Christina Poku is a 23-year-old “visual chaos creator” based in southeast London. Poku works in many media—including photography, video, text, and set and prop styling—and creates contemporary work that is powerful, confessional, and slightly tongue-in-cheek. We spoke recently about the impending irrelevance of labels, the stigmatization of mental health, and the difficulties of making work in the current political climate.
MINNA GILLIGAN: Hi, Christina! Where in London are you based? Is there anything about your location that you like or dislike?
CHRISTINA POKU: I’m in southeast London at the moment. I have a weird relationship with London. I’ve been here all my life but lived in more houses than years I’ve been alive…so I’ve lived in a lot of different areas of London. I love aspects of the city, but I also find it quite unsavory. It’s a weird melting pot of things I care deeply about, am inspired by and cherish, but also a capital of servitude and inequality. I specifically like my current area, though, because I can travel to other parts of London with ease. My actual neighborhood is really peaceful, green and quiet compared to every other place I’ve lived before. I live next to a beautiful woods and green space that also has a lake. It’s a nice escape from the business and stress of the rest of London. But my long-term goal is to move to the States.
When I first found your work, I was amazed at how all-encompassing it was—how you seemed to be in control of so many aspects of production. How would you define your art practice? Or maybe you don’t need or want a label at all?
In terms of a singular label, that’s definitely something I’ve struggled with in the past! I’ve always had a multidisciplinary practice. Even when I was in high school, I tried to pick up as many techniques, and work with as many different mediums, as I could. I just wanted to get stuck into everything to work out the most fitting way to express what was in my head. We’re living through a digital and technological revolution. The rate at which information is available to, and demanded from, us feels like it’s constantly increasing. I’m part of a generation of artists whose labor has to be diversified whilst the power of technology has enabled new capabilities. There’s a sense of pressure and looming awareness of the speed of this progression, which leads to people having to take on a multitude of roles, especially within a creative field. Learning and working with numerous mediums and processes allows me to feel able to communicate my ideas knowing that I have adaptable skills, regardless of the platform it is shown through.
Your Instagram bio has a line where you describe yourself as a “visual chaos creator” which, come to think of it, is maybe a perfect definition? Could you expand on what you mean by visual chaos creator?
That’s what I landed on the last time I was stuck trying to work out how the hell to explain what I do in one simple term for my bio. I guess it acts as a summary. We like to think we live in a structured civilization, but chaos still remains everywhere—there is a minimum level of cooperation to this organized chaos. My practice as a whole, as well as myself, is influenced by the chaos of civilization. With my work, once the basic components in terms of context are there, I often get an image of exactly how I want the final product to be. But that image I get at the start is never really secure. Even if it is what I’m aiming for, I’ll never make the exact replica. There’s a cycle of sorting, scavenging, planning, and testing that goes into anything I make. The “visual chaos creator” isn’t necessarily just about the result being chaos but about the process that occurs to get to that. The result is the controlled element brought about through chaos.
Did you study at art school? Did you find the environment to be supportive in regards to your contemporary way of producing work?
Yes, I went to art school. It wasn’t what I expected at all, but it definitely added to the way I produce my work. The school environment isn’t really for me, even though I’ve always done well academically. There are a lot of problematic aspects to institutional education systems. Especially when it comes to “support.” But in terms of how I produce my work: My rejection of aspects of the educational environment I found difficult conceived the process I now have.
Your works using text and LED lights are at once autobiographical, intimate, confessional, and slightly tongue-in-cheek. “Frantic efforts to avoid abandonment” and “I play no games” are particularly powerful. Could you talk more about how these works are conceived, and if it is an intrinsically personal process?
I’ve used the text LED lights over the last few years. I find them interesting to work with because they’re a simple piece of tech that also creates challenges. Using them means I’m limited by a word count in terms of a numerical figure, which means that I have to be very selective with the phrase I use. I use them with projects that are intended for open-ended interpretation or have multiple influences.
The most recent series I used them for, “No Heart Just a Hard Drive,” was developed initially in response to my own mental health at the time. Grace Miceli asked me to be part of a group show she was curating, and the title was “I Play No Games.” When I was starting out I thought I’d respond to the title of the show directly and take a frank and honest approach to whatever I produced. I was collecting little phrases and thoughts on my phone over the space of a week about my own life. I then added notions that came up about my thoughts on the digital art world, social media, and what was happening in reality, too. A lot of people were suffering but battling through it in their own ways. Sometimes with humor, sometimes in destructive ways. I believe that mental health is an important point of discussion. It’s common but highly stigmatized. Especially in recent times, socioeconomic and other environmental aspects that are out of everyday people’s control are leading to an increase of suffering, especially within my generation. The figures and reality of it is undeniable and something I strongly believe needs to be discussed and worked on. It’s relevant to my experience, but also millions of others. The “frantic efforts” quote is actually from a diagnostic criterion I was researching. The phrases I chose to use for the final pieces ended up being an amalgamation of my own thoughts and observations on what was happening around me—irl meets url.
In an interview, you said that, at the time, you were “fighting to work in an industry that more often than not said that everything I am, everything I represent isn’t ‘beautiful’ or ‘worthy.’ My height, my skin color, my features, my shape.” Are you still fighting these violent ideologies, or being burdened with the intrinsic responsibility to educate people in your industry on issues you deal with on a day-to-day basis?
My wealth of experiences in the last two years since saying that, as a subject of white patriarchal capitalism, [leads to] a lengthy answer to this…but in short: Yes, I still deal with those pressures, and yes I do, to an extent, have a responsibility to educate others, but also myself. It’s definitely difficult having to educate others, especially within an industry that at times is almost proud of being ignorant. I’ve definitely seen an increase in the visibility of marginalized groups, but that’s not done without tokenism. A lot of the time I’m seeing people I know get asked to be part of “cool” projects that are “great exposure” for them but offer no money for their contribution and participation. It’s especially disheartening when it’s brands and companies who are paying their non-marginalized counterparts for similar projects. But there’s definitely been a rise of people making their own safe spaces and platforms that represent themselves and others like them. I think that’s great.
You use yourself in your photographs and videos a lot. Do you see them as self-portraits that communicate your own narrative, or do you feel more like you’re dressing up or playing a character?
Where’s the distinction? There’s a performative aspect to existing, to being, to doing. I’m performing my life regardless of it being witnessed or captured. Everything we experiences is a narrative. It’s difficult to draw a real distinction. It’s a provocative subject; I could literally write an essay to really answer it. But in short, it’s both.
Your signature color palette is unapologetic and uncompromising. As a self-professed subscriber to the philosophy “more is more,” this is endlessly appealing! What is it about sickly sweet colors and fearless, retro patterns that makes sense to you in your own visual language?
Contrast has always been an important part of my work, even when I only used to take black and white photos. The use of color, which I’m most associated with now, was really borne out of one of my first films. I was working on a project that was exploring the boundaries between the abject and seductive, clarity and the obscured, repulsion and attraction. I was looking at the idea of consumption—in all forms, and how in the western world we’ve become desensitized to lines of these poles. It was about information overload and a contrast between the gross and the luxurious, consuming and rejecting, push and pull. It was accentuated through a further contrast of visuals that were on the surface bright and gleaming but the actual movements and context at times was disturbing and difficult to witness. That film was part of a project that spanned over two years. Principles of that have stuck with me and are resolute within my practice and beliefs. I think it’s important to always remember that there is contrast and balance; it can and does exist in the world, and using color is part of accentuating that. Sometimes it’s to illustrate a superficial veneer, sometimes it’s there to oppose a tragedy.
Color theory was really important to me at this time, not only in terms of color as a palette within art, but also the examination of color as a whole within the western world and the notion of color being purged throughout history. “Color is dangerous, or it is trivial, or it is both,” [as David Batchelor writes in his book Chromophobia].
Do you have a studio where you make your art? Could you describe it for me?
I work predominantly from my apartment. I have a studio set up there. I’m very lucky to have a beautiful, big space to work in that’s all mine. I’ve recently redecorated and now it’s pretty much my dream place, minus the confines of being in London. It’s a mix of stained glass windows, graphic monochrome print rugs, cushions and throws, and delicate natural patterns, depending on what room you’re in. It’s full of plants, light, and artwork by peers I admire.
What are your aims for your art practice and yourself in the future?
I’m focusing on a few long-term projects this year that I’m quite excited by. Without going into too much detail: One’s a simpler portrait-based project which is a study of a select group of people in relation to spaces I’ll make for them. The other is part of my ongoing “Multi-Sensory Menace” work, which is work that is tactile, immersive, interactive, and much more critical than my portraits. In the general future, there are a few collaborations with friends in other parts of the world I’m rooting for. But really, as long as I feel like I’m pushing myself and my work to be more adaptive and open, then I’ll be happy.
What are three words that describe your artwork?
Sensitizing, heterogeneous, polychromatic. ♦