Utopian phrases laid out in bold colours across billboards and banners; the visual language distinctive of London-based artist Lakwena Maciver’s current body of work. Central to Maciver’s practice is a reappropriation of the dynamics of popular and consumer culture and its prevailing mythologies, a desire to subvert the constant messaging of control and offer in its place emancipatory energy. If Barbara Kruger is the mother of creating uncanny encounters with the semiotics of capitalism and power, then Maciver is her sunny counterpart, manifesting messages of positivity and hopes for a better world.
The artist’s multicoloured output has cemented her place in the capital’s art scene, from installations at Tate Britain, Somerset House, Facebook and the Southbank Centre in London, to a juvenile detention centre in Arkansas, a monastery in Vienna, and the Bowery Wall in New York City. So too has it resulted in high-profile collaborations with leading brands including Nike, Fiorucci and MINI. Maciver’s work can be found in international collections, including Modern Forms, who have acquired a body of works from the artist, including a Jump Painting of Magic Johnson, and several works from her Nothing Can Separate Us series.
Maciver’s exhibition at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, A green and pleasant land (HA-HA), runs until 19 March 2023. On the occasion, Nick Hackworth sits down with the artist to discuss graphic design, speech, power and freedom.
Lakwena Maciver is represented by Vigo Gallery
Nick Hackworth One of the things that I enjoy about your work is that it embodies the idea of the artist as an insurgent figure. I’m thinking about the dynamic behind your public art, your billboards and banners, being in dialogue all commercial messaging, which inevitably must surround them. insurgent figure. There’s this ocean of visual and commercial culture being constantly generated by these vast corporate machines, and then there’s this one person, operating on a completely different scale, producing something that’s really interesting, with a different.
Lakwena Maciver Yeah, you’re right. I think there’s something intriguing about that. I think just as a human, I think you’re instinctively attracted to that. It’s subjective, and it’s immediate. That’s why I like painting, the immediacy of it; the fact that I can basically grab a canvas and make some marks, and I’m making the work. I like that immediacy. It’s instinctive as well, and people have been doing it since, you know, the beginning of time.
NH And what has public reaction to the work been like I general? I wondered if you have people going, ‘that’s art,’ or ‘it’s not’… Do people easily differentiate your work from the other visual matter around it in the public space?
LM I think generally people are really receptive. One thing that I’ve always been aware of is wanting to make work that is accessible. Sometimes when work is very cerebral, it’s not particularly attractive. I mean, there can be incredible, incredible cerebral work, but it’s not visually attractive, and it’s not trying to be. But for me, I’ve always tried to make work that is visually attractive, because that’s partly what it’s about for me. I don’t want to exclude anyone who’s not super intellectual. That’s not my personal desire. I want the work to be visually pleasing. Because I think again, we’re attracted to that as humans aren’t we?
NH Have people, within the art world I guess, been trying to protect the boundaries of contemporary art versus graphic design at all when they engage with your work?
LM They haven’t really. I was always a bit unsure about that at the beginning. Now, I feel like: that’s where I’ve come from, whatever. And I often think about people such as Warhol and Kruger who came from graphic design backgrounds, which is quite interesting. I think boundaries right now, in society and in culture, are becoming increasingly blurred in almost every way, aren’t they? That’s why I talk about Emory Douglas quite a lot, because he was definitely a graphic designer-slash-illustrator. He was the Revolutionary Artist and Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party. I rate the way that the images he made engaged with people engaged with culture, and with everyday people, and with the revolutionary.
NH I don’t know much about Emory’s work, can you tell me more about it?
LM You would have seen the Black Panther Party Newspaper. I don’t know how often that came out. And he also made posters linked to that. But it was properly revolutionary. From what I understand, he was trying to re-shape the way that black people felt about themselves at a time when that was just so important. I’m much more excited by that than I am by Picasso, personally, because it’s more immediate to me, it’s more relevant to me. It really engages with everyday people. I don’t really care what category you put it in. The images are really powerful.
NH Thinking about ignoring categories, within the contemporary art world, I think there can be quite a lot of power in coming from a slightly outside position. Within the art world, people tend to box themselves in because they go to art schools, read the art magazine and they think: ‘I should be doing it like this’. You internalise the categories that you know. So anything good that disrupts that can really work…. It’s interesting that you are consciously talking about making accessible work. That’s interesting in the art world, because it has a weird, schizophrenic relationship with accessibility. It likes to imagine that it has some political agency, but it’s often hard to see how that translates out of, say the Frieze Art Fair tent. Most of the time, that is, not always… There are some amazing moments…
LM I’m really interested in that crossover. I’m interested in the Frieze Art Fair tent, because there’s a lot of power in that space, and that idea of credibility and respect and all of that stuff, I get that. But I’m also really excited about the street, you know, outside the tent. If I got to the stage, let’s say, when I was 50, and my work was only known in art world, I would feel dissatisfied with that, because there’s so much more to the world. You know, I get it, there’s a lot of cachet in there, but it’s only so exciting.
NH What are the kinds of things you want to communicate?
LM For I Remember Paradise (2013)… I go back to that because I was invited to paint this massive wall, and I was like: Oh, what I want to do… I was thinking about Miami. I was thinking about the fact that for me, coming from England, that’s my idea of paradise. When you think about Miami, you think about beaches, sun, you know? But beyond that, I’ve always been interested in paradise, because I have this longing for it. I think it’s a universal thing. All over the world, people long for this kind of perfect world.
NH What do you think of when you think of paradise?
LM I think of another world. I don’t see it here, but I see glimpses. That’s what I’m trying to channel with the work, those glimpses. It’s developed over time, and I’ve realised that all of my work has been trying to point to that. I speak about decolonisation in my work, which is like a buzzword, but I think it’s also a great word. When I speak about decolonisation, I’m not just talking about freedom from empire, racism, all of the stuff that’s driving that which I hate; I’m talking about a more extreme decolonisation, because in a way I see us all as being colonised in various ways. That’s not to downplay the history of colonialism, but in the sense that we are all enslaved in various ways. We’re all mastered by things. We’re all having to navigate these systems that control us. Wealthy, very privileged people, too, struggle with depression, loneliness, commit suicide for instance, so they’re clearly enslaved in some way. Do you see what I mean? I also think that we all have this potential within us to become colonisers. Given a little bit of power, a little bit of privilege, I think we all can get into a place where we start drawing out lines and bossing people around. So a lot of what I’m interested in is trying to get free of all of that. That’s what my work is about. It started off much more clearly related to racism, coming from a place of being a minority, and that’s where people like Emory Douglas really spoke to me. I respect and admire and try to emulate that kind of resistance tradition, but apply it more widely than just racism, sexism, and these types of things. […] I’m trying to speak fairly universally.
NH So if Emory Douglas was speaking to the Black community around him at that time trying to offer ways that community might reimagine itself in an emancipatory way, what’s your equivalent? When you’re talking to people, what kind of communication do you want with them within the context of what you just said?
LM My thing right now is about speech. I’ve always been interested in speech. That’s why I started what I do. I felt like I didn’t have a voice. Like I say, back then it was mainly about being a minority and racism. I’m talking about the ‘90s, when I was experiencing racism, and feeling like I didn’t have a place in society. I was wanting to somehow assert myself and find a voice for myself. I’m still interested in speech, and what I’m frustrated about right now is restrictions on speech. I’ve got this show on at Yorkshire Sculpture Park right now. It’s all based around the idea of a “haha”. Do you know what a “haha” is?
NH It’s like a weird ditch, isn’t it?
LM I’m always surprised that people know what it is. There was a bus I used to pass in Woolwich that went down Ha Ha Road. So I researched it –this was a long time ago– and it turns out it’s a concealed, sunken ditch. It’s really interesting, because it could be seen as a metaphor for privilege, and boundaries being drawn by privilege to be used to their advantage. And I think hahas were typically for animals, which again is quite interesting, when you think about the way some people think about other humans. The idea is that from the view of the big, nice house, you don’t see the ditch, but from the other side, you see the ditch and it stops you getting up into the nice grounds of the house. There’s one at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, and that’s what got me thinking about it. I also see it as a metaphor for what’s happening right now in public discourse, with public speech becoming increasingly polarised. So politics has become increasingly polarised, and there is an almost orthodox viewpoint that you are required to hold if you want to be free to express yourself. I just see it as totalitarian the way that people are going on. It doesn’t feel democratic, which is kind of what I thought we were all into. I’m not necessarily trying to say anything except, “Look, do you see what’s happening here?”
NH Are you doing a text work for the show at Yorkshire Sculpture Park?
LM Yes, it’s text-based work. There will also be a sculpture. It’s trying to highlight something that I see going on that no one’s really talking about, especially in the art and media worlds, where we’re supposed to be the most revolutionary, the most rebellious, people are actually potentially being the most conforming to this mentality. So that’s why in this context, I’m wanting to point a finger at it, because we’re very good at pointing fingers at the self-proclaimed totalitarian states and saying, “Look what they do. Look at all of this oppression,” but I feel like over here, where there’s a lot of rhetoric about revolution, and liberalism, there’s actually a lot of control. There’s not much space for dissent, which is weird.
NH That’s a powerful metaphor, because the haha is a hidden structure. That’s also something I’ve been thinking about. For example, the way that radical or emancipatory movements become, ofter, co-opted by either consumer, cultural or other interests. And that happens to radical politics, radical culture…
LM I feel like there’s an element of self destruction to it, too, which I just think is part of human nature. We have a good thing, then we get carried away with it; we get some power, we start using it to bang people on the head. That’s what I think. So I’m not necessarily being explicit about what that is. I won’t be explicit about what that is. I just want to get at the fact that there are these boundaries.
NH The Marxist art historian Julian Stallabrass said about political art, to paraphrase, that the problem with it is that it doesn’t work, because it actually becomes counted, it helps support the system, because what happens is that you have a nice, liberal, middle class audience – obviously stereotyping the contemporary audience, but that’s roughly true demographically – going to the museum, seeing a work of art that is in some way radical, and then feeling a sense of catharsis that becomes a proxy for action. So instead of people actually doing anything, radical culture that doesn’t end in action ends up being like a pressure valve for the system, it actually works to help the system because it takes that energy and then it releases it harmlessly into the atmosphere. So I think showing people these structures is really important, as otherwise they might not pick up on it.
LM I don’t know how people are going to receive it, because in a way I’m pointing a finger at probably this specific demographic who come into the space. I mean, it’s in Yorkshire, which is quite different. I think we are in a bubble in London, where we think that everyone thinks like us, and everyone is us. But actually, this country is much more diverse in thought than we necessarily hear.
NH Yeah, that’s how Brexit happened! Swerving away from that… Let’s talk about your Basketball Paintings! Can you tell me about Magic Johnson? Modern Forms has acquired your portrait of him. I know nothing about basketball. Can you tell me about Magi I read that he’s one of the most important point guards in history…
LM He played for the Lakers. He was a brilliant passer. He’s a legend in the game. I think he was part of the Showtime era, which was very much about entertainment. I’m not a basketball expert. I have a friend who’s a basketball expert who I consulted with a lot on this project. I’m really interested in how universal basketball seems to be. All over the world people have latched onto it in a way that they haven’t other things. I mean, football is cool. My husband wants me to do a series on football, because he’s really into it. But with basketball, what I like is that there’s an elegance to it. And I like the way that basketball has infiltrated culture. Outside of basketball, people wear basketball shoes; basketball has connected with hip hop and hip hop has shaped a whole generation. All over the world, people have been attracted to basketball as a culture. I guess what I was doing with what I have been doing is just kind of looking at the game. I’m interested in the way that the players jump, this sense of aspiration, and there’s an elegance and a glory to it, which I find beautiful, and points to something deeper. That’s kind of what I’m trying to bring out in the work. I’m thinking about heaven and earth, and that idea of wanting to bring that into view. You know the song Heaven Is a Place on Earth? I don’t think heaven is a place on earth personally, but I guess it’s about wanting to glimpse something of Heaven whilst on Earth. So that’s what I’m getting at. The way that the players jump, they’re almost flying, almost angelic… A lot of my work is trying to get a glimpse of that, that glory, that magic, while we’re in this fairly – at times – depressing world.
NH Going back to that question about heaven… what does that mean to you? Does it look like something, or is it a feeling, or the way that people behave with each other? What are its qualities?
LM I don’t know. I think harmony, no more crime No more crying, no more pain, no more death. Yeah, these things. When I think about nature, I mean, that’s partly why Yorkshire Sculpture Park has been nice; just thinking about nature. I love nature. It’s not perfect, but I love this sense of harmony and everything being well. Of everything being good.
NH I worked with Shezad Dawood when he made a neon text piece around this idea. You know the connection between gardens and paradise in Islamic culture? So the word Jana is the Arabic word for garden, and is also used in Islam to refer to paradise. So it’s like the garden and paradise were almost the same idea.
LM Exactly. I just did a project at Temple station, an installation called The Artist’s Garden (2021). That idea of a garden, the Garden of Eden, is something that I think about being paradise. I speak quite often about Ethiopia, it having been a formative place for me as a child. There’s a myth that the Garden of Eden was in Ethiopia. Of course, who really knows. I think that’s definitely part of my thinking.