Artist Lakwena on her new Covent Garden installation

Annabel Harrison

20 July 2021

Nothing Can Separate Us: the London-born artist on the significance of her latest bold and beautifully bright artwork, and how her city inspires her

20 July 2021 | Annabel Harrison

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his month Covent Garden unveiled a new art installation by London-born artist Lakwena. Floral Street’s bollards have been hand-painted with acid-bright designs by Lakwena, and King Street and Henrietta Street are home to flags she has emblazoned with bold typographic messages; Nothing Can Separate Us. Commissioned as a welcome message, as we rediscover our city and its various cultural and social districts, we can’t think of a better way to kick off our summer of (whisper it…) freedom.

Lakwena has created works in the public realm internationally, from installations at Tate Britain, Somerset House, Facebook and the Southbank Centre in London to a juvenile detention centre in Arkansas, a monastery in Vienna, and the Bowery Wall in New York City. She’s proud to create works that she calls ‘painted prayers and meditations that respond to and re-appropriate elements of popular culture’; this is one of them, and the artist herself tells us more.

How did you develop your installation for Covent Garden? Did ‘Nothing Can Separate Us’ come first, or later on in the design process, and what does that sentence mean to you?
I nearly always begin with the words, and I did here. The sentence means many things to me. It’s speaking about our connection with God and with each other.

How does it feel to be adding your name to a list that includes Damien Hurst, Charles Pétillon, Alex Chinneck, Anya Hindmarch and Anthony Burrill, all of whom have created large scale artworks for Covent Garden?
Incredible. I’m very honoured and grateful to have been asked to make an artwork in such a historic space.

Does art have an important role to play in documenting the impact of the pandemic on our lives?
Art can play a really important role in documenting significant moments in society, whether that’s through paintings or films or songs. I love it when I see a painting or a film or hear a song that is speaking into or out of a specific moment in time. I think it’s a beautiful way of processing what’s happening, and also later on, of sharing what happened with future generations. There’s a really powerful quote that is written over the Secession building in Vienna. I went there once and I keep a picture of it on my studio wall. It was written in German but it means 'To every age its art, to every art its freedom'. I intend for my work to speak to and out of this age.

How did the pandemic affect your artistic output?
My husband has a barbershop on Hackney Road called SliderCuts. He couldn’t work and was doing most of the childcare so I had more time to work than I’ve had since my first son was born, nearly five years ago.

Who or what is inspiring you in 2021 so far?
Circa is an art intervention that has periodically been taking over a big screen in Leicester Square this year. It replaces adverts with art. I love the concept, the accessibility of it and the scale of it.

What are your favourite places in London, in terms of inspiration?
I really like Bold Tendencies, an art space in an old multi-storey car park in Peckham. I love nature. There’s a wildflower meadow that comes up in the summer in Hackney Downs, my local park. I love the fact it’s not always there. If it’s the right time of year and I’m free I like to go there and just take it in. There’s a great car boot sale every week opposite my home where I like to go and find inspiration.

What can you tell us about the body of work found within your own home, and its significance?
It focuses on the interplay between my practices as both artist and mother of two young sons. I’ve been painting the walls of my home. I’m painting to counteract various forms of oppression, both subtle and overt. I wanted to create a space of protection and healing for my sons but also for my friends, my neighbours, my wider family. And, with Covid and everything, these ideas all began to resonate even more widely. I was invited to recreate my living room at Hastings Contemporary which was epic, and that show has now ended so the paintings are back at my home, where I’m continuing to work on the project and will eventually invite a selected number of visitors to view it in situ.

What else can we expect to see from you this year?
I’m working on a series of patchworked textile pieces also inspired by my painting Nothing Can Separate Us. More paintings, more installations. A collaboration with an iconic fashion brand, and a collaboration with architects on a huge permanent structure.

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