Ladies Worth Knowing: Kenya (Robinson)

For the first ever Ladies Worth Knowing, I got the great pleasure and opportunity to interview Kenya (Robinson), a self-taught artist, working and living in Brooklyn, New York. (Robinson) seems to have no limits on what she works with; performance, installation, sculpture, and more specifically, mass-produced items which she combines to comment on accessibility, the cultural references behind them and the social acceptability behind them. Her work has been shown at The Aljira Center for Contemporary Art and The Museum of Contemporary Diasporan Arts and she has performed at places such as PS1 Contemporary Art Center and The DUMBO Arts Festival. And now, you should get to know Kenya “¦

PM: You originally spent most of your life in the Deep South – Gainesville, Florida. When I look at your work, I feel l see similarities to the landscape and social commentary of Southern and also larger American culture. Do you think that being from this very specific cultural place has informed your identity, as well as your art?

K(R): Absolutely.  I am very grateful to the environment of my upbringing with supplying the raw material for my conceptual point of view.  In a strange way, I think the south encourages candid discourse on a vernacular level.  I feel like people are consistently praised for “speaking their mind” and this quality has an aesthetic value.  Think: the Julia Sugarbaker character on Designing Women. It’s that ability to tell someone off in a way that includes the dramatic, which continues to appeal to me.

PM: What’s the history of you becoming the great K(R) you are now? Can you give us a description of your journey from Gainesville to awesome Brooklynite and a Lower Manhattan Cultural Council Artist ?

K(R): The great K(R)”¦? I suppose I’ll have to trademark that, too!  My journey has been meandering, although each step was made with purpose.  After my move to Los Angeles effectively made me a college drop-out, I searched for opportunities to make a living creatively.  I worked as a desktop publisher for a huge non-profit organization (Crystal Stairs, Inc.) and having earned my California citizenship, I went to fashion design school (Los Angeles Trade Technical College).  It was difficult to navigate the design scene in California without the right look, in spite of my evolving skills, and I thought I might have a better shot in New York.  The move proved to be fortuitous and I hit the ground running, securing a gig for a swimwear cover-up company a month after my move to Brooklyn.  I bounced around, freelancing with companies that made sweaters for JC Penney and dresses for Ann Taylor.  While this was going on, I was pursuing personal projects, connecting with all kinds of creatives and developing a greater understanding of the creative landscape- especially as it related to the art world.  I ended up being laid off at Marc Ecko and within a few weeks, I was working as a studio assistant to Mike Cloud.  He was working on a body of work that involved patch-working clothing onto canvas, so I could still be help even though I didn’t (and still don’t) know how to paint.  During those hours he would share tidbits about art theory as well as his own thoughts about where I might nurture my own art practice.  Layer on top of this my first visit to a commercial gallery with Greg Tate and my consistent entries into what I called “Dreambooks” (a.k.a Sketchbooks), I was unconsciously moving toward applying for a grant- which I did in 2007 through the Brooklyn Arts Council.  Having an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporian Arts was like a coming out party.  This gave me permission to call myself an artist, which in turn guaranteed that I would pursue opportunities for artists (now that I was a member of the club :->).  My application to LMCC was inspired by a conversation I had with the supremely talented Nyeema Morgan (who happens to be Mike Cloud’s partner) and my acceptance was a turning point in establishing this new life.

PM:  You are a self-taught artist- do you ever struggle with galleries, curators or people trying to put the label of “outsider artist” on you or your work because of that?

K(R): I haven’t come across any real resistance; I think because my work doesn’t “read” as outsider or vernacular, although that’s exactly what it is.  I feel like curators, galleries, etc. resist my self-identification as an outsider artist because it doesn’t fit into the mold they’ve created.

PM: Have you ever experienced anything positive from your title of self-taught artist? Anything negative?

K(R): “Tell the truth and shame the devil “¦” My positioning as a self-taught artist is simply the truth.  I haven’t been to art school; anything that informs my work is through an improvisational curriculum featuring talks with colleagues/friends/family, an insatiable curiosity, mass culture and a heavy dose of trial and error.  All these things are positive.  They allow for a sense of autonomy that is extremely valuable and gives me space to be intentional about my own journey.  The only negative comment I’ve received is that that I should not position myself that way.  I don’t have any intention of doing that, even if I do pursue a more formal course.  Artist must remember that technique or knowledge of history doesn’t make you an artist; listening to and acting upon that creative impulse unconditionally is what does.

PM: What is it about mass produced items and mass-produced culture that you are drawn to and use frequently in your work?

K(R): Accessibility.  My practice is driven by what I have access to, in fact what many Americans, regardless of their space on the map, might have easy and consistent access to.  For some time, I have been intrigued by the notion of “I could do that” and how it seems to permeate the perception of contemporary art.  By using these common materials, I am in direct conversation with this point of view.

PM: Hairpolitic: The Pursuit of Nappiness and Kenya Eats a Cracker are two amazing social commentary pieces. There are similarities and yet they are both incredibly different works. Is it easy for you to go from one form of art making to another? How does the social commentary end up evolving in pieces like these?

K(R): Since the work ultimately comes from the same place, it does not feel like I am doing something so drastically different, even though the end result or objects wouldn’t be put in the same category.  Shifting is easy I suppose, since the conceptual idea remains central and the resulting forms are like costumes, adjusted to fit the “play.”  Social commentary has become second nature to me because it’s always been a part of my life.  Take, for instance, growing up in Gainesville, it was hard not to notice that there were black neighborhoods and white neighborhoods.  It was even harder not to notice that the white neighborhoods looked nicer than the black ones.  Admittedly, there was always an exception to the rule, but the overwhelming majority featured this pattern. I think I began questioning (as a form of commentary) from these early observations.

PM: Do you feel like there is a collective history behind your works?

K(R): A collective history?  I guess, but that seems like an element of every artist’s body of work.  If you are asking me to identify particular historical points I would focus on my personal life:  My relationship with my parents, My maternal grandmother, as well as my relationship with my teachers from kindergarten up to the present day are all inspirational touchstones that are both pragmatic and highly emotional.

PM: What amazing things are you working on in the upcoming future?

K(R): I applied to graduate school and am hopeful for the opportunity to work in an environment that challenges and nurtures my studio practice.  But regardless of that outcome, I am going to continue challenging and nurturing myself and striving towards”¦

To find out more about the fantastic Kenya (Robinson), you can visit her blog or her Lower Manhattan Cultural Council Page.

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