I am a senior lecturer in the School of Art, Design and Performance at the University of Portsmouth and recently completed a PhD at the Royal College of Art. Along with teaching, I am also a practising illustrator, animator and printmaker.
I taught primarily in New York before deciding to move to Portsmouth to become a full-time lecturer. I’ve taught in US institutions such as Parsons New School of Design, SUNY Purchase, College of New Rochelle, and Westchester Community College.
However, I much prefer the structure of the art school in the UK as I think they have the right ideas and priorities. Art is so much more than a technical profession. You must learn to think like an artist to have even half a chance.
I think who I am as a person, in terms of being interested in politics, goes far back. When I was growing up, my family were always watching, debating and having lively discussions about politics. I even played Ronald Reagan negotiating with OPEC when I was 11 years old. My artwork, however, was about a more emotional response to politics. In America, this was about the tragedy of ignorance and hate. The fast-moving news cycle often made my head spin, but what ended up on my etching plate or drawing paper was always about people who made their own despair, often in the voting booth.
I take a lot of inspiration for my artwork from George Grosz, a German artist who was popular in the 1920s and 30s. He looked at a corrosive society before and during the Nazis' reign. Those drawings have always spoken to me. They are condensed narratives of a broken society. We can certainly see this today, but the gloss of modern life cleverly hides the deep scars and fractures that exist. Drawing this world presents many challenges, but I hope in my art there is anarchic laughter that resonates through time. Human nature is riddled with imperfection but also joyous energy. Ultimately, the artist is in love with life and this love – as occasionally torturous as it is – is eternal.
My research includes looking at the contemporary act of reportage drawing and how my own practice explores some of the central debates in the act. I’m also exploring how the comic is an effective form for exploring historiography and difficult personal narratives, which serve to highlight commonalities amongst experiences.
More recently, I’ve been working on three projects in Nairobi, Kenya. My function in those projects is to facilitate artworks that aim to communicate health messaging, sensitisation and awareness around plastic pollution to communities living in informal settlements, specifically the slum Mukuru.
I facilitated a 32-page comic book with several different stories about coronavirus prevention and awareness as part of the ACT project in Mukuru. The project was called Action against Coronavirus Transmission and looked at different methods of delivering positive, preventative messages to the residents of the area – as well as mobile filming to make videos, murals, puppetry and a music video.
The second project is called Tupumue. This is a lung health study focusing on 5–18-year-olds in two communities in Nairobi; an informal settlement (Mukuru) and a middle class suburb (Buruburu). I worked alongside Dr Cressida Bowyer and others to facilitate the making of murals, paintings with children, performances, puppet shows and music to communicate the aims of the project in the community. This was ultimately led by the ground ‘champions’ whose expertise made these artistic outputs highly successful. It’s all about participation and creating memorable experiences, and we were able to effectively sensitise the public of the aims of the project.
The third and most recent project is called STEPP (Sustainable Transitions to End Plastic Pollution) and this is focusing on Mukuru and Silhet in Bangladesh. Similar creative methods such as the comic and participatory mapping are being used to assess local perceptions about plastic pollution and considering local action(s) to combat it.
In the current climate, I’ve been appreciating the increased time I have to work on my art. During lockdown, I created another comic that took a humorous stance on the early lockdown, and short-lived musings that capitalism may be in the death throws.
Additionally, I’m working on an animation for AHRISS (Arts, Heritage and Resilience in South Sudan) with Professor Tamsin Bradley on gender and the arts in South Sudan. Animation, like the comic, enables insights developed through research to be amplified, emotionalised, and correlated. This has come off the heels of my first animated music video in which I piloted many new animation techniques used here.
At first, the idea of art changing the world sounded very idealistic but now I really believe it. Even amongst the poorest people, art can have such a valuable contribution to their lives. To quote a local artist in Mukuru, Shabu Mwangi: ‘through art you can make hope.’