She shares with me her findings that we humans not only have a body but also a mind and energy. The mind is a muscle; it needs care just like the body. The question is what do we feed it with? And what does this state look like? Whatever we are thinking inside reflects or vibrates out of us. Prina shares this questioning and experience in her work.
Thadde Tewa, Nairobi, meets the Kenyan artist Prina Shah
Inner Whispers XVII, 2019
Thadde Tewa in conversation with Nairobi based artist Prina Shah on her work, creative process and her experience with mental health.
Prina Shah’s practice intricately combines her skills in various media including painting, sculpture, glasswork, and mixed media installations, creating works that trace personal emotional journeys within wider social contexts. Shah studied at the Southampton Institute for Higher Education, and has taken part in many residencies and workshops throughout her career. She has exhibited locally and internationally and her work is included in the private collections including KPMG Kenya, I&M Bank Collective, the Kouvola Museum in Finland, and the US Embassy in Dar es Salaam. She’s currently based in Nairobi, Kenya.(Profile: Courtesy Circle Art Gallery, Lavington, Nairobi)
Prina Shah (1973) was among the many artists who exhibited in the Red group exhibition by One Off Contemporary Art Gallery, Gigiri, Nairobi that happened in June this year. This wasn’t my first time to experience Prina’s work, maybe the third or fourth time. Before this group show she was featured in a few group exhibitions at Circle Art Gallery in Lavington, Nairobi. Our conversation started on social media around the same time the Red exhibition opened and later on she offered me an opportunity to view the show with her over coffee at One Off. This presented a chance to talk about her experience, creative process, society beliefs and most importantly mental health. This lovely conversation extended into a studio visit early last month which later inspired this article.
In Studio / Photo: Calvin Mwanza
In Studio / Photo: Calvin Mwanza
The 47-year-old Nairobi based artist was born in Kenya, left during the 1982 coup at a young age for England, stayed there for 15 years studying and later came back to reside in Kenya. This change did not only cause a major culture shock but also it gave her an advantage of growing up in three different cultures. This has allowed her to pick what resonates with her. The African and Indian culture gave her the spirit of community or togetherness which has become a dominating element in her work and practice.
Between the Lines – Mixed media on canvas – 112h x 112w cm, Courtesy One Off Contemporary Art Gallery, Gigiri, Nairobi
Prina’s work is intriguing. It questions our own status quo and pushes the boundaries. It originates from mental health awareness. According to Prina, mental health is a feeling and an experience; not just thoughts, writings or words. In her opinion, the whole planet is currently so focused on overall physical health and overlooking mental health. She shares with me her findings that we humans not only have a body but also a mind and energy. The mind is a muscle; it needs care just like the body. The question is what do we feed it with? And what does this state look like? Whatever we are thinking inside reflects or vibrates out of us. Prina shares this questioning and experience in her work.
What Prina also challenges with her work is that, we are constant walking talking advertisements of what the society believes, rarely are we honest with ourselves of who we are. Since we are born, we are institutionalized; for those of us who are aware it can take us years and effort to unravel. The majority of society spends its time in re-inforcing the conditions that suit society and its way.
Prina is pushing these boundaries with her work; constantly challenging the society’s beliefs and norms and getting to know oneself. She adds that until we are willing to unlearn, we can’t discover. In some spaces we are never allowed to discover.
“My questioning in my work is all about unlearning and deconstructing. If I’m having X amount of thoughts in a day, is that who I am, No. And after that, who is me after those X amounts of thoughts”
“When you look at my recent work E- Motion (energy in motion), thoughts and memory, it’s all intertwined together. When thinking of a memory, what fascinates me is that we transport ourselves in time, places & events. We could go back ten years, or even back to our ancestors, a time when we were not even born. It could be a story somebody told you and when you think about it you’ve transported yourself there already. It is in this feeling and motion that interests me, our thoughts going back and forth, a mental loop, moving internal and external, projecting outwards and inwards. What does this actually look like? Can this feeling and motion be created to experience and view in the outer world… from one state of mind to another.”
In Studio with work in progress, E-motion piece, Courtesy Prina Shah Studios
Prina believes that thoughts are in a constant spin, always rotating depending on that specific moment. It is only during unlearning or deconstructing that we are actually learning something new about ourselves.
She goes on,
“My biggest achievement as an artist is to be able to create and share this special feeling or experience for my audience. I’m an artist who is always questioning, not necessarily to walk away with an answer. Sometimes there is no solid answer to be honest.”
Reflections – Mixed media on canvas – 112h x 112w cm, Courtesy: One Off Contemporary Art Gallery, Gigiri, Nairobi
When Prina is creating or envisioning her work in a space, it is ideally presented in large go down like spaces, this is because her work draws her audiences in. The circles and texts in Prina’s work are symbolic and not just random, but made with intent.
In Studio / Photo: Calvin Mwanza
She begins her creative process with meditation. She does not revisit or relive but observe before the whole experience. Even though she visualizes how the complete artwork will look for her, the process is the main event. To start her deconstruction process she writes and sketches. To Prina, Images, thoughts, words, are all a form of language and communication. We do not necessarily need to verbalize our thoughts but we communicate them sometimes even without our knowledge, whether it is, consciously or subconsciously. This I find fascinating.
Inner whispers XV11 2019 – Acrylic on Canvas – 130cm by 130cm, Courtesy Prina Shah Studios
Choice of medium: Prina doesn’t just choose or decide her medium randomly. First of all, she figures out how she wants it to be experienced. It is the process that will determine this for her. Her main focus is not on how the artwork is going to look like in the end, but the process itself. For it to feel like a vibrational piece of work, she has to be careful with the medium. Her medium varies depending on the space and mental state. She confesses that some people look at her work from a distance and think it’s Maasai beads, collage work, and others embroidery, until they move closer and experience it. For Prina she likes the fact that she can transform a medium and give the observer a different perception. It comes with great experience.
In some of her recent works she uses found objects; in certain areas of the work. Found objects does not mean objects she picks when she’s out for a walk but historical objects she keeps safely. It could be from an old building; ripped off floor. These objects have history. Transported in time and space. That’s where the whole exciting experience begins.
Preserved wood, removed from the old colonial houses in Nairobi, Kenya. Photo: Prina Shah Studios
I ask Prina why her studio is so neat and she responds that it’s important for her to have a space where she can have clarity in her mind, and also it helps to know where her tools and materials are. On top of that she mentions that she maintains discipline. To her, discipline and focus is important to grow her practice and achieve her goals.
It’s not by chance that I chose to experience Prina Shah’s work out of the many artists that were featured in the Red group exhibition by One Off Contemporary in Gigiri, Nairobi. I think this experience is what I had longed for after many months in isolation and working remotely. Apart from the intriguing studio visit experience I got to unlearn a few things on mental health, society beliefs and labelling. On top of that I got to be reminded that my mind needs a lot of care like any other body organ. Prina’s work, thinking and creative process is out of this world and by her letting me into her creative space and world at this uncertain times I consider it a privilege.
Currently she’s been spending most of her time in isolation with family and in the studio; producing and experimenting on new ideas and body of work. I can’t wait to see what’s coming out soon.