NEW CONTEMPORARIES; IN CONVERSATION WITH LILY KEMP


WORDS CHARLIE NEWMAN – IMAGES COURTESY OF LILY KEMP - IN COLLABORATION WITH NEW CONTEMPORARIES






Staring at any one of Lily Kemp’s paintings feels both extremely familiar and yet fantastically other worldly, all at once. Immediately you’re drawn to the stylishly dressed women draped in swaths of expensive looking clothing, staring into the distance if not out at us then out at their own surprising surroundings-farmland. Kemp plucks the women we so frequently see from the pages of glossy magazines and throws them into the harsh, looming landscape of agriculture. The setting feels epic, grandiose and far heavier in comparison to these elegant looking women, some of them working the soil in heeled boots. This very nuance, the contrast, is at the heart of Kemp’s work which aims to respond to “how women’s bodies are often sexualized in the media and how women of colour are often sexualised through a racialized lens that is exotizing, fetishizing and othering.”

For all young women, the male gaze is very quickly noted, it’s unavoidably in your face, however the racialized gaze is one, even in the 21st century, that is swept under the carpet and therefore harder to distinguish, until now. Kemp’s awakening came during her third year at university, Wimbledon College of Art, where she was extensively researching female artists, in particularly Black female artists, “that’s when I realised that it’s not just simply a male gaze it’s a white cis heterosexual male gaze. A lot of my knowledge and understanding of gender and race has come from reading and learning from Black artists, Black authors and Black feminists.” This specific male gaze came to the forefront of Western media last year, with the MeToo movement gaining momentum, arguably through celebrity platform. The global recognition for the movement that was originally founded back in 2006 by Tarana Burke, gave Kemp an opportunity to learn, “I think a lot of the imagery that’s out there in mainstream media contributes to and perpetuates systems of violence against women. The media plays a big role in shaping our views and opinions, and when you see women often portrayed in an overtly sexualized and one dimensional way, it contributes to harmful gender stereotypes which normalise gender based violence. Once you start to become aware of this, you start noticing it more around you and you can’t really switch that awareness off.”

Kemp indeed has never switched off. In just her five years of practising art she has shown in an impressive 12 exhibitions, a highlight including the ‘Herstory’ 2020 show at the Maddox gallery in Mayfair. Since then she has been selected as 1 of the 36 esteemed artists to take part in this years Bloomberg New Contemporaries at the South London Gallery. Whilst some boasted of strict, military routines to past the days of lockdown, others languished in their new skill/talent/hobby etc. Kemp on the other hand took a far less invasive stance, “to be honest with you from March until around the end of July I didn’t make any work at all and when I did I made really small pieces to ease my way back into it. Only now do I feel like I’ve got back into a routine again.” Unable to go into the studio and without the freedom to explore, inspiration to paint was lacking for Kemp, “I think a lot of people like having that home and work separation, even just travelling in you feel like you’re sort of preparing for the day.” Another lockdown struggle for Kemp, and one which we all battled with to some degree, was the enduring sense of loneliness, “This is something I’m trying to work around as I’ve found since leaving university that making art can be quite a solitary process. You go from being at university where you’re constantly surrounded by people to a studio where you are working more by yourself.” Kemp found solace, taking a leaf out of her very own paintings, and took to nature, enjoying walks in her local parks in South West London.

It’s on these walks that Kemp pre pandemic would seek inspiration, “It’s sort of good and bad, often if you work in a creative field you can’t almost switch off that side. So I’ll be walking and see something and I’ll need to take a photo of it. I do a lot of looking on the internet and I’ve recently started using Pinterest because before I was spending so much money on fashion magazines!” The pages of magazines are purposefully enticing, not only do they push purchases, but they also intrinsically push Western beauty ideals (and thereby female formulas) onto their readers. So how does one participate both as a consumer and as an artist? Can you even be both I ask? “I think honestly…it blurs because it’s a lot of constant learning. As you get older, and especially now when new content and information is always coming out, you’re constantly unlearning and relearning-it’s a life long process. You learn to be ok with being wrong and to embrace changing your opinion when learning more information or a different perspective. Having a critical eye I think comes more naturally the more you do it. The more information you consume and the more you listen to people who don’t look like you and therefore have different lived experiences, the more aware you become of different things." Kemps thoughts pour across the jewelled tones on her canvas, punctuated with elegant women: hand washing clothes, driving tractors, carrying heavy crates or pushing a wheelbarrow. Kemp’s subjects may appear fragile and delicately dressed compared to their stereotypically masculine surroundings, but somehow Kemp’s figures stand majestic, they are elevated figures amongst the mud and the toil. It’s a refreshing viewpoint and one that should be celebrated more, “My work explores different scenarios and scenes into how women are traditionally portrayed in the media.”

Naturally, it’s the women in Kemp’s life who have shaped the woman she is today. Her mother used to take Kemp to the Chinese Library in Leicester Square as a child where she would “take out all these children’s books and copy a lot of the illustrations from there. Anything I could get my hands on really, from films to books, I would draw!” Kemp’s early childhood has clearly infused her stylised painting today; like a patchwork of colours that come together as pieces of a jigsaw, giving an ever so slightly cartoonish air to her work. Kemp’s work is simultaneously high fashion animé and a handbook for women of the future. Apart from her mother, Kemp points to other female artists for inspiration, most recently Kemp enjoyed Nigerian-American artist, Toyin Ojih Odutola’s exhibition at the Barbican pre lockdown. From a distance, the art world seems to be led by women, from Maria Balshaw at the Tate to Victoria Siddal at the Frieze to Bettina Kopek at the Serpentine. I asked Kemp, from an insiders point of view, whether this is filtering down through the art industry as a whole, “My impression has been that the art world in general and a lot of the people at the top of galleries and institutions, the people who are making the decisions, are still predominantly white cis heterosexual men. Having said that I do feel we are making progress, there are a lot of amazing women and non-binary people in the arts currently who are working to change things, to name just a few Katy Hessel who runs the Great Women Artists podcast, Bolanle Tajudeen who runs Black Blossoms School of Art and Culture and Gal dem a media publication that tells the stories of women and non-binary people of colour.”

So how does Kemp practice sincerity with issues of the heart without it taking an emotional toll? “For me a big part has been learning when and when not to engage in certain conversations. I used to see the ability of staying calm and objective in difficult conversations as something to work towards, as a sign of maturity, but I now realise that when you’re talking to someone about something that affects you and not them, such as systems of oppression like white supremacy or the patriarchy, it takes a greater emotional toll on you than on the other person. It’s ok to get angry or upset and to not be able to stay objective, but I also think looking after your own mental health is the most important thing. Not all conversations are worth engaging in.” It all simmers down to a matter of staying more widely informed, when speaking together about the importance of taking the time to self-educate yourself rather than relying on others to educate you, Kemp jokes that “if you can google restaurants when you don’t know where to eat you can also google and self educate yourself on the patriarchy.”

Forever educating herself, moving forward Kemp is “looking to develop a more collaborative practice; working alongside young women/menswear designers and artists to create the clothes and the scene, and having conversations with the people I photograph about how they would want to be represented.” Finding an honest voice in the world of art can often feel like finding a needle in a haystack, but with Kemp you feel as though you’ve struck gold. Even across Zoom her emotional and intellectual sincerity slaps you in the face, but before it gets too art snobby, I finish the interview with what her favourite F Word is. Her response? “Falafel” You better get googling…

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