The Medieval meets the Modern (tourist)

23 Jan

Two eyes, two hands (one more important than the other), two feet, a brain, and a heart (not necessarily in that order). Walking the streets of Prague last week made me realise an essential truth about travel; it sustains our attention because we are intruders in a foreign space. Every sight and sensation reinforces that this is not our land but with the spice of imagination, we can pretend for a while and drop in, like cultural dim sum, choosing what we like and leaving the other bits. Prague felt more upbeat on this trip. Our trip there last March coincided with the start of the Ukraine war and a heaviness lay over the city as a deep simpatico was felt with Ukraine over Russian aggression and rule. This trip, it felt like the tourists ruled. Languages from around the world can be heard and people gravitate towards certain features and landmarks like they are following a program. It is a beautiful city with a serious people and the contrasts between the grand and opulent architecture, the ambling tourists and the hardened locals give it a unique dynamic that is compellingly inaccessible. It is impossible to not feel like a tourist because the language, culture and pulse of the city is beyond most visitors. It is dense and shadowed. This, however, is what makes it such a rich and compelling subject. Below you can see a search for the heart of Prague. Most drawings have been witnessed and a few are based of photos from the Communism museum which depict soviet era faces and a man shot while trying to escape the country. Mournful beauty pervades these drawings and I think, just maybe, I captured just a little bit of what turns the old machinery of Prague.

Prague in March

6 Dec

On another trip with my university students to Prague, the city felt more familiar this time. Armed with the usual art supplies but well seasoned coming off the back of Coast of Teeth, my reportage book with Tom Sykes, my drawing skills were sharp. The city has an old, magical feel to it. The people have a worn in feel, like a comfortable jacket or leather purse. We arrived a month after the invasion of Ukraine and anti war, anti Putin sentiment was visible in large signs declaring ‘Hands off Ukraine Putin’ and ‘Stand with Ukraine.’ Of course many people in Prague today could remember the Velvet Revolution and many more, can remember the transition to democracy and the slow release of the mental shackles of Stalinism. And yet, like a lot of Europe, tragedy and hard won battles have given the nations their essential character. Something overly soft and weak pervades England in way that the Czech Republic is not. It is battle hardened but also battle strengthened. Of course it is a wonderful thing to not question peace and security and embrace it with the familiarity of family. Many do not have that and the powerful anti war messaging came from a place of understanding that limitations on freedom and oppression makes the dream of boring old peace, a delirious one. The war rages on and Prague is not perfect but the people have an etched understanding that things can get worse and they keep one eye to the east, just in case.

Enjoy these drawings. It was an inspiring time and the narrative of the city has crept in. A city, like all, that puts rich and poor in a stew together that is one part repulsion and one part intoxication.

Island dreaming

1 Sep

In some ways, this was a holiday like no other. Not that anything in particular happened of course but that it confirmed how odd life had been for the past five months. It took quite some time to decompress from what has been a silently stressful time, like the perpetual feeling one has left the cooker on an hour into a long car journey. It has also been an uncomfortable mirror to who we are and what we do in this world. How we are to each other and how we take far too much. Although lock down should be a time of space and reflection, it felt to me like high alert, the culmination of sins and a turning point towards a future that we better be damn well prepared for. Not to mention some reckoning with our total purpose; the purpose of art and how we can actually make a difference. These are positive and necessary considerations but time is not on our side. It is cliched and wrong to talk of a battle for the future because one side of that battle sees no future. When cynicism breaks towards hate you erase hope and in that erasure, violence, despotism and ignorance gives us the death cult of Trump, the nonchalance of Johnson and the quickened pace of the fossil fuel industries for exploitation and greed.

These drawings reflect little of that internal struggle and questioning although it is remarkable how, in the act of drawing, such conversations ignite and find meaning. How revolutionary it is to look and feel.

Prague before Corona

1 May

These drawings were done on a university trip to Prague for the BA Illustration course that I teach on at Portsmouth (UK). Prague is a visual feast in many ways and I felt the push and pull of history on the city and its people. It is both deeply European and something more eastern. Something medieval, stern and cold inhabits the residents but like most cultures, a few cold beers or the shared experience of art breaks down barriers. I don’t consider these drawings to be my best reportage works and I was not there with serious drawing in mind. Still, I hope they capture something of this magical city. Two weeks after we left, the world shut down. Enjoy!

Nairobi drawing

13 Mar

On the most recent trip to Nairobi working on the Tupumue research study, (measuring the lung capacity of 2600 children aged 5-18 years from two areas in Nairobi: the informal settlement Mukuru and the adjacent affluent area Buruburu. The arts have been mobilised to sensitise the public and encourage participation and engagement) I drew feverishly and sought out visions which reflected some of the unique circumstances and realities facing residents of both communities. These drawings reflect a merger of observation and memory and are a re-construction of things seen, felt and experienced. As noted in other blog posts, Nairobi is a wildly dynamic place and the energy is infectious, it moves you to open your mind and heart in surprising ways. Creating these drawings enables me to reflect on the various experiences and understand their value to me but then extend and share that vision and experience with others. My orientation to the place is as a professional observer but not distanced and objective. I am invested in the encapsulated experience that the drawings capture. Their potential is in the re-creative act of looking and assemblage that takes place when the viewer performs, through the marks of the drawing, the moments of its making and the textures of vision. I will engage more fully with the context of each of these drawings in a longer form piece soon but for now, enjoy these visions.

Mombasa diary

31 Jan

For a week in October I was lucky enough to be in the south eastern city of Mombasa in Kenya. Having been working in Nairobi on a research project regarding lung health (see previous posts) I was familiar with Kenya. Mombasa however is very different from Nairobi. For one, it is very hot and not a dry heat, a heavy, humid, tropical heat that I typically don’t enjoy. In Mombasa however, I was loving it. Besides a teenage trip to Mexico, I had not been in a tropical climate like this and was in love with my surroundings that were teeming with life. Colourful lizards, monkeys, bats, crabs and camels were all around and twitching in the background, sometimes seen, sometimes not. I was part of the communication package of a research project on heritage and resilience in South Sudan. We worked in a nice air conditioned room on various parts of project. Evenings became a ritual of drawing by the beach and inevitably being harassed by trinket sellers for whom I was easy pray, packing my bag full of their wares and probably over paying for them all. I realised that I could happily live by the beach. It brings a tremendous sense of calm and doing this reportage drawing with a clear head and time on my hands was a genuine luxury. After doing one drawing of a trinket seller I had just encountered named Abdul, I met an older German woman named Margaret who loved my drawing and proceeded to tell me all about her life. I kept running into her and she kept effusively telling me how much she loved the drawing. I eventually gave it to her and you can see her below with my drawing back home with her in Germany. She had also run into Abdul herself and was then especially happy with the drawing as, according to her, it looked just like him.

Enjoy the drawing below. For me these drawings bring back so much more than just snapshots or memories. They are containers filled with lives that I may have drawn but I don’t control. They are also not fixed. They are living out these small dramas somewhere in some space. If the drawings don’t somehow connect to a seen and witnessed thing or person they do not work. They reflect the amount of information I was able to preserve, within my own limitations of skill or memory, on the page in marks and lines and smudges. Drawing is a conjuring up, a construction which is built on instinct and foolish confidence. When it works it has captured that same crackle of life that was witnessed, some remnant of life passing, not frozen or preserved but captured and held in the dreamscape of a piece of paper.


Nairobi memories

10 Jan

I was recently to Nairobi for the second time in 2019 to implement sensitisation activities for a large scale scientific study of lung health among 5-18 year olds in two different parts of the city. After delivering workshops and refining our strategy, we tested our new methods for informing the public about our study at a large scale event outside a school in Mukuru. The event was called Santa in the Ghetto and for this American who has been dampened by English winters, it could not have felt less christmassy. It was hot with eye watering bright sunshine which charged us all up with much need vitamin D. I was the visual arts lead but leading was hardly required as the team is a seasoned group of professional artists who regularly teach art within the community. We created a large mural in three parts. (see below). The other activities included games, song and dance, theatre (including a puppet I created with Matt Smith) and a football game. On top of this we were capably entertained throughout by several MC’s and music. It was a fantastic experience and made all the better because the children engaged in activities with such infectious enthusiasm and joy. It is also so refreshing to see kids embracing the visual arts without some of the caution, self consciousness and timidity that I have often found teaching in America and the UK.

Between a very busy schedule of workshops, meetings and inevitably fraught travel, I tried to get some drawing in. These drawings come from searing images that I saw mostly during traveling to and from Bidi primary where the workshops took place. There is so much human traffic in Nairobi and such a buzz of activity everywhere. Traveling on the train to work the other day I observed how closed in and boring streets are in England. Few people are out and about but equally, all commerce (for obvious reasons) happens indoors. In Nairobi, it is all largely in sprawling outdoor market places which to these eyes, inevitably seems fantastically vibrant. People and even animals seem in perpetual movement, moving to and from places I could never know as a passenger in a car, disappearing quickly into new unknown vistas and witnessing people whose fate will briefly hold my attention.

Drawing is a way of fixing these observations and even subjects. Arresting a moment but not freezing it. My visual memory has become a reliable storehouse of visual imagery which can flood back. It is the act of drawing which is the trigger. Drawing, in fact, seems to be like a transcript of memory. Like the scratchy marks of a polygraph machine, it records things we couldn’t possibly communicate or even know in conventional language. For this reason, drawing, more than photography, becomes a psychic portrait of place. It is individual and idiosyncratic because of its facture but it is also a tangible record of something seen. Unlike the photograph which is a verifiable depiction of place, a drawing is the depiction of filtered experience and as such it invites participation in that vision. It is a human document and it has the capacity to connect to wider realms of experience. The success or failure of a drawing is not in its depictive accuracy but rather in its ability to summon up the intimacy of vision that inspired the drawing. This can be achieved in many ways, often through the open, unfinished marks of the drawing. IMG_3230IMG_3703IMG_5158IMG_4706I hope that these images capture something of my own experience in Nairobi but also point to a more universal understanding of this complex planet’s inhabitants. So much is etched on to our faces. Enjoy!


View from the back

2 Aug

This drawing was inspired by an indelible image that stuck with me when I was back to the UK after being in Nairobi. On the last full day we took a very bumpy truck ride through Nairobi to eventually arrive at the MPC school in Mukuru. I had opted for the back of the truck in an act of chivalry but also as a way to get the most visceral experience being jostled from left to right and looking out the back window onto the cacophony of people, motorbikes, street vendors, walkers, animals, half built structures and dust. The road was filled with deep craters and like in Mukuru itself, walkers had the best command of it, elegantly dodging the worst bits and balancing on craggy ridges, narrowly escaping large drops and rubbish. This image was constructed entirely from memory and is more of a collage of things seen than a remembered scene in its entirety. I did this drawing on true tone (normally used for creating screen prints) with graphite. In part this drawing also represents a break from drawing on the iPad which is fun and sensuous but not tactile and dirty like good ole drawing with pencils.

As much as Nairobi had many troubling aspects and lives lived in uncertainty, it was a visual feast and the sites of mass human migration and commerce revealed what we don’t have and are missing in the west. The flow of people and the flow of desires and need pours through the streets and through this clearly tenuous subsistence, there are, more often than not, smiles to greet your eyes and hands out to shake. Much to be learned.


Drawing in Nairobi

22 May

The following drawings are from a recent trip to Nairobi to work on a research project called Tupumue which explores lung health in 5-18 year olds living in the Mukuru slum and in a neighbouring precinct. Mukuru is a vast informal settlement of over 500,000 residents that was established in the 1970’s with rural to urban migration. It is surrounded by heavy polluting industries and residents cook with Kerosene, coal, wood and gas within small dwellings that are often without proper ventilation. A myriad of other problems plague the slum such as limited access to clean water, overcrowding, poor sanitation and waste removal and soil erosion to name a few. These are some of the world’s poorest people and their children are highly vulnerable.


It was impossible to prepare for the sights that I saw and my eyes and heart quickly filled up. This is a tragedy. A visceral onslaught of humanity in a second to second struggle for survival. It was also uplifting. We met many wonderful people and Mukuru has its charms. It has a rhythm and deep textures that are lively. It was exhausting in every sense but it was also vital. It was vital to see with western eyes how others in this ruthless world live. It made the inane realities of Brexit Britain and Trump’s America seem like a privileged concern. It also brings one closer to the larger struggle of our brothers and sisters in this world. It is impossible to be unmoved and it is impossible to be the same person you were hours before, having wine with your dinner on a plane thinking that you had a firm understanding of the world. It only now feels like arrogance.


The drawings came fast. For some I was surrounded by curious kids who called out mzungu! (white person) and took a joyous interest in my work. I was an object of fascination. Some gave a startled look at us as we walked through the slum. On one day, we covered 7 miles on the way to a football match, dodging rough terrain and grey spectral water. These drawings reflect what I have seen. They capture the human textures of experience as I witnessed them. They came whole. They were probably the easiest drawings that I have done because they emerged from such vivid experiences. They assembled themselves from clear visions, like a photograph developing and with similar unity, wholly emerging.


I was aware of the total inappropriateness of photography and also of its inherent limitations. Fixing this reality was not possible. It could not be contained in the photograph. The drawing however, as evocative and subjective as it is, is a container. It doesn’t fix reality, it extends it. It doesn’t declare or attest, it reaches out. It invites the viewer to share in a vision. To trace the vision of the artist, to commune with the act of looking. Looking at drawing is a participatory act. Unlike photography, we connect to the idiosyncrasies of the artist’s hand and the limitations of vision. Its imperfections make it the best approximation of an imperfect world.

The first three drawings are from my balcony in a walled complex. These are not from the slums.






Reportage drawings from the vault (or forgotten pile)

8 Apr

The following drawings are from the July protest against Trump, London, Christmas and a recent trip to Liverpool. All of this work was created alongside drawings done for my PhD. Because of this, the work has a kind of narrative that runs through it which aligns with that other serious work. The people that populate these drawings are loners. Either isolated by their circumstances or by their beliefs. Others are the faces more often lost in the sped up world of self absorption. Reportage drawing is unique way to manage both inner space and the outside world. A hyper attention to both the limitations of ones vision and skill and the psychic textures of every day life. Enjoy and as usual, I would love to hear from you.