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Mabintou Badjie Wikstrom

Interview with the recipient of the October edition of MyMA Artist Grant, Mabintou Badjie Wikstrom.

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Can you share more about your background and how it has influenced your art?

I was born in Gothenburg, Sweden, 1990. I grew up as the only black person in what might have been perceived as a quite stable and secure situation. I feel it was very chaotic. My mother, her then-partner, me and my older brother moved to the countryside in 1995. The same year we had this big snowstorm in Sweden. I missed my Baba a lot. 1995 was also the year my name was changed from Mabintou Badjie to Maria Wikström. Wikström is my mother’s maiden name. I would say there was a lot of hurt in the first years of my life but also a lot of love. My mother has never failed to express her love for me, she’s a very touchy and affirming person. Baba is a very loving, warm and calm person. People appreciate his energy. The last time I saw him he was telling me about growing up in Gambia. He cracks me up. A blessing through chaos was my older brother. I love him; he is the one who taught me to turn to imagination.

I moved around a lot from the age of fifteen when I left my mother’s house until...well I still move. I was in Edinburgh for four years. I studied Social Care and worked as a barista, started a BA in international politics at Stirling University but ended up moving back to Sweden after a year. I became a big sister and I now have four younger siblings on my baba’s side. I love them deeply. They're often featured in my paintings. They are the greatest source of inspiration.

So, when I found myself painting again I wanted to give space to whatever needed to be processed.

The joy felt when back in the Gambia is special. I love that place so much. There, I can truly rest. The rest you get in Gambia is different and it is truly a wonderful experience every single time. It’s home in every step.

What motivated you to start exploring your personal lineage through art?

I brought all these photos with me when I moved to London, and in that selection of photos, I found one of my dad. He was chilling on the floor of a living room. It must have been in the house that they lived in when I was born. He was lying on a mattress, with one arm leaning on some kind of furniture. He was stirring a cup of tea that was placed in front of him on a tray that also held a few sandwiches. Behind him there was a sofa and in the corner and a Christmas tree. My dad doesn’t celebrate Christmas. I realized then that even though I had stared at that photo many times, there was so much I didn’t know or remember about my dad. My whole childhood is fragments. Looking back, I never really enjoyed being a child. I almost feel as if I lost him.

Finding Baba again and in this photo, I could link it to memories of nights spent at home with my family in Gambia, where my toma (namesake) would lay out all these mattresses on the living room floor and we’d all lay down and watch TV. I got a piece of him, he brought something with him from home. Coming to that realization triggered a need for more.

What’s your artistic process like? How do you start a painting?

It’s different each time. Sometimes an idea is born through a photo, a thought, or even lyrics. There are no limits to what inspires me. As a daydreamer, I find solutions and ideas through imagination. But something that truly inspires me is a connection to others, may it be a cat or a person.

Physically, I stretch the canvas and move to prime it. Once the canvas is primed and ready I start painting. I never sketch or draw on it. I tend not to plan. The composition usually just happens, just like the motifs. They come to me. But it’s truly how it goes!

The crocodile motif appears consistently throughout your work. Can you tell us a little bit about the crocodile and what it represents?

My love, the crocodile! Symbolically the crocodile represents ancient knowledge. It’s the protector of knowledge. In Gambia, we have a crocodile pool, not far from my family compound. Every time I have visited, I have been asked to go and greet the crocodiles as it is said to be an action that will bring blessings. It’s linked to fertility, and if you’re struggling to conceive you can go there for a ritual bath which is believed to have a positive effect. If I remember the story right, this man left his crocodiles there and promised that if they were well looked after they wouldn’t harm anyone. You can even pet them. I’m obsessed with them, but not as obsessed with the act of petting them.

In your statement you talk about tarot and mysticism playing a large role in your work. How did you first become drawn to these topics, and how do they manifest in your art?

When it comes to tarot it was probably the influence of my godmother and her niece, the latter being one of my best friends. Those witches dragged me into this! Jokes aside, they’ve both taught me a lot about my ability to seek solutions. My mother is Christian and my father is Muslim, and although I take pride in my Gambian heritage and culture in which we follow a patrilineal system, this topic has always been very complex for me. I was always free to practice and explore what was for me and even though I love and feel connected to Islam I can’t help but be drawn to what came before that, the traditions and rituals of my tribe, the Jola tribe.

I think really, I’m always super eager to know. Whether it’s knowing why I feel a certain way or why I am the way I am. Complex and cute, funny but so serious and emotional.

These topics manifest through animals, colors and objects. The fish in one of my latest pieces is taken from a tarot card. Fish plus house might mean something and that might be seen as a form of prayer or manifestation, or me processing and investigating parts of myself to understand certain desires and wants.

The use of the color pink is a dominant color in your pallet. Can you tell us more about what draws you to certain colors and what they might represent to you?

The color pink is so special to me. I believe my interest in colors got more intense through this medium I used to visit after being diagnosed with PTSD. Her way of talking about colors and pink in particular probably opened something in me. I believe colors have qualities and symbolic meanings. Pink for me is the color of unconditional love and therefore sometimes my figures should be surrounded by pink. Whilst I’ve probably always had a special relationship to colors it has grown to become more free. As a child I spoke of myself as green, I’ve not analyzed that but I know that I saw my favorite nursery teacher as being green too. Blue is a new favorite, it’s calm, hopeful and wise but also exciting and a bit unpredictable like the ocean. It’s all about feeling. I don’t keep to rules when it comes to colors either and I think I’m totally okay with that now.

Do you have any studio rituals in your artistic practice?

I think this is a bit like my creative process and perhaps also my music taste, it differs. I’m against rules, I don’t like to force things in the studio. I come in, and if I wanna get a coffee I do. At the moment I’m painting in an office at the ICA and it’s a very warm space, both in color and temperature which I love. The most important thing for me is to feel like I can shut most things out. Sometimes I lay down on the floor and meditate, sometimes I stretch. If I need to read I’ll read and if I feel like writing I’ll do so. But in general it takes an hour or so before I’ve got a paintbrush in my hand. Perhaps that is the ritual? Doing different things for an hour and then painting?

What do you listen to in the studio? (If anything!)

I always listen to something, I had a period of only listening to podcasts but these days it’s usually music. My taste is very diverse and depends on my mood. Everything from Three 6 Mafia, La Chat, and Project Pat to West African tunes by Youssou N’dour, Thione Seck, Guelewar and Ifang Bondi. Lately, I’ve listened to Theravada and Andre 3000 it’s been pretty calming but please throw in some house, Kate Bush or Red Hot Chilli Peppers! Love all of that!

What do you like to do outside of the studio?

My interests are as varied as my music taste, the other day I went ice skating with a dear friend, I had forgotten how fun that is. I like nature and trees, and is probably quite simple in my pleasures. I like to enjoy a coffee in the sun, I love to bake and believe it or not lift weights although I fall out of routine quite often. I love to experience art, in all forms and it’s something I don’t do enough. Oh, a sauna session is always appreciated. I have this tradition with one of my best mates when I visit Gothenburg (my hometown) she’ll always book a sauna for us. The last time her dog joined us, I was shook.

What’s the best advice you’ve received thus far?

"What is meant for you will never pass you"