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.
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.
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.
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.
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 !
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 !!
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.
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.