Realism and fantasy

By Lorraine Ellis, StreetsmART

She’s street art’s sweetheart! Kaff-Eine is a much-loved artist with a huge following.

She was originally known for her poignant, sometimes whimsical, simple black and white line drawings that celebrated the human condition.

About six years ago these artworks began to appear, mostly in paste-up form, throughout the inner-city suburbs.

“I’ve always loved drawing and because I was hanging out with street artists I decided to give it a go,” she said.

A few years later, Kaff-Eine gave up her day job to pursue her passion and make art her full-time career.

Recently I had the pleasure of hearing Kaff-Eine in a casual conversation at Bargoonga Nganjin, North Fitzroy Library.

The following are her thoughts from that evening on street art, her art practice and the projects she’s involved in.

“Street art is flourishing around Melbourne because developers have caught on to the fact that it’s a ‘cool’ thing to incorporate into a building. I know I’m contributing to this desirability. My way around this uncomfortable feeling of contributing to gentrification is to do projects in areas that will never be gentrified and focus on collaborations with people who aren’t artists.”

“It’s a rewarding challenge to produce something that is fun and also a public expression. I’ve indulged myself by doing community programs because I don’t know what to do about gentrification. On the other hand I’m stoked that people are appreciating street art and venturing into places they might have avoided.”

“Street has a democracy to it. One of the challenges of painting on the street is to create something decent when you’re interrupted a lot and the unpredictability of the weather! However, the interaction and involvement with the public has it’s rewards.”

“I enjoy starting a project, letting go of it and then seeing what happens i.e. the hugely popular and interactive Painting by Numbers at the Benalla Street Art Festival.”

“There can be a lack of critical thinking in the scene. My collaborations with ELK (Bondi Beach wall) and Adnate for Amnesty International, have both been works with a message. I don’t believe it should always be so but it’s great when it does say something.”

“If people want to draw a self-indulgent piece, a complex ‘throwie’ or something that’s political but not party political, that’s OK too. What I really like is when a public space is used for the benefit of others. Everyone wins.”

“The work I created for Benalla’s Wall to Wall Festival this year dealt with sensitive issues. It could have gone either way. My Unicorn wall was a tribute to young rainbow kids in rural areas who have higher suicide rates than any other group in the country. This wall was to honour those who may or may not have survived the struggle it takes when you’re a young rainbow person. The wall contained strong imagery with the message ‘you are not alone!’ The town loved it!”

The last three years have seen Kaff-Eine working on street art project with a serious message.

Her focus was Happyland in Manila, a huge, noisy and dangerous garbage dump that’s home to thousands of people.

Having previously worked with charcoal makers from this area, she embarked on a project of portraiture featuring the locals. These images where scanned onto 35 huge tarpaulins and installed in the community. It became an open-air exhibition and also created housing for the inhabitants.

“A lot of people look at slums as just filthy areas of garbage, crime and misery. My aim with the Happyland (Filipino for dump site) project was for people to not look away from these communities but towards them and to understand that they are not so different to you or I. People are people,” she said.

“This latest project of mine combines multiple issues: environmental, humanitarian, social justice, government control and, whilst it’s fun to put a painting on a wall, it’s also fun to see what you can do with it. To take a whole lot of people along with you.”

After this Philippine experience, Kaff-Eine has returned to painting mythical animals.

“The images I’ve been painting for the past years have been gritty and realistic. Now I’m obsessively depicting characters that aren’t real. My brain needs this shift. When I came home from Manila, not wanting to face what I’d seen, I reverted to mythical, fairy-tale images!”

“That said, the Happyland project was really important to me – that others should see these people as I did. Street art is a great vehicle for getting a message across. Sadly, as an art form it is still not considered real art.”

“For me, it’s all about story telling as I bounce from realism to fantasy. Perhaps I have a short attention span? I’m not sure where I go next but for the moment – it’s fantasy land!”

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