Miguel Amado: In your projects, you seem equally invested in enabling reflection about your own identity and bringing different people together. Would you agree?
Alice Rekab: I think that’s really astute. In the Ireland I grew up in, I was very much in the minority in a lot of ways. I didn’t have any mixed-race friends at all, even when I went to college. It was only when I moved to London to do my PhD that I met other artists of various heritages who were making work – or even just looking at the world – through the lens of being mixed race.
MA: Ireland was very culturally homogeneous in the 1990s.
AR: I distinctly remember being 12 or 13 years old and suddenly seeing other Black people in Ireland for the first time – for example, a woman at the back of the bus that I couldn’t identify. I recall wanting to speak about that, but also feeling this strange sense of alienation, because obviously there aren’t that many Sierra Leonians in Ireland, and I had no way of knowing which part of Africa the woman was from or had connections with. Navigating all the nuance of difference and African-ness was a learning process, particularly as a young person growing up in a mono-racial society.
MA: Your recent project, ‘Family Lines’, which included an exhibition at The Douglas Hyde and multiple events in and beyond the gallery during 2022, engaged with this inquiry in two ways: conceptually, through your works, and practically, at grassroots level, as you facilitated encounters with others.
AR: ‘Family Lines’ was about an internal, subjective conversation that happens through clay, the paintings, the images, the albums. It constituted a place of self-discovery, something deeply personal that then becomes political. But it was also about making a space to share my experience, specifically of intergenerational migration, as much as enable its examination with and through multiple voices. Thus, it also allowed me to reach out to a community with whom I wanted to connect and enable the public to engage with.
MA: It is as if the project operated as a platform not only for your works, which engage with underrepresented narratives, but also for Black Irish creatives, who are still part of those same underrepresented narratives.
AR: My aim was for them to be heard by others and to be heard by one another, showing that one’s voice isn’t the only voice – that one is not alone – and understanding that the conversations we have with one another are a way of dealing with invisibility or erasure. When you are raised in the West, a lot of ignorance is ingrained in you, because we’re not taught otherwise. I didn’t learn anything about my father’s family, or what Sierra Leone was, or about West Africa through school. And if who one is does not matter, that has an impact on one’s sense of belonging.
MA: This is why you often talk about the emotional and intellectual impact of your first visit to Sierra Leone in 2009.
AR: I always knew I was Irish Sierra Leonian because I had a close relationship with my grandmother, but that was in the vacuum of mono-racial Ireland, and thus I only understood my heritage in relation to her. The first time I went to Sierra Leone, I was in her company, and that was the moment I realised I was Irish Sierra Leonian in relation to her within a Black majority context. That was revelatory yet difficult, as I became aware of the complexity of my light skin tone. When people there looked at me, they didn’t see a mixed-race person, even if I spoke Creole or understood the nuances of local behavior. And I also became aware of the privilege I had, just from having been born in Ireland. So that trip was the catalyst for the consciousness of being myself, appearing to me in a mirror larger than the borders of my inner world.
MA: You seem to translate this experience into your works, whether they are 3D pieces, paintings, or digitally collaged lens-based imagery, and particularly when you use materials such as clay.
AR: The use of clay emerges directly from my body and from the subconscious as something that is almost impossible to articulate verbally. The material enables that which feels outside of language to manifest physically, as it has this kind of primeval quality. The animals I sculpt are my interpretations of the souvenirs that were in my home, objects that had been brought over by my father’s family in the 1960s as symbols of their culture. They allow me to critically examine mainstream Western representations of Africa as a place where wild and unknown things live, as I play with the emergence of an African tourist industry for the Western gaze and the need for immigrants to connect with their geographies of origin through material culture.
The idea of mapping ways of understanding – that’s where the paintings come in. I use boards, sometimes reclaimed, as the surfaces onto which I apply a mixture of clay, images, and oil stick, and there’s a lot of cutting and texturising, which in a way operates like a sort of fractured, temporal diagram of life. For instance, Our Common Ancestor: Five Panels of Enmeshed Historical Narrative (2022), which was on view at The Douglas Hyde, suggests a quantum timeline in which different times are superimposed on one another and create meshes that get read through in different ways; they are a short-circuiting of human history and personal and cosmic histories. There are these master stories, but there are also intimate ones – for example, a miniature picture of my grandmother sitting solitary at a table next to a vast depiction of a fossil and a stellar explosion. Certain stories are valued differently, depending on your proximity to them.
The digital collages reconfigure all the elements. They often feature family photographs, which I may bring together with other images. And then there’s a digital drawing aspect that creates the links – both literally and symbolically – as well as areas of intensity through mark-making of what seem like coronas around certain figures or objects, as a means to bring to life dear people or beloved animals that are dead.
MA: Your latest exhibition, ‘Mehrfamilienhaus’, is on view at Museum Villa Stuck in Munich, and features works that, while speaking to the core of your concerns, look at new areas of interest.
AR: ‘Mehrfamilienhaus’, or ‘A Home to More Than One Family’, continues my exploration of the family unit, but expands it in dialogue with this site, Villa Stuck, which was an artist’s house, and where other artists now exhibit. I produced this exhibition while in residence in Munich in the summers of 2021 and 2022. Thus, I am reflecting on the notion of being a transplant, of being brought into a location and trying to establish a connection with its people and territory. I am also exploring questions of artistic inheritance – for example, what it means to be the child of an artist, or to live with an artist. At Villa Stuck, Franz von Stuck’s studio was the grandiose room, while the family’s living quarters were modest. In my home, my father’s studio was in our front room, and when he was working, he couldn’t be spoken to, no matter what was happening. So I am looking at this tension between art and life, and the psychology of being an artist. And thinking about Villa Stuck as a home to more than one family: the von Stuck family’s story and presence within the architecture, and my family’s story, which I intertwine with that one.
MA: So you are very intentionally engaging with a house that belonged to an artist, and considering dialogues between artists and generations, while keeping your key themes – mixed-race identity through African heritage, migration, displacement, monoculture – in tension as well, although perhaps less overtly.
AR: Bavaria is white, wealthy, and conservative. I am curious to see how the team at Villa Stuck facilitates engagement with African communities in the city. In the circles I moved around, while in residence in Munich, I haven’t heard questions of diversity or the experience of being a migrant. On the other hand, engaging with something as intimate as ‘home’– as an architecture, a territory – is a political statement. In the West, there is a conversation, if not an understanding, among professionals and certain audience segments around the historic subalternisation of practices that do not adhere to the modernist framework, which is a Western framework. But whether this conversation could connect with broader issues in Munich (and anywhere in Germany or the rest of Europe) as an environment for migrants, remains to be seen. That is the common task to which I hope to contribute.
Miguel Amado is a curator and critic, and director of SIRIUS in Cobh, County Cork.
Alice Rekab is an artist based in Dublin.
Rekab’s solo exhibition, ‘Mehrfamilienhaus’, continues at Museum Villa Stuck in Munich until 14 May.