In collaboration with the sight charity Orbis, UK artist Tim Benson recently held an exhibition entitled ‘Visions of Zambia’, at the Mall Galleries in London, which featured 20 oil paintings created after a trip to Kitwe Hospital Eye Annexe, Zambia. We caught up with him to hear about Africa’s influence in his work.
Tell us about your journey to becoming an artist
I’m from north London — brought up in Highgate. I did an Art Foundation and then followed that with a Fine Art degree, which I finished 2001. I was picked up by a gallery from my degree show, and have been exhibiting consistently since.
My mum was very artistic and was an art teacher. So I was exposed to art from early age. It was what I was always good at and what I enjoyed. I had other options available to me, but art felt like the most natural thing to do – the creation of images and using my hands.
When did you first go to Africa, and how has it inspired your work?
I first went in 1987 to Morocco, but my first ‘proper trip’ was backpacking around the Republic of Congo in 2008. It really made a marked impression on me; how beautiful and wild it was, and how incredibly generous the people were — many who were incredibly poor but would offer us food and a bed for the night. Also, how accessible people were there, contrary to the UK where everyone is very closed off. The Republic of Congo was my first real visceral experience.
It was meeting those people that inspired my work. I used to be very into photography and took a lot of photographs, especially of the people I met. Painting their portraits was a direct feed from this.
Africa is a recurring theme in your work — why is this?
This is a difficult question, as I don’t particularly have clearly developed thoughts about why. My work is a direct response to experiences I’ve had in Africa, which have sparked an interest to discover more. Africa is a continent, but it is also something different, something more. We just don’t speak about Europe and Asia in the same way; there are too many different cultures, calling it ‘Africa’ is simplistic.
Africa is such a big topic with numerous levels; there are so many different countries, each of which have so many different aspects to them. For me, a natural extension to my interest is portraiture. It goes without saying that the incredible geography and climactic differences of Africa have had their own profound effect on me.
What is your favourite thing about Africa?
If I have to put it into one box: the generosity of the people I’ve met. The curiosity they have for what I’m doing, the ease and spirit they have taken me in with. It’s intoxicating.
How would you describe your style?
If I had to make a statement about my work, I would call my style modern impressionism. Not photo realistic, still accurate, but loosely rendered; a lot of loose mark making. Oil is my chosen medium because it is what I’ve always painted in, even in art school. I love its visceral quality; it acts like a liquid and has a life of its own. It is not prescribed mark making but more of an organic process, which I like.
What is your painting process?
My painting is mainly figurative. Ideally, I try to work from life with the person in front of me. This can be onto a number of materials, sometimes board, sometimes canvas or metal. I don’t draw, just work straight in with paint. In Sierra Leone and Zambia I couldn’t work from life because it just wasn’t practical or ethical, so I’d take photos and record an interview. I would then paint in London with the interview playing in the background, which is the next best thing.
I love the physical demands of working on a large scale with a large brush. The larger the painting, the larger the brush! I am a physical person and that translates into the way I work. I love pushing my abilities. I concentrate on the face and head because that is what I am most drawn to; perhaps something to do with the common humanity of the eyes and mouth — how we interact.
You held an exhibition on the ‘Faces of Ebola’ in 2016. You sourced material in Sierra Leone – tell us about that.
I had been painting portraits for years and felt that I wanted there to be more meaning to my practise, other than just painting per se. When the Ebola outbreak happened I wanted to tell the story through painting, which isn’t a media usually associated with such things.
My wife is a doctor and works in Kings College Hospital, in London. She told me about an initiative in which Kings had an offshoot in Sierra Leone. I approached them and asked them if they would be interested in a collaborative project from which I would build an exhibition to grow awareness. They were interested.
I went out there for two weeks and interviewed forty individuals who either had Ebola or had been treated for it. It was an incredible experience, full of astonishing, deeply sad stories. I took out of it the resilience people have in the face of adversity. The dignity people continue to live their lives with after being ostracised and facing grief. They were incredible human beings.
Tell us about your recent exhibition ‘Visions of Zambia’.
I was running a painting course in France in August 2016 in the lead up to my Face of Ebola exhibition. One of the people on the course was a trustee of Orbis. He said it would be exciting to collaborate with Orbis in a similar way to how I had with the King’s hospital initiative. Since then we have been working together to make this exhibition happen.
Orbis have projects all over the developing world and in Africa in Cameroon, Ethiopia and Zambia. They felt a fantastic focus for me would be telling the story of (predominantly) children who’ve have had their sight restored, in northern Zambia.
I went to Kitwe in June where I met, talked to and photographed the children and their parents as well as adults who were about to or had had restorative surgery for a range of different eye conditions. Having the surgery is no less than life changing. A number of people I met had had cataracts removed — and could see clearly again. Or squint realignment. These are life-changing operations which are commonplace in the UK but difficult to access in Africa.
You were witnessing work that would completely change someone’s life by saving his/her sight. What were the nurses and surgeons like?
The world’s leading surgeons volunteer for free to work with Orbis for a week or two at a time. One of the surgeons was an American whose speciality was paediatric surgery. He was lovely and very vocal in support of this kind of work.
The international surgeons train local staff to continue the work after Orbis has finished, so there is a legacy of some sort. This American was, at the time, training a local surgeon to deal with paediatric cases; he was incredibly generous with his knowledge. He’d worked with children all his life and had this very kind and empathetic manner. It was a pleasure for me to see him in action.
I’d never witnessed any surgery in action before, and it was a real eye opener for me (excuse the pun). Of course, all of the staff, the nurses, everyone, was incredible.
One of the problems in certain parts of Africa is the way modern, western surgery, is perceived — people can treat it with suspicion. Part of the remit of Orbis is to engage with the wider community and educate people. They talk about the necessity to bring cases to hospital rather than being treated by traditional healers. A massive step, and huge achievement, of Orbis’s work is that the traditional healers now tell the people who come to them to go to hospital. For me, to go out and meet these traditional healers and speak with them was a hugely enriching experience. It must be noted, they are not ‘witch doctors’ — they just use traditional medicines.
What’s next on your bucket list?
I would like to go back to Sierra Leone and see the people I met again. Just to see how they are getting on, and how things are now that the Ebola outbreak is in the past. To meet them as friends; it would be nice to re-engage with them on a human level.
To see more of Tim’s work visit http://timbenson.co.uk
To learn more about Orbis visit https://gbr.orbis.org/en