Artist Mani Kambo sitting in front of a wall of pens, scissors and other implements. She is wearing a stripy top and has dark hair which is worn back.

Dialogue: Mani Kambo

Mani Kambo is a multidisciplinary artist based in Newcastle upon Tyne. She explores the inner spirit by drawing on her own personal totemic symbols, influenced by her upbringing in a Sikh household filled with superstition, prayer and religious ceremony. We discuss symbolism and Magic Eye books with Mani — and why there’s no need to move to London.

ANNE: Your practice is heavily invested in symbols and symbolism, from self-contained icons or pictograms which seem to be communicating a message, to interlocking patterns which use symbols as part of a larger structure. There are recurring motifs – hands, snakes – and those with recognisable histories, like the Celtic triskele three-spiral design. Could you say something about how and why you started working with symbols, and about the systems they reference?

Mani Kambo: I find symbols an easier way to share a feeling or idea that language and words can’t always express. I started to work with symbols as I was drawn to how an image or mark can express a lot: symbols can be universal but also hold a secret or personal meaning.

Some of the symbols I use have a more universal meaning, such as the eye or hand, but for me, they stand for something that’s a reflection of myself. The hand I use is for the mother – the protector – and the eye to ward off and reflect back; to look to new horizons. These are symbols that also relate to my upbringing: the eye could also be seen as nazar (‘evil eye’) which someone may place upon you with intent or without; and the hand is probably one of the most powerful symbols. We use our hands to create and protect, and enable action and reaction.

In terms of the recurring motifs, I’m interested in ideas around cycles, energy and transformation. The power of repetition through imagery, words or actions creates energy you can feel. I started by using symbols around me that I recognised and understood or felt a connection with, but over time have moved away and created my own versions, specific to me.

ANNE: It’s interesting that you see repetition in this way. Your symbols speak of belief, but also of the alchemical or syncretic more generally; also the occult. Does this emerge from or point to organised religion, or are you questing for something more universal — a pagan cosmology? An elemental language all of your own? 

MK: I’m looking at a more universal cosmology, and creating my own language from my experience of the world around me. I wouldn’t say I was religious but spiritual. The idea of balance and energy and alchemy: who we are, where we are and what we do. We are connected to this earth and those who have been and are still to be.

The creation of the symbols have grown over time, like a lexicon, and even via the cyanotype method itself. That process is alchemic at all stages, from the sunlight that first embeds the image, to washing it in water, like a purifier, to reveal the final image; then left to dry. Similar to the motion of the sewing machine, in and out, each stitch like a meditation, repeating the same action time and time again, but it isn’t until this action is multiplied many times that something is created.

ANNE: Working with a particular process, and that process then influencing the meaning of the work, has a nice circularity about it. What about messages in your work? It feels very much as though your banner works, in particular, want to tell us something! For you, is it about communicating a message, or something about a particular context or place — or even about encoding secrets, perhaps? Or neither?

MK: The banner works, for me, were a way for me to express and almost unlock ideas through the symbols used, connecting to a particular space and time. These were created during lockdown as I was thinking a lot about locations; about home, the landscape and our place within it. About clans and tribes and making our mark, or leaving our legacy.

One of the banners, MK Crest, is actually my own mini-banner. The others alongside have different messages that are open to interpretation, reading from the top down or vice versa. I don’t want to prescribe a specific meaning to the pieces but enjoy that everyone takes or reads something slightly different into them. Overall people find something similar in them, though. Although they’re often in two tones, the images try to reach beyond the binary of  black and white, light and dark, good and evil.

ANNE: You were very busy last year! Alongside opening a major group show, Hinterlands, at Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, you contributed to the exhibition Swimmers Limb at Somerset House, alongside Tai Shani and design studio Comuzi Lab. It feels as though there’s a distinct overlap between your work and Shani’s, in particular. What was the experience of being part of that show like?

MK: It was such an amazing experience being in London at Somerset House. The team there is so supportive, and its openness to this commision and its final outcome was so free-flowing.

Speaking with the curator, Taylor LeMelle, we found a synergy between mine and Tai Shani’s work. The idea of overlaying work and creating a wallpaper was a brand new experience, and an experiment in itself. The final work took inspiration from Shani’s work through colours and shapes, knowing the pieces that would sit upon the wallpaper I wanted a way they could fit together but stand alone.

It was great to visit Shani’s studio and have a chat about my thoughts for the wallpaper, how her work would sit on top of it, and see the pieces in person. It felt like a real push in my practice in scale and production but also moving a little out of my comfort zone, with colour in print. My moving image work used a lot of colour, but I’ve tended to strip back my print and textile pieces. Creating the piece for Swimmers Limb has given me an itch to want to work at a much bigger scale and really take on a full space.

ANNE: Your work in that show also seemed like something of a departure as it expanded beyond the frame: instead of a singular or containable artwork, you produced an arresting Magic Eye-like wallpaper design. Was this more installation-specific, room-sized work a one-off for the context of that show, or something you intend to develop more in future as well?

MK: It was created specifically for the show as an installation; a site-specific piece one-off, but after completing and seeing the final work installed it is definitely something I want to develop further in the future.

I had never made wallpaper before but it seemed the right fit for the space and context of the exhibition. I found it lent itself well to my practice through the repetition of imagery and colour but also its scale, like my earlier projection works: it felt like it was absorbed into the walls, almost, and the viewer was surrounded by the artwork: an all-encompassing space which makes you feel a certain way. This is an experience I’m interested in expanding on further.

I loved those Magic Eye books as a child, and I’ve been interested in the idea of the fourth wall in cinema and TV — the idea of escaping a space or reality and entering a new one. I think about realms and portals: how do we see or think beyond what we have in front of us? How can we connect beyond fact and solid matter?

ANNE: You touched on your use of colour when talking about the Swimmer’s Limb show. When I think of your work, I tend to picture it as monochrome, as you’d often worked in single colours in the past — but in more recent work, colour has crept in more. Is this a conscious shift – and if so, is it process-based – around mastering particular techniques or moving to new ones?

MK: I think I’ve worked a lot in monochrome as I find it helps the work sit in harmony, and creates a sense of balance. This also draws focus specifically to the imagery and what’s in front of you rather than being distracted by multiple colours, which can attach their own meanings to the work. I’ve started to expand further into colour as this is something I’ve always been drawn to, but have usually found that using images in their simplest form has helped me think through how they relate to me and why I use them.

Having said this, I’m looking to work on more colourful artworks, particularly in textiles, as I feel drawn by a natural shift to push forwards beyond the monochrome. Colour has such a powerful effect. I’ve enjoyed using it in small doses to almost highlight elements and since creating the wallpaper it’s given me a real confidence in going back to colour.

ANNE: You grew up in Newcastle and have stayed here after studying, and developed a successful practice. What were the ingredients, for you, that meant it made sense to stay, and what does the city make possible for you as an artist?

MK: Yes, I grew up in Newcastle and stayed here to study and continue my arts practice. You could say I’m a home bird. My roots are here in Newcastle, and while I enjoy being able to travel and experience cities, visit exhibitions and connect with the wider art world, it doesn’t mean I have to live in London.

I didn’t have the most conventional studies, taking first a year-long Foundation Diploma and then a two-year Foundation Degree at Newcastle College, followed by a ‘top-up’ final year BA Hons Fine Art at Northumbria University. It didn’t really make sense to leave after studying here. I was lucky after graduating to have access to a studio space at Northumbria University for an extra year which gave me a bit of a buffer to figure out what being an artist actually is, and had people around who supported me and who I could work with while navigating opportunities and being pointed in the right direction.

Becoming an artist involved a lot of googling to apply for opportunities, followed by rejections, but it’s almost the endurance of continued making and knowing why I’m making that has helped me sustain my practice. Although a particular opportunity might look great, it’s about wondering how it aligns with where you’re at. Sometimes you don’t get it the first time, but the second time you do. It shouldn’t be about trying to make yourself fit the organisation’s box: if it’s right it should feel natural.

Over the years I’ve met some amazing creatives in the North East who just clicked and aligned with me, so it felt right to stay and I had never really fancied leaving Newcastle. I enjoy going away for periods of time but then it’s so good to come back and have this space to breathe, being surrounded by Northumberland’s greenness.

ANNE: That’s good to hear: it’s people that make a place — and the greenness doesn’t hurt either! Finally, what are you working on at the moment, and what’s next for you?

MK: I’m currently testing some ideas out for a new textile piece which will incorporate colour elements. I’m also in an experimental stage of getting back into moving image and animation so I’m having a play around and learning a few more skills in this area. I’ve also been thinking about ways in which textiles and moving image could sit together.

Alongside this, I’m working on a solo show at Baltic in 2024. I’m also preparing work for the reopening of the Faith Museum in Bishop Auckland later in 2023.

ANNE: It sounds like it’s going to be another couple of busy years! Thank you very much for talking with us, Mani, and good luck for your upcoming shows. 

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About the contributor

Textile, fabric dyeing and printmaking is rooted in Mani Kambo‘s (b. 1992, Newcastle upon Tyne) family history within the caste system. She focuses on objects, routines and rituals distilled both from the everyday and mythology, her work recording movement and documenting performative actions: the hand that creates, fire that reveals, water which purifies and eyes that perceive. Through layering and editing images together she collages narratives and weaves dreamscapes. These visuals are repeated throughout her work like markers linking to notions of spirituality and belief in reincarnation.

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