Who are you and where are you based?
My name is Mercy Kagia and I am currently based in Southwest London.
What’s your background?
I was born and educated in Nairobi, Kenya, and moved to the UK after high school to study Art. I joined West Herts College and did a GNVQ Advanced in Art and Design, and a BA Hons in Illustration (the course then was titled Imagemaking and Design, which was a Graphic Design and Illustration combination, with specialisation after trying out both fields. This was perfect for me as I had initially decided to go down the Graphic Design route and after a short while realised I didn’t enjoy it as much). It was a great experience but I still regret the fact that we didn’t get a degree show at the end of my BA, which was just wrong.
How did you come to drawing?
During my undergraduate course, we had a lecture by Sarah Simblet, an artist who specialises in drawing. She gave a talk about her PhD research which was based on drawing in medical dissection. I remember being awed by her larger than life anatomical drawings and being secretly relieved that I didn’t have to make myself do any more painting as I was much more intrigued by the drawn line. I was determined to develop my drawing and with the aid of two tutors, the late and awesome Barney Aldridge, and Christine Lindey, I set out to do this. Under their critical eye and encouragement (I remember the words, ‘dog’s breakfast’ coming out of Barney’s mouth while describing the first attempts at incorporating watercolours into my sketches). I drew religiously, daily and with a pen and ink so as not to give myself allowance to correct anything. I made my mates on my course take off their shoes so I could draw their feet, terrorised friends into sitting still while watching telly, and spent days at stations drawing people in seconds as they waited to catch their trains. I attended mums and tots groups to draw babies, sat in parks with my pens and watercolours, amazed at how many people do nothing all day in London, and basically made a nuisance of myself by drawing every available moment I was awake. If I ran out of people to draw, I would draw myself. I still have boxes of those early sketchbooks and endless sheets of paper. By the time my BA came to an end I knew I had found my vocation and came across an MA in Kingston University in Drawing as Process. It was a great time to explore and experiment with different processes of drawing and by the time I was done I knew this is what I enjoyed and wanted to keep doing – drawing people in different situations, and from observation. (I had contemplated getting into Medical Illustration as I was also passionately interested in anatomy, and even went for an interview but did not get in as my drawing style was not what they were looking for.) During my MA I got into teaching in adult education by covering for a friend and brilliant artist, Seana Mallen. I taught Watercolour Painting, Life Drawing, Experimental Drawing, and soon my second love, teaching. After my MA I worked for Leo Duff, my former tutor, in Kingston University, and through her learnt a lot about the administrative side of teaching and through her many connections got the opportunity have residencies in Northern Ireland and South Korea where I continued to draw with an exhibition at the end. I knew then that I could do what I love, travel while recording people in different situations in everyday life, and found that people were interested enough to buy my drawings.
Who are your favourite characters from African film, literature or art?
I tend to read, watch and look at creative work from across the world, and have some African artists that I will always go back to, not because their work is similar to mine, as I know my subject matter or process is not typically what most African artists engage in, but because it resonates with me in a specific way. I don’t have favourites in anything. In terms of film, without being biased, I am really impressed with what is coming out of Kenya right now. Two directors that stand out for me are Hawa Essuman and Tosh Gitonga with their films, Soul Boy and Nairobi Half Life respectively. In literature, one of my all time favourite works in How To Write About Africa by Binyavanga Wainaina. In art, I have too long a list of people to talk about, but Peterson Kamwathi is someone who I have huge respect for. His larger than life drawings are as eloquent as he is in person as he addresses pressing issues in Kenya. I realise I have just mentioned Kenyan artists but they are representatives of a group of African creatives who I cheer on and all share common traits: They are honest in their work, they are willing to push past the preset confines set up for anyone ever introduced with the word ‘African’ before their vocation, and speak in loud voices about what they believe in while not presenting a cliché in a specific genre.
What are you ambitions for yourself as an artist?
I’m fortunate to do something I enjoy and that I am passionate about. I am aware that reportage drawing or documenting life using drawing is not a commonly known field and that I have to take a few moments to explain what I do to people when I first meet them. I would like to be able to introduce more and more people to the joy of drawing, especially the self-claimed non-artistic people who produce looks of mild panic when asked to try it out. I believe that the relaxing enjoyment that all children have when markmaking should be able to remain with us as adults and not be killed off by school and grading in the education system. I still do and will continue to run courses and workshops for beginners and otherwise in drawing, especially observational drawing. (I will be running a 5 week Observational drawing course at Kingston University from 18th April to 16th May this spring that’s open to everyone of all abilities. Shameless plug!). Interdisciplinary projects are another passion of mine and I look for opportunities to collaborate with creatives in other fields and coming up with joint projects such as travelling with a writer, documenting musicians playing with a filmmaker etc. Drawing is a language in itself that crosses all borders and I plan on using it in whatever situations life affords that can either effect positive change (I’ve had the privilege of working with and for various charities that help vulnerable and often damaged individuals), as well as for the simple reason of bringing pleasure and adding beauty or contemplation to a space. My work and motives are not high-brow. I always remind myself that I should be able to explain to a child what I am doing and if it gets too complex for that then I need to stop and re-evaluate my situation.
What are you currently working on?
I am currently at the tail end of my PhD, which is on Reportage Drawing. I have been researching the use of drawing as a documentary-making tool, specifically focusing on people and the spaces and places they inhabit in every day life. For this I spent about 6 months in Kisumu, Western Kenya and spent many a hot day walking the streets and shoreline of Lake Victoria drawing people doing what they do daily. This has been my most monumentally challenging project yet. It has been a good way to reflect on my own work while looking at what is going on in my field right now.
What’s the most sublime artistic experience you’ve ever had?
Again, a variation on ‘favourite’ question. I do not excel at these. I have ideal scenarios that for me are sublime and I will describe a one I had as an example. A few years ago I was teaching art at the German School in Nairobi and I accompanied a group of students on a school trip with a colleague. We were in Narumoru, a starting point for those considering climbing Mt Kenya. I remember walking along the river into the woods where there was not a soul to be found and sat down on a large rock in the middle of the river to draw. With only the sound of the bubbling river and birds, it was like meditating and I lost myself in it for hours. That is my perfect moment. Being caught up in looking, really looking at the ordinary around me, and not judging it but accepting it and putting it down on paper. I tend to lack conversation skills while drawing and I am learning to pause and speak to other people especially as I tend to draw a crowd while drawing in public, but when I can get away to an isolated spot and have no trace of humanity and focus on pure nature, I feel renewed.
What’s your greatest fear – either for yourself [as an artist] – or for Africa?
I’m not sure it’s a fear but I am very cautious and aware of labelling and the detrimental effect it has on a person. I always wonder why being from Africa (again another peeve, I am from Kenya and Africa is not a country!), one has to be introduced as such. With this labelling comes instant stereotyping. I have been told my work is not very African, (need I throw in a semi-abstract maasai figure in it and a few political clichés to make it so?), and more disheartening, when inquiring about showing work in a certain Nairobi gallery, was asked if I paint Maasai’s or animals. I died a little inside. A couple of weeks ago I had a good conversation with Elvira Dyangani Ose, Curator International Art at the Tate Modern about this labelling of ‘African artist’, what it implies, how it instantly puts one in a box and resulting expectations. Why not ‘International Artist’ instead? While being part of the research community over the last 5 years while working on my PhD, I never once had my work viewed through the lens of my cultural background, but it was judged on its own merit as viable research. Being African or Kenyan is as much to me as I am female, 5’4” and irrationally petrified of caterpillars. They are all ingredients that make up who I am, but they are not cages that restrict who I am, what I can be and what I produce as an artist. I feel that the same is true of the continent of Africa. There needs to be a change of attitude that makes it part of the international community without resulting to clichés and stereotypes. Let those that are good at something be good at it not ‘despite their being African’ but regardless of whether they are or not. I fear that we are our own worst enemy, allowing for the labelling, silently shrugging our shoulders and accepting that ‘that’s just the way it is’. As I write this, Kenya is building up to presidential elections. I can’t vote as I am in the UK. This interview will come out after the elections and I know that I am amongst millions holding my breath and hoping for peace and rational responses from the masses and the politicians that seem to control their ability to use their brains as individuals. If we as Africans could seek to develop who we are as individuals, as specific nations and as a continent, still holding onto the positive aspects of out various cultures and not use it as a crutch or excuse, then I think the future will be bright and we can get rid of labels and clichés and determine our own paths and how the rest of the world perceives us.
Recommend a song we should check out – preferably with a youtube link?
I absolutely love listening to Mariama by Pape and Cheikh. It is such an uplifting melody and the guitar playing in it is brilliant. I dare you to not get up and dance. (Make sure you listen to it with good speakers to get the bass just right!)