Published  16/01/2013

Retelling history through art – an interview with Kimathi Donkor

Retelling history through art – an interview with Kimathi Donkor


Kimathi Donkor is an artist with an appetite for historical research. Born in Bournemouth in 1965, Donkor moved to London in the 1980s to begin a Fine Art degree, and it was during this time that he learned in depth about the African Diaspora.

Due to his ancestry, he was already familiar with the narratives, but had not had the chance to discover more about them through formal education. Struck by life stories that have been disclosed to him, he has incorporated the biography of powerful female figures from Africa and its diaspora into the imaginary and colourful landscapes of his paintings. His artworks give these women a new chance for liberation. The women's untold histories are expressed through their portraits, bringing their characters to the viewers’ attention, and thus informing the general public.

In his most recent exhibition Queens of the Undead at the Institute of International Visual Arts – Iniva, in London, Donkor presented four of these highly regarded heroic women: “Queen Njinga Mbandi who led her armies against the Portuguese empire in Angola; Harriet Tubman, the underground-railroad leader who freed 70 people from US slavery in the 1850s; Queen Nanny who led the Maroon guerillas in Jamaica that fought the British in the 1700s; and lastly in what is now Ghana, the 20th-century anti-colonial commander-in-chief, Yaa Asantewaa”.1 In the second part of the show, three large-scale earlier paintings were on display in which his primary source of artistic creation were contemporary facts of violent confrontations. The active discourse intended by his paintings articulates a hidden history, tales of the past and chronicles of supressed voices.

Caroline Menezes: Firstly a simple, obvious question: who are these people that you portrayed in The Queens of the Undead? How did you learn about them? What exactly do they represent to you? When did your sympathy and appreciation towards to them begin?

Kimathi Donkor: I became aware of these historical characters when I was at Goldsmiths University in the 1980s. Partly it was just self-interest because I have family connections in Jamaica, Zambia, Nigeria and Ghana. Even though Britain had long standing ties to many of these countries, there was nothing in the British education system, particularly the art system, which spoke about this. Why is there no interest educationally in this part of British history? It is perhaps due to a sense of shame about Britain’s involvement in slavery and I suppose what you might call an institutional racism. I became frustrated with this situation, so I took the opportunity of being in Brixton, where Goldsmiths used to be, to get involved in various community initiatives to learn about things which I couldn’t learn at college. There was no funding, in fact we didn’t want any funding, because it was the state’s intervention which caused this lack of education in the first place. We wanted to remain independent. There was a very high level of engagement in the classes of the “Black History for Action” group. It was quite hard to get this kind of knowledge about black history in those days before the internet. Every session a member would be delegated to research the biography of a person or cultural, political, historical subjects, and then we would discuss it. It was a proper seminar. This is where I would have first come across many of these historical black female characters.

CM: And was it at that moment that you started to bring the historical figures to your paintings or was it later on?

KD: No, I still didn’t feel confident that I wanted to make such a strong relationship between my painting and historical figures. At that stage I was more interested in the people who were involved in what was happening in London at that time, in the 1980s. These other historical figures were running around in my thoughts for about 15 years and then in 2000 I was doing a tour of the Egyptian tombs. Egypt is a long way away isn’t it? I suppose being back in Africa and seeing this ancient art in which the painters didn’t have any inhibition in being engaged, in thinking about their society and this relationship to death, rebirth and bringing the dead back to life, the antiquity of it; I thought that I really needed to think about what I was doing. When I came back to England I immediately started working with this vision. At first I started a historical series about the Haitian revolution, my first series of paintings about historical characters. Before the experience of being in these Egyptian tombs, looking at these magnificent artworks, I wanted to create something more contemporary. I had become involved in the community and political activism, so for my graduation show in 1987 I created drawings related to London’s political history at that time.

CM: Once you learned more about black history and were politically active, when you brought that into the art school, was this easily received there?

KD: I couldn’t conjure up this kind of engagement with society at the university library. This kind of understanding was not in the academy. I had a really supportive tutor, Professor Sarat Maharaj, but unfortunately a lot of the college authorities found it difficult to understand that I needed to immerse myself in this community environment. Remember: I had been living mostly in rural England, and to come into the London urban struggle was something very new and I needed to immerse myself in it, in order to be able to make art. So, no, it was a difficult relationship.

CM: But do you feel that maybe nowadays things are different? 

KD: I have just been involved in the Shades of Noir project which is at the University of Arts London and addresses this question of attainment gap, the way that black and white students are given different grades and why this might be. I speak to young black students male and female, they all seem to be telling me a very similar story to what I experienced. I don’t want to hear this. I want to hear that the system is improving, that the curriculum is being broadened out, that the success of people like Steve McQueen and other black artists whose work also have a political nature has made some difference. You would think that this would have changed, but it doesn’t seem to have, it’s kind of a shock.

CM: Maybe by works like yours and these other artists such as John Akomfrah's and Theaster Gates2 that are bringing back a narrative that was unexposed up to now, maybe people will be more aware of this concealed history. How do you see the impact of displaying a history that was invisible as an artistic expression in a painting? Does it have an impact on the way that someone learns about history or would this kind of artistic manifestation just impact the way that you experience art?

KD: I think it does both, many people are very glad to be able to see art that has a strong social and ethical awareness. I respect the viewer who goes to the gallery and wants to experience something that is uplifting or disturbing, that engages them intellectually. I am not just trying to put them into a dreamlike reverie. If you look at my paintings, they have got a very complex psychological and even spiritual element. I don’t think of them as being easy to read, they are difficult images, in a sort of surrealism sense. The answer to your question is that you can have an engagement with history; it is a necessary and valuable contribution to art, and vice-versa. For example, with the painting Nanny’s Fifth Act of Mercy (2012) I took the composition from Joshua Reynolds’s portrait of Jane Fleming, later Countess of Harrington (1778), who was an aristocrat whose family was involved with enslaving people in the plantations in Jamaica, brutal exploiters. I made her portrait into the figure of her arch-enemy Queen Nanny of the Maroons. Jane Fleming’s family was involved in the oppression of Jamaica and the painter Reynolds who was one of the founders of the Royal Academy of the Arts in England took her money to finance his studio. I have inhabited Fleming’s body with the body of a contemporary young British Nigerian woman who poses as a model for Nanny. It is something which you can just do through art. Art can do something a bit magical with history, the two things aren’t separate. All artists work with history anyway and with the history of art. Whenever artists make a work, they are entering into the stream of our history.

CM: All artists have a visual repertoire that is going to provide them with the skills to create something as well.

KD: Absolutely, all I’m doing is really just slightly extending that notion beyond the false enclosure, just extending it into the ethical questions that this art history produces. In California, at the Huntington Library where the portrait of Jane Fleming is now hung, it just mentions that her mother married into what they call a West Indian plantation family. That is just a euphemism for repression, West Indian plantation to me were places of death. The average life expectancy of the African slaves in the Caribbean territory was 10 years. It was a brutal system. And then we go into our museums to see all these lovely paintings, no one can deny the grace and the elegance of Joshua Reynolds’s paintings. The beauty of the painting which we worship but cannot see that there is so much suffering involved in its creation. It is not about condemning this art, but to somehow question it.

CM: I was going to ask you why you had chosen to compose in a European white style but I think that you have already answered that. Could you explain a bit more about this system of re-interpretation?

KD: Every painting in Queens of the Undead contains a clear visual quotation or appropriation of the work of a contemporary of the figure who is portrayed. So, Nanny is born in the late 17th century, she dies in the mid-18th century, therefore Reynolds is one of her contemporaries. Veronese, Velazquez and Franz Post, they were contemporaries of Queen Njinga Mbandi, there are these collisions between people who have never met but who could have met, it is a fantasy. If Veronese had known Mbandi what might he have done? For example, the composition of Harriett Tubman en Route to Canada (2012) is taken from a pre-Raphaelite painting by Henry Bowler, The Doubt ‘Can these dry bones live?’ (1855) where there is this woman leaning on a gravestone, looking down at a newly dug grave, the sunlight is pouring, trees, there is a lot of leaves and is summer. Now when you see that scene with Harriett Tubman, it is winter, snow on the ground, the leaves have all gone, and trees have turned into telegraph poles. We are in the United States, heading towards Canada, but in the industrial revolution, the new age of telecommunications. Henry Bowler’s pre-Raphaelite finely observed painting is an allegory, there is a church, a bit of human construction, but there is a lot about nature, the beauty of sunlight. My painting is much more about a harsh nature and the human construction is a telegraph pole. Every time Harriett Tubman goes back to the south, to the slave area, she frees people, she leads them on these journeys north, to Canada, which is very wintry place. She dictates this landscape by her life. For the setting of the figures, I kind of allow the figures, if you like, to determine that, but at the same time, the artwork from where I have taken the composition also helps.

CM: We learn about the characters, we see the names, read about their histories, however the landscape, the background of your paintings is always very surreal as you mentioned before, heavy white snow, a red dessert, why do you choose a kind of scenery that is always very dubious?

KD: Part of it is just purely the joy of being able to have an overwhelming colour experience and to just abandon the constraints of naturalism. Then, it is about giving the viewer the opportunity to seriously question what is being presented. There are all these disruptions about place and time, there is a constant sort of jumping in the work, between today and yesterday, between here and there, there is this disorientating sense and I find it hard to not do it.

CM: In Carol Tulloch’s text there is a statement of yours saying that “I’m interested in the representation of memory, identity and agency”.3 Could you develop this notion of agency for me? What exactly to you mean?

KD: Agency is the ability of people to shape their own life, destiny, to be the agents of their own change, that makes all the figures of the Queens of the Undead particularly outstanding. We are getting into the Nietzsche’s notion of the will to power. I’m not going to say I’m for or against it, but he said that what makes people tick isn’t the will to reproduce, it is about power. I think he is really thinking about power over others. In Nietzsche’s philosophy superman is basically a slave owner. For instance, Yaa Asantewaa was a member of the Ghanian royalty and by the dawn of the 20th century the country which she was from, Ashanti, had fought three wars against Britain. They won the first two and lost the third. The British came all the way to the capital city, Kamasi, and burnt it down. They took the king of Ashanti as prisoner. It was a disaster and Yaa Asantewaa just decided she would not accept this. The accounts tell that she gathered the aristocracy of Ashanti and said they were supposed to be the great warriors. So, she galvanised the nobility to make this campaign against Britain and was personally the leader of the armies. It was the first war of the 20th century. Britain was this mighty industrial power which could bring steel ships to Ashanti, and Ashanti just basically had rifles. Yaa Asantewaa had this sense of agency, she tried to liberate her nation from this foreign power at any cost.

CM: Yes but it is difficult to talk about agency in that sense when you talk about slavery, because people were not allowed to recognise themselves as agents, as people with a will, that can do things.

KD: You are right and that is an interesting thing about all of these different women. You have some of them like Mbandi, and Asantewaa who were monarchs, they really were literally queens, and then you have people like Nanny and Harriet Tubman who were from the exact opposite end of society, and probably would have been despised by the other two. There are two quite different groups of women, in that sense, from very different classes and backgrounds, but what draws them together is this sense of agency. People like Harriett who was told, over and over again, in her life that she and her family were nothing, that they had no power over their lives and that they were just the property of these so called masters. On account of race, because she was black, because she was African, on the account of class, because she was a slave, on the account of being a woman, because women were accorded a secondary status in American society at that time. So, she overturned all of that and said no: I don’t accept any of that, I don’t accept that I’m racially inferior, I don’t accept that I can’t be a dynamic active person in society. I think she’s a very inspiring kind of person in that sense and I don’t necessarily understand how it happens. I think this notion of agency whereby people who might be under the most terrible circumstances just make a decision to change, is what we do every day on a tiny little level.

1. This brief description is found on the Iniva website: Nanny (born 1686-c.1745); Harriet Tubman (1822-1923); Yaa Asantewaa (c1840-1921) Mbandi (c1583-1663).

2. To know more about John Akomfrah’s work see the Liverpool Biennial review [">]. Theaster Gates was one of the highlights of Documenta 13 and he recently had a solo show called My Labor is my Protest at the White Cube Bermondsey

3. Carol Tulloch is a writer and curator and Reader at the Transnational Art Identity & Nation Research Centre of the University of the Arts London. She contributed with the text “Take a look at it from my point of view” to go along with Donkor’s paintings at Iniva.

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