Artist Lakwena Maciver Digs Below the Surface of Our Green and Pleasant Land – Esquire – Miranda Collinge
It was in 2021 that the British-Ugandan artist Lakwena Maciver was asked to put together a solo show at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, a contemporary art space that sprawls over rolling hillsides, through woodlands and into tucked-away galleries across an 18th-century estate in Wakefield, West Yorkshire. She toured the site’s 500 acres— once home to landed gentry and now to works by Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Ai Weiwei and James Turrell, among others — looking for inspiration. But it was back in her studio in Haggerston, east London, that an idea came to her.
“A week later, I was looking at a map that I’d got from Yorkshire Sculpture Park, and I noticed there was a ha-ha on it,” says Maciver, who is 36 and makes work that is full of graphic shapes and bold ideas. “I’d vaguely heard of a ha-ha, because there’s a street in Woolwich, not far from where I used to live, called Ha-Ha Road, which I always thought was really funny. I knew it meant a ditch, but I didn’t realise that it meant a kind of concealed ditch, which is an interesting thing.”
For anyone rusty on their Ordnance Survey terminology, a “ha-ha” is a garden design innovation that became popular in the 18th century, consisting of a fence or wall sunk into a ditch to keep livestock from wandering into parks and gardens, but without spoiling the view (the name is rumoured to be derived from the surprised sound a visitor makes when happening upon one). “It’s an interruption in the landscape, but it makes it look like the landscape is seamless,”says Maciver. “I liked the idea that you could use that as a metaphor for looking at power structures: how boundaries are drawn by the people who have the power, and are not always that obvious but can be very real.”
Maciver has had to think about boundaries a fair bit in her work, much of which has appeared outside of traditional gallery spaces. She covered a basketball court in a juvenile detention centre in Arkansas with bright geometric shapes and the words “I rise”, a nod to Maya Angelou. She turned the garden above Temple Tube station in London into a maze of zig-zags and stripes. She painted enormous walls in Los Angeles with intriguing messages in rainbow lettering. The question of who owns what is a recurring theme in her pieces, but it’s a logistical one, too: “I’ve done a lot of public artworks, so always at the back of my mind there’s the question: who owns this? Who do I need to get permission from?”
Born in Enfield, north London, Maciver began to think about this and issues that now inform her work — colonialism, social oppression, freedom of speech — from an early age. Growing up, her Ugandan father would tell her about his side of the family’s persecution by the English, who, as her father would tell her, claimed their land with deadly force, and of his own oppression there under Idi Amin. From her British mother, she learned about speaking up: her mother would organise protests about social issues, and march with Maciver and her brother and two sisters down Whitehall. “I was the one who would do the banners,” she remembers.
But Maciver’s work is also overwhelmingly joyful and colourful — take, for example, Jump, her series of vibrant abstract portraits of basketball players — and this she attributes to another formative experience: in the early 1990s, when she was six years old, her father got a job in Ethiopia and the family moved there for two years. “For me, it felt like a glimpse of paradise,” she says. “I realise now that it very much wasn’t, and there were a lot of people struggling at the time in that country, and I saw a lot of poverty. I obviously had a very privileged experience, but it was a special time for me and my family. It was sunny. It felt like a safe, happy place.”
Her return to England, this time to Bromley, in south London, was, she says, “a culture shock”. She became aware of herself as a minority for the first time, and experienced racism at school. She found herself compelled to draw: pictures of houses, suns, aeroplanes. “There was a real sense of loss and confusion that I began to process through drawing,” she says. “In Ethiopia, I blended in very well, and then I started realising I was different. I started making work that was trying to assert my own narrative, and counter the narrative I was hearing about who I was.”
After studying graphic design at London College of Communication, a breakthrough project came in 2013, when she was asked to paint a wall in Miami. She emblazoned it with the words “I remember paradise”, recalling her time in Ethiopia. “It was the first big mural I did, and it opened a lot of doors for me,” she says. “And, in a way, it set the scene for what my work has continued to be about: decolonisation, ultimately, is paradise, isn’t it? When there’s no one trying to control you. And it was a privilege to be allowed to paint on that scale. It’s hard work but it’s fun, and you feel somehow like you’re impacting the real, physical fabric of the world.”
With her exhibition at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, which she’s calling A green and pleasant land (HA-HA), Maciver transports the idea of paradise to the English countryside, and asks us to think about to whom it belongs. “I researched the Inclosure Acts in England [laws passed over the 18th and 19th centuries], when common land — used by people who didn’t have money to grow their vegetables and graze their sheep — was encroached upon by private landowners. It was interesting that the ha-ha came about at a similar time in history. I saw a lot of parallels between that and what’s happening today in public speech: the law says you can say what you want, but there’s a lot of censorship here now, and a lot of self-censorship, because of discreet boundaries on the public-speech landscape.”
The new show will be housed in the park’s Weston Gallery, and consist of a series of paintings hanging on the walls, a textile sculpture suspended from the ceiling, and a sound installation based on laughter, in recognition of the name of the modified ditch that inspired it and its darker implications. “There’s going to be happy laughter; there’s going to be sinister laughter; there’s going to be very scary laughter. You can read anything into it. That’s the point.”
And yes, to be clear, the Weston Gallery is an indoor space. There won’t be huge interventions on the landscape from Maciver this time. For once, though, she seems pretty happy about that: she’s currently pregnant with her third child, due in March. “I was grateful to be in a studio, making work that’s quite controlled,” she says, blithely. “I’m not having to go up any ladders and battle the elements.”
‘Lakwena Maciver: A green and pleasant land (HA-HA)’ runs from 12 November to 19 March 2023 at Yorkshire Sculpture Park; ysp.org.uk
12 November 2022