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Artist Kay Kanté: Swapping law books for canvases

Kay Kanté’s ordinary scene paintings of the area are being shown at The Brady Art Gallery, and has led her to be longlisted for the Holly Bush Woman Painter 2022 prize.

You probably wouldn’t expect to find a painting worthy scene as you look out the bus window on your morning commute. The grubby lamp posts. The grumpy man waiting for the number eight bus. The overflowing recycling bins on a street corner. But East London artist Kay Kanté has found beauty in the most ordinary of sites.

Kanté’s current exhibit ‘Finding beauty in the Ordinary’ is being shown at The Brady Art Gallery all through May, reflecting moments of ordinary London life, and the beauty of the East End. 

Kay Kanté sitting in her studio, photography by Tom Hains

But Kanté hasn’t always been an artist. As she paints for her ‘Art on a Postcard’ project –  a Hepatitis C charity – she says: ‘I wasn’t an artist for most of my life, it was not something I did. I probably had my last art lesson at school when I was about 12’.

It wasn’t until a strain injury forced her to leave her beloved job as a lawyer in an international development bank, that Kanté found her calling. She recalls her entry into the art world, after discovering local community art group Art4U2, based at the Brady Centre. ‘It just gave me huge confidence. I used a bit of the brain that I had felt was a bit vacant and empty after having stopped being a lawyer… it was a sort of, I would say a therapy, I found it very difficult to give up being a lawyer’. 

Kanté expresses gratitude to the group: ‘adult education is a very supportive, lovely environment, because the people in it are there because they want to be together, and they want to learn and to get better at something’.

Pavement, Cambridge Heath Road, E2 by Kay Kanté depicts a group of men walking past a bus stop.

Kanté’s exhibition ‘Beauty in the Ordinary’ is inspired by the way artists see shapes and colours. When asked about her painting process, the sound of her brushstrokes stop and she pauses: ‘you’ve got to think about what you’re going to paint… focus, colour, texture, and every time you put your brush down, there’s probably 10 different decisions that go into it which, maybe if you have an art background, you do instinctively. But my brain is sort of doing a bit probably from a slightly different angle in that I already have this sort of law-structured way’.

Artists often describe the feelings that inspire their decision making, so to hear Kanté express how the logical lawyer part of her helps to create her pieces offers a juxtaposing insight into the very carefree feeling her paintings offer.

David and Golliath, Bethnal Green Bus Stop, E2 by Kay Kanté features two ladies and a man waiting at a bus stop.

Although her life as an artist began with portraits, it was the ordinary scenes of East London that helped Kanté find her real identity as an artist. Whether that’s the t-junction following up to Bethnal Green station, or the Salmon and Ball pub that is well loved by many. She describes finding the perfect scene to paint as capturing ‘all those ordinary bits and pieces of life that gives you a time as well as a place’. 

To her, this means a scene with a strong sense of place, that Kanté recognises and feels connected to. While local artists like Jock Mcfayden have focused on the architectural landscape of the East End, Kanté also looks for people doing ordinary things in these scenes; crossing a road, talking on the phone, waiting for a bus. Almost as if Kanté is in the movie Rear Window, she watches the ordinary lives of her East End neighbours and instead of taking photos, she paints the scenes she sees.

When asked why she finds joy in these scenes she states: ‘because everybody’s life is an adventure… to them, it’s an adventure, just catching a little moment of an ordinary life and ordinary adventures’. It is easy to be attracted to large and flamboyant pieces that have gained fame in the art world. Whether that’s the colossal classic ‘The Wedding Feast at Cana’ by Veronese, or the bold and striking ‘Mountain Summit’ by Bob Ross. Seeing how Kanté brings her love for the community and the plain landscapes around her together shows how art is about the feeling created, not just the location that is being portrayed.

White Van, Bethnal Green, E2 by Kay Kanté shows a white van driving down the road.

No longer having to commute to the city offices, Kanté can enjoy the comfort of her home studio. Kanté’s pieces tend to be between fifty and sixty centimetre squares, almost like looking through a perfect little square gap in a fence, or out a car window. The works feel fleeting, like we are hiding in a box and have quickly glanced out at the London cityscape. 

Kanté explains that she only works in acrylics to get the image in her head down onto the canvas as quickly as possible. The transient landscapes offer a glimpse into the life of East London, and an invitation to look at the shapes, colours and textures that give beauty to the world outside our front doors. Although the paintings feel as if they are rushing away, the well loved locations around Tower Hamlets she depicts ground her work. 

Her love for painting stemmed from her love for the community in East London. She recollects the memories of raising her family in Victoria Park, fondly saying that ‘the schools and the parks, and everything that you interact with…  it’s all in your area. And I feel very connected to the area that I lived in’. As her career grows, her love for the community does too. She smiles: ‘it’s a very rewarding thing to do, to paint places, because you love them more when you finish painting than you did before’.

Stop/Go Whitechapel by Kay Kanté paints a young man crossing the road.

Although life after leaving the lawyer’s office seemed daunting and unknown, finding her feet as an artist has helped Kanté become more confident. Not only this, but her painting ‘Stop/Go Whitechapel’ was selected for the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 2021. Fondly recalling the validation she received from this award, she says: ‘I come from a competitive world where your people have got to tell you whether they like or don’t like what you do, it was incredibly exciting’. 

Kanté’s new pieces have led her to be longlisted for The Holly Bush Emerging Woman Painter Prize 2022, with results being announced next week. 

Enjoyed this article? Read our interview with Mira Connolly.

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