29 May 2022

The Arts Interview: Maria Mbokha McInerney

LSAD graduate whose work successfully embraces both African and Irish cultures

The Arts Interview: Maria Mbokha McInerney

Artist Maria Mbokha McInerney

Born in Kenya, I came to Ireland two decades ago after marrying an Irishman.

Over the years I have lived variously, in Dublin, Wicklow and now in Ogonnelloe, in Co Clare. I completed my primary and secondary education and attended secretarial college in Kenya. However, I enjoy learning and meeting people so I also completed FETAC Childcare and Care for the Elderly courses in Ireland when my children were younger. My great love of art subsequently led me to study at Limerick School of Art and Design (LSAD) from where I have just graduated with an Honours Degree in Fine Art (Painting).

I love nature, with many of my artistic ideas coming directly from memories of hikes and walks through the African and Irish countryside.

My recent show at LSAD’s graduate exhibition reflected a genuine concern for our environment and my dismay at the damage it is suffering both here and in Africa.

For example, my home place in Western Kenya, has forests, which once teemed with wildlife when I was a child, now almost disappeared, due to population increase and commercial exploitation.

In Ireland, also, I have become aware of the catastrophic decline in the populations of birds, fish, and insects, whilst seeing in real time the growing pollution of land and sea by plastics and emissions. For me, nature offers abundant life, and hope for the future, but must be cared for, or we will destroy that hope and with it our children’s future.

Nature gives us life, beauty, and sustenance, but when we use our power to exploit her, we also destroy something in ourselves.

In my art I try to combine traditional African skills with the techniques that I have learned at LSAD.

In Africa, we normally don’t call ourselves artists, but producing sculptures, ceramics, batiks, basket-weaving, and embroidery, is instead part of everyday life. The aim is to make everyday objects more beautiful, to brighten people’s lives, and to express a deeper meaning in life. Though it is never exhibited, some of this work is of very high quality. I personally seek to combine these traditional African skills, (like embroidery and batik,) with Western painting styles. In Africa we tend to look at the natural world in a very close-up way. We have to, because every step potentially carries the danger of a bite from a snake, a poisonous spider, or an attack from an animal hidden in the undergrowth.

Africans discover many good things by simply observing the natural world close to them.

Nature in Africa is very bountiful and we can usually find a variety of foods and medicines simply by keeping our eyes open. Focus on the patch of ground before you and notice the fine details. In the West, people are more inclined to look at the wider landscape and to admire the view. In my work, I have tried to combine a distinctively African focus, with a Western concern for the big picture, (via composition and assembly for example). Muted batik landscapes convey the density and mystery of the natural landscape.

They also draw on the African mask tradition to suggest the presence of spirits in the natural world who are wounded by the destructiveness of humans towards our environment.

In my combined material piece, for example, the circle represents unity, completeness, and harmony of nature, as well as beauty, while the chestnut and tamarind bring us back to more small-scale and concrete things.

Today, in many ways we have moved beyond the concept of ‘African Art’.

Artists from Africa, like those in Europe, America, or other parts of the world, combine global influences with perspectives from their culture of origin. I have been fortunate enough to have been given an opportunity to live with African and Western culture, and my resulting art embraces them both.

In fact, today, I feel that I can live fully in two different cultures and be open to what is good in each. Combining the two happens through the process of daily living, interaction, communication, and reflection.

Overexposure to different viewpoints can leave some people adrift and unsure about where they belong.

That said, with genuine dialogue and reflection, we can develop a deeper understanding of what is valuable in our own culture as well as an appreciation of what different views have to offer. Every exhibition, in my opinion, is ideally a dialogue between the artist and the viewer. The artist expresses something deep and important, but cannot control the meaning that the viewer will give to the work. The viewers, on the other hand, must be open, and make an effort to understand, before being rewarded by an enriched understanding of the world (and of themselves!).

For more information please see: marimbokha on Instagram

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