Kei Maye

12 August 2018

Kei Maye

Self-described as ‘an awkward twenty-something living in London’, Kei Maye talks to WE THE OUTLIERS about her journey as an artist, living unapologetically, and her experiences of womanhood.

HOW DID YOU GET INTO ILLUSTRATION?

I’ve been surrounded by art and creativity my whole life, but it was only when I finished sixth form that I started to dabble in it. I started off doing website design, but then I moved onto graphic design, which I went on to do at uni. When I graduated, I started to veer into surface design – like digital patterns. A lot of my patterns were nature inspired, and I reached a point where I realised I’m bored of doing this; I’ve got more to say, and I’m not saying it through flowers and plants. I realised I had to teach myself how to draw – how to illustrate and depict the things that are going on in my mind. That’s the only way that I’m going to get my thoughts, my daydreams, and my sources of inspiration out there.

WHERE DOES YOUR INSPIRATION COME FROM?

Experiences, things that annoy me, things I daydream about. Sometimes a by-product of that is a political message, but that’s accidental.

IS THERE ANYTHING THAT YOU’RE LISTENING TO, READING OR WATCHING THAT IS PUSHING YOUR CREATIVITY?

Slay in Your Lane – I had to get that. It’s very encouraging to see black women doing so well now, and reading that book is really pushing me along because we’ve got a voice now. We’re not on mute anymore; we’re actively taking up space. Reading through the book, you can see all the transgressions, all the micro-aggressions, and all the things we deal with daily. This book is a way of saying this is how we deal with it all; there is a way forward, and we’re going that way. So, that spurs me on.

WHAT DOES “LIVING OR EXPRESSING YOURSELF UNAPOLOGETICALLY” MEAN TO YOU?

It means not caring about what people think. I spent too many years of my life caring about what people think, and in those years my growth was stunted. I was always at the same position, at the same job, year after year, the same level of misery, the same complaining about the same things, and this was all because I cared about what people thought. I was afraid to say things, and I was afraid to do things. So, I decided to scrap that; I plan to live my life the way I want to live my life. The only way to do that is to do it fearlessly. If you don’t like something, speak up; that’s the only way you can change it. Have the confidence and the freedom to know that you are enough, and you have the right to pursue the life that you want. 

Is there any conflict when it comes to being creative and speaking your truth but also being able to make money from your art?

Before I started making money from my art, I did have that sort of conversation with myself. I was like I’m about to change my whole portfolio, and the people that were riding with me before might be like: “Oh my god, what’s all this stuff she’s talking about?” I did worry that they wouldn’t be interested in my art anymore, but then I just had to push it to the side. I’ve found that I’ve become more successful ever since I started speaking my truth.

WHY DO YOU THINK THAT IS?

I think that people just want the real: they don’t want contrived art. You can sniff contrivance from a mile away; you can sense if someone’s just doing something because they think it will sell. I think people appreciate the fact that I’m sticking to my truth. I’ve been told that I’m relatable, so I think that might have something to do with it. 

How is womanhood represented in your art?

There’s different parts of womanhood. We live in a patriarchal society, and we deal with so many issues. Even just going to the shops or coming back home by yourself, we’ve got to do deal with so many things. For example, Mother Bear addresses the whole issue surrounding breast feeding: another socio-political issue that we deal with because breastfeeding is demonised and seen as this disgusting, sexualised thing. I use my images to combat that and to celebrate things that often aren’t celebrated by society.

Your identity, your background, your inspiration and influences, how is that represented in your work?

They’re mostly black girls. I have had a comment once that annoyed me: “This would be perfect if you drew her with afro hair.” As black people, we don’t all have the same texture hair. My work represents all shades of black, and it celebrates all shades of black. I think that’s how my background plays into it because growing up I didn’t really see much artwork that involved modern culture and black women. When you go to galleries, you don’t see that. It’s all dead white male artists or dead white people. So, I am challenging that essentially.

IN THE PAST, YOU’VE ADDRESSED THE TOPIC OF MENTAL HEALTH. DO YOU THINK THERE IS A STRONG LINK BETWEEN ART, MENTAL HEALTH, AND WELLBEING?

I do. Personally, I find it therapeutic because I have had spells where… I don’t know if I can call it depression. I don’t know what it was, but I just know that I would wake up every day and feel miserable. It was when I was at a job that just sucked the soul out of me, but the moment I started to create something it made me think and feel differently. To me, it was a form of therapy. I know a lot of creative people who are dealing with mental health issues and see art as an outlet and a way to release that energy. It’s not a one-size-fits-all, but I think it is a helpful way to deal with life or deal with issues you might have.

What is your self-care routine?

When I’m feeling crappy? The first thing I do is isolate myself. To some people this might be the complete opposite to how they would deal with things, but I find that I re-energise much better when I’m left alone. Maybe I’ll watch movies or read a book just to get that escapism, but the last thing I’ll do is put myself around people. It just makes it worse for me because then you end up putting on a poker face, while the whole time you’ve got these thoughts going around and around in your mind. You just need that time to absorb, deal with it, move on, and go back to the world.

Calm in the Chaos

This was the first image I created, the first image I presented as a polished product to the world, and the first image I ever sold. Essentially, it’s about trying to find your peace. London is just jam-packed with buildings, noise, hustle and bustle. So, it’s important that you find the time and space to just exist on your own, with your own energy, with your own mind, and not be taken in by all the noise around you. Just block out the noise and find your calm in all the chaos.

Piece of Peace

This was inspired by a horrible relationship I had, when I was 17, with a guy who was possessive and controlling. He would try to tell me who to speak to, guilt trip me all the time, and tell me what to say and what to wear. He would say things like: “Why are you wearing those jeans or those tracksuits? I’m trying to get respect for you as a woman and you’re dressing like this!” I remember I met his mum and she seemed nice. But then afterwards, he said to me: “She says you look like you won’t be a good provider because of the way you dress.” I had these Reebok trainers; they were not THAT bad, but he was like: “You wore them to my house, and my mum saw those and just thought you don’t look presentable.” I later found out that was a lie. When I started uni he came with me to the open day, and he was like: “I’m never coming to visit you here.” It was at that moment that I realised I had a get-out clause. You know when you just think: “Wait a minute – no! Bollocks to that! I’ll wear what I want! Who are you to tell me I look like I won’t be a good mother because of the way that I dress?” It just goes back to all these expectations of women: dress like this or present yourself like that just to be taken seriously or be respected. I’m sick of it! If I want to sit on a park bench with my legs sprawled out and wearing tracksuit bottoms, that’s what I’m going to do. Why’s it only men that can sit like that? ‘A Piece of Peace’ was a massive middle finger to the patriarchy and to my ex for making me feel like I had to fit a certain mould to be respected.

What projects are you working on now?

Print Plug! Throughout my whole creative journey, I’ve encountered so many setbacks: finding manufacturers, monetisation methods, or being fleeced by scams on PayPal. I wanted to create a space where people can come to find out about these things. It’s like a behind-the-scenes look at the industry and ways to circumnavigate obstacles. It has a manufacturing directory on there because I often get asked by people things like where they can get posters printed or whether I know where they can get socks made for example. In the directory, there’s about 40 or 50 different companies, so people can go there to find companies to bring their ideas to life. And now, I’m working on the freelance hub. It’s a central space for up-and-coming artists to increase their visibility. It’s also a space where people can find freelancers to help them with their projects instead of trawling through Instagram looking at different pages.

Sounds awesome! Thank you, Kei.

You can find more of Kei Maye on her website and on Instagram


The original interview was conducted in English and has been edited for brevity and clarity