Hakopike’s New Portrait Range

INTERVIEWED BY Michaela Stehr IMAGES Hakopike

We catch up with multifaceted South African artist and photographer Amy-Leigh Braaf aka Hakopike (featured previously, here) about her transition from photography and digital work into the realm of portraiture and painting.

How has your life evolved since we last caught up with you?

My life has gone through so many changes, but the main one is that I have explored mediums that are a lot more tactile, being murals and acrylic paintings on canvas. I have explored halting generational trauma from passing down generations through physical pieces such as murals, and canvas pieces that push my body and mind to a flow state where I can combat the thoughts that I see as common in my family. The feeling is that if I can physically work on depicting stories of coloured and/or mixed raced people like myself then I can rewrite my own story that pays tribute to those who came before but doesn’t repeat history. 

Could you elaborate on the new style you are exploring?

The style of the newest series is influenced by my mixed heritage of “ambiguity” and finding a place in one’s life through spirituality. The series is about my ancestors who have ties to Malaysia, Indonesia, Japan and Scotland – these are oral stories that I have been told and am holding onto to explore the validity of it all. Growing up looking like I did often caused a lot of confusion for me, and whenever I questioned my identity I would be given small bits of information about where my family came from. Oral stories can feel unreliable sometimes as it is often connected to a deep and painful history that can pass from generation to generation. This series is aimed at stopping generational trauma from passing further. 

What are some of the pros and cons of embarking on a journey into painting after being so advanced in your other mediums?

I often focus on newer mediums as exciting channels to explore rather than cons, as I am passionate about learning and educating. My digital works did well over the last year and my photography and ceramics all were leaning towards something bigger, but I was unsure of what. Now that I have worked on a large mural for this series as well as portraits of ancestors of mine that I have dreamt about or channelled through a flow state – I can fully embark on a newer medium feeling safe and connected to my family. And that is comforting. 

How does working in the physical as opposed to digital bring a different element to your creations?

The physical side of painting has allowed me to move my body more, which has helped me with my mental health. It is also a very deliberate medium that creates a space for me to push through emotions that I have suppressed. The main task is combining oral stories with physical pieces to make them tangible and real for other people. I also like that murals and canvas pieces have been touched by my paintbrushes, my fingerprints are attached to them, and therefore my DNA. I exist. I am real. And here is a piece to prove it. 

What inspires your subject matter? 

I have been accepted into two art residencies, one in Indonesia and the other in Japan, and I am going to focus on my father’s side of the family who has told me that we have Indonesian and Japanese heritage. What inspires me is the essence of human life, magic, power and beauty through birth. I often felt as if my soul was born through my own creation – after I entered into the world physically. I didn’t always feel this way, but I can remember the day I felt intuition pass through my body like a rite of passage. The same intuition my grandmother has. As a woman – rites of passage are complex but also written by ourselves, and I want to explore rites of passage through the exploration of ancestry. 

How did you decide on portraiture?

I have always loved faces, even when I was a full-time photographer. There is something about the human face that holds data that proves they exist. No faces are alike except for twins, but even then – there are differences to be found. Portraiture is more than depicting random faces, it is showing the essence of a person. When I paint somebody – I am painting more than their eyes and mouth. I am painting their first love’s pain, their dreams and fears in the world, I am painting the words their fathers and mothers said to them when they were young.  

Are these portraits specifically local people or do you draw references from elsewhere across the globe?

I draw from my mind or from family members, so a lot of my portraits focus on are based on stories I want to depict. For example, I wanted to depict heartbreak, so I drew a figure that came into my mind, perhaps a face of a memory I have attached to. Without preparing who it is going to be, the face comes forth, like a stream of consciousness, and I am presented with it. The faces often choose me and I don’t choose them. 

Elaborate on the exploration of heritage for you personally in your latest collection.

My grandmother is 95 years old, and I started this series by painting her in her youth. As I was painting her eyes I wondered what I could do to show the pain she has felt and the love she has birthed throughout her life. And I found that storytelling through symbols was the way to do that. Through pots and couches and scarves. Anything that reminds me of her. I am exploring being a coloured woman through my work by telling symbolic stories. 

Your imagery looks to explore elements of the feminine. What does that mean to you?

I have battled with my femininity for years but in the past two years, I have found comfort in it now. I realised that my femininity is through expressions of physical acts and not the way I look and feel. I like to depict feminine energies through my pieces, but femininity personally is through specific mediums like pottery (especially on the wheel), painting large-scale paintings of powerful women, creating a 3-hour gourmet meal for those I love and singing. 

What does a regular day look like in 2023?

I am a part of the 5 am club again, and what my days consist of is waking up, drinking warm lemon water (like my mother and grandmother do), I have a cup of coffee, brush my teeth, bath and start by 6am. 

I then focus on canvas for the day or a mural depending on the day. Because I am travelling this year I am not sure if the 5 am club title will still stand, but I will be in an art residency for a month in February and I plan on starting my mornings like this! Coffee, cleanse, create. 

Do you have a particular colour palette that you’re using for this collection or are you just winging it?

I have been deeply drawn to the colour palette of bright reds, vermillion, sap green, turquoise and pink! Sometimes yellow but painting with yellow on a wall has been so difficult lately. These colours are to invoke life and tie me back to the earth. I have been alone in my life a lot – not lonely but alone. And these colours have always made me feel alive and full of love. 

Where would you like to see your work going for the rest of the year?

I would like to have two solo exhibitions this year and I would like to hold workshops in Indonesia and Japan if possible as well. I want to do more murals, and have my canvas pieces up. My work will have its own journey and I have often relied on hard work mixed with a little bit of fate to help align me on the path that I need to take. 

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