Lakwena Maciver’s Murals Offer a Blueprint for a Better World – Anothermag – Connor Garel

The artist’s new exhibition at Yorkshire Sculpture Park considers questions of power and ownership, colonialism and free speech. Here, in her own words, she talks about her “critical” new murals


To stumble upon one of Lakwena Maciver’s kaleidoscopic murals is to confront a kind of spiritual affirmation. “Naturally, I’m a bit of a pessimist,” she admits on a Zoom call. “That’s why the work is so positive. I’m trying to remind myself that there’s hope, because real life is tough, isn’t it?” For the last ten or so years, Maciver has also reminded everyone else that there’s hope, too, often forgoing the gallery system to redeem London’s grayscale dreariness with a series of technicolour prayers celebrating black life, Black joy, and Black power. Those phrases – “NOTHING CAN SEPARATE US,” “THE BEST IS STILL TO COME” – ring with optimistic certainty; it’s fitting that Maciver’s name translates, from the Acholi language of northern Uganda, to “messenger of the chief.”
But the artist’s latest exhibition at Yorkshire Sculpture ParkA green and pleasant land (HA-HA), suggests a departure from her usual positive meditations. It’s more critical than her previous work, with messages that read more like indictments or demands than hopeful reminders. “It’s addressing how the quest for utopia can end up restricting the freedom of others,” she explains.

In the 18th century, the UK’s landed gentry began appropriating communal land and fencing it off from the common people, who had previously used it to grow crops and make a living. And to keep livestock off the newly-privatised land without spoiling the pleasant view, sunken fences called ha-has were dug into concealed ditches surrounding the land, creating the illusion of openness. As a result, half of all land in England is now owned by less than 1% of the population.

In her new exhibition, Maciver uses the ha-ha as a metaphor to consider questions of power and ownership, colonialism and free speech, and how, beneath the great illusion of our vast cultural openness, public speech and space are still increasingly and tightly controlled by a privileged elite. 

“I grew up in Enfield, north London, but my family moved to Ethiopia for two years when I was six while my dad was working for the United Nations. It was like a golden era in my family – a little glimpse of paradise. A lot changed for me. My dad is Ugandan and my mom is English, but I sort of looked Ethiopian back then, and after growing up as a minority in London, suddenly everyone around me looked like me. I don’t know that I necessarily belonged, but I could at least blend in, and I’d never had that before. Plus it was sunny all the time, it was warm. The country was colourful down to the handmade street signs, which had an effect on me that I didn’t realise until later. Growing up, my dad was unemployed a lot of the time, so our family had a complicated relationship with money. But in Ethiopia, my life was so pleasant. In the eyes of a child, everything was perfect: my dad had a job, the country was beautiful. And I was happy. 

“But then we came back to London, and my first memories of being back are of the cold, and the grey sky – and I was a minority again. It was a big shock for me; we thought we were going to return to Ethiopia at some point, but then it didn’t happen, and so there was a lot of pain and heartbreak about that for a long time. It was a defining moment for me. I had this sense of upheaval, like I had been picked up and locked in this alien place where you can go a month without seeing the sun. I struggled to process that. And I think my work has been a way for me to combat this greyness and all its associations, to bring an antidote to it.

5 December 2022
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