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Interview with Matthew Krishanu

Matthew Krishanu, Corvus, 2019. Installation view. Photograph by George Torode.

In advance of his talk at the Stuart Hall Library, Iniva Programme & Operations Coordinator Simina Neagu caught up with artist Matthew Krishanu to discuss the series of paintings currently displayed in our new space in John Islip Street. The small-scale works, depicting crows, rooks, jackdaws and ravens emerge between shelves and bask alongside books, populating the collection with their delicate, comical and eerie presence.

Your practice includes several cycles of works, such as Another Country (2012-2019), inspired by your childhood in Dhaka or Expatriates (2016-2019), a series of portraits of English expatriates in India and Bangladesh. How do the Crows sit within your wider practice? You mentioned before that although its subjects were found mostly in London, they somehow exist outside of time and place. Could you elaborate on that?

The crows are mainly London crows (although some are from other parts of England as well). Having just returned from a visit to Mumbai, India, where I observed and photographed crows there, I may well be painting some Mumbai crows soon. The crows are partly a signifier for me of my childhood growing up in Bangladesh and India, where the sound of their cawing was ever present. The sound of them anywhere in the world takes me back to my memories of crows.

Memory forms the basis of my other series of works – which include paintings of my brother and myself as boys (Another Country), and series that explore adult roles and rituals: Expatriates and Mission. I think of the crows as belonging to the same world as these human characters. However, while my larger paintings tend to be centre-lined and hung at eye height in exhibitions, the crows more naturally scatter at different heights around a room. Occasionally they accompany works from other series of mine ­– perched above a door or near the floor of a painting. In this respect I think of the crows as being actual crows (with a life of their own), as opposed to paintings of crows.

Literary influences seem to play an important part in your work. You mentioned novelist L.P. Hartley in relation to Another Country and Ted Hughes’s collection of poems Crow in relation to the current series. How would you describe your relationship to the written word? Does it function as a prompt, a reflection, a guide?

My crows belong to the world of myth, memory, and literature. I am interested in how these everyday birds have a potent life in the imagination: whether in Hughes’s Crow, Poe’s raven, or mythical trickster tales from around the world. Hughes’s Crow was a particular inspiration for me – when I first read it during my Fine Art and English Literature degree, I was struck by its rhythmic chanting quality. There was a bestiality and horror I was drawn to – the poems put me in mind of watching the crows eating offal from rubbish dumps in Bengal as a child.

Saying all that, it’s the visual of the crow that I’m most struck by: its intense black silhouette (often reflecting a myriad of other colours from its feathers), the poise and menace of its beak, the three-toed claw that perches or hops along the ground. I love the way oil paint echoes the sheen and texture of the feathers. I am looking for a quality of wildness and freedom in the shape of the bird.

The Stuart Hall Library is a place of myriad voices, where predecessors come together to inhabit future conversations. What would be some of your influences and some of the echoes you bring into your work?

I like that the crows perch around the books – silently, but you can easily imagine their caw. I love Rabindranath Tagore’s paintings, which include a series of mythical-looking birds – my crows would feel at home among them. Other influences include Paula Rego’s wonderful etchings of ravens, Gieve Patel’s crow paintings (tearing at meat), and Lalu Prasad Shaw’s regal-looking crows. Now whenever I see a crow in a contemporary painter’s work it puts me in mind of my own. These dialogues and echoes are key to how I see the crows: they leave the streets and parks of London (or Mumbai) and enter a world of painting – where they then exist among crows and birds from the caves and hieroglyphs to the present day.

Matthew Krishanu (b. 1980) was born in Bradford and is based in London. He completed an MA in Fine Art at Central Saint Martins in 2009.

Exhibitions include: New Figurations, Jhaveri Contemporary, Mumbai; House of Crows, Matt’s Gallery, London; The Sun Never Sets, MAC, Birmingham; A Murder of Crows, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham (2019); The John Moores Painting Prize 2018, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool; In the City, East Gallery, Norwich (2018); Contemporary Masters from Britain, Yantai Art Museum, Jiangsu Art Museum, Tianjin Academy of Fine Arts, China (2017-2018); Aviary, Transition Gallery, London (2016); Contemporary Drawings from Britain, Xi’an Academy of Fine Arts, China (2015); Another Country, The Nunnery, London (2014). He has works in collections including the Arts Council Collection, Priseman-Seabrook Collection, and Jiangsu Art Museum, China.