A discussion with Robi Walters on a deeper level
I was introduced to Robi by a good friend; the same friend who’d be letting me tag along with him to numerous art shows and galleries. My first impression of Robi was not what I’d prepared myself for. He had an air about him that screamed positivity. He was not what I expected when I was told I was I being introduced to one of the most prolific artists in Soho; I guess I fell victim to the very stereotypes I’m trying to breakdown.
Soon after, I was introduced to Leanne, Robi’s business partner. Once again receiving an open arm and warm welcome. Only after speaking to Robi a couple of times did I realise that he and I shared a lot of the same opinions, and experiences. He shed light on on the issues within the mainstream art market, but also on wider issues within youth culture. I thoroughly enjoyed the discussions we shared about art, politics and current affairs, and I’m kind of hoping you all do too.
So here it is, my discussion with Robi Walters; on a deeper level.
So Robi, can you tell me how you got into Art?
Um… how did I get into art? I got into art… probably through childhood experiences, I loved just painting, drawing, making things. It used to just make time disappear, it wasn’t something that you felt like … was an effort, it felt like you were doing something that just made sense, I was of the age when, uh, it’s difficult for me to say this ‘cos I don’t really wanna be too connected to it, but it’s a really important part. I grew up at the age when there was hip hop, breakdancing, graffiti, BMXing was also a big thing, they all emerged at the same time, culturally huge… I was into the breakdancing and the music, and I was into the clothing, the b-boys all wore that kinda stuff, but the graffiti … something just sparked in me, seeing people paint on trains in New York, seeing people write on the walls, writing their tags. It felt like an urban language that adults didn’t really understand and it spoke to me, so I got into graffiti quite heavily, and then I got in trouble at school and I got in trouble with the police and my parents said “that’s it, you’re grounded, you gotta stop, you gotta find something else”, so my whole art thing got suppressed. Then I started to do graphic design from kinda late … teens, early twenties until I was about… Six years ago I really started to take art again seriously and then once it switched on, I stopped everything else and I just never really looked back.
How much of an influence does your early life or childhood play in your work?
I can’t separate my early life to the work that I’m making now, for example, the collage work that I’m working on now, it’s made with recycled material. I thought originally … I was doing something related to waste, which is a by-product of human behaviour, which is a by-product of humans being around, [i.e.] population, and I wanted to make something related to my meditation that included sacred geometry, [and] included making something that people wanted, out of something that people discarded. When I looked into it deeper after a couple years of making it, [what] I realised was that when I was younger I lived in children’s homes, with my grandparents and was fostered and then when you’re a child you don’t have the language to … explain what you’re going through … you just find it easy or difficult, sometimes you can’t say what it is. As an adult looking back, what I felt like, is that I was rejected a lot as a child and that created my character and personality [and a desire] to be liked and to be wanted, and the work that I make now has a direct relationship between things that are thrown away and me making them beautiful so that they’re now wanted again, and I think that that’s inseparable from my childhood.
So, J Cole, one of my favourite rappers said in his song Chris Tucker, “Only nigga up in first class, old lady tryna be friendly, ay she think I’m in the NBA, why a nigga can’t have his MBA? Next time I’m a flip the script, you know, kick some shit that’s gon’ shock her, “You so tall what team do u play for?” No bitch I’m a doctor”, Although he touches upon it on a playful manner, it’s an issue that is very serious – stereotypes… He talks about why because he’s in first class … is he [presumed to be] an NBA player? Why isn’t he a doctor? Why isn’t he a lawyer? Why isn’t he a politician? For what reasons do you think that there are those stereotypes and who do you think’s at fault for them?
There was … a comedian, [who] said that Chris Rock once said that why has he got to be one of the top comedians at the top of his game, but his next door neighbour is a normal dentist, but he’s white. And he’s like … in the community that he lives in, black people have to be at the top, but the white people that are living in that community, just can have almost ordinary jobs, but they’re earning the same amount of money [as their back neighbours]. Now … I think, in order to break this one down, I have to go in a neutral respect, and what I mean by that is, I think when you separate things into being black and white, I think you’ve already created the division. I think that when you say no, what you just read about … I think … that what I’m getting from that is, “stop putting me into this system because this is what I am and what I have”, and I think as soon as you allow yourself to be put into the system of being black, and whatever it is that you are within that system, other people can now put you in a box that is very difficult for you to get out of; so for example when I was saying that the person from the gallery said to me, “you don’t have this, this, this, this and this”: for me, those mental boxes, they don’t exist around me, so … I don’t have any of those, and I don’t see it being a problem that I don’t have any of those – I’m still gonna be successful. So if I look at people, [or] stereotypes that we’re looking up to within culture, within film, within music, within sport, I try to see them as the talent that they are, before I see the culture that they come from, because … I think once you start separating everything you really start to run into problems. The people [that do well], say for example when people are studying law, I think the people that do really well are not the people that memorise the law but work out how to find out how to answer the question when that question arises. So say for example if I want to learn, instead of me saying I can only learn from the black community, once I step outside of that I can learn from whoever I want, then that frees me from it being about being black or white or whatever, so now I can say right … if I want to learn about language I’ll go to someone like Noam Chomsky, who’s a linguist, but he’s white, but I don’t see him as white, I just see him as a linguist, now I can learn from him ‘cos I haven’t got this division or this barrier, … and [at] the same [time], if I want to look at sport, or say if I want to look at running I would like to look at Usain Bolt, whereas [although] … I know he’s from the Caribbean community, I know he’s all of these different things, but I wanna know “how does he think? How does his body work?” Like, before him being black, and I think that trying to find out what the person’s talent is, I think overrides, for me, what their culture is and there background is.
Why do you think there is such a lack of representation of ethnic minorities in the world of art, on both a creative and business level?
… When I think of people that are controlling certain parts of society and people that are successful in those certain parts of society, I think that there is a link between history, background and money, and I think that people that have grown up with families with money, people that have grown up with families that are running certain parts of society, and people that … haven’t got money or … family influence but have gone through, say, elite educational systems, I think the social conditioning of these people is superior to people who haven’t gone through or had these backgrounds. And I think that you can make it if you are poor, and you’re from a … single mother [family], and … you’re from a black family, I think you can make it, but I think that you’re swimming against the stream as opposed to the stream pushing you to the top, and I think it’s difficult for people that have these backgrounds, it’s a lot to do with the mind and the way the mind thinks, it’s not to do with “Are you able to do it?” I think that anyone is able to do the things that they really love to do, but I think that social conditioning keeps people where they are, I think that certain people, they break through, you know, say for example, in music right now, people like Skepta, people like that … even in America, certain people I think are breaking through and they don’t come from backgrounds that would be up there, … I still think that the people that really make the money in those worlds, are probably still not from [black or ethnic minority] background[s], … it’s difficult to breakthrough when you’re … from these backgrounds. I think the people that are at the top, they know how to control it and they lock it down
So, with events such as 1:54 and … the platform it gives to African artists, why d’you think opportunities like that are so essential to the growth of those communities?
Say for example, if you’re a young black child growing up in a council estate, in London, and all you see is a certain demographic being successful, it doesn’t give you much hope, it doesn’t give you much to aspire to, it doesn’t give you a sense of self-worth or a purpose. Now for the last few years … we’ve taken classes from a school that was failing (mostly ethnic minority kids, so there’s probably out of sixty kids, two white kids in those two classes) [and] when you take them into these environments they are buzzing! … I think that they need to see that they can be successful in other fields other than stacking shelves or being on benefits and when they see the, when they go and walk into these environments it’s so inspiring… and I’m just talking about young kids, even adults when they go in, you probably have adults that are in day to day jobs that they’re probably not enjoying and they see this and they’re like, I’ve always wanted to do that. And maybe they’ll go home and do something, maybe they’ll write something, paint something, watch something, create something, but just being inspired … I think that inspiration is a really important, almost invisible mechanism in society that we don’t place much importance on, and inspiring these groups of people, I think that fairs like this, I think it’s fundamental to have people from these backgrounds … exploring their work in a way that other people can see it. Sometimes I still think … it’s quite elite still because you have to pay; like, fortunately I can get these classes in for free, but if they did… like would they go if they… if they had to pay? I don’t know.
Do they have the money?
I don’t think so. I don’t think so. Like out of the sixty kids, we said “how many have been to a gallery?”, and you’re talking about three or four kids have ever been to a gallery before. I’m not saying [going to a] gallery is the answer to [problems in] society or to … like … pull people out of poverty, but I think that inspiring environments have a way of influencing people that you can’t measure, and it may come out [in] ten years, twenty years time.
You mentioned that as soon as we started to label things ‘black’ and ‘white’, it creates division and promotes separation as opposed to integration; however you’re participating in an event for artists of a certain background … how would you see that event promoting integration as opposed to separation?
So how I see that as an integration is, because we have an art fair called Freeze, predominantly white, predominantly people with money, predominantly, probably, male as well (the artists and the people selling the work in the galleries), for me to bring a more balanced equilibrium within this community is to almost go to its opposite before you come to the middle ground. So … the fair that I’m in involved with, is predominantly supporting, sharing and looking at artists that are from an African background or an African history, so there are artists that are coming from the Caribbean … but for me I think that you need to highlight and you need bring into balance and show it, instead of pointing the finger and saying “this systems wrong”, bring in what you want and now we can start bringing an integration, a conversation, a community, we can start to bring them together.
You mentioned taking school kids on tours to galleries previously – would you say that there is an issue, aside of ethnic minorities, but on a whole with youth, that art, is, I don’t know… it was never something that I grew up thinking was cool or a thing to get into, it was always something that [there] was never much emphasis placed on through my education, art was always something you could drop or do if you wanted to do it, it wasn’t a core subject like sciences or maths or English… would you say that there is an issue with the lack of precedence put on art as a subject or as a topic?
Absolutely. I’d say that comes from the top, so you’re talking about more government… funding, [more] importance placed on [art in] schools … I think the way that schools are graded they’re probably [graded more on] academic [subjects] and sport, not creative [subjects], so I think coming from the top there is very little importance in terms of making sure that there is a strong platform for children to be involved in creative activities … Creativity is a huge industry especially in the UK so if you take things like … the film industry [for example] … even down to the writing of the film before it’s made, that’s a creative exploration, writing. Then, you [have] the director, the cast, the acting, the sets, the makeup, the design of [costumes]… for me it’s a creative industry. We have films like Star Wars being made in the UK right now, we have the franchise of films like Harry Potter, that’s a multibillion pound [franchise] for the UK, just that one franchise. … Most of the most successful Rom-Coms are coming from this country, it’s not particularly my thing but that’s a big industry. Then you’ve got things like products, you got things like Dyson, huge, influential [companies], global[ly] influential … products, the most … influential product designs on the planet … I would say probably Apple, which is one of the biggest companies in the world … the head designer from Apple is an English person, an English person creating the most influential products of our generation, that’s coming from an English system. … Art [itself] is huge. At the top you’ve got artists that are becoming close to billionaires, they’re earning as much as the biggest bankers and hedge funds … They’re earning so much money but people don’t place emphasis on the creative [aspects] … to be honest I’m not even sure why. When you have a hedge fund, which is financially one of the biggest … I don’t even know what you’d call it, like a system or … a tool that you’re operating in … the person that comes up with the package to begin with, that’s a creative process – “I’m gonna add this, this, this, this, it’s never been done before, put it together, I’m gonna sell it to this demographic…”: that’s a creative venture. Coming up with that is creative but we don’t place importance on our creativity, and yet the UK is like, when it comes to music, when it comes to even science, law, all of these things… we are creators in these fields and the world looks to us, but we seem to not really place importance on it. I find it contradictory and I don’t understand why [it happens].
And in the face of this, what is it that drives you?
There’s a really important lesson I think in life which I don’t think many people that come from difficult backgrounds actually get to hear. I once watched a film called Chariots of Fire and there was Abraham and this other student [who] went to Cambridge, and at their freshers ball dinner, all the new students [are] having dinner in their cloaks … it’s a little [similar to], but not quite as crazy as Harry Potter … and then you’ve got all the professors, the teachers, and the dean at the head table, and the dean stands up and he does this speech, and he says something, similar [to, but] not quite the same as “You all have something special inside you, you need to find [it], you need to dig deep down and find out what that is, you need to let no man stand before you and you need to spread your wings and soar, and achieve what it is that you’re here to achieve.” When I heard him say that, I almost jumped off the chair and I was like “what?!” No-one at school has spoken to me [like that] … I was like “That’s crazy, that’s amazing… what is this?” I was always told that I would be this, that or the other, and they’re all things that I didn’t ever wanna do, so I think it’s really important. The message for people, especially young people, [is that] there is something inside you and there is something that you think may be a little bit crazy and you don’t really wanna share it with your friends, your family or the world, but you know what, even if you do it on the side, pursue it, like, get on with it, don’t let anything … stop you from doing it. You’re gonna have people that support you, you’re gonna have people that try to stop you and suppress you, you’re gonna have all of these things but you have to take the risk and you have to go for it. It may fail but what do you have to lose? Like, go for it, it’s so important to find that one thing that you really are here to do and just… go for it.
Words By Tayler Prince-Fraser
Edited and transcribed by Daniel Hawksworth
Photography by Milo Black