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Canadian challenges ideas of art with her 'interactive' pieces

Saturday April 14 2018

Lisa Milroy's artwork.

Lisa Milroy's artwork on letter writing. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU 

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London-based Canadian artist Lisa Milroy came to One Off Gallery by circuitous means. The painting professor at the prestigious Slade School of Fine Art in UK was in Kenya running a series of drawing workshops for school children up at Kakuma Refugee Camp. Her “Hands on” drawing project had support from UNHCR and Vodafone Foundation, but she’d come to Nairobi occasionally to get her own supplies.


That’s how she found herself in an art supply shop with a few extra hours free and a desire to visit a local art gallery. Fortunately, she asked a fellow shopper for a recommendation, which art space would be best to see with only a few minutes to spare? The shopper, Wambui Collymore, suggested One Off Gallery, and Lisa headed straight there.

Lisa Milroy's artwork. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA
Lisa Milroy's artwork. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU

From then on, the rapport between Lisa and One Off’s owner Carol Lees grew to the point where Carol invited her to have a show at the Gallery. Thus her “Handmade” exhibition of paintings by the illustrious artist got set to open last weekend coincidentally with the launch of the Gallery’s brand new space and the opening of the “Latest Works” by nearly a dozen Kenyan artists.

Lisa brings an expansive concept of ‘painting’ to One Off. For she doesn’t simply work with paints on canvas, although she has several interesting pieces in her show. She defines ‘objects’ such as textiles, dresses, shoes and even blocks of wood as elements in her paintings. She then calls her ‘objective paintings’ ‘interactive art.’


Clearly, with her sort of credentials—being a graduate of the influential Goldsmiths College within University of London, an elected member of the Royal Academy of Art and the Head of Graduate Painting at the Slade School—Lisa can call painting anything she likes.

Lisa Milroy's artwork. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA
Lisa Milroy's artwork. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU


So when she creates an interactive painting (which might also be called an installation) entitled “Off the Rack”, no one need complain that she’s devised something new. In fact, she simply assembled an ordinary clothing rack on which she’s hung 25 dresses (which she made out of colourful kitenge and diaphanous cloth) and then called it an ‘object painting’. That’s called ‘artistic licence’.

But then, the rack and dresses are not all there is to the artwork. Instead, it’s you the viewer who is meant to ‘interact’ with the garments: pick one and place it on the adjacent five-foot sized canvas covered in more kitenge print. Then see how you like the juxtaposition of those textures, colours and designs.

Lisa assumes (according to the instructions she has hanging on the wall behind the rack) that the viewer will have an incentive to pick another dress and try that one for size, colour and interest. That’s meant to be the fun of it.

Lisa Milroy's artwork. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA
Lisa Milroy's artwork. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU

She does something similar with two pairs of coloured canvas Bata-styled shoes. She’s created several two-dimensional square paintings with varied designs, some geometric, others monochromatic. You are again invited (courtesy of written instructions that Lisa’s placed on the new gallery wall that Carol just converted from having been a barn) to play with the shoes. Try placing them on this square or that. See what you think!


The other ‘object painting’ that Lisa’s included in this show is a ‘handbag’. Or rather it’s a three-dimensional relief ‘painting’ made out of wood and meant to look fashionable; it’s a cute, compact little simulated ‘handbag’. But it seems more like a spoof on all those women (and a few men) who are fixated on handbags and shop incessantly for new ones to match this outfit or that.

The rest of the two-dimensional paintings in her show take on several themes. One is a continuation of the fashion design idea in which she’s created one designer jacket that’s ‘In the Making’ and created out of oil on silk, thread, a nail and a clothes hanger. Another is a painting of an actual jacket created in oil on canvas and made to look three-dimensional, as if you could grab it off the canvas and try it on.

Lisa Milroy's artwork. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA
Lisa Milroy's artwork. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU

But her ‘process’ paintings, one about the process of Letter Writing, the other about using scissors to “Cut Out" emblematic images of her homeland, Canada, both reflect the storyteller-side of Lisa. Again, she stretches the concept of still-life painting to suggest the passage of time through space.

Her show is up at One Off through 29th April. Her art has been exhibited all over the world, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to the Tate Modern in UK, the Fukuoka Art Museum in Japan and the Frac Occitanie Montpellier in France. She’s also shown her art to students at both Dadaab and Kakuma Refugee Camps.