RMF: There is evermore debate about the real purpose of art and the motivations behind it. Who or what is an artist?
KK: I think an artist is someone who is part of an artistic community, which includes contemporaries and peers engaging critically through whatever chosen medium film, performance, photography, painting, etc. – with the world and the community they live in. Art is part of everyday life and creativity can be found everywhere, from ordinary domestic gestures like rearranging your home to ambitious initiatives in public spaces. It’s certainly not limited to a gallery space. Since the Fluxus movement, there are so many forms it can take, from agitprop to playful, and more recently a do-it-yourself aesthetic and collaboration between artists is coming to the fore again. Contemporary art is still hindered, in my opinion, by patriarchal attitudes. Very few women are given solo shows in museums and major galleries compared to men. And art by women doesn’t appear at the top of auction sales. The ‘Guerilla Girls’, an anonymous collective of feminist artists formed in the 1980s, have long since pointed this out with humour.
Artists have a responsibility to engage with audiences beyond their circumscribed communities of class, gender, and race. To be an artist is an ethical position that constantly strives to take into account the “other”. I believe we have a duty to think critically with others, beyond personal expression or “art for art’s sake.” The artists I admire most were and are activists, striving to change the world and its prejudices, showing us the everyday in a new way. This is always “conceptual”, working through the process of making material or immaterial work. Being an artist in the UK, although difficult financially, is still a great privilege. One should never take for granted the freedom to explore and research how the world becomes meaningful. In this sense, I think art is both philosophical and spiritual.
RMF: What brought you to art, and why is photography your preferred medium?
KK: My mother collected art, from expressionist painting and pre-Columbian work through to the folk Santerias of Puerto Rico. So I grew up surrounded by it in the 1960s. Our next door neighbour recorded musical sessions with renowned cellist Pablo Casals and our neighbours included the opera singer Maria Esther Robles. I was of- ten invited by friends to Casals’ festivals and I simply loved to draw. I consistently dreamt about it as a child. I would vividly dream about drawing an animal and then wake up and attempt to do it. Growing up in middle class affluence, accompanied by art and immersed in the 1960s counterculture certainly shaped my character and re- sponses to creativity. I became a tomboy, I remember being rebellious and questioning everything. I have clear memories of being surrounded by art, music, books, and magazines called “fotonovelas”. Television was also formative. So I had a very stimulating environment. Our neigbourhood was full of children of a similar age, and we became great friends.
Photography is one of the most accessible forms of art. It’s all-pervasive, democratic, and now easily dissemi- nated through the social media. It can be many things to many people all at once, crossing and even blending the boundaries between different art forms. I acquired my first Brownie Kodak camera at the age of nine. So pho- tography has always been a central part of my life.
RMF: Your celebrated ‘Fables’ series (2004-2008) refers to European heritage sites and references epic tales from Ovid and La Fontaine, alongside contemporary narratives from popular culture like Disney and Attenborough, where animals are protagonists. How have your viewpoints and perceptions evolved over the course of your work?
KK: I have always initiated each photographic project based on my understanding of the historical and political contexts of what I am photographing. For instance, even earlier on, for my Gentlemen series (1981-1983), I began researching the gentlemen’s clubs in Saint James which started off as 18th century coffee houses. They were places of free discussion for the landowning, male upper-classes. I was interested in how Empire, “clubbability”, and notions of chivalry had all merged into the concept of the “gentleman” in 1980s Britain. Even the structure and design of the architectural spaces in these clubs confirmed them as real “seats” of male power. Women were not allowed in smoking rooms, and special entrances were designated for female visitors. Servants always entered through the back stairs. I read pa rliamentary speeches in the Hansard and used those debates on the role of women and the Falklands/Malvinas war as the basis for the fictional tex s captioning my imagery. My readings included Empire literature by Conrad, Kipling, Fleming, and Boy’s Own magazines (1855-1890) in order to mimic, in writing, a particular white male British upper-class voice.
During the early 1980s, I considered myself an activist artist using photography to explore the various privileges, contradictions, and abuses of male power. I realised power was a complex matter, since women are an integral part of this dynamic with some vested interests in supporting it, just as Margaret Thatcher herself had done. So I began using humour and irony strategically to address the contradictions of patriarchy and class privilege in conservative Britain. The concept of interpellation, the way we internalise cultural ideas unconsciously as our own, became very important to me and the text accompanying a very early work Belgravia (1979) was also autobi- ographical.
Today I’m still investigating the discourses of power and class, and how they’re legitimised through the founding narratives of India, pervading its aesthetics, architecture, and gender relations. There are certain feminist issues that I continue to explore allegorically through the use of animal characters. I now think of myself as a cultural entrepreneur, so that my imagery aims to engage in a dialogue with an artistic community that’s both local and global. I also feel it’s my duty to help and support members of that community. For instance, I recently founded an artists’ project space called ‘Chandelier’, which runs from my studio in London.
LEE MILLER was a beautiful girl from Poughkeepsie, New York, who landed a gig modelling for Vogue and wound up in Paris hobnobbing with Surrealists and dating Man Ray. She wanted to be a photographer, not a model, though, so he taught her to take pictures. After she left him he spent 40 years making metronomes with a cut-out photo of her eye on the ticker. She became a fashion photographer, married an Egyptian millionaire, then dumped him as well. On a Greek island she met an English poet; she would marry him after the war and settle down on a farm in Sussex, inviting her old friends Picasso and Ernst over for weekends.
But that would be later. Now it is 1945, and she is a photojournalist travelling with the American army. She has shot a gory field hospital in Normandy and been caught under German fire at St Malo. She and her boyfriend, David Scherman, both working for LIFE Magazine, have photographed a concentration camp and are wandering around Munich. They have stumbled on Adolf Hitler’s apartment there. She has an idea.
How they set it up. She cannot be shown nude (this is LIFE, not Man Ray); a figurine on the table does the trick. In front of the bath, her combat boots, “the dust of Dachau still on them” according to Scherman. And at the back on the left, the portrait. It is a voodoo gesture, the sort her Surrealist friends would approve of, an all-American blend of sass, violence and sex. Nuts to you, Führer! I am naked in your bath with my Jewish lover, we are taking your picture’s picture, we are stealing your life-force. The date is April 30th, 1945. In a bunker under Berlin, Hitler places a gun to his head.