Sometimes, personal and collective life experiences are best shared through literature, music, or film. Other times, a more palpable, concrete medium is required. Henry Chikoti is a sculptor who has spent much of his life in the developing world; his art communicates the difficult daily realities attendant to living in impoverished nations.
Banter recently had a chance to catch up with Mr. Chikoti to discuss his latest projects.
Banter: One of your recent pieces, Tangled Man of Pain and Eeriness, is a conceptual manifestation of the sorts of challenges that plague individuals and societies in developing nations. Could you talk a little about why this is important?
Chikoti: The sculpture is a collection of thousands of strands of rope that I tied together individually, and it is meant to reflect the overpopulation and low life expectancy of nations in southern Africa. Working as a sculptor is liberating because there are sensitive themes and ideas that you may want to communicate without explicitly stating them. I want people to be able to draw on their own experiences and perspectives to mediate how they consume my work. The piece is not necessarily me conveying experiences of the general public. Everybody in that part of the world has their own personal experience, but I grew up there for over a decade, and I experienced things with people, my friends and family, and friends who I can call family, and I have found through conversation that these experiences are common among us. Knowing that you are creating work that has meaning for your community is powerful. In a practical sense, it has also been very useful to draw on shared experiences for inspiration rather than having to formulate and defend these concepts as an individual. In general, I would say that the Tangled Man of Pain and Eeriness is not only a consequence of my own creativity but also of my interaction with those around me throughout my life.
Banter: The creative process for this piece was clearly very demanding, both in terms of time and energy. Was this methodology an intentional attempt to impart the draining monotony endured by people in developing nations to Western viewers?
Chikoti: That’s an interesting question. Everyone in this world has their own unique perspective and collection of experiences. This is my experience, my friend’s experience, and my family’s experience. With respect to the repetition and monotony, I do hope that my work allows people to view repetitive action without immediate judgement; it does not automatically imbue the art with positive or negative attributes. I don’t want the repetition in my art, or the aesthetic of my art more generally, to be considered as strictly negative. My work does draw inspiration from some terrible acts and themes, but there are also positive elements that I hope are recognized. Where I grew up was incredibly challenging, but, like anywhere, there were good things as well. Repetition is something that has been central to my work for so long. As a child, I would rely on artistic repetition as a sort of personal safety net. There is a sort of indescribable security in doing something over and over and over, whether that is sketching, sculpting, or anything else in life. One of my newest pieces really revolves around this notion of repetition—I’m currently creating a life-sized aluminium torso that is lined with repetitive, patterned bumps, that are designed to communicate that idea of protection. The dimension of protection also introduces an important question that I have been thinking about increasingly as an artist: Does protection add to or detract from the beauty of a piece? With regards to the torso piece, is the repetition protecting what’s inside—the sentiments, reactions, experiences, etc.—or are you doing irreversible damage by keeping things hidden?
Banter: Would you be able to describe some of the cultural differences in terms of how you feel your work is received in Canada, as opposed to how it might be received in South Africa? Have you noticed important distinctions since moving here?
Henry: I want to be careful here, because this is an important topic, but I do think that people in African nations are less afraid to speak. There are obviously protections of your verbal freedom of speech here, but I have noticed that people are more limited in what they feel comfortable in saying, and in turn, the art that they feel comfortable producing. When I’m producing art, I definitely keep this in mind. Canada is such an amazing country because of how diverse, and tolerant it is of people of different backgrounds, but there is censorship among artists, I think, that sometimes makes it difficult to truly express raw emotions and ideas.
Henry Chikoti is a Zambian sculpture and installation artist currently based in Toronto. Prior to enrolling at the Ontario College of Art and Design University, Chikoti studied at The National School of the Arts in Johannesburg, South Africa. For more, you can follow him on Instagram, or visit his website.