Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Q: You’ve made it clear in other interviews that being from South Africa has had a significant
influence on your art. In what ways has that informed your art, either stylistically, or the meaning you assign to it?
Keya Tama: A lot of my work now talks about bridging the world, emotionally and spiritually, and South Africa formed a starting point for that. But now, it's about the world as a whole. I think because South Africa is so fundamentally multicultural, and this contrast of ideas and feelings is the source of a lot of what I do. I'm always trying to bridge a gap between the ephemeral that’s been lost in the modern world. The closeness of the cultural values in South Africa makes me look at the world as a large family and I try to make work that can invite communication. Through exploring archetypes that exist across all of the world, I’m trying to make a new language to bridge gaps.
Q: A lot of your work has the tendency to be minimalist—and you’ve called your work Ancient Contemporary Minimalism. What exactly does that mean to you and why did you choose this stylistic approach?
Keya: Ancient to me is a more of a blanket statement, it's not necessarily ancient cultures. It’s more about humanities’ collective ancestry. Especially since I started painting a lot of neglected spaces—over time, it occurred to me more and more how beautiful a lot of these lost environments are, the echoes of history within them. There's a gentleness to these untold stories. In a way it is an answer to advertising—having a more subtle color palette and using more simplified archetypes that are interpretable in multiple ways—depending on where it's painted. Ancient for me is the lost memories and thoughts of more subtle moments in time. Trying to be very present, but also inspire people by these tiny intricacies that led to them existing. The subtlety is what I love about folk art or even old advertising that no longer registers as exciting to modern eyes.
There's something so beautiful about subtlety. There are many handmade crafts that are
disappearing. I’m trying to give more importance to decorative design as a high art. Craft is fine art to me in a lot of ways.
Q: Some of your iconography features animals (tigers, monkeys, apes, alligators)—how do these animals fit into the symbolism of your work?
Keya: I've always had a strong connection with animals coming from South Africa. But when
COVID hit, I spent a lot of time meditating about art that I purely enjoyed making. So, I started a project where I wanted to draw every single animal and research facts about them that link them together. The first thing I'd look up for every animal was how long they sleep for, because everybody sleeps. It's something we think about a lot—with health and identities and how hard you work or whatever it is. It's a good drawing point and from there I looked up very surreal facts about animals. They're so different from us, but then they have very human qualities too.
Those drawings elicited a response—from myself—I didn't expect. Now it’s different, when I
look at photos of animals, I see them and really feel a connection that was deeper than before. I think that’s really missing for a lot of people. And aside from the spiritual symbolism behind every animal, which is really dense, just learning about them in a very simple way was really inspiring. It’s so meaningful because there’s this dense history of knowledge and every part of the world relates to animals and through that, we can learn about ourselves better.
Q: You’ve done illustrations, released a graphic novel when you were 12, and done other
animated work, so you have a clear background in storytelling. Would you say there is a
narrative-like meaning to your work? Or do you see your artwork as being similar to storytelling in some way?
Keya: I always try to consider an overarching theme that I repeat. But specifically for murals, in my ideal situation, I'd be there for a day or two and absorb the environment and then be inspired. I was in Italy recently for the Civita festival, which had murals going on, and I couldn't get started that quickly. So, I went around and asked everyone for Italian sayings that they thought summed up a positive message in that town. I learned about the rich history of tales and how females have a really pivotal role in that society. All these things together, hung in on my own relationship with my grandmother and my family. And then there were these sayings about “every wall is a door” and “every time you close the door, another door is open”. So, throughout the festival my murals all have a narrative about love and overcoming and the perseverance of humanity. But at the same time, I do prefer to have more ambiguity because I think what I love about iconography and symbolism is that I can make something that's visceral and experimental.
Q: Why is ambiguity important to you?
Keya: Ultimately, when you look at art, it's speaking to your heart. The emotional connection comes first, and the analytical side of your mind provides a useful and meaningful context to build on, but unless you have that emotional level, I don’t feel that it is doing what true art should do. The true reason art exists isn’t because we can analyze it, it’s because we love it. Leaving room for ambiguity can let it be personal to every individual. I don’t want to create signs; I want to make symbols of a much deeper thing.
Q: There have been some huge murals that you’ve done, the biggest one I saw looked to be
around nine floors. How do you plan something like that out? Are there any logistical issues that you face with a piece that big?
Keya: There is so much math. I was lucky for that one because there were grids on the walls so I could use those for reference. For that design I used gridded dots to make it. It’s all geometric so I had to multiply that by the same ratio of the wall, and it all worked as long as I made no mistakes. Between me and my assistant we were able to do it. But yeah, being in the sun and trying to do math like that on a really tall lift is a nightmare. That was the first time I'd ever painted that big. I’m really glad it worked out. At the end of the day, it wasn't that impossible. There was lightning every now and again while we were up there, and it feels pretty scary every time the wind blows, because it’s all shaky.
Q: Your parents are both notable artists as well. Your mother, Faith XLVII, collaborated with
Hennessey recently and came out with a signature bottle. What is one of the most inspiring or impressive things that you’ve seen your mother do as an artist?
Keya: That's an incredibly hard question, because it has always been so inspiring to watch her evolve and say something and then do it. She has given me a lot of strength to believe in myself and see what is possible. What has been the most inspiring has been her transition into doing more conceptual fine art installation pieces. She had this vision for so long, but maybe the most impressive was a hologram that she did in Sweden a while back. To see her pivot to something like that, that she wanted to do and get it right the first time made me feel like there are no limits.
Q: Was there a moment you realized that your mom was a big, notable artist? Is there any event you remember from childhood where you had that realization?
Keya: I know exactly when it was: I was studying in high school and then I saw her in the textbook, and I was like, “oh shit.” She’s in the curriculum for high school kids all across South Africa.
Q: Anything big coming up? What are you working on now?
Keya: Elléna Lourens and I have a duo exhibition coming up August 13th with subliminal projects in Los Angeles.