“Legacy is created through impact”
14 Sep 2023
Ahead of the London Design Festival, and his upcoming talk with Levi Naidu-Mitchell on collaborative and creative commissioning processes for the public realm, we took a trip to South London to visit the home of artist Koby Martin. On a sunny morning in his garden, Koby spoke to us about art provoking cultural change, nostalgia, his breakthrough moment in the music industry and why recognition for any artist's work is more important today than ever before.
AH: Hi Koby, you're soon to speak at the iconic and globally renowned London Design Festival. There was a period of time where you weren't doing shows. You were simply working on your art. And now, it feels like you are popping up everywhere. So, what has made you want to take part at the London Design Festival, why is it so significant?
Koby: I think it’s pivotal that every creative is recognised for what they do. So, for an event like this to be celebrated in recognition of creatives through whatever platform and art form they express themselves in is great. Then also connecting with other creatives…it opens the door for collaborations, narratives and conversations to be explored as well. So that's what I'm looking forward to most.
AH: And what have you been working on in the run-up to this event?
Koby: I’ve been working on my visual language and technique in regards to my work, pushing the boundaries of my conversations within the paintings, because my work is usually about migration and family, nostalgia and memory...
Inclusivity has been on my mind, it's important. So for example, with migration, I was born in Ghana, I moved to the United Kingdom by myself when I was 19. So I talk about the juxtaposition of the Western world and African culture being merged together. But it doesn't end there. Recently my work has gone into the realms of refugees leaving their homes across the Mediterranean and dying in the sea whilst going on this deadly voyage to seek greener pastures. Although I didn't come through those means, it's important to shed light on…
AH: Is that your main focus right now?
Koby: Not entirely. I have a body of work which explores the sexual, political, and religious side of the LGBT community in Ghana. Because they are yet to pass a law to make it a crime to practise it. I think for me, being born in Ghana and grown in Ghana, I have every right to explore whatever is going on in my country, and I think that's one of the important things in terms of pushing myself out of my comfort zone and shedding light on what's happening there. As much as I'm doing that, I'm also educating people through the culture of Dipo.
AH: Explain Dipo?
Koby: Dipo is basically the initiation rites for women. But within this idea, I have switched the subjects from women to men in the painting. So by doing that, I'm not only shedding light on what's happening in Ghana, but I'm educating people about my culture.
But the paintings are still in development…As to whether it will come out now, I do not know. Most of my paintings have not been out since 2017/18. I have works that haven't been shown at all. So it's just constantly pushing myself, developing my technique, my visual language. And that's another reason why the Design Festival is important - to celebrate these conversations.
AH: And what other projects are you taking part in currently?
I have a group exhibition coming up at the Mall Gallery called ‘ING Discerning Eye Exhibition”, from November 16th-26th.
AH: Added to the diary!
If we were to look back at the past few years, COVID, George Floyd, so much has happened. And suddenly, the world is open again, and you're able to speak at these events which you love doing once more. Do you think you've changed as a person - an artist - since 2019 to now?
Koby: As an individual, it made me realise I was very resilient but challenges are meant to make you better.
AH: You mention memory a lot in conversations surrounding your paintings. Your Ghanaian history and your British history…How has this played out in your work?
Koby: I always say that Ghana has my heart, but London's taught me what I know. Do you know what I mean? I came here in 2009, so in the very early years of being an adult. I had to navigate it all myself, I had never travelled before. It was my first time on a plane. The youngest of my family (I have two older brothers). So, I had the weather to deal with. The food…
I travelled from Ghana to Dubai and transited from Dubai to Birmingham airport because I was going to uni in Coventry. So I studied art and design at Coventry Universiy where I majored in illustration and animation. So I had to navigate all these things like taking a taxi, like figuring out where I was going and there weren't any Ubers at that time, there were black cabs. I remember taking one and just staring at the metre being like yo, stay at three pounds!
AH: It was university where it all changed for you…You were discovered, and now if we look back at the past few years, you’ve worked with the likes of J Hus, NIKE and Mercedes, as well as artists like Tinie Tempah, what’s been great about these collaborations?
Koby: Well before I say anything else, I would like to give thanks to Dumi. So Dumi Oburota is, or used to be, Tinie Temper's manager. He is the founder of Disturbing London, which is a record label under Warner. He discovered me at 20 and just took me under his wing. One thing about Dumi, he's got an eye for talent, irrespective of the art form, be it music, art. design, architecture, whatever. So he discovered me and gave me the opportunity to express myself on his music label.
AH: This was very unusual surely?
Koby: Yeah, it was a sort of breakthrough thing within the music industry. A record label looking after a painter. So it really brought a lot of attention to what I was doing there. And then through that he gave me opportunities to work with artists that were on the roster. Yxng Bane, A2, Wizkid at that time, Jessie J, Tinie Temper. So I was the in-house designer, artist, creating all of that…
We still talk now and then and he helps me with my ideas - not just about work, but also about life as well, he's like a mentor to me. It's been a journey. But prior to that, I think what really opened doors for me in music was with Krept & Konan, when I designed their debut album cover, ‘The Long Way Home', which charted at no.2 on the UK Album Charts. And, I was doing my masters at that time!
So looking back now, it just shows how much I wanted people to realise what I could do and just before when I was speaking about the importance of recognition of work to you, it’s why I appreciate the London Design Festival.
AH: A twist of fate with Krept & Konan, you submitted your work to them on an open call for design, and after 24 hrs I believe they got back to you?
Koby: I know. I just knew…I had this feeling in my gut it was going to happen.
AH: You mentioned unseen works - when are we going to see them?
Koby: I'm not sure - some you will see. The way I work, it's for my personal progress to see how I've developed my skill in my visual language…From 2018 till now, you can see the difference in the strokes and the colour palette. You can see the change in conversations and what I'm trying to address. So it's like a diary for me.
Where I'm at right now is I am still exploring, still pushing the boundaries, trying to express myself differently. I think it's important as artists to go through that in your work because if you're not pushing yourself with new narratives and challenging yourself, you're not developing as an artist…It’s like I was saying before with my work around the LGBT community - people may ask what right does Koby have to be talking about the LGBT community?
To that, I’m like 'you’ll look and you’ll feel something'. Even if you don't like me talking about that through my work, you still feel something. And you're talking about it, and then you're engaging it. And that's what it's about, to spark conversations. The moment it comes out, you have no control over it. The audience completes the work.
AH: Where would you like your work to be shown - what’s the dream accolade for you?
Koby: The long term goal for me is to be part of an era where, when that era is, that era cannot be mentioned without me. Where I influenced or helped shape the outlook on art with my work, my narratives, my conversations - all with my medium. Where I have influenced a generation. So, not necessarily it being in the four walls of a building, I want to be outside of that…Legacy is created through impact.
AH: Which place do you go to to feel inspired?
Koby: There's quite a few but maybe 180 The Strand. I have some friends over there that create work over there, and I always like being around that!
AH: What are we going to see from Koby in 2024?
Koby: The best. I want to grow and to be better as an artist, and like I said, to give back and to impact people through my work. That's the most important thing.
Look out for Koby at The London Design Festival, September 22nd, in conversation with Levi Naidu-Mitchell. Supported by Peckham Platform and Southwark Youth Justice Service.Tickets for free are available now on eventbrite.co.uk.