Born in Nairobi, Kenya in 1982 to Swedish and Kenyan parents, Catherine Anyango Grünewald is a widely acclaimed and internationally exhibited artist and lecturer. In 2010, her graphic novel adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was published to critical acclaim and has been translated into eight languages. Her own upcoming graphic novel 2×2 explores the physical effects of guilt and corruption. Catherine’s drawing work uses the materiality of drawing tools to explore meaning, exploring the physical properties of pencil and eraser not only to render events with realism but also to explore unseen dimensions. Her drawings tackle the historical and contemporary systemic oppression of characters who have been marginalised and underrepresented. The process and labour invested in the work is a direct homage to the subjects, victims of violent domestic or institutional crimes. In 2019, she was awarded the Navigator Art on Paper Prize, the largest award for work on paper in the world.

Catherine and I grew up together here in Nairobi, and on a fleeting trip to Nairobi, I managed to nab her for a quick catch up on what she’s been up to and where she’s going next.

N. Throughout your creative process, are you aware of your Kenyan identity? Or might it just be a matter of fact (you’re an international artist who just happens to be Kenyan)?

C. My Kenyan identity is always present — perhaps not always explicitly in my work but in the way my upbringing has shaped the way I see the world. For example, my last graphic novel Scandorama, while set in Scandinavia, was a way for me to try to express my feelings on social inequality that I have observed all my life. All over the world, there are glittering cities populated with people living in extreme poverty, something which I notice not only in somewhere like Kenya, but also with horrible sharpness in places Stockholm or New York. So my Kenyan identity manifests in the sense that I’m always thinking of the gap between the way different people live.

The visual culture [in Kenya] is very rich and at the same time very practical — images are used commercially, yet you can tell real artists are behind them. I love the fact that advertising is usually painted straight onto concrete. I love all the painted matatus. I think growing up in a country where there is a lot of creative use of materials was a big inspiration to use things that aren’t necessarily “art” materials. Materiality is almost the most important thing in my current work. I am interested in how you can exploit the meaning of different materials. For example, I do a lot of work with soap because it ages and cracks like the body, and it is related to women’s work and domesticity.

N. As an artist with a mix of heritages — and cultural influences — how have managed you to navigate and interrogate the nuances present in the themes explored through your art?

C. I find that as an artist with mixed heritage, I am quite automatically granted access to many spaces, both white and black spaces. As a black artist, I am granted access to the subject matter that I have been exploring: the existence of the black body in the world. But as a highly educated, partly white artist, I’m also given a lot of space by white institutions that embrace my work because, in my opinion, it makes it easier for them to deal with difficult subjects. But all our phrasing — “race relations,” “racial chasm,” “racial justice,” “racial profiling,” “white privilege,” even “white supremacy” — serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.

This is why I make the work that I do, to make it difficult to turn away from the realities of those bodies.

The future of visual storytelling is as much the creation of platforms or frameworks for stories as it is the creation of the narratives themselves.

N. What pockets, artistically, do you feel need to be explored right now?

C. The more I make work “about” certain people, the more I start to think that the real way to effect change in society is not to represent people but to develop tools to allow people to represent themselves.

Art always aims to communicate with society, but how can artists enable society to communicate better with itself? The future of visual storytelling is as much the creation of platforms or frameworks for stories as it is the creation of the narratives themselves.

Gaming and virtual reality are great potential arenas for art that is both experienced and observed. The user engages with material because of the difference in time spent with content and the physical immersion of the user. So artists can explore complex and current social and emotional issues by placing the user in a story not as an observer but as a participant.

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N. Some may claim that art reflects society, whereas others contend that it’s the other way around — society is a reflection of art. What’s your position within this discourse, and why?

C. I think that both statements are true because making art is a process of selecting events from a time and elevating them, making sure they remain in our memory. In this way it is a reflection of society — but inaccurate, because the things that are chosen to be preserved can never describe a whole society. And on the flip side, society becomes a reflection of art, because the parts of the past we choose to remember, and how we remember them, affects the future.

N. What upcoming projects do you have for 2020?

C. At the moment I’m working on a graphic novel adaptation of Dead Man Walking with Sister Helen Prejean and Rose Vines. It will be published by Random House in 2021. The graphic novel will be a retelling of the New York Times bestseller Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States by Sister Helen Prejean, a book that ignited the conversation about the death penalty in the USA and how deeply flawed the legal practices surrounding it are.


Catherine is a working artist and Senior Lecturer in Illustration at Konstfack University of Arts, Crafts and Design in Stockholm.
IG | @catherineanyangogrunewald