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Interview: The Laughing Cactus

Mandeep Dhadialla reflects on how the contrasting landscapes of the Kenyan and British countryside have influenced her printmaking process.

As a child growing up in 1980’s Kenya where television, music and fashion were lightyears behind other countries, where people were never permanent in place due to the nature of their work - much like being in transit at an airport - I was fascinated with the outer world. Curious and with an adventurous spirit, my vivid imagination would take me to places far beyond the hot, cracked, red soil, creating a playful world in outdoor dens made from metal pick-up truck frames, sheltered from the equatorial sun by a canopy of laundry drying out. Trees, plants, wildlife and drawing fuelled my play and filled my days - little did I know that I would return to it almost thirty-five years later as an artist printmaker, that the landscape would nurture me and become my constant throughout the seasons of my adult life and that it would also lead me to pursue a Fine Art degree.

Fast forward steadily to 1993 and the exciting news that my siblings and I were to move to England for further education, living with my grandparents - music to my teenage ears, literally. The excitement extended to the mere thought of the corner shops I could freely walk to for a bar of chocolate; a novelty indeed. Suddenly my fascination with the outer world was at my fingertips: it became mine for the taking.

However, all this change and joy came with sacrifice - living apart from my parents and brother. Having two homes, we would adopt a nomadic existence. We would make trips to Nairobi, or they would visit us in England, for a few short weeks a year. Technology wasn’t as efficient as it is now, especially in Nairobi; posting letters, sending faxes and making numerous phone calls became a part of our daily life to keep in touch. Over the years I grew to love the British landscape for all its contrasts and how easily within reach rural tranquillity was. Each moment of happiness being immersed in middle-England countryside was exchanged for a sinking feeling on each trip back to Kenya. I would notice the obvious changes in the slowly diminishing equatorial landscape giving way to developing infrastructures. Nairobi was advancing and I felt like a tourist in my own country of origin, having to re-learn new routes of getting from one place to another.

Feeling out of touch with people and place translated to feeling out of touch with the changing landscape, which hit harder. The Kenya I grew up in, created my dens in, spent my days drawing in, seemed to be drifting away from me. A disconnect within me was occurring. It was this sense of ‘loss’ that acted as a catalyst for my Garden Plants of Kenya series of relief prints, reviving, renewing and reminding me of the nurturing constant that is the natural landscape. I would return each time with sketchbooks, photographs, and an evolved way of appreciating the Kenyan botanical world, starting with my parents’ back garden.

Living with one foot in Kenya and the other in England, I began to question my sense of belonging. Largely this was with friends over a glass of wine and a home-cooked hybrid of Kenyan-Indian cuisine (often trying to re-create an authentic chicken curry “karoga”- cooked over an open fire - and never quite hitting the mark, with a side salad of ‘kuchumbari’ which I nailed).

These conversations, combined with a yearning to revisit my printmaking practice, encouraged me to examine this concept more closely. In turn it led me to shipping myself and my studio to Kenya, setting up camp in my family home and all the glorious surroundings that came with it. It was the medicine I needed to renew my soul and mental wellbeing from another of life’s seasons.

Since May 2018, I have been working on the Garden Plants of Kenya series of linocuts based on my nine-month trip to equatorial Kenya. A chance to immerse myself in my printmaking, to build a body of work around a subject about which I feel incredibly passionate.

Spending my formative years in Kenya and visiting annually has given me the valuable opportunity of observing, connecting with and absorbing the surrounding natural beauty found within urban, back garden flora. Exploring the concept of a “sense of belonging” naturally progressed to “what translates as a sense of home, place and comfort?”. I drew and photographed natural light effects on commonly found plants dotted amidst the red soil, showing them dappled by equatorial day light and at dusk.

I tend to work intuitively. A reduction linocut print begins with an initial, loose plan of the colours and number of layers involved. The print then evolves naturally as layers are built up from light to dark or taking them down again from dark to light.

Some linocut prints incorporate a monotype technique of inking up the blocks as in a painterly approach, blending colours directly on the lino block, resulting in unique prints within an edition. The colour palette is often exaggerated to reflect the glowing equatorial light and its luminosity on plants, enhancing the vibrancy of their colours.

The Garden Plants of Kenya has since given birth to a series of prints which have enabled me to develop and revive not only my “lost love” but also my individual skill, technique and style. The warming internal glow transferred to the prints I make of the British countryside. Despite the stark contrasts in landscape between the two places I call home, there sits the same emotion of a beauty which hits you in the pit of your stomach, takes your breath away and leaves you speechless. A coming of home.

I have always been astounded by the magic of coincidence and universal timing. Running parallel to this, these past few months have given time for reflection, for navigating the notion of a “sense of home, place and comfort.” Especially apt during lockdown. Many, including myself, are rediscovering an emotional connection to this sense of security within our homes, borne out of physical limitations. Contact with friends and family moved to a virtual land. Amidst this we found ways to still keep our hearts warm, sending happy post to our loved ones. My little niece and nephews would post out drawings and even a small dinosaur toy at one point (with strict instructions to play with it every day), and I would send simple art packs to keep their creative minds full of curiosity and adventure.

We kept this going for a while. And boy did it fill my heart right up with joy when I’d excitedly open their packages, knowing they’d spent time and energy in making something special, taking me back to being that little girl in Kenya turning the key to the post office box with my Dad, satisfying my longed-for connection with the outer world.

It’s funny how, in turn, recent events have shown how the simple act of giving and receiving can also contribute to a sense of home, place and comfort - as a feeling of inner-home. In 1980’s Kenya, and it was post offices which provided the link to my fascination with the outer world. Family trips to collect mail from our post office box in central Nairobi were a fond memory, as was eagerly queuing up at the post office to send letters to family and penpals overseas, written on the classic blue and red striped aerograms with pictures of native birds and flowers and adorned with beautiful stamps. Then there was the excitement of receiving a letter addressed with my name, opening it with anticipation of the latest news. This feeling has never really left me: each time I see a handwritten envelope in my letterbox, I know it’s going to make me smile.

As I sit here writing this, I see how the seasons of my life, from my childhood experiences of playing on the hot cracked red soil to falling in love with the British and Kenyan landscapes and flora, have paved the way to where I am now. How the magic of universal timing has brought me to interpret my purpose in a holistic and intuitive way of working, connected with my inner-home, immersed in the seasons of landscapes and plants - all of which ground and anchor my wholeness of what I can offer as a Kenyan-British-Indian artist printmaker.

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