LAKWENA MACIVER’s bright, bold murals adorn walls in Vienna, New York, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami, Sweden, and her home city of London. Beyoncé was so enchanted by one of them that she took a selfie in front of it and circulated it among her fans.
Critics have called Lakwena’s work “energising”, “empowering”, “happy”, and “enthusiastic”, and praised it for its optimism and sense of adventure. She just hopes that the people who come across her work will derive a sense of the divine from it (her name means “messenger of God” in the Acholi language of northern Uganda).
“I know what I’m putting into my work, and what its intention is,” Lakwena says. “But, as an artist, you can’t control how people receive your work. That said, I do often hear of people seeing it and being moved by it. I work a lot with text and with colour. And I work on a very large scale, often in the public realm. Underlying themes in my work are often trying to subvert prevailing mythologies.
“On the surface, my work can often come across as positive thinking, or have some sort of feel-good element to it. I’m fully aware of that. In a way, that does give me access to places I wouldn’t otherwise have access to, and my work often appeals to people whom one wouldn’t normally expect it to. But my hope always with my paintings is that some of the subtexts do come through.”
BORN in 1986 to an English mother and a Ugandan father, Lakwena studied graphic design at the London College of Communications, graduating in 2009. She had her first exhibition in London that same year. When she was a child, her schoolmates used to ask her to draw pictures for them. “I’ve kind of always known that I was good at drawing,” she says.
A career as an artist, however, was never in the plan: “I don’t know where the realisation came from, initially, but I always knew that artists didn’t make a lot of money. You’ve got te lov (2020)It might have been my dad who told me; I can’t remember. But I knew I was not going to make a career out of art. I never once imagined that I’d be doing this for a living.”
Lakwena grew up in a family that went to church every Sunday. “I was told about Jesus, and I believed in him from a very young age,” she recalls. “When I was about 14, I went to a new church where I experienced him in a way that I hadn’t before. From then on, it became my aim that my life would revolve around Jesus.
“I’ve had some time to think during the lockdown, and I’ve come to the conclusion that my work is actually painted prayers and meditations. Historically, one artist I’ve always been inspired by is Emory Douglas, who was the Black Panthers’ Minister of Culture. The Black Panthers were truly counter-cultural. What they were trying to do was to completely flip the narrative, and, as their Minister of Culture, Emory carried a lot of responsibility for that.
“Emory and the Panthers were very aware of the power of the image and the importance of creating a mythology. Even the clothes they wore were part of the mythology they set out to build around themselves. I’ve got a book of all of the posters Emory made for the Panthers; it’s interesting to examine the different ways that they sought to subvert the oppression that America’s Black community had experienced, and still experiences, but specifically in the context of the 1960s and ’70s.
“I’m also interested in painting as a means of decolonisation. I’ve been reading a book called Decolonising the Mind, by the Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o. He speaks a lot in it about language and how African languages have been subjugated by colonialism — even within Africa itself.”
The book was published in 1986, and wa Thiong’o has not written any books in English since then: they have all been in his native language, Kikuyu. “He says that, when he was in school, if any children spoke Kikuyu in class, they would have a sign saying ‘I am stupid’ placed around their necks — for speaking their mother tongue! And so, for him, speaking and writing in Kikuyu became a political act.”
INSPIRED by wa Thiong’o’s stance, Lakwena has now started incorporating her father tongue into her art. “I see Acholi — which I have an understanding of, but don’t speak fluently — as a very significant thing to be introducing into my work,” she says. “The Acholi texts in my art will be subtitles, which are another thing I’ve had on my mind a lot lately. We’re all familiar with subtitles, as English-speakers or as Westerners: if a film is not in English, it will have subtitles in English.
“Usually, they are helpful. But they can sometimes be used in a way that seems derogatory: for example, when the person on screen is speaking English, but not the Queen’s English, and there are subtitles under them. It can feel as if there’s a lack of respect for someone’s ability to communicate in English.
“In his book, Ngugi wa Thiong’o speaks about how Christian missionaries went to Africa, and spoke as though the Bible was originally written in English — which we know it wasn’t. There’s a massive discussion to be had about this idea of English being held up as the most important language.
“It has done a lot of damage, and I’m increasingly becoming aware of how ingrained racism is in our culture and language. And yet this is the only language I speak fluently; but it hasn’t necessarily been spoken for me, if you get what I mean.
“I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and that’s definitely being shaped by lockdown, and by this global anti-racism movement that has arisen. Both of those have brought to the surface a lot of things I’ve been thinking about for some time now.”
LAKWENA lives in London with her husband, Mark, an award-winning barber whose celebrity client list includes the American basketball star LeBron James, the rapper Stormzy, and the champion boxer Anthony Joshua. The couple had their second son a year ago; both that and the travel complications brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic have kept Lakwena off the road for a while.
“Travelling’s quite inspiring, and I do get a bit bored when I’m at home for too long,” she admits. “Motherhood is difficult anyway, let alone when you’re trying to build a career as an artist. Mark is very involved, but it does feel relentless for both of us.
“We’re both in work situations where we don’t have a boss or clock in and clock out every day, but do have very big things that we are solely responsible for. It’s quite a challenging time to be self-employed, especially now, when people aren’t going anywhere.
The weird thing is that, in all this, things have gone really well for me in terms of work. It feels supernatural — and I’m not the type of person who jumps to such conclusions quickly. I remember talking to some friends just before the lockdown began, and telling them how frustrated I felt. At that time, I felt a bit lost; I didn’t have any time to focus and push through. Things felt so limited.
And then, all of a sudden, opportunities started rolling in. Things right now are not a struggle: they’re flowing, and it’s all quite surreal. I’ve been working almost full-time for the first time in four years, which is good, because Mark has had to close his barbershop.
It’s not through any cleverness or tactical decision-making on my part that I’ve had all this work come in; it’s definitely been God’s provision, and I’m encouraged by that. I know that the situation has been really difficult for some people. Neither Mark nor I have been ill; that, again, is something I’m thankful for.”
And the future? “What I would like now is for people to interrogate my work a bit more,” she says. “Nobody likes criticism, but it is a part of growing. It’s really important to me that it’s not just someone who has done a Master’s in the history of art who understands my work.
I do want to start having more conversations. I can find it difficult to talk about my work. But I do want people to understand more about where it’s coming from, and what it’s about rather than just taking it at face value. . . A lot more goes into it than what you see on the surface.
I’ve been doing this for about ten years now, and yet it still feels very much that I’m just at the beginning of my journey. I have definitely learned a lot in the past ten years. But, at the same time, I still feel very strongly that I’ve got so much more to learn.”