The Art of Visual Storytelling: A Dialogue with Katherine Hunter
Katherine Hunter is a Namibian illustrator, graphic designer, and dancer. She is interested in comic book illustration and fantasy fiction. She obtained her undergraduate degree in Visual Communication Design (Illustration) at the Stellenbosch Academy of Design and Photography, her honours degree in illustration, and her master’s degree in art education from Stellenbosch University. Katherine works as a graphic designer and typesetter at HouseFinder Magazine. She has also recently launched her own Namibian art brand, Maan Atelier, which focuses on creating fantasy artwork and stories.
BY AISHA KABIRU MOHAMMED
This conversation took place between Nigeria and Namibia, via email.
Aisha: Hello Katherine. Thank you for agreeing to this interview.
Katherine: Hi Aisha. I hope you’re well?
Aisha: I’m doing well, thank you. Your artwork is the most different of the three shortlisted. How and why did you choose your medium?
Katherine: I used a mixture of traditional illustration and digital coloring for my collection. I have been working like this for quite some time now, as I find this is the best way for me to express my creativity. This was a style of work I discovered when I was an illustration student, during the time that I was working on a children’s comic book. I was experimenting and came across this style by accident, after studying the work of illustrators such as Laura Callaghan, Emily Carroll, Isabelle Arsenault and Thomke Meyer. I start off with pencil line drawings on paper, then cover them with fineliner and thereafter add texture and color using Photoshop or Affinity Photo.
Aisha: I noticed the comic style in the works.What inspired the name you chose?
Katherine: Before I created these artworks, I was living in South Africa as a student for five years. This was the first set of artworks that I created upon returning to Namibia. I was trying to find my feet; I had to leave behind Namibia as I knew it as a teen and accept the way I was experiencing it as a working adult. Becoming Home is not only about returning to Namibia, but about adapting to a new space and making this unfamiliar setting my new home.
Aisha: Can we see a representation of this in the artworks?
Katherine: One can see a representation of these thoughts in each individual artwork. Although each artwork was created for Doek! Literary Magazine’s poetry section—therefore based on poems submitted to the magazine. The artwork also reflects my personal interpretations of the struggles faced by the poets. If you look at the artwork for ‘Her Yearning Soul’, the character appears to be dealing with the difficulties of making new friends and fitting in with her peers. This was an experience that I had when I returned to Namibia, needing to find a new set of friends after leaving behind the ones I made in South Africa. In ‘Identité’, the Namibian landscape has a very fantastical look about it, making it feel foreign yet familiar. After growing up in Namibia, the landscape had become dull to me—so much yellow grass and hordes of thorn trees. However, I looked upon this landscape with fresh eyes when I moved back, seeing its harsh beauty with a changed perspective and once again coming to appreciate it for what it is. Many of the poems deal with personal struggles of light and darkness in the poets’ lives; this is a natural experience of life and so is the struggle of leaving a familiar space, spreading your wings and growing into new places and people.
Aisha: How were you able to get these themes from the poems you made these artworks for?
Katherine: I was commissioned by Doek! Literary Magazine to draw the images, thus, Doek! sent me the feature line from each poem which I then used to create my visual interpretation. As an example, the line I was given for ‘Green and Greening’ was “I remembered that I am a living thing.”
Aisha: All you had to do was create images from these lines. Was there a point that was difficult for you?
Katherine: In a sense, yes. With editorial and narrative illustration, especially when made on a commission basis, it is important to try to represent the idea of the text as accurately as possible rather than letting loose with my own ideas. The creativity of the artist is shown in finding the best visual solution to the abstract text idea. It was difficult for me to get into the mind of each writer so that I could visually do justice to the beautiful poems I had to work with. I had a line “Like other Rwandan girls, her mother’s orders forbid her to talk loudly or be pretty” from the poem ‘La Fille’, which was a really tough idea to represent. As I have not visited Rwanda, I had to dive in and do research on how women from Rwanda, who follow strict traditional rules, dress and present themselves. It is hard sometimes to research like this from a distance, as countries like Rwanda and even Namibia are still exhibited on the internet in stereotypical ways.
“I rarely draw an image without a character in it to tell a story. This is something that has been prevalent throughout my work since my studies, as I was exposed to characterisation and building stories through visuals.“
Aisha: I think I can relate to doing research about an African country from a distance. Do you seek to change Namibian identity with your art?
Katherine: I think it would be wonderful to add to the Namibian art identity and use my work to bring more life into the art environment. Visual Arts is a field in our country that doesn’t get the recognition it deserves. In some schools, such as the one I went to, we are lucky enough to take art as a school subject and have this added to our matric certificate in order to pursue art as a career. At many Namibian schools, however, this is not the case. Additionally, we have so much talent here, but artists really struggle to make a living from their art alone once they have finished studying—it always comes down to dividing precious creation time with having a different job that gets food on the table. Each Namibian artist has a unique voice, but because the art that sells is often craft-based and catered towards tourists, those voices get lost. It has always been a dream of mine to teach art, especially illustration, to fellow Namibians. I really hope that this will still become a reality one day, as I believe teaching is one of the most impactful ways to make a difference in a community. In short, I would love to change the Namibian art identity for the better, whether this is through my art or using other means to bring more awareness to this field.
Aisha: If you weren’t taught art in school, do you think you would still have pursued it?
Katherine: I have always leaned towards creative fields such as writing, music and dance, so I do believe that I would have picked up some form of art. I think that I might have chosen a different career path though, had I not received the official art training.
Aisha: That’s great. Could you tell us about the name of the series? How did you create it?
Katherine: The process behind the name of the series is based on a poem that I wrote after I came back from Namibia. I highlighted the experiences I mentioned before of feeling like I lost my footing after returning home, but then learning to love the environment.
Here is the poem, to give you a better idea:
“You came home.
You fell from the sky—
sprawled like a Devil’s Claw in the dust of the welwitschia beetle’s playground.
The vultures picked the skin from your bones and flew away in the golden sunlight with brimming bellies.
You lived on.
Your soul took wing on their feathered backs and soared within the heavenly clouds, drinking up the precious rain.
Their cries were distant echoes of your voice now raised in vicious warrior song!
NOW there was only elation, carried by the whispering winds of the icy desert night.
This dry terrain both generously fed and gruesomely bled dry your strange mind and vessel.
Outcast and cherished,
rising and falling,
neither here nor there,
neither wanderer nor settler.
But you belonged.
You became the yellow grass, the prickly pear and the camelthorn.
You did not only come home.
You became home.”
Many of the themes mentioned above—images of the Namibian desert, feeling lost and learning to accept your position in life and the world around you—appear in the series of artworks. The title Becoming Home encompasses all of these aspects.
Aisha: I love the poem, it’s sad and beautiful and the imagery is vivid and powerful. How do you think people from other countries can find Namibia in Becoming Home?
Katherine: Thank you! I think that the images depict human moments—a teenage girl’s struggles with her heritage, another’s joy at finding like-minded individuals who are joined in their humanity, and a young man’s pain and heartache visible through a single frozen tear. These human moments of both joy and struggle are prevalent amongst Namibians, but are also present in every other part of the world. We live in a beautiful country, but its beauty is harsh and is sometimes lost in economic hardships and missed opportunities. Despite this, Namibia is full of inspiration: I hope that people can look at the various cultures captured in the works, the quiver trees and array of Namibian animals and see the pieces of Namibia that have made me return to this country time and time again.
Aisha: Let’s talk about human moments. Do they take center in your works?
Katherine: They certainly do. I am very fascinated by people (despite being an introvert) so I rarely draw an image without a character in it to tell a story. This is something that has been prevalent throughout my work since my studies, as I was exposed to characterisation and building stories through visuals. I think, especially as a comic book artist, it was always an enjoyable challenge to me to try to convey human emotions through wordless images. It is still amazing to me that a single line on a page can convey so much emotion!
Aisha: I actually noticed that with all of the art in the series, there was always a character telling the story in the artwork. It was like looking at their experience. I’m wondering what else being a comic book artist has done for your art?
Katherine: It definitely formed a big part of my style as an artist. While I wasn’t looking specifically at comics from DC or Marvel, drawing inspiration from these definitely helped me to figure out how to bring motion into an image. I spent a lot of time studying how one image flows into the next to end up with a series of images that can tell you a story, even without text. This involves attention to detail, symbolism and careful composition. You learn to say a lot with very little—almost like the “show, don’t tell” rule that you often hear about in writing.
Aisha: A similar rule does exist in writing, although I believe that it would be much harder to do with colours than with a pen. I’m going to take you back a little bit. When you talked about Namibia, you talked about economic hardship. Did this affect you in any way? Do you think it’s a real problem for artists and art in Namibia, especially for visual artists?
Katherine: I was lucky to have been raised in a very supportive environment—my mother always loved the arts, and nurtured this skill in both her children from a young age. However, that is not the case for all Namibians. As said, some schools don’t even offer art as a matric subject, without which it is difficult to gain the confidence to apply to a university degree in the arts. Furthermore, companies here rarely accept a candidate for an art/design job without a relevant degree in Visual Arts. There is, of course, the option to freelance, but this can be quite a dangerous career route to take, as it doesn’t offer stability in terms of workflow and income. COVID-19 has also had an immense impact on the arts, especially with regards to markets and musical shows (both usually enjoyed in gatherings). These are good places to build contacts and sell products, so when they are banned it leaves artists in a tough spot. Expenses are also going up (food prices and petrol prices are skyrocketing), which tends to mean that people rather spend money on what is considered essential, rather than a new art piece for their home.Thus, our current economic situation does make one worry. Thankfully, technology is presenting us with wonderful new ways to work from a distance and COVID-19 is proving that it is possible; I have already seen friends of mine use this to their advantage to teach online classes and jump into the world of digital art.
Aisha: Thank you for talking to us Katherine.
Katherine: Thank you.
This dialogue was edited by our Editor, Tamanda Kanjaye.
Aisha Kabiru Mohammed is a law student at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. Kaduna state is her home town. Aisha is a poet, essayist, and fiction writer. Her pieces revolve around identity, feminism, and the African mind and body as political and spiritual entities. In 2019, Aisha won the inaugural Andrew Nok Poetry Prize, awarded by YELF. She later judged the 2020 edition of the prize. When she isn’t studying law and writing, you can find her drinking tea, reading, stroking cats and volunteering to spread mental health awareness and to end SGBV. Aisha currently hosts a podcast segment for Ayamba LitCast called Poet Box Series.