Durban multi-media artist Fiona Kirkwood has been in the limelight with three major exhibitions around the world ‒ in Miami, Poland and Stellenbosch.
The Independent on Saturday caught up with her in her Glenwood home.
Kirkwood’s latest installation, Stay Home, Stay Safe (2022), was part of the International Biennial of Contemporary Textile Art at Miami.
“Miami was a really big show in World Textile Art,” Kirkwood says. “It’s been running for 25 years and this is the third occasion I’ve been invited to exhibit ‒ in Buenos Aires in 2008, and Montevideo 2017. My first work was Survival based on HIV/Aids, and second one Inceptions which was all about seed banks and the beginnings of life. It was all based on the forest mahogany tree growing in our street, on the seeds collected from that tree,” she says.
Survival was one of Kirkwood’s first projects in which she made a film to go with the work. “It was of me setting up the installation made from thousands of male and female condoms in the Workshop shopping centre and the public interaction around it,” she says.
Stay Home, Stay Safe was conceived out of the pandemic. “At that time I couldn’t even go out. I thought I’ve got to do something. I had this roll of fabric in my studio I’d never used, then I found the safety pins and started experimenting with them. Every time I needed more safety pins I had to ask people who were going to the shops to buy some more. It’s 3m long by 1.7m wide so it took quite an effort.
“The face masks I obtained from the Warwick Ave market, brought to me by one of our street guards. I simply described what I was looking for. The little Ndebele coasters I found some years ago, and incorporated those as they looked a lot like the Covid virus. The backdrop on the wall is a design based on images of a patchwork I made,” she says. “It was all based on hard physical work.”
Now the film for Stay Home, Stay Safe, has just been selected to be shown on Quo Vadis?, the Seventh International Riga Textile and Fibre Art Triennial opening in June.
Kirkwood was born in Scotland, but her mother had South African roots dating back to the 1820s. She has been creating art from a very young age.
“When I was seven growing up in Kilmarnock, I would gather up all kinds of scrap material ‒ cardboard, tin cans, shoe boxes, egg boxes, anything I could find. I would go into a room all by myself and would either draw something, or paint something, or construct something. Later I would take it into the lounge and say ‘Mom and Dad, what do you think of this?’”
It saddens her that her mom, growing up in Queenstown, was a budding artist, yet the nuns at the convent school told her she was not confident enough to be an artist. “My father couldn’t draw a straight line,” she says.
“But mom encouraged me, as did my primary school teacher and although I was largely self taught, I was accepted into the (prestigious) Glasgow School of Art. It was like my ‘God school’, a very special art school.”
Never one to be conventional, after graduating, Kirkwood went to Edinburgh and taught children on probation with the police. “It was a huge experience. It was exhausting, but I loved the way being creative helped those kids.”
Then she decided to come to South Africa for a few months ‒ and stayed. “I had been out here when I was 7 on the boat from Southampton. I travelled around and stayed with relatives. And this time, a friend who saw what I was doing with fibre and textiles took me to old Natal Technikon. They offered me work part time in fine arts and textile design. I decided to stay for a year, and never went back,” she says.
The second exhibition Kirkwood has running is with the Diversity Fibre Art Group Exhibition at the Rupert Museum in Stellenbosch. Her installation “Simunye ‒ We Are One” (2014) is being shown for the first time in South Africa.
Simunye consists of two massive garments hung 3m from top of the ceiling to the base. “It’s about neighbours ‒ a neighbour and I who lived together in the same street during and after apartheid. I watched this little girl Nokwanda, who waved at me and called my name growing up, turn into this beautiful woman ‒ and was happy to be part of it,” she says.
Her other exhibition is her film on the installation Rain which was shown in Beijing in 2021 and won a silver award. It’s currently touring the Visegrad countries ‒ Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia.
“I decided to make a film about the installation. The clouds are made out of fishing line and then I constructed this background out of fabrics. It’s almost like a stage set and I wanted the whole effect to look realistic as if it was real rain falling with me walking in the rain with an umbrella. I had written my feelings on rain, or the lack of it, or then the extremes of it ‒ from flooding to drought.
“At the opening in Bratislava, I was asked to be online. All of a sudden I heard my name mentioned and had won this Visegrad award.”
What does the future hold?
“I’ve shown in a lot of countries now, and am always trying to find a new one. I am excited at what has happened to my work over the years. I have a few ideas that have been floating about for a wee while,” she says.
“I’m also a sucker for punishment. I start a work and think, no this isn’t enough, and push myself further, adding more and more and more to the work. Sometimes it can take years. But I don’t give up easily and won’t let go until I get it right.”
View Kirkwood’s beautiful art installations at www.fionakirkwood.co.za.
The Independent on Saturday