Out of Africa

Zambian-born painter Emily Kirby’s work explores human connection across borders

Travelling and creativity are embedded in painter Emily Kirby’s DNA, and it can be easily seen in her artwork. Born to British artist parents in Zambia, and brought up in Sussex, she has lived in Spain and New Zealand, before settling in Hove. Her current solo show, at the Brighton gallery Paxton+Glew, emphasises the artist’s appreciation of human connection: in an interview with Jessica Bond, she discusses the inspiration behind her work and the importance of humanising women in her practice.

How does your background having roots in Zambia influence your work?

I was very young when we left Zambia, but I grew up with stories of it from my mum, and I think that played a significant role in keeping the country alive in my imagination when I was growing up. When I first started painting full-time, I was based in London, but I started visiting Zambia regularly to reconnect with my dad. Our relationship hadn’t been very close for years; he was a painter too and introduced me to some galleries in Lusaka. I was returning from these trips deeply inspired by the places I’d visited and people I’d met, and I’ve used many sketches and photographs from those trips in my paintings.

How would you describe your work?

I tend to reflect on places I have been rather than where I’m currently living. The work on show at at Paxton+Glew is about revisiting recent years spent living in Spain with my wife: she is Spanish, and we spent four years in Madrid and Cadiz. 

I’m a figurative painter. I used to work more with single figures and portraits on canvas. Recently I have become more interested in composing figures within landscapes, from both real and imagined places.

My paintings are primarily an exploration of colour and form. I like to use combinations of layered block colours to form my figures. I work in both oils and acrylics. My work is informed by memories that have stayed with me. I often wonder if my early years in Zambia influenced my palette. I think of myself as a predominantly intuitive painter; there are mixtures of colours and tones in my work that made sense when I first started returning to Zambia.

On the other hand, I grew up in the Sussex countryside and spent my early twenties in Brighton, and I came out as queer during that time. I like to revisit places through these memories, by working from old images I have taken and new ones I find. As a queer woman, I am aware that my paintings are infused with a need to represent and make images of women that celebrate our connections to each other and with the natural world.

How would you describe your creative process?

My creative process often varies as I try to avoid following a formula; however, with large paintings especially, I like to start by making an abstract painting. I then have the initial layers to respond to, and sometimes incorporate them into the finished painting.

I often work from preliminary sketches. Other times, I go straight into painting, drawing in figures to get it going and then letting the painting take shape. There can be a lot of back and forth. As the painting takes form, it will reveal things that take it in an unexpected direction. Using an abstract painting as a base helps with this process and initiates a dialogue from the beginning.

Many of your pieces showcase women in a form that highlights human connection. How important is it for women to be represented in an accurate light that challenges the male gaze? How do you showcase it in your work?

We are used to an art world which is often dominated by the male gaze. I want my paintings to celebrate those moments when women can relax and be themselves. The women in my work often interact with each other and their surroundings at ease, giving a sense of freedom of expression. I find those places and moments in time really speak to me and increasingly help to inform my work. 

Would you say any artists have been a significant influence on your career?

So many artists have inspired my work in their honest and uncompromising representation of women, including Frida Kahlo, Tschabalala Self, and Jenny Saville, to name a few. I’m currently in love with the work of Jenna Gribbon and Nadia Waheed.

As a seasoned traveller, would you say there are any plans to move on to another country in the future? If so, how do you see your life now working itself into your future work?

I find it hard to look ahead and predict what I’d do if I was to move to another country. My wife and I have been talking about the possibility of moving to Mexico for a year or two. It’s somewhere we’d love to try out for a bit, she might have a possibility of going out with her work, so it may be on the cards, but not for a while. Yet.

I’m sure I will be drawing on recent experiences back here to some extent. There seems to be a pattern forming with me. Also, people are pretty out-and-proud here; that’s something I’m sure to be drawing on in my work.

Emily Kirby’s Solo Show is currently on view at Paxton+Glew, 12 Hanningtons Lane, Brighton, until May 1st 2022.