Artist Interview: Kudzanai-Violet Hwami

by Cass Art

As a part of Cass Art's continued mission to support the UK's creative students, we have teamed up with Made in Arts London to offer The Cass Art Materials Grant to one student artist from their Spring/Summer 2016 Collection. The award is designed to help fund the ongoing practice of talented emerging artists, and consists of £500 to spend on materials at Cass Art, as well as professional development support from Made in Arts London

The winner of this year's Spring/Summer grant is Kudzanai-Violet Hwami, who studies BA Fine Art at Wimbledon College of Arts. We caught up with Kudzanai-Violet to have a chat about her inspirations, aspirations, and favourite art materials...

What are the main themes explored through your work?

I find it hard to project just one idea onto my painting because it’s constantly changing and I’m constantly pushing myself to learn new things. At the moment my work lies somewhere between Pop Art and Afro-punk, and I’ve been heavily influenced by the documentary of the same name. I’ve recently developed an interest in Afro-futurism, but have been finding it difficult to situate my work within that genre.

What is it about Afro-punk that inspires you?

I grew up as a bit of an emo kid, but when I was into that scene all of the punk bands I knew and listened to were white. I loved the music, but at the same time it wasn’t completely relatable for me. It was great to watch the film Afropunk, as it taught me how members of the black community influenced the punk genre. I try to reflect the themes brought up in the film through my work, and hope that other emo kids who are black or of colour can look at it and relate.

I've now moved slightly beyond the emo/goth scene, and my perception of what Afro-punk is has broadened as I’ve grown older. My changing understanding of the scene still provides a major source of inspiration for me.

How do you plan your compositions?

The process usually begins on the internet- scrolling through Tumblr looking at the work of photographers and interesting images of human poses. I look at colour, composition and subject matter, and the images that appeal to me most are saved onto my desktop. I then use an app to digitally collage and stitch them together. It’s quite an intuitive process, and one that gives me plenty of scope for experimentation. My work is typically quite big- the largest size I’m working on currently is around 2m x 1.5m- which means there’s also lots of room to play around with. Sometimes I take my own photographs to work from as well, but I don’t like to include people I know in my paintings- I find that this makes the work too personal, which compromises the ideas behind the painting. The goal is to compose an image that I myself cannot recognize in my reality.

And what’s the process for actually undertaking one of your paintings?

I start by sketching out a piece with charcoal, and then work over it with a thin mixture of paint and turpentine. After a few initial washes of colour I begin to build up the paint properly to sculpt the painting- I used to be very generous in my application of paint; finding great joy in applying thick layers to create an impasto-effect surface, and often waiting for days for the oil paint to dry before working on top of it again. This produced rich, detailed work, which I was really happy with- I’m trying to return to that way of painting now. Occasionally, I'll also intoduce a subtle mixed-media element within a piece, using additional charcoal or oil pastel.

Do you like your work to be quite removed from other people in your real life?

In a way, yes. When I paint someone I know I automatically project my opinions and knowledge about them onto the painting, and I don’t want to do that. I want to create my own world, filled with my own characters. Using a friend or family member as model affects my ability to lose myself in a painting.

With the resources on the internet I feel like there’s really no need to use people I know. I’m trying to paint more nudes at the moment, and I can just go online and take screenshots of people, which is quick and easy. I’ve used myself as a model in some paintings so I wouldn’t mind having a person I know for these pieces, but I’m at a stage now where it feels right to be completely detached from the subject. The internet is a great tool- it’s a good place to find images, and if you search for long enough you’ll find exactly what you want.

What do you want the viewer to think when they look at the figures in your paintings?

I want the portrayal to be playful and fun- I definitely don’t want to convey a negative image of the characters in my paintings.  The images express a side of my personality; a youthful naivety; which I think is very much like me. I try to project my life into the paintings, and mainly focus on the soft-core side of life, rather than the harsh realities. Each painting is celebrating something, whether it be truth, childhood, sex, death or ego.

You include a few unexpected elements within your work- I’m particularly interested to hear the story behind in the repeated inclusion of fruit in your paintings?

In my first year at university I was beginning to think about working with nudes, and I wanted to talk about sexuality in my work, but at that time I didn’t want it to be an overriding theme. I started to look at fruit because of the common associations between objects like bananas and sexual organs, so the fruit basically symbolises sexuality.  

What are your favourite kinds of materials to work with?

I work in oils typically, and have been using the Georgian paints since I started, which are affordable on a student budget but still really good quality. I’ve never used Michael Harding paints before, but it’s definitely something I’ll be looking into now that I have my materials grant. I’ve already bought a roll of Fabriano paper and some Winsor & Newton oil sticks, which I’m really excited to try. I also use quite a lot of oil mediums, and make my own mixture of Liquin and linseed stand oil.

Which visual artists influence your practice?

I’m drawn to contemporary art much more than the traditional- I don’t really connect with famous historical painters, such as those from the Renaissance, as it’s a world I’ve never been exposed to. I prefer to reflect on what’s happening in the modern day, and contemporary artists, such as Henry Taylor and Kerry James Marshall, have been a huge influence in terms of subject matter and their continued use of the black body as a centre piece in their work.

I’m currently looking a lot at Yue Minjun, Kaws and Takashi Marukami, and was recently excited to discover that Yue Minjun had collaborated with Swiss watchmaker, Hublot. I’m influenced by all three artists (among others) not just because of their work, but because they transcend their own practices in order to collaborate with different artists, businesses and institutions. While my own aspirations may not include my artwork being featured on a watch, I’m definitely interested in collaboration moving forwards.  

You’ve mentioned that the Afro-Punk documentary was a pivotal influence on your work, have there been any other similar reference points for you?

Sometimes, an idea comes out of the blue, or by chance. Recently I’ve been repeatedly listening to the song, Yellow Fever, by Fela Kuti, which talks about the fashion for skin-whitening, which took over in Nigeria in the late seventies. It's such an interesting time and such amazing music- I can see ten or more paintings coming out of it. 

Before discovering the song, I had been looking at the relationship between China and my birth country, Zimbabwe. The way I read the song automatically seemed to reference the political relationship between Africa and China. I’m not sure where my thoughts are going with this theme, but I’ve had an idea for a futuristic post-Mugabe era graphic novel for some time now. 

So now you have the grant, you pretty much have free-reign on materials! How do you see your practice evolving?

I just want to carry on making lots of work, but I’d like to move towards being a bit more professional with my materials, because now I can afford to buy the good stuff!

At the moment I'm mainly focusing on building my portfolio and applying to artists' residencies. I also have some work on show at the Affordable Art Fair in Hampstead from the 16th-19th of June, and at my final year Degree Show at Wimbledon College of Arts from the 16th-25th June.

Feeling Inspired? 

See more of Kudzanai-Violet's paintings on her website, or follow the progress of her work on Instagram.

Read more from Made in Arts London and take a look at the Spring/ Summer 2016 Collection.

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