You may remember that a few years ago (thanks to one of this blog’s readers, Maylin) I was interviewed on Woman’s Hour for part of their “chain” series, in which women nominated other women who had inspired them, creating a series of interlinked interviews. I often find myself thinking about the interconnected nature of women’s different creative practices, and thought it might be a nice idea to nab this idea to create our own chain of interviews with interesting and inspiring women. Each link in the chain nominates the next, and that way we’ll all discover new work, and be introduced to artists, makers and designers we may not otherwise have discovered. The artist I’ve chosen as the first link in our chain is Reena Makwana: an illustrator and embroiderer whose work I love for so many reasons, but perhaps particularly for the powerful and human way that she transforms embroidery – often considered a definitive art of the private sphere – into a powerful and human document of the street.
Hi Reena! can you introduce yourself, and tell us a bit about your background as an illustrator?
Hi Kate! I’m Reena, I live in south London and work as an illustrator. I graduated from Camberwell College of Art in 2008 and since then have worked on my practice, which is largely inspired by the area I live in and walking around London. I create embroideries inspired by people and places and also draw illustrations for zines, online editorial and independent magazines.
What drew you to embroidery as a medium?
I used to embroider as a child as a hobby. My grandmother used to embroider and my mum taught me how to sew. I don’t know if it was just at the time but when I was at primary school we worked on a few textile projects and I loved creating cross-stitch patterns and free form embroideries of drawings. For while, I considered perhaps working in fashion and textiles when I was younger but luckily on my Foundation I realised I really wanted to be an illustrator using embroidery or drawings or print according to what I was working on. I love books and I feel like a lot of textiles tell stories.
(from “When in Rome”)
Can you talk us through the process of transforming your street observations and felt-pen illustrations into embroidered stitches?
I admit, I do secretly take pictures of people because usually what I want to capture disappears very quickly! I have started making concertina sketchbooks when I’ve been on holiday, which has been great for ideas on pulling together illustrations and making sure I still draw from observation. My embroideries usually start with a pencil drawing which I develop into a felt-tip illustration. I trace onto tissue paper and stitch a basic outline onto calico and pick off the paper before introducing blocks of colour and pattern to create a complete piece.
Embroidery is a notoriously slow process and I find it interesting that many of the ordinary street scenes celebrated in your work are the opposite of that – being, by their nature, momentary and fleeting. Could you talk a little about how you regard the relationship between the (brief) depicted moment, and the (long) time of the process of creating your embroidered work?
I love the idea of celebrating a moment, capturing something that will change and not fixed in the environment it is seen. I think I recognise the relationship between the moment and the long process in the completion of the embroidery because when I look at it, I’ll have a mental picture in my head of seeing that exact situation and a feeling of the surroundings.
I enjoy the way your work celebrates everyday diversity, with people of all kinds – including disabled people – participating in the ordinary life of the street. What is it about a particular street scene or character that calls out to you and says ‘stitch me’?
I am drawn to a sense of style but not necessarily fashionable, so things like the happy accident of a group of very different people wearing the same shade of pink in different ways and standing in a row to get on the bus. Sometimes it’s just an individual with an interesting outfit. It was pointed out to me that a lot of my illustrations are two people interacting and I think that comes from an interest in relationships. Not in a romantic way but more the relationship between two strangers squashed together on a tube train, a group of friends bumping into each other at a bus stop, a couple arguing in the street or perhaps the dynamics of a market stall and the interactions between the regulars, window shoppers and the stall holder. I love that communities are part of an ongoing history of a place. I’m often drawn into the architecture of a place as well, doesn’t matter if it’s a Brutalist high-rise or a Georgian townhouse, I’ll be taken in by its location and details.
(detail of collaboration with “All the Queens Houses” – Eclectic Row, Jamaica Hill, Queens)
I particularly enjoy the way you choose to represent fabric, clothes, and hair in stitch, with such style. Do these surfaces present particular challenges for you as an embroiderer?
I really embrace the challenge!! I like observing creases to create form and a difference in light. I usually work out textures and patterns in my felt-tip drawings and choosing different colours for the embroidery. I do find I work out specific stitches while I am sewing, just to see what works in creating a lively embroidery.
I find the way your work lends embroidery (which is so often regarded a definitively private medium) a public role in representing urban communities very powerful. Do you think stitch has other important community roles to play? Through teaching and skill sharing for example?
I definitely think so. Embroidery is very therapeutic and very personal. I’ve found that working with people creating embroideries is very much like drawing –everyone has a different style and wants to express different things. I was very lucky for the latter part of last year and the beginning of this year to work with The Human Library at Bootle Library. Niamh Riordan is an artist involved with the project along with Maria Brewster and Laura Yates. I was asked to run three embroidery workshops with them and groups from the community – the first a general introduction to embroidery, the second encouraging local stitches to create an embroidery inspired by the history of the town (personal or from photographs) and a third workshop to continue the efforts of the second and discuss on pulling the embroidery into a ‘Bootle Embroidery’, celebrating 150 years of Bootle. It was wonderful to see the participants come to the workshops and share their stories of living in the town and work on some beautiful embroideries. The project is still ongoing and I’ll be putting the embroidery together on my sewing machine. It was my first time teaching and skill sharing and I found it really rewarding as the group I worked with were lovely!
The art of the illustrator or the embroiderer is very often solitary. Does your work have any sort of social dimension and how do you find your own sense of community and connection as an illustrator and embroiderer?
I think I’m very lucky to have some very creative friends who I’ve met through being at Camberwell, bonded with during internships or met during occasional event work over the years. Visiting museum and galleries together, as well as sharing what we are working on individually is really important. I think working with clients on producing illustrations for magazines, zines, group projects or exhibitions is wonderful too – I’ve found I’ve met so many people by working together on an project. I feel social media like Instagram and Twitter is good for supporting other creatives and keeping in the loop with what’s going on. I do enjoy the solitary nature of working as an illustrator and embroiderer though – I currently work part time as a library assistant at the British Library, so quiet time to myself is very welcome!
I immediately have the sense looking at your work of a very wide range of aesthetic and cultural influences. Could you talk a little about the different things that inspire you?
I’m inspired by so many things. I love a lot of artists that seem to have their roots in Scandinavian design – I love the warmth, humour and maybe a little touch of sadness present in Tove Jansson’s beautiful illustrations of her Moomin stories, alongside illustrations for The Hobbit and Alice in Wonderland. The ceramics and print of Bjorn Wiimbald are wonderful. I saw the work of Lubna Chowdhary when she was the V&A Ceramics Resident in 2017 and feel in love with her work. I recently visited The Fry Gallery in Saffron Walden, with my friend the designer Anna Lincoln and was so pleased to see work by some my favourite artists who lived and working in the area – Edward Bawden, Eric Ravilious and Tirzah Garwood. Brixton Station had a huge printed mural of a work by Njideka Akunyili Crosby above their entrance hall in Brixton last year and it made me nearly fall on the person in front of me when I was going down the stairs when I first saw it!! I love her work (she also had some work on display at National Portrait Gallery). I went to Porto last year and was taken in by the pastel walls and ornate tiles of their architecture. Old food illustrations in cookbooks and London history really influence my work too.
What are you working on right now?
I’m working on a short series of embroideries inspired by people I see on the Victoria Line, either on the way to or from work. Originally these began as sketches but I realised the patterns and colours would work really well as embroideries. I’d like to exhibit these somewhere but need to find a suitable place!
Where can our readers find you and your work?
Finally, who would you like to nominate as the next link in our chain?
Catherine Mountford – a very talented ceramic artist! https://www.instagram.com/catherinemakes/
Thankyou so much Reena, for being the first link in our chain!