Leah Thomason Bromberg visits Lakwena Maciver’s studio
I walked past endless stalls of vegetables, a black and white dress I really liked, patterned fabrics of every sorts. It was crowded enough to make it hard to walk. I spent £1 on raspberries as I made my way to Lakwena Maciver’s studio toward the end of a Dalston street market in east London. Inside her studio it was still filled with bright colors and voices, but they were on the five paintings she was working on for her exhibition, The future’s gold.
Lakwena herself is quiet with a lot to say. Her work comes from political promises. They are cutting in what is promised, yet sincerely optimistic. The work points to how the state of politics are far from the way they need to be.
My visit to her studio was a few weeks after another election in the United Kingdom which destabilized Theresa May and the Tories’ grasp of power, and a year after the Brexit vote--a process looming over us still. There is always the sympathetic look of knowing when the conversation turns to American politics.
LTB: What is your normal, ‘working size’ for your paintings?
LM: There’s something political in filling up space.
And there is political weight in filling space. Lakwena shares that she usually works really large, filling as much space as she can. Lakwena’s voice is undeniable in the work as well as in the space it takes over. The vibrancy of her paintings fill the space. The largest of her five pieces seemed about 4’ x 4’, yet feels much larger than that given her palette. Lakwena has also completed several murals in various locations internationally that also envelop the entire space. For The future’s gold she has painted the walls as well as installed her work.
Lakwena’s work seems to need to spread beyond the frame. Even in her studio, it feels like they have oozed onto the floor--it is covered in black and white checked utility rubber mats.
Pictorial space has always felt political to me: when else does someone have complete autonomy over an entire world? As a woman who was taught it was “good manners” to be quiet and invisible, I can’t help but appreciate the sass in taking up space. Voices need to go beyond their allotted space.
LTB: What’s the relationship between the image and the text?
LM: I think a lot about mirrors. There is a quote: “For now we see through a glass darkly,” which ends with the idea that “now we see clearly.”
A collection of fabrics and books fill up Lakwena’s studio. A small black and white necklace finds itself in the edge of one of her paintings. Her desk drawers are painted in a day-glo gradient. The patterns feel like they just naturally emerge from Lakwena, standing next to me in her lime green dress.
The paintings draw on her experiences as a sign painter, and she subverts the connection to commercial advertising with her politics. There is the analogy of commercialism with politics: selling a message that the future will be better if you buy this or vote for him. There’s also the analogy of a mirror--how advertising reflects desire. The way the patterns frame the text echo a sort of mirror in the work. It’s a biblical reference to our lack of vision into the future as Lakwena quoted: “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known” (I Corinthians 13:12).
The gold in the paintings also reflect poorly, a vinyl imitation of something far more precious. Lakwena opted for vinyl instead of gold leaf--it’s more commercial, less referential to history painting, and non-elitist. For a moment I’m lost in imagining all the Renaissance cathedral paintings and the apocalyptic visions in the book of Revelation. In that book there are promises of a “new Jerusalem” paved with gold, but the gold is so pure it is perfectly clear. Again: what we see here feels inferior. How clear is our vision of reality?
LTB: Where do you find the phrases that go into the work?
LM: For this painting, there’s a song by Gil Scott-Heron that says, ‘Black people / will be in the street looking for a brighter day. / The revolution will not be televised.’
The sort of discontent with the status quo and push for the newly imagined is a huge part of Afrofuturism. Lakwena herself likes to blend Afrofuturism with a messianic philosophy: waiting for, longing for, imagining a promised and better future.
The Revolution Will Not Be Televised goes on:
The future and the revolution take on this mythical quality. When are people more empowered than when they are creating their own myths? Myths are about making the ordinary, extraordinary--beyond and outside of the quotidian--as well as unrecognized by capitalist interests. Advertising has nothing to do with changing power dynamics.
Lakwena's paintings as contemporary work feel alive, living in both the present and the future. The text could easily become sarcastic or glib; but I found myself being spurred on to imagine what a golden future would maybe be.
She pulls out books about Oakland’s Sun Ra, a musician and artist whose bright aesthetic echoes in her studio. He took on his persona as a prophet and never deviated from it, becoming a pioneer of Afrofuturism itself. The small artworks inside the book are themselves mythic and feature characters wielding unworldly powers. This too is an imagined world grappling with extraordinary powers. There’s a similar sincerity in Lakwena’s work: optimistic but not removed from the realities of present day.
That is after all what we are constantly promised: for the future to be great again, strong and stable. And the best slogans promise what we want. I remember “hope” being so important after the Bush years. For whom are these promises? Her son napped quietly next to her work, a reminder that politics and power dynamics aren’t at all theoretical.
The present isn’t gold; let’s hope that the future could be.