State of the Art: Rita Keegan

Anna Walker 25 August 2021

We spoke to the artist, lecturer, archivist and co-founder of the Brixton Art Gallery, Rita Keegan, ahead of her first solo show in 15 years

Reader’s Digest: How would you describe your own artwork?

Rita Keegan: Well, I'm quite eclectic. I was trained as a painter, although I studied fashion illustration and costume design. I guess it was one of those things where they point girls and women towards a vocation that they think they're going to do, because there's no such thing as a vocation for a painter. But as a child, if you asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, from five years old I used to say, “an artist”.

I paint, and I’ve done a lot of things using the photocopier. That really brought me into a different kind of new technology, which is the computer. The appeal was that you could just press a button and do it. The ease of using the photocopier and the immediacy of it was quite exciting.

I have a friend who suggested that I might like to do some work with a computer, around 1985. She took me down to a studio where she was working, and I did some work using the computer which was really exciting and liberating. And then I met other people that had access to equipment and I started doing work with the computer. Thanks to that experience, I was able to do filmic pieces. I had always wanted to do film, but back in the day, you really couldn't do it on your own. So, to sit in front of a computer and control your images, and the speed, and the lighting, and the editing was really transformative.

"Well, I'm quite eclectic. I was trained as a painter, although I studied fashion illustration and costume design"

Rita Keegan

Rita in her studio, courtesy of Rita Keegan, photo credit: Lewis Khan

RD: You work across many mediums including animation, textile, and painting. Do you have a personal favourite, or is it the intersection of different mediums that’s most interesting to you?

RK: I work on what feels good. But it's often a matter of access. It was years before I was able to get my own computer because I started with Macs and they were outrageously expensive. I used to call it the original white man's media—outrageously expensive and immediately obsolete. Not having your own equipment is very difficult, especially for means of production. Whereas, if you’ve got your pens or your pen, you're ready to go.

RD: There must be an appeal in the immediacy of that medium?

RK: One of my earliest memories is of sitting under my mother's kitchen table and drawing on the ceiling—which was basically the top of the kitchen table. But you know it’s so visceral—drawing and smelling cooking, with your mother there while you're doing art, while you’re mark making.

RD: It's amazing, that kind of primal instinct all children seem to have to make their mark on their surroundings…

RK: Yeah, it's cave painting, really. You know, you find a stick and if you're on the beach, then you make marks in the sand. These things are in our DNA.

Untitled, 1986. Photocopy mono-prints on sugar paper, 29 x 21 cm. Courtesy of Rita Keegan.

RD: You’ve explored the importance of family histories with several of your works. Why is this theme resonant or important to you? 

RK: A lot of it came out of a feminist perspective working in the 1970s and 80s of putting yourself in the picture. And also, in using images, I felt it was very important to own the image.

I’m incredibly lucky, because I have a record going back to 1880 of family photos from my grandmother's house in Canada. So, I had a pictorial representation of a middle class black family. And so, when I saw images of black people, a lot of it didn't ring true, because I knew there was more than one image and more than one way of being.

"When I saw images of black people, a lot of it didn't ring true, because I knew there was more than one image and more than one way of being"

So [it’s been great] being able to use those images, especially once I started doing copy art, and also computer work. I've also always felt that [in collaging], to tear somebody's face can be quite violent, but if you're doing that to your own face, you've given yourself permission, so it's no longer a violent act. It's a deconstructive act. It's a way of looking.

RD: It’s quite unusual to have a visual archive that goes back so long, when did that fact dawn on you?

RK: I think it dawned on me slowly as I started showing the work. Because you take for granted the pictures that are on your grandmother's mantle. It's only when you actually start comparing other people's lives and see their reaction to these images. Then I became more aware how incredibly lucky I was to have this archive.

LOVE, SEX & ROMANCE (series), 1984. Photocopy mono-print and collage on sugar paper, 28 x 20 cm. Courtesy of Rita Keegan.

RD: It’s lovely to think you have inherited your curatorial instinct from your grandmother.

RK: Yes, but you know, I think we all curate one way or another. We all have this desire to catalogue, to show our trophies or our experiences. It is a need to mark your space, but also to mark your history.

Being part of the black or feminist discourse of history, you start to realise that if you don't take care of your history, no one else will. Often, we get lost in the history books, because we don't write the history books.

RD: Can you tell us a little about the title of your show? Why did you choose “Somewhere Between There and Here”? 

RK: “Somewhere Between There and Here” is the title of a poem that my uncle wrote. As I was doing the work for this show, I got in touch with my cousin who I hadn't spoken to in years. I'm a very bad cousin, she's very good, and she’s ended up kind of becoming the family’s archivist.

I had an uncle who I didn't know very well because he moved to England in in the early 50s and came back to America in the mid-70s. When I came to England, I didn’t know that he had lived here too, or what he had done. Through my discussions with my cousin, I realised that we had walked in a lot of the same places, had experienced a lot of the same things and that he had shown at the Commonwealth Institute and that I probably knew people he knew, and people he had showed with.

That experience, it was shocking in the sense that you'd like to think that you created yourself, only to find out I was walking in someone else's shoes. And I guess that's how we live, we couldn't get there without somebody else's trail.

So, I wanted to include some of his work in this exhibition to bring him back to the place where he had shown, and for him to become part of the canon of the art world that he worked so hard to be part of, and not just a little note in the in a catalogue.

"As I was doing the work for this show, I got in touch with my cousin who I hadn't spoken to in years"

Hommage to Frida Kahlo, 1987. Oil on canvas, 66 x 66 cm, credit: Stephen White & co.

RD: It’s your first solo show in 15 years—why is now the right time?

RK: Well, it's not like I hadn't been showing, but there's very little space for an artist after they get to 50. If you’re not a young, contemporary, (even if I am in my head), then there isn’t space for you.

There needs to be space for young people to show, but there also need to be places for people who are working on their practice too, but I think that's across the board in terms of writing, acting etc. The art always wants the new. It’s happy with the old too, which is I guess why I'm back, but that place in the middle where you are experiencing and working? There's very little place for you.

RD: Is that something you find frustrating as viewer and enjoyer of art as well, not seeing of representation of other artists at that point in their life?

RK: I just think there's so much that one can learn from peers. And you know, there needs to be space for diversity. And there also needs to be young people working alongside older ones.

Rita Keegan’s Somewhere Between There And Here is at the South London Gallery until 28 November 2021

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