chart and basically vote on colours.” When approaching the naming system, Navine left it open for the kids to decide: “If they picked a blue for instance, [I’d give them a few prompts], so they could see that they could go in lots of different directions. They could take an imaginative leap, they could say transgressive things, they could give the colours names that were ugly or disgusting. It didn’t have to be a happy-clappy palette, hospitals are places of recovery, illness and strong smells, it’s not all super clean all the time. There are names referencing fly poo and puddles on the underground, as well as names like ‘Mariana’s Trench’ for a dark blue.”
Navine’s already met with an interior designer working on a project with the hospital, with the aim of having the colour palette adopted more formally. “There are existing designs, but the colour element was something still to be determined. I’m hoping the colour palette [will be applied], including the names” Navine explains. “That’ll be the starting point of seeing the colour palette as this functional tool, and in turn not thinking about the space in a purely functional way. But in a more considered way, which makes you feel differently about being there.”