It is 11:11am, and Koby Martin is eleven minutes late.
Despite already vaguely knowing the words to the song of his remarkable life story, the twenty-seven-year-old’s bio still fascinates me. His journey glitters with collaborations, famous names including Nike, Jessie J, Tinie Tempah and Mercedes twinkling mischievously, accompanied by other personal accomplishments; taking the leap across from Ghana to London, a nineteen-year-old flying solo, being one he discusses several times throughout our conversation.
‘Sorry! I was in a work session late last night, and I overslept!’, booms the friendly, confident voice of Koby Martin from the other end of our call, one that fails to hide the film of fatigue that tells me his story is nothing but the truth. As I utter an overly polite ‘No worries!’, I am struck by a myriad of images that immediately replace any feelings of anticipation (one in particular involving stylishly baggy clothed artists hung over a canvas, the night folding in on itself from an open window).
The Tate’s new initiative, aptly named Beyond Boundaries, came just in time. Flourishing under the artistic drought of COVID, one that saw budget cuts to arts programs across the UK and a distinct message from higher forces to 'get a real job’, Beyond Boundaries involved inviting five young artists to work alongside five established mentors in bringing colour, comfort, and as Martin puts it ‘therapy’ to the streets of Southwark, London. Installing street art as a gift to Bankside and any understandably mesmerised passers-by, Beyond Boundaries is yet another edition to the Tate’s growing list of resources for young people. The first artist in our series, Koby Martin, mentored by visual artist, writer and photographer Victor Ehikhamenor, emanates a palpable warmth and wisdom that astounds me throughout our conversation. His candour is open, laidback and gives one just a small insight into his inner world, while maybe even throwing in a good humoured giggle as he recounts his soulful views on the talent versus craft debate, picture painting books, and of course his relationship with the Tate.
'Spotlight Dreams', a new resident of Bear Gardens who will sadly be evicted next spring, is his final creation, one that explores the rich history of music, theatre and performance of the area.
To start off, tell me a little bit about what led you to becoming an artist?
Koby Martin: ‘I was born in Ghana. I came to the United Kingdom at the age of nineteen, by myself, for educational purposes. I went to Coventry University where I studied illustration and animation for my degree, and then 3D animation for my masters. Four years later, I moved to Croydon, where I developed my practice, I started showing my work through Instagram and having some great people gravitate towards my work, managing to build a great relationship with Disturbing London, who now present my yearly exhibitions, Tinie Tempah and Dumi Oborota, who is Tinie Tempah’s manager and still my mentor to this day. I would say that I got into art at the age of... well my mum says I started painting when I was three years old! But I think I realised I wanted to be an artist when I was twelve years old. My dad was a chemist, and used to travel a lot when we were living in Ghana. Usually when he came back, he brought us a lot of books, but with me specifically, he brought me picture painting books. There was this picture painting book of Picasso that I was going through and there was this painting from his blue series that I saw, and through that I had some sort of vision. And I knew I was going to be an artist.’
Where do you personally draw the line with what is and isn’t art? For example, is fashion art?
KM: ‘I think everything is art. Everything is art! Even things we may subconsciously overlook; the colours around you, the composition, the way things are naturally put together – everything around you is art. Just because you go to a gallery, and you see something that you do not like, that doesn’t make it not art just because you do not see it that way – it is subjective, art is an open game. Art is not something that can only be one thing, which is why there is an argument about different types of art, the truth is that they all fall under this big umbrella of appreciating humans expressing what we know how to do best.’
What advice would you give to a young person trying to get out there in the art world? Your start was through Instagram, is that something you endorse?
KM: ‘Hmm... you know what, yeah, yes! That is the tool that we have, isn’t it? It’s free! The internet is available to us and that is the best way we can get our work out, through Instagram, through twitter, through all over. As long as you get the right eyes to see it, that is a starting point. There is no magic to it, it's just being consistent, intelligent, being disciplined, and passionate about what you do and using social media as a tool alongside those skills. Because if you don’t have any of those... well, you are probably going to have a problem with being discovered as an artist! Truly making a profession out of it takes a lot of hard work, and social media cannot supplement that hard work, it can only aid it. So, the answer is yes, I do endorse social media as a weapon alongside the core of being an artist, which is being disciplined and consistent.’
What are the key themes that you love to explore through your work, do you like to explore something closer to your heart, or is it trying to understand the world around – or both?
KM: ‘I think with really, with art, it always starts with the individual. Understanding your position and place as an individual in the universe, or rather the world, before the way you feel about the things within the world, always transcends into the work first. With me, because I live my life, it is of course easy for me to talk about through my work, and so it always starts with me first before looking into other themes, other concepts, other topics. For example, when I left Ghana, and came to the United Kingdom, I talk about themes of migration through my work. I talk about my family back home, I talk about memory. My dad passed away, and then there were themes of nostalgia, growing up in my granddad’s house, living with my parents – all of these things, again, are easy to communicate, because this is what I know, that is what I have lived.
And as I continued to talk about these things, they would become universal, resonating with the other immigrants, the other migrants, those that are here and are not spending their time with their family. And so, those personal topics continue to expand from myself to other people, to other stories and narratives within the world, even though the work started with me. So, I think it always starts with the artist, the self, and works its way out.’
In most jobs, success can be measured by financial gain. But in creative industries, it is a little more complicated. How do you, personally, define success as an artist?
KM: ‘I define success as an artist as true impact, and giving back. Giving back in the sense of... well, through creative workshops, through projects like Beyond Boundaries, where my work is put into different mediums - it really is like a therapy for everyone. I also think of success in terms of being a servant, serving people - because that is our purpose on this Earth. Being an artist is not about, really, even you. It is not about being talented or being a person who is different, or even creative, it is just about giving back because other people's destinies are carried into what you do, and so then it just cannot be only about you. You have to think beyond the box, you have to think... ‘How can I develop this gift I have within me, so that it can make other people’s lives better?’. When we came out of the pandemic, and the Tate organised Beyond Boundaries, that is therapy. When people see it, they go to the site where they can interact with the art and spend time with it, that is giving back.’
'Art is a spiritual thing, it can't be toyed with, which is why you have to be disciplined as an artist - you simply cannot be lazy'
So, talk to me about Beyond Boundaries. Tell me about the project and how you became involved. Why is the project so important to you?
KM: ‘Why is it so important? Because, most of the time, people do not have the financial means to enjoy such things. This is why institutions like the Tate are so amazing, what an opportunity to give young creatives like myself, to share something with a community. Going back to what I said earlier, coming out of the pandemic... it, again, makes me feel whole to give back to, and to help people recover from what we have all been through, something that has been extremely traumatic for all of us.
I already have a good relationship with the Tate, I have partaken in a few projects with them, a couple panel talks, and so the decision for me to take part in this project was an organic one. When the project what presented to me, I actually only had two weeks - I was the last artist to be brought on the project!’
KM: ‘Yeah! It was crazy [laughs]. The other artists were already practically done, with a week left to finish the project and I was only just starting!’
Wow, tell me more about being under so much pressure, what was that like?
KM: ‘So, with that Tate, I think they were very surprised that I took it on, being that it involved such a big turnaround [laughs]. To be honest, I didn’t even know the ideas behind the project I just said, yes, of course I will do it!
Yes, it was pressure, but pressure is always good because it causes you to grow and find out things about yourself you never knew. During this project, I found out that I work well under pressure. I found out how important the things that I keep bringing up really are, like giving back, giving something big that was from the heart. And that made me want to execute it to the best of my ability. This was my first work that has been in a public space! These are some of the things that encourage you to get it all done, an experience that I haven’t had before, it being something I truly wanted to be a part of... it was pressure, but it the ideals behind the project get you through, as well as my mentor on the project, who was very, very helpful.’
Was he amazing to work with?
KM: ‘He was simply exceptional. He made a lot of time, even after the project. I still keep in touch with Victor [Ehikhamenor]. He was just amazing, truly exceptional, giving me the courage and motivation. For me, it was just truly, truly beautiful. I didn’t think I could even do it, I got to the point where I was like: ‘Hmm, can I really do this?!’, and I remember on a zoom meeting and my mentor said to me, ‘Listen Koby, we are here because the Tate believes in you. And you are here because you want to execute it’. And with that, I thought... ‘I am just going to smash it!’’.
Are there any rituals or routines that make you feel most creative?
KM: ‘Before I start anything, I just pray. I ask God to guide me through my practice... all we are, are just mediums for God. And the idea usually exists before it touches the mind and especially the canvas, and all I have to do is allow myself to take the idea as he has presents it to me, to complete it as he wants me to: my canvas is my church, and when you are seeing my art, you are coming to my church, which means that I am a house for God. Art is a spiritual thing, it cannot be toyed with, which is why you have to be disciplined as an artist, you simply cannot be lazy. So that is what I do, I say a prayer, I ask God for guidance, I ask God for something to reach me, for him to show me what he wants me to do... I always create with God, and that always makes me feel the most creative.’
Do you have any upcoming projects that you would love to talk about?
KM: ‘Yes! So, I am currently working on quite a few projects. Some I cannot speak about, but I am currently working towards a solo show, which has been in the works for a while but because of COVID, it has not been able to happen for the last two years, but I am currently developing a body of work for that show, when it will happen, I am unsure about for the moment, but I am excited.’
Film or Digital?
KM: ‘Film, old school, every time.’
Music or no music while working?
KM: ‘Hell yeah, music! Currently I am listening to some very heavy hip-hop [laughs].’
Tate Britain or Tate Modern?
KM: ‘That is a hard one... you know, what, I think I will go with Tate Britian. No, you know what, both!’