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Interview: Reena Makwana

UK-based artist Reena Makwana's work is a fascinating documentation of London, people, plants and everything she sees around her. Primarily working with embroidery and illustration and occasionally ceramics, she's carved her own niche in the art world.

In conversation with Reena about inspiration, London and the changing world she's trying to capture in her gorgeous work:

Flower Tent at Lambeth County Show

You've been exploring embroidery as a medium since you were a child. Please talk about your relationship with thread, and textile as art.

I used to embroider as a child as a hobby. My grandmother used to embroider and my mum taught me how to sew. When I was at primary school, we worked on a few textile projects with the techniques of English embroidery and I loved creating cross stitch patterns and free form embroideries of drawings. I loved drawing, painting and making little books, so I feel like my work with textiles is part of the same thing.

I think as an adult, I’ve just continued developing what I started then. I realised on my foundation course at Kingston University that I wanted to use my textiles within illustration and studied illustration at Camberwell College of Art and Design.

The everydayness of life and people is apparent in your work. Do you sketch and illustrate first and then bring out the hoop? How does a new piece of work emerge?

My work does take a lot of planning as I try to be precise as possible! My process involves either drawing from a photograph or life. Photography is good for capturing moments of movement, when I know I’ll need a bit of time to set and draw out a place. I’ll draw with a pencil and then develop the drawings with colour pens. I then trace the drawing onto tissue paper and then pin onto fabric, which I stitch through, remove and then finish off the details.

From Reena's Valencia sketchbook

Do you keep a sketchbook on you at all times in case inspiration strikes?

Yes, I keep my camera and sketchbook on me, in case I see something interesting. Usually when I go on holidays, I’ll make a sketchbook specifically for the trip so it becomes an art piece in itself.

There's so much realism in your work. Talk about this creative urge to document the people and places you see. 

I’m interested in relationships with people and I like seeing interactions between friends, strangers and communities. A city like London is constantly changing, with new buildings appearing alongside the old and people moving in and out of London. I use my work to document the everyday but also events that bring people together. It’s a bit like a diary.

I'd love to know about a specific piece of work you have fond memories of.

Heygate Ladies

I’ve got one of my embroideries hanging up in my flat called Heygate Ladies from The Great Outdoors exhibition I organised with my friend Anna Lincoln as part of ‘Nest Gallery’, an art collective we both ran. The show was held at The Department of Coffee and Social Affairs on Leather Lane, London in 2010. We worked with Anna Ridley, who was the curator of the space and showed our work and the work of six other artists inspired by the theme of the outdoors. I really enjoyed working to put together the exhibition, which was a mixture of print, drawings, ceramics and textiles and we produced a set of postcards, with each artist designing one.

Heygate Ladies is based on a photograph I took from the top of a bus of two friends on their mobility bikes going past the Heygate Estate in Walworth. The embroidery was part of three that I showed of a journey from Elephant and Castle to Coldharbour Lane. It’s a fond memory of a really enjoyable exhibition and a recorded point in time of living in Camberwell.

Peckham Dog Show

Your work has been exhibited in so many publications and galleries. How do you go about choosing where to show your work?

I think what is really important is working with a client who understands your style and wants to use it. I am lucky to have worked with publications and galleries who know that I draw and sew using traditional methods, which means that I create work which suits the brief and they know what to expect.

All The Queens Houses collaboration

How do you see the inspiration for your work growing and changing?

My work originally came from an interest in folklore and social history and now I explore the social present. I’m interested in documenting my surroundings and London in particular. I think as London changes, my work will do as well. I might have to move out of London when it becomes too expensive for me, but it will continue to inspire me, as will new places I explore in the future.

Who are some other artists whose work inspire you?

I love the work of Tove Jansson, Bjorn Wiinblad, Lubna Chowdhary, Edward Bawden, Eric Ravilious, Tirzah Garwood, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Annette Messager, Sophie Calle, Harald Sohlberg, John Craxton, illustrations in old cookbooks, films with a strong sense of style and medieval panelled textiles.

What’s the most challenging part of your artistic process, and how do you overcome it?

I have had periods of creative block or being approached with a project I didn’t have experience with. I’ve worked on overcoming creative blocks by taking a break to work on something small, like a zine or organising a project with friends. With a new brief, I’ll plan and sketch things out to work how to put things together.

From the Victoria Line series

What are you working on this year? 

I am currently working on a short series of embroideries inspired by my daily commute on the Victoria Line to my morning shift at the British Library. I showed the first two embroideries of the series with The Society of Embroidered Works last November in their first group show. The series explores my interest in how strangers interact in close proximity to each other and nature of travelling.

Follow Reena's beautiful work on her website or Instagram.


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