In Conversation with Evans Mbugua at Atelier le Grand Village
Evans Mbugua is a Kenyan visual artist based in Paris. His artistic vocabulary is richly colourful and aims to foreground differences and similarities through the use of repeated pictograms. Recently Mbugua created a body of works at Atelier Le Grand Village – a studio that focuses on stone lithography. Guided by the Atelier’s director Francis van der Riet and printmaker/artist Niall Bingham, Mbugua explored lithography for the first time. Nadège Besnard Roussel met him and spoke about his creative process and experience at Atelier le Grand Village
Nadège: Evans, could you introduce yourself and tell us more about your work?
Evans: I was born in Kenya and grew up in Nairobi. When I was 19 years old, I arrived in France, where my sister lives, to study at the Beaux-Arts in Pau. My hometown Nairobi is a very cosmopolitan city. My childhood and adolescence was punctuated by encounters with people of different origins. Coming to France was like an adventure for me. In order to learn French, I met people from different backgrounds. Once again I found myself in the same pattern of experiencing differences and similarities. As for my work, it resembles a quest for things that link us across borders.
N: Your work is visually rich and consists of an accumulation of pictograms in the background with a central character. What does this mean to you?
E: There are always these very important elements in my work: the pictogram and the dot. Indeed, at the beginning there is an element that I will multiply until I find the form I like. The background of my works is based on a pictogram that repeats so that it becomes a motif. These ideas I collect during my various trips or travels and is what I started to do at the Beaux-Arts. The idea was to find a visual language inspired by textiles and traditional motifs, such as tattoos or scarifications, from around the world. Pictograms are the link between all the characters in my works.
N: And how do you choose the subject?
E: The portraits I paint represent people who are close to me in one way or another. They can be long term relationships or individuals I’ve just met in different places and with whom I spent some pleasant moments. I simply want to keep a memory of these encounters which then constitutes an archive of the best moments of my life. For the portrait, I always start with a dot and it is an accumulation of dots that will vibrate together so that the portrait can be seen on the plexiglass. The starting dot represents an individual and it is the accumulation of these dots that will create the portrait.
N: How did you meet Francis van der Riet, the director of Atelier le Grand Village – And how did the idea of working there come about?
E: I met Francis at the 1-54 Art Fair in London where I discovered Atelier le Grand Village. Some time later Francis contacted me to exchange ideas and we met at my studio in Paris. Francis invited me to come during the summer of 2020 to practise and discover lithography at his studio.
N: How was this first experience? Was it the first time you encountered lithography and the printmaking techniques used at Atelier le Grand Village?
E: I went to the studio without any knowledge of these techniques. The stay allowed me to learn lithography for the first time and to encounter new materials, textures, and scents in an environment completely different from the one I work in. I committed myself all the way for this new adventure, thanks to the expertise of Francis and Niall . Both of them patiently taught me the techniques involved in working with lithography and monotypes. This allowed me to discover new things, and new processes. I loved this opportunity at Atelier le Grand Village, and I remember my father’s words: “life is a school”.
N: What was the influence of Atelier le Grand Village in your artistic approach and the direction of the works created at the studio?
E: There are always recurring elements in my work. What interests me is to see how these will interact and vibrate together side by side, as a conjugation of the full and the empty.
There is a history of transparency, superimposition and colour in my work. At Atelier le Grand Village I played with these elements which are fundamental and transposed them into a new technique. For my portraits, the point has been transformed into a line. In my other works, the background is created with the help of a computer and it remains constant. It is the portrait which varies for each different work.
At the studio, I opted for a constant character, the lithograph component, and I chose to diversify the backgrounds, using monotype hence rendering each work unique. During my stay, I found new angles for my work.
My backgrounds are inspired by the elements that surrounded me. In particular, I used threads that came from the weaving workshop of the textile artist and designer Côme Touvay, whose studio is next to the lithography studio. I borrowed threads, textures and fibers that I integrated into my works. I have also integrated the motifs of the carpets and tapestries around the house. All these inspirations come from the environment and even more from my discussions with Côme, Francis or Niall.
N: What is this series of works about? What was your creative approach this time and how did it come about? Can you tell us more about it?
E: It’s a series that comes after a very particular period, the lockdown. We were suspended in time for several months, and that’s when I decided to reevaluate the importance of colour in my work. Colour is emotion. There is a search for emotions that I wanted to interpret.
The choice of bright colours for this series represents an explosion, a desire to live, to go beyond. The gesture of tearing the paper to create the motifs can be seen as a rupture and a desire for a new start. These portraits all have big smiles on their faces. It is always a message of hope that I try to convey.
The characters represent not only a person but a family, a community and a society. I hope for a society that lives in harmony and seeks to share things together; emotions, joys and even fears. This ability to live together requires work but it always starts with a point or a line. This is where my interest lies.
Nadège (to Niall Bingham, visiting printmaker at Atelier le Grand Village): Niall, you came to Atelier le Grand Village as a printmaker, how did you meet Francis van der Riet, the director, for the first time ?
Niall: I met Francis through Diane Victor, who I have worked with on etching projects in the past in South Africa. She connected us because she felt that we could possibly work together.
Nadège: Tell me about your collaboration with Evans Mbugua at the studio?
Niall: Evans is an artist who I feel inherently understands the medium of printmaking, even though this is his first time in a studio. I was very surprised that he had never made prints before, especially given how quickly he picked up the skills. Our biggest challenge was to find a way to successfully reinterpret the repeated patterns that he uses in his paintings. I was reluctant to allow him to fall back on commercial printing, I wanted him to find a way to activate the areas around his figures using the resources available to us in the print studio. The first day was quite a challenge, but I do feel that once he found ways of stencilling, he was able to develop his practice in an interesting way.
He found a rhythm very quickly, and I could tell that he was really enjoying himself. Print studios are supposed to challenge artists through sometimes slightly uncomfortable limitations.
Nadège: You have stayed a few weeks in the Charente-Limousine to print lithographs, how did you work together with Francis and also with Evans. What do you think about this studio situated in this beautiful area and particularly what the director Francis brings to the artists ?
Niall: Yes, I stayed for just over 7 weeks, but it felt much shorter. To tell you the honest truth, it’s the best thing that has happened to me in a while. I was able to completely disconnect from the apocalyptic ‘virus world’ and focus solely on my work. Francis and I have a very good understanding because we come from a similar part of the world, and I believe we had a similar kind of upbringing. I think my experience there is perhaps a great example of what Le Grand Village offers: a refuge from everything else. A space to focus entirely on what it is you chose to focus on. It is a quiet meditative space which, if respected, can provide the artist and the printmaker with the perfect space to create.
I am very grateful for the time I have spent at the Atelier, and I hope to be returning in September.
Francis van der Riet is a lithographer and director of Atelier le Grand Village. Niall Bingham is a printmaker/artist and was head of the printmaking department at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. He came to work in the studio with Francis after the lockdown. He currently lives in Spain.