Interviews

ALFIE KUNGU’S MEMORIES OF ORANGE — SHOT BY EWEN SPENCER

10 December 2022

For Y-3’s “Memories of Orange” collection, we sat down with Alfie Kungu, the artist from Hebden Bridge, for an in-depth interview and a photoshoot captured by seminal British photographer, Ewen Spencer.

ALFIE KUNGU’S MEMORIES OF ORANGE SHOT BY EWEN SPENCER
For Alfie Kungu, the artist born in Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire, the ability to freely experiment and spontaneously create are crucial to his creative output. His artwork is bold and energetic, radiating positivity through use of vibrant colours paired with characters and nuances that are experimental, yet warmly familiar.

His ability to construct these abstract, rainbow-hued worlds that energise and captivate is something that can be traced back to Alfie’s earlier years; his father is a full-time artist and his mother an avid painter, providing an environment that created a safe space to explore and create free of judgement. It’s a milieu that Alfie frequently taps into when painting to this very day, creating artwork with the same enthusiasm and enjoyment as he did in his youth.

Alfie’s work is charged with youthful exuberance and artistic flair, immediately capturing your attention through vibrant hues and then keeping you engrossed as you as you traverse through his technicolour world, one that’s constructed through use of meticulous techniques, unconventional materials and intricate textures. Draping sheets of satin enveloped by a riot of colours and shapes; relief paintings created through layering silk onto canvases; playful mascots painted onto large sheets of Perspex — all of these are representations of Alfie’s commitment to experimenting and exploring new artistic paths.  

The same youthful energy is something integral to the work of Ewen Spencer: the seminal, Newcastle-born photographer who has been at the core of burgeoning subcultures and British nightlife for decades. In celebration of Y-3’s 20th anniversary collection, dubbed “Memories of Orange”, END. brought the Hebden Bridge-born artist and legendary photographer together at Sachet studio, with Alfie creating bespoke artwork that delved into the idea of memories of orange.  

ALFIE KUNGU’S MEMORIES OF ORANGE SHOT BY EWEN SPENCER
ALFIE KUNGU’S MEMORIES OF ORANGE SHOT BY EWEN SPENCER

A lot of your work has a youthful and energetic feel to it. How would you say your earlier years have formed your creative approach and can you speak about your introduction to the art world?

So, a lot of my childhood was spent drawing as a form of play or as a nice thing to do. My dad is a full-time artist and my mum is really good at painting and interested in arts, so it’s just something I grew up surrounded by. Like most kids, I drew a lot to pass the time and it’s just something I continued to do as I grew older. At high school, for example, if I wasn’t interested in a lesson, I’d just spend my time drawing. Ironically, the teachers would give me a hard time for not paying attention, but that would eventually end up being the thing that I would do full time. Even now, I always draw from those experiences — maybe not consciously, but they definitely form who I am at this point. I think drawing from a young age has given me this safe space to pursue my artwork.

Woven throughout your work are abstract characters, signified by their vibrant colours and warped, playful appearances. Can you discuss what these characters represent to you and your work? 

Yeah, these characters are different personifications of myself and everybody you come across — friends, family, people you observe. In a lot of aspects, it’s easier to present yourself in the third person as a character, or a monster, within a broader narrative. It also ties in with your first question: I just really enjoyed drawing these things as a kid. When I start making artwork, it often just starts out as a doodle, then it’ll end up forming one of these creatures. it’s a pattern you end up developing over time, you don’t even realise you’re creating that visual identity — it just naturally occurs. I see these characters everywhere — it’s me, it’s you, you can see people within these characters.

ALFIE KUNGU’S MEMORIES OF ORANGE SHOT BY EWEN SPENCER

Your work has crossed over heavily into the world of fashion, not only through your early series “Legs”, where you would incorporate elements of streetwear and sneaker culture, but also through a slew of partnerships with big brands. How does the world of fashion and art intertwine with your creative approach?

I actually never meant for it to crossover, or had any intention of working in these ways. I would often just concentrate mainly on the artwork itself, to begin with. When these different brands were coming into my artwork, I was actually focusing more on representing a demographic of people — inner-city or working-class individuals, who would often wear these pieces of clothing. From that, it then translated that brands were a part of my visual identity. I’ve always had a big appreciation for streetwear and sneaker culture growing up, so when I do these partnerships it’s a great opportunity to crossover into a world I’m not really a part of. I view it all as new experiences.  

Silk is a medium you champion heavily with your work, like with the piece you’ve created here today. What is it about silk that you particularly like working with as a canvas for your work?

I’ll let you into a secret: I don’t always work with silk. It’s very expensive, around a tenner a metre, so I often work with this stuff called silky satin. On the occasion, I do work with silk like I did today — the quality of it lends itself really well to the flow of inks. It’s also immediate, you can’t block it over and start again. So, it kind of forms the way that you work and the marks that you make — you have to put it in in one go and that’s the way that it looks. Working with different materials is something that always interests me, and it just so happens to be that silk is the current thing that I’m experimenting with. Like the frog painting I created, for example, on the orange Perspex. That’s a totally different type of surface that lends itself to different materials to work onto it with. It’s all just play — that’s what it reverts back to, it coming from a comfortable place from my childhood. 

ALFIE KUNGU’S MEMORIES OF ORANGE SHOT BY EWEN SPENCER
"I just want to make something for the enjoyment of making it, and to develop and refine what I do and enjoy. Then afterwards you can then contextualise it, break it down and think about it a lot more"

Positivity is something that immediately jumps out with your work, not only through your use of bold colours and playful characters, but also in the messaging underpinning what you create. Can you talk about what message you are trying to deliver with your work?

There’s never a preconceived idea going into making anything authentically creative. I just want to make something for the enjoyment of making it, and to develop and refine what I do and enjoy. Then afterwards you can then contextualise it, break it down and think about it a lot more. These positive or bold feelings come out through my work because I really enjoy what I do and the process of making it. The image itself may be of a happy picture and one that makes you feel good, but the process and the journey is really good for unpacking loads of what you’ve got going on in your head. You might not realise it at the time, but when you look back on something after painting it you feel “wow, I feel so much better”, or “why was I painting that?”, or “why do I want it to look like this?”. You can begin to understand a lot about what you may not have realise you’re dealing with. Sometimes there’s nothing more to it than me wanting to paint something and thinking it looks good, so It’s all about the artwork being genuine and not too heavily tied with anything preconceived.

The colour orange is something which plays a large part in your bold artistic sensibility. Can you talk about its importance to your output and how the piece you have created today fits in with your wider body of artwork?

So, the idea behind these works is that I wanted to create three areas of your memory, and obviously orange was the prominent colour throughout the series. All of the series are of people dancing and moving, so the furthest back pieces, the largest ones, are a lot more out of focus, distorted and distant — a representation of subconscious or faint memories. The middle ones are slightly clearer, but the faces are still indistinguishable. The front are the most prominent which represent the present time. So that’s how I tried to marry it all with the composition and the way the artwork is laid out. But yeah, the colour orange is punchy. It’s strong. It’s undeniable.

ALFIE KUNGU’S MEMORIES OF ORANGE SHOT BY EWEN SPENCER
ALFIE KUNGU’S MEMORIES OF ORANGE SHOT BY EWEN SPENCER
ALFIE KUNGU’S MEMORIES OF ORANGE SHOT BY EWEN SPENCER

Painting is primarily your tool for creative expression, though you have crossed over into other areas of art, like with the sculpture you worked on for ITV and Black History Month. Looking to the future, are there any other mediums of art you would like to explore beyond painting?  

Yeah, always. I’m doing a series of these things I’m calling metal drawings. You get big sheets of aluminium, or big sheets of steel, and draw on them with an angle grinder. First, I build up the layers with different colours of paints and lacquer, then angle grind through and it looks really, really cool. So the metal drawings are great — it’s really fun to work with such a robust, physical medium. I took an angle grinder and some metal and just started seeing what I could create — it all stemmed from play. So yeah, always new mediums.

My friends just got this thing called a plasma cutter, so imagine someone with a blowtorch which shoots plasma out and can cut through steel, so I am going to look into creating something with that. I’d also love to do glass blowing. I've done this thing called fused glass, where you have two big sheets of glass and you put different coloured pigments on it, this powder, and then you put another sheet on with different flecks of glass before putting it into a kiln — it all melts together to create this cool piece of glasswork. So, yeah, I’m always looking for new things to work with.

While we’re on the topic, you utilised confetti while creating your piece for ITV to reference celebration and positivity. Are there any other nuances you use in your art to convey messaging?

So, the confetti thing was more of a spontaneous thought, looking at how we could make things feel more celebratory in the moment. The idea of the sculpture and the silk backdrop of that represented a carnival — the silk in the background was people moving fluidly, and then the confetti is the additional touch for celebration, the icing on the cake. Again, for me, it’s always just about making creative choices in the moment and then looking back on it afterwards.

ALFIE KUNGU’S MEMORIES OF ORANGE SHOT BY EWEN SPENCER

Y-3 AT END.

Slide 1 of 5
writerJack Grayson
|photographerEwen Spencer
|stylistJack Errington
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