On reality checks and rethinking coronations

The US-born, Nairobi-based artist Olivia Mae Pendergast talks to ArtScoops about seeing the light, with a little help from Modigliani, and lending a voice to the underrepresented 

From a fleeting expression to a flickering movement, an artist’s inspiration is known to come in many guises. 

For the US artist Olivia Mae Pendergast, it has always been small, but beautifully contained actions, such as the clasping or folding of hands, or emotion etched across a face, that triggers a burning desire to recreate on canvas what she catches on camera. “I started painting, working from the photos I’d taken, because I was so overwhelmed by faces and body language. I’ve always found them fascinating,” she admitted.

Inevitably, her early work was dominated by US portraits of “just whoever happened to be around”. However, a relocation to Nairobi, Kenya, following several visits to Africa, provided opportunities to take her art in a new, more fulfilling direction. 

“There was a tendency among some of the people I’d photograph in the States to adopt formal, Instagram-style poses, meaning they could come across as closed or guarded, whereas the people I began meeting in Africa were less self-conscious - more natural and open in their manner and demeanour,” she said. Olivia explained that this authenticity among her subjects in the communities near to where she lives has made photographing and painting her subjects both enriching and satisfying, “It could be showing me a beautiful vulnerable, soft side or a magnificent self-assuredness and confidence – the unexpectedness or surprise is part of the magic,” she said. “A direct gaze, how someone holds their head, perhaps tilting it slightly through curiosity, the setting of the lips, the poise of the hands to articulate something…  any of them can make my heart explode.” 

Her fascination with these and other details are evident from the first moment you set eyes on her art. The small heads and long necks of her figures shift the viewer’s attention to the positioning of the body – its tilt or slump, perhaps - while elongated arms invite us to follow their line through to their natural end, fingers that are interlaced, maybe, or hands cradling a child or hugging knees. 

Olivia compensates her subjects for their time with a payment, explaining that doing so is beneficial on both sides. “The money is undoubtedly useful to the people I’m photographing, many of whom here have very little,” she said, “while making the process a business transaction helps me to build trust and develop something of a relationship with them, discover a little about their lives, their family and even pick up some Swahili over time!”

Learning a little of the local language is one of several accomplishments that Moving to Africa, she admits, was a major learning curve in many ways. “I’d done very little in the way of travelling, so there was a lot of adapting to do, from working out currencies to communicating and buying food,” she said. “And that was before I tried to look at obtaining art supplies!”

Having long been settled in what has now become her second home, Olivia witnessed first-hand the terrible and tragic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the communities around her. “The pandemic was incredibly hard on many of the locals here, not necessarily from the Covid-19 virus itself, but more from the repercussions of the lockdowns,” she explained. “Most of the charities and organisations that were supporting people in need left. The consequences were horrendous – those who live from day to day in informal settlements with no back-up plan were left to cope with the fallout of no work, no support networks and school closures. Gang-related violence, teenage pregnancies and starvation were rife. Some people didn’t make it.”

Olivia described the experience of seeing the devastating effects of the pandemic up close as a “really good reality check” and one which almost inevitably found its way into her art. “I felt moved by the toughness of the situation,” she explained. “I was aware that I was witnessing something much bigger than anything I’d seen before.”

Almost without realising it, Olivia found herself using softer colours in her art, including pinks and yellows, which replaced the more vibrant and earthy hues of gold, red, blue and brown that had characterised so many of her portraits to date. “There was a sensation of not only being focused on the human body but wanting to relay the tenderness and empathy I felt for the people,” she explained.

At the same time, Olivia decided against incorporating masks into the work she created during those challenging months. “I’m interested in capturing the beauty in a face so I knew I’d find it difficult to cover up the facial features,” she said. “I was also reluctant to normalise masks in my paintings - I certainly wasn’t looking to make a social commentary on them.”

She did, however, find a way of highlighting the consequences of lockdowns on some of the most vulnerable members of the communities nearby through a thought-provoking series of paintings inspired by historical artworks she’d seen at the Vatican on the theme of coronation – a word, Olivia noted, sufficiently similar to coronavirus for audiences to make a link with the topical health crisis. The motif that she decided to focus on was the halo, which was a prominent feature of the coronation artworks, bestowed upon important figures who are often given pride of place at the top of the paintings to reflect their status. “I wanted to challenge this notion by giving my figures halos, to send out a message that the people without a voice matter and deserve both a halo and to be heard too,” she said.

With pandemic rules allowing daily outdoor exercise, Olivia also found herself inspired to paint more landscapes during the pandemic, which not only show a different side of her art, but also highlight the influence of the Italian artist Amedeo Clemente Modigliani on her technique when it comes to conveying reflective light. “Years ago, I’d been trying to do something with light and was becoming incredibly frustrated,” she explained. “I was unhappy with what I was producing and felt overtrained. I wanted to ‘unlearn’ some of the techniques I’d been taught. When I saw Modigliani’s paintings in a book, I was so blown away, I cried. I knew that this was the approach I wanted to take - exploring how light moves or shines through a landscape or person, rather than what’s on the surface. Once I understood that this was what I wanted to explore, everything else fell into place.” 

A longstanding interest in meditation and mindfulness also plays a key part in Olivia’s art, inspiring her to explore the experience of non-dualism in her work, where there is only ‘awareness’ - one space or field - out of which the sense of a ‘self’ (or ego) appears to arise. “Our sense of self believes it to be separate from everything else in the world, a unique being, when in actuality, there is no separation between the background, the field of colour and the one that is called ‘I’. It is all the same thing,” she explained. Trying to portray that in art is not an easy task, Olivia admitted, but surely adds another layer of authenticity to her work.

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