Interview with... British-Zambian illustrator and painter Kay Gasei
Born in Zambia, London based, Kay Gasei focuses his practice on illustration and painting. Exploring myths and developing them into his own narrative, the artist delivers his message into abstract and surreal imagery, but also tapping into figurative in his illustrations. His style is unique where details is the key, unfolding deep emotions behind a shroud of calculated symbolism.
Segolene Py: Please present yourself in a few words
Kay Gasei: My name is Kay Gasei, I am an illustrator and painter based in London, East London more specifically. I was born in Zambia and came to the UK as a new-born. I have been there several times and been meaning to go back. When I was younger it wasn’t that big a deal, but today my general interest has grown toward my heritage.
I’ve been practising as an illustrator for the last 6 years and I started painting around a year and a half ago. I have a clothing brand called ‘God Bless Da Trap’ and ‘Amo’, unfortunately they have been put on pause for two years, because of the pandemic. I am still working on it, and I would love to get back to it properly next year, hopefully I’ll be able to do a pop up.
SP:I met you at the Other Art Fair in 2021, and to me you really stood out from the other artists. Your style is very striking and specific. I was wondering what inspires you to create? How would you describe your style?
KG: That is a hard question to answer. It was my main issue to develop because with illustration I get commissioned, and I translate someone else’s idea in my own style. I did some album covers or editorials, but it wasn’t anything that I would create from my own ideas. Whereas with painting, I am questioning how I can make it playful, and still be tapping into realism. I am not very much into photorealistic style, although I know how to do it technically, but I do not find it exciting. I like when a painting looks like a painting and a drawing like a drawing.
I struggled a bit with painting at the beginning. It’s not that I was lacking a subject, there is a lot I want to share and show but taking into account who is going to see it.
My style is just whatever the idea in my head is: how would that work and how can I do that. I don’t like filling in space too much, I like when things can breathe.
SP: So, what inspires you?
KG: I am mainly interested in stories and myths, and how I can superimpose them into something more current. I also like to do that with older paintings. I really like Goya: I like the fact that he was painting, etching, and a scope of different things. I also like Hogarth, not his style but more his details in the work. I like the fact that you are reading his paintings, where everything has a meaning and importance in the story told, it is not really about flourishing and decorations. It makes you question why it is there.
When I say stories and myths I mean general history for example, or economics: the rise and fall of nations. I found it interesting how these things have happened and the philosophy behind it. Superimposing myths made me realise how you can relate it to something that happened a thousand years later. In that sense, it is about the cyclical rhythm of Nature and human beings.
SP:When you say myths, we can also think about Greek mythology, for example.
KG:It can be that too. I’m inspired by very various myths covering different cultures. I’d pick a character and read about it and sketch a lot from my research. When I do the piece, I want to integrate elements that people would recognise, and that would make sense for them.
SP: Could you show me an example?
KG: The pretty obvious one would be this one, (see image below). This one is more based on a song called Strange Fruit by Billie Holiday. It’s not really a myth but it is still a narrative, a story. I almost wanted to draw Black bodies hanging from the tree, but I changed it to fruits. And these characters are growing on the tree, they managed to grow instead of ‘hanging’. The song is about emancipation and emancipation of spirit. I am trying to incorporate a few more pieces on this one like a tree of life. Because the song is based in America I have drawn this shape here, which is a buffalo shape in the background, I used that to represent the Native land of America.
SP:I can see that on most canvases you paint two or more parts.
KG:I compartmentalise so I don’t have to build distance with scenes. If I put a line, it makes it different. A solid colour, one colour or no colour. It's a quicker and easier differentiation, instead of drawing a whole different landscape or scene. It would be about two different subjects, but they are related. I think it looks good and gives it a better contrast.
SP:Do you find that your art is self-explorative? Do you do it to discover some part of your personality?
KG:Yes, I think so, it is part of the myth I explore in my work. It is stuff in most cases that I haven’t been through. I found it interesting because it is an idea or something that happened to someone, traded as fake or false, but it is an experience that may be made accessible to a lot of people, so that people who haven't gone through this can experience it. That is one of the goals of myths, teaching a lesson. As a kid, I wanted to be an anthropologist, study human history and human existence. Anything to do with that is really what interests me most.
SP: So, you do connect with these myths?
KG: In my research I like to understand how the story is told and tell that same story in my own way. How it would make me behave or act a certain way. There is a level of learning in that sense.
All accounts of history are kind of messy as well, so that is one side that I find fun about it. You'd hear something that happens somewhere and then another account about the same story, why is that different? Different books have different versions of the same story, with a slightly different take on it, because of perspective. I have the same thing happening with training in my sketching, drawing, I'm exploring!
SP:What is your process and how do you usually start?
KG:In a perfect world, I would have an idea, read about the idea, then sketch the idea and create the piece. But in reality, in most cases, I’m in the middle of reading something, or when I am outside (I always carry a sketchbook on me), ideas just pop in my head and make sense all of a sudden, and I sketch from that. It might take a long time before this happens, questioning if I should change something or not. It feels like most things are loading (laugh). I don't really like when my process is contrived and controlled by one theme that I have to follow. I prefer when my inspiration and work come from the little sparky place.
SP: Do you ever paint directly on the canvas, without sketching?
KG: It happened a few times, yes. Usually, I do sketch before painting because I can have the idea while doing something, so I have to sketch so I don’t forget it. The idea never really comes when I am in front of the canvas. Things come to mind, especially when I am not focusing on it. I would love to do more of that but if I did, I think it would change the narrative. I’d also like to explore abstract style in the future, works based more on feelings rather than thoughts.
SP: Did you notice a change in your practice from when you first started? Because you started with illustration.
KG: My use of oil paint is quite new. I painted as a kid, when I was really young, with acrylics, I was drawing and painting at school as well. In Uni I was doing illustration and painting a bit. I was even exploring sculptures, conceptual and figurative styles. At first, I wasn't really thinking that what I was doing was art and I was doing everything small and in sketchbooks, or digitally.
These digital sketches, I would reproduce in painting. It was also a great way to produce prints, but it was a bit much to be honest. I wasn't really sure how I felt about it at the time. James Jean, one of my favourite artists, would do that as well. He would do a sketch, a painting of it, and another of the same painting. But today I sketch on canvas before painting, and I think more about the uniqueness of the painting.
In the last two years I was mainly drawing for commission and lately I have gone back to drawing sketches on paper again, fully, and on canvases. I am also experimenting on a quite big scale. It allows me to put more details in which I really like.
SP: I have seen a recurrent character in your paintings and illustrations. Could you talk a bit further about them?
KG: The main one is the black character. I had other ones that used to be white line drawings. I was just doing drawings for myself at that time, I wasn't working on any commissions. These characters were kind of hedonist, and it was characters in sexual positions. While I was exploring this style, I started representing other forms of hedonism, like self-indulgence or vanity.
In 2016, someone from America commissioned me for a piece and I did a drawing in response to the Black Lives Matter movement, at that time when a young brother was killed in America. I thought that I would fill in this character as opposed to the hedonist white character, to symbolise pain. I didn't really use it again until 2020 when I did the Face piece, it was the same idea with filling in the character. My hedonist characters have curly and soft hair, to me they have an ambiguous ethnicity, outlines, anatomical shapes with hair covering their eyes, representing blind hedonism. Whereas the black character is filled in black, the hair is not soft, with pure white eyes. through which they see everything, in their pain they see everything. Although people say it looks like me it is not me.
SP: It is part of you now.
KG: It is in a way, because it is my feelings, but it is a character that is portraying the struggle and the pain versus the other characters that are just looking for a good time. I do paint other characters today, like pilgrims, and they are often faceless because they can be anyone. It is about uniformity.
SP: Do you feel like you are part of a community and if yes do you think you have a role in it?
KG: I would say so, yes. The question could also be about what community it is that we want to be part of, which is a bit tough. That makes me think about Stephen Anthony Davids (SAD), a Jamaican-British artist who grew up in London. He was a Black artist when it wasn't a thing like today, and I am a new generation: Black British artist. It is about figuring out what that means in your art, and what you are trying to say, that is relevant to yourself and the audience without being too contrived. I want my art to look arresting and beautiful, with a meaning. I'm thinking about this balance between beauty and meaning. I remember one of my lecturers in Uni said something about the substance over style, which was a problem I had.
SP: Like drawing before giving it a meaning ?
KG: Yes, and I think this is how my sketchbooks are. I used to really like my old sketchbooks curated, but I give it less attention today and let it flow. I am a new artist, what am I saying and who I am saying to is what I am doing.
SP: What do you have planned next ?
KG: I am currently doing a residency with Break Art Mix and hosted by Anne Vegnaduzzo in Paris until 31st October 2022. I currently have an exhibition with Cicek gallery and Delphian Gallery both from 20th October 2022. Finally, I have an auction for ArmsAroundtheChild with Christies on th 11th November 2022.