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Back in 2012 BBH, the agency I work at was going through a huge refurbishment and installed white mdf hoardings all over the building to protect the staff from the construction chaos behind it. Faced with the prospect of staring at blank white walls for six months we decided to invite twenty three artists to come in and draw all over them instead. We gave each artist the theme of change to interpret as they saw fit. Lakwena Maciver, not long out of university at the time, rocked up and blew us all away with one simple message, Patience, framed in colourful electrical tape.

Lakwena's ability to distill an idea and encapsulate it in a single phrase is one of the reasons her work is so memorable. Artworks like ‘I Remember Paradise’ and ‘Just Passing Through’, written in sequins, gently reminds us of our mortality. ‘The Power of Girl’ and ‘Be Bad Until You’re Good’ murals empower us with words and patterns, encouraging us to be brave and stand tall.

It's been a real pleasure to watch Lakwena’s career as an artist take off since we last worked together and so naturally I jumped at the chance to work with her again. Her newest piece, ‘She Lights Up The Night’, was created as part of an initiative by BBH & They Made This to fundraise for Refuge. It’s Lakwena’s first time working with light and in doing so she is shining a light on the people at Refuge.

While creating her lightbox Lakwena took some time out to chat to us about her earliest memories of drawing, learning to write in Enfield and Ethiopia, how a trip to Brazil changed the direction of her life, her love of words and falling for The Royal Academy of Art.

What is your earliest memory of drawing ?
A really early memory for me is learning how to write, which is really key for me as I love words. I was in Enfield at that time, that is where I learnt to write. So that is what I remember, words, and I love that. I lived in Ethiopia when I was about six, we went there for a couple of years, and there I learnt cursive handwriting. And that was quite interesting as I learnt at that young age that there is a different way of writing, that there are different ways to write a letter.

 

The writing in England was that basic lettering, with a grid to follow, whereas in Ethiopia it was a whole other world. And I also would have seen a lot of Amharic script everywhere there so that was another thing that left a mark on me. I loved art at school too but I never considered it as a career option. Money was often tight for us growing up and I knew it was hard to make money as an artist so it wasn't an option.

How did you go from not considering art as a career option to being the artist you are today ?
I did my A Levels and then I got a place studying languages at Kings. I went to Brazil for six months and I learnt Portuguese and I started to think I could just learn languages this way instead, by travelling and living in those countries ! But while I was in Brazil I ended up painting a mural there. Some friends had a church and this guy invited me to paint a wall in there.
Up until that point had you ever done anything like that before ?
No I hadn’t ! So for him to actually let me take over a wall in his church, its quite big isn’t it !! I have always drawn, I would doodle and things. So I had a lot of sketch books lying around. I had done some paintings for my A Levels. I had studied graphic design for my A Levels. So it was something I was doing but it wasn’t very serious. Those drawings always had words, words always interested me more than pictures.

 

I chose a verse from the bible and I painted it onto the wall in Portuguese and I created patterns around it. It said 'You've turned my wailing into dancing, You’ve taken away my clothes of sadness and clothed me with joy'. So the words are always very important to me. And it was very instinctive. It was around 16 foot long too but I didn’t really plan it out.

You immediately captured your own sense of style from that very first mural in Brazil, the idea of poetry and pattern together. Did you finally start to realise that this was what you wanted to do ?
Yes, absolutely that is what I started to think. I remember when I was doing my A Levels a teacher saying ‘Oh you could do illustration’ but I didn’t really know what illustration was. But somehow after that first mural the dots came together and so when I came back to England from Brazil, I politely dropped out of my languages course, and started studying a foundation in Graphics at LCC and then a BA in Graphic media design:illustration. And that was a really open degree, that was the point. You could then choose which way to go, illustration or graphic design.

 

I hated that at first but then half way through I almost had this epiphany and somehow my mind opened and I just embraced the openness of the course. My horizons were broadened and I ended up creating some very conceptual work including a performance piece.

Aesthetically I created these massive paintings for my degree show that were based on a poem by my sister, Abimaro. We are really connected in that way. She’s actually a musician, but her lyrics are like poetry and are really important to her. She was at Goldsmiths at the time so I made four paintings in response to the poetry. And so I ended up coming back to the mural theme at that point. And I still really love them too.

You graduated in 2009. What happened next ?
So I did as much as I could to get my work out there. One thing sort of led to another and then a gallerist in LA, who was following my work, invited me out to Miami to create a mural at this street art festival called Wynwood Walls. They coincide it with Miami Art Basel. And it was centred around female street artists. And I hadn’t done anything that public before.
This is where you created your ‘I Remember Paradise’ mural. What was your thinking for that piece of work ?
I had been reading this book about this idea of myth. At university I had really gotten into the theory of visual culture, I was reading a lot by the culture theorist Roland Barthes, he wrote about how anything can communicate a myth, and about how artists are myth makers and the links between that and propaganda and advertising.

 

And I discovered artists like Barbara Kruger and writers like Jean Baudrillard, who wrote this essay about graffiti artists saying there was no meaning behind graffiti. So then I found myself on the street, creating street art, and at the time I was reading a book called Echoes of Eden which talks about this idea of paradise. A myth of paradise.

The book was discussing how this idea of paradise is written into our subconscious and asks if it does therefore reflect some truth, the fact that it is innate in humans to feel like there is this paradise. And that is what this piece is about. ‘I Remember Paradise’. So that was what I painted. And Beyonce stood in front of it ! I saw her standing there. Jay Z took it. Really funny !

You have an amazing ability to distil exactly what you want to say in just a few words. It is poetry really. What was the reaction to the ‘I remember Paradise’ mural ?
I think people read anything into words, and you cant force a reading on someone. I painted it meaning we all have an idea of paradise. That it exists. A yearning and longing for paradise. It breaks down to what you believe.

 

But after that I was invited to Vegas, there was another street art festival scene opening up there. I am really passionate about art being viewed in public spaces. For me its about art being in a public space. That art shouldn’t be something that just lives in a gallery and is purely commercial.

And again Vegas was interesting as people go there to escape. There was a casino very near the mural called El Cortez which pumped out air scented with Dior addict. I used to love that perfume and now I hate it !!

And the Vegas mural led on to your first solo show in LA's Papillion gallery ?
Yes so after my Vegas and Miami murals Papillion gallery invited me to come and have my own show there. And so I made all of these pieces in London. They are wood block reliefs on mdf with 3 dimensional letterings that I put on top. And I worked with sequins too. I loved that. They are traditionally used in theatre and I liked to reference that. Using the lettering and all that imagery which is quite commercial. And we had two fans set up that blew the sequins, so they moved, which was dazzling. I want to do more with the sequins but it is about the right project.

 

I really wanted to take over the space and so I created a false shrunken door so you had to crouch down and go under it to get to the room with the ‘Just Passing Through’ piece. So you literally had to pass through this door to get to it. So kids could run straight into the room but adults had to crouch down, so it played on body language and that idea of having to humble yourself which is what the piece ultimately reminds us of. You have to let go of some of your inhibitions and change your thinking to appreciate it. And people really loved it.

And then there was a 'Welcome To Dreamland' piece which I really loved which references Margate and a faded dreamland. And at the back we had even more of an interaction with music. My sister had spoken to me about intervals between notes in classical music theory. So there is the first and the fifth and you have this feeling where you want to return if you play the first and then the fifth you feel like it is not finished yet, you have a desire to go back to the first. And so we had chime bars and we set up five sets with that interval, so you would play one and then the next but you kind of have to play the next one to feel complete !

At the end of the day people came along and just kind of played and that was amazing, they really got in to it. There were a couple of musicians that came and played and they really enjoyed it.

What would you say are the tools of your trade these days ?
A Mac, books, reading, paint brushes, cardboard for templates, measuring tape, string, spirit level, masking tape is massive, it's all quite builder like. I could be a painter decorator. I love that though. I love the geometry. I love symmetry and things being right. But then I also just like going for it. Oh and Sequins sometimes !
I am so excited to be working with you again this time on your ‘She Lights Up The Night’ piece for Refuge at BBH in London. Can you tell me what inspired you to work with light this time and what those words mean to you ?
I was chatting with a friend and somehow Rhianna's BBHMM came up and I was thinking about the link between this posing performing culture that is promoted so much in popular culture and how that degrades women. And the link between that and abuse. So this felt really relevant for a project related to the charity Refuge, and to make an installation piece in Soho also felt relevant.

 

So I thought a lightbox that references all those signs advertising women posing for the male gaze could be used instead to say something empowering for women. And I thought that in the same way that Refuge lights up darkness for really vulnerable women, my artwork could light up and represent all the women who work at refuge, all the women who seek refuge there and hopefully leave one day lighting up the night for someone else in a dark place.

So what’s next for you ?
I am thinking about doing an MA in painting. Just to be able to focus on it. So I am seeing what happens with that over the next year. I would love to do it at the RA. I went to visit it and I just fell in love with it. So we will see. But that is something I will definitely think about doing. I’d love to focus now really. I am really into just making stuff right now, and not specifically murals and pushing the boundaries in my work, no clients, no briefs, no deadlines.
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