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In Her Own Words: An Interview with Ugonna Hosten by Danae Browne

In December, I had the honour of being able to interview Ugonna Hosten. Hosten, who was commissioned by York Art Gallery to produce the exhibition ‘chi: Altarpieces, Liturgy & Devotion’ as part of the Season of Drawing, has created an extraordinary body of work that considers history, sacred knowledge, spiritual connection, and the creative process. Her work, which she approaches with a meticulous attention to detail involving a deep research process, inspires introspection. Hosten’s words are a further testament to her brilliance and the strength with which she challenges norms around the hero/ine’s journey, what it can look like, and who can take that journey, as articulated in Eurocentric discourses.

Read on to hear Hosten describe her art in her own words. I hope that you learn as much from her as I did.

1. Background. Hosten has an academic background in Criminology. To begin, I asked her about her journey to becoming an artist.

DB: I’m really curious about your background in Criminology. I read the interview you did with George Vasey on your website, and thought it was interesting that you came from what would seem like a completely different field from the arts. How did you get here?

[Hosten’s earlier interview, titled “DESCENT: an exploration of depths” can be found at the following link: https://www.ugonnahosten.com/blog]

UH: That’s definitely a good place to start. I didn’t practise art at all (prior to and during studying criminology). I’m the first of five children and my dad had a very specific vision for us. He had a passion for academia and his vision for us was to be in a job market that was stable–hence why we migrated here in the first place. He was always quite passionate about academics. So for me, I had no option but to follow through with that.

Having my own children when I was in my early twenties allowed me a different pace of life, particularly being on maternity leave and coming away from the rat race. I started working when I was 16, and I had this vision of being a criminal investigator (so working in intelligence). I guess it was starting a family with my husband that made me feel like I could carve out a life of my own, and then it naturally flowed to me thinking about the various career paths that were available. It was not until much later that I started to carve out the time and space to be more creative in my thinking.

I tried various things, but fine art is one that has sustained my appetite for thinking about really deep themes, and allowed me to develop my non-linear thinking. That’s how I got here in the long and short of things.

DB: I find it interesting how when you have to pause for a little while, so much can change. I haven’t had the same experience, but the pandemic lockdowns led me to pause and reconsider many things. So much happened in that time that if I hadn’t had to slow down, I actually would not be here right now talking to you.

UH: I think the pandemic had a big effect on a lot of people in both positive and negative ways. Pausing and really reflecting helps you to clarify, to really come into communication with something bigger than yourself.

DB: Yes; for sure.

2. How has criminology factored into your art practise?

UH: What I enjoyed about criminology was piecing together fragments. That idea is still quite prevalent in my practice. This idea of creating a whole by bringing together things. So, I see what I’m doing as continuing a broken dialogue. The way that these spiritual practices and sacred knowledge would have been passed on generationally would have been through conversations, and through storytelling and ceremonies. That dialogue between the elder and the younger generation had been broken through colonisation, and what I’m doing is continuing that broken dialogue. That’s how I would say it’s related to the approach of criminology; and in terms of methodology, knowing where to look and research has been quite vital for me as well.

DB: Can I ask where you do your research? Do you hold conversations in the community with elders? Do you have specific libraries that you go to, or archives you look at?

UH: I’ve found quite a bit online, and SOAS is a good place where I’ve looked for [academic] papers. I read literature as well, and also have conversations with my mum. It’s a combination of those things really.

3. How does spirituality factor into your work?

DB: I’m very excited to ask you about how spirituality factors into your work. I was wondering if you could speak more to that if you don’t mind.

UH: My upbringing was very, very spiritual. I grew up in a Christian home so I’ve gone through everything from my baptism to my confirmation. I’ve been through all the rites of passage in the Christian tradition. That means I’ve spent a lot of time being in church—we used to go church every Sunday as a family up until I was probably about sixteen or seventeen. That’s important for understanding the structures that I’m working with, that I’m in dialogue with, and that I’m also challenging at the same time.

I always think about my exposure to the Bible as a way of developing my mythical thinking. When you read the Bible, you don’t necessarily have to be of faith; you read anything because the text is full of imagery. It invites and sends the imagination to a place. You have to think of what these landscapes are like. That upbringing was formative for me.

In my practice, and I guess in my personal life, I no longer identify myself as a Christian, but I’m a person who is attentive to the spirit. What that means for me is there are certain things I do personally like meditate and journal; I’m quite reflective. I’m a lot more into thinking about ways of attending to the spirit in a bit more of a wider sense. Not necessarily defined to a specific religion; I’m not really interested in organised religion. I’m more interested in ‘who is the divine’? And ‘how do we connect with that’? And it shows itself in various ways.

This is a huge theme that I’m exploring in the work: the human spirit and our quest for self-mastery. How do we connect with something greater than ourselves? And that’s what the

heroine’s journey is. The heroine is the central character who through her journey is wanting to meet her personal guiding spirit. The idea of the chi is central in the Igbo cosmology: the idea that we are born with a guiding spirit who knows exactly what we’re here for.

This idea of the chi is something that is not necessarily unique to the Igbo culture. It shows itself in various cultures and religions, and also mythology; this idea that we’re born with a specific mission or missions in life. So that’s the way that I’m currently exploring the spiritual realm in my work; through this idea of the heroine going on a journey to establish a relationship with her inner self.

4. Literary influences and narrative challenges. In this section, Hosten and I discussed her literary influences and those literary figures whose work she challenges in her art. In her first response, she mentions an upcoming question regarding Carl Jung’s concept of the collective unconscious.

DB: Just thinking about that [the previous question] and the heroine’s journey, I’m wondering if you have ever engaged with texts like Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces?

UH: Yeah; I wrote a note about that. One of the questions that you ask is about the collective unconscious. The collective unconscious is something that is universally recognized; it’s personal and shared by all. I wouldn’t necessarily say I work with the collective unconscious directly, but what I would say is that through my personal experience of being in dialogue with sacred texts and thinking about how these processes and knowledge have been lost–and about the way that I present that in the form of a narrative—my hope is that I can connect with something that is universal, which is going back to the fact that we are both physical and spirit and the same time. At some point in our lives we are invited, we are called to integrate the two of them.

And, like you said about the pandemic, that was some people’s invitation to do that. That was some people’s invitation to recognize that we are not on a treadmill. There are some people who had things in their life that happened that bring you down to ground zero. You just surrender to something bigger than you; whether it’s through losing someone, whether it’s through a forced reckoning with something, we’re all invited to do that. So, I guess, going back to what I was saying about telling a personal story; my personal story is that I’m looking at my history, and I’m also looking at alchemy and psychology, and what I’m doing is just allowing these stories to permeate a bit and allowing something to come out. So, I’m not necessarily retelling a myth that already exists; it’s just this is how everything exists within me. And this is a visual way for me to present it.

In terms of Joseph Campbell, what’s interesting about him is the idea of the arc, the hero’s journey. I have my reservations about Joseph Campbell because he has some very problematic prejudices about the African continent and our way of storytelling. Also, he has this hierarchy of what he considers as acceptable knowledge, and I hope to be challenging that. He did a lot of comparative studies in terms of mythology, and he shed a lot of light on how there are themes in cultures, but unfortunately he didn’t look at Africa and place our way of storytelling in that canon, and neither did he highlight any women. It was more about the hero.

Some things in his hero’s journey show themselves in our popular culture. We see it in The Lord of the Rings, and Star Wars, this idea of the hero being called to go on a mission. I’m challenging those themes by first making it a heroine, and the heroine’s Black, and the heroine is reaching into her own culture. So, my work is challenging [Joseph Campbell’s] notions of what a journey might look like.

DB: Thank you for that. I’m glad that you spoke about that text because some of the people who read our interview will wonder.

Before we move on to the next question, is there anything else you’d like to add?

UH: What I’m hoping is that the pathway is a personal lead to the collective rather than the other way around. I think to begin as a collective is very heavy, especially speaking for myself, a Black woman, whose history is very heavy to operate from the standpoint of a collective. I have to speak on what my personal experience has been and try to be as imaginative about it as I can be, because that’s the only way that I see myself engaging and immersing myself in my history—- by finding a way for me to explore and immerse myself in the knowledge that’s there.

DB: It’s wonderful that you’re looking at the history that’s not written in the books that are presented to us. I also find it incredibly challenging at times to engage with these histories because you have to do so much digging to find stories other than the one that is “the history.”

UH: Exactly. I think what makes it problematic is that history for a black person often starts with the slave trade. And, it’s just like, hold on. People lived before then. What was our existence before that time? And that’s what history is, isn’t it? It’s not when the conqueror or the coloniser arrived, it’s what was life before that. Surely that’s part of history as well.

5. Exhibition set up. Here I asked Hosten about the exhibition space itself. We discuss how the lighting and the colours she uses in her work operate to create a particular kind of space for the visitor.

DB: This next question is still related to that last one, but I remember that when we were installing your exhibition, you were indicating how much light you wanted on each of the pieces. As I’ve gone into the exhibition over the last few weeks, I’ve thought about how every aspect of your exhibition room creates this transcendent space. Thinking about spirituality, meditation and reflection, I feel like everything in the room works to create that kind of a space for the person who’s coming in. It becomes almost more than an art gallery from my point-of-view. But I wonder if it was intentional to create that kind of space.

UH: Wow; that’s really beautiful to hear you say that because it certainly was. I mean, there’s a technical aspect to it where works on paper can only be lit a certain way, so inherently it creates this dimly lit room. But, in terms of the space that I’m creating, I spoke to Becky [Here, Hosten is referring to Becky Gee, Curator of Fine Art at York Art Gallery] about the colours for the room and how I wanted it to be a womb-like space. Simply because, the drawings seem to take place in this cavernous space and I wanted to recreate that for the visitor; this sort of internal space; this world that’s below the threshold, underground. That’s what I wanted to achieve.

DB: As a follow up to that womb-like aspect of the space, in one of the last times that I went in the exhibition room, I spent time looking at the water vessels. I wondered if the water vessels also tie into that creation of the womb-like space. Is there a reference there?

UH: Yeah, definitely. I guess the reason why I chose the water vessels in the first place is because they point to the objects within ritual. Water is a recurring theme within the works at York. For me, that pointed to what these waters are held in, and they’re held in these water vessels. But there’s definitely also a visual connection to that womb-like space (this space that is pregnant with ideas, knowledge; this place that is fertile; a place to retreat to). There are times when it’s best to reach out if you have a problem, but sometimes there is knowledge within us. There is a need for introspection, for us to think of what we have gained in our own personal experience, and how can we then bring that forward in whatever challenges we meet. It’s understanding that both reaching out and in have the same weight and are valuable.

DB: Thank you for that. To continue thinking about the aesthetics of the space, my next question is about the media that you use and your choice to keep your drawings mostly in black and white. I’m just curious to know about this choice and how you might link it to some of these other themes that we’ve been talking about.

UH: I think there’s an immediacy about the materials that I use, in the sense that I don’t have to think about colour. So, there’s this directness that I quite like. Charcoal is also a very ancient material to use; and that also links to the fact that I’m talking about something that is ancient, ancient knowledge. It depends on what I’m trying to achieve with my drawings.

With the altar pieces, they were all done in pencil. When I’m using pencil, there’s a quiet stillness about it that I try to achieve. It doesn’t have the same density that charcoal does; it has this sort of shimmering quality about it. With the altar space I was trying to achieve more of a quieter, meditative type of space, whereas the charcoal drawings have a very rich blackness.

It’s also about the dark. We think of the dark as a place [that] can be scary, but it’s also a place of fertility. Going back to some of the themes we’ve just spoken about like the womb space, that dark; I think of soil, places that you place seeds in to grow. Fertile ground is often this rich darkness. So, it’s about turning preconceived ideas of what darkness is and thinking about it in a more positive way. Thinking about it as a way through into the light, because nothing exists without it being in that womb space. This sort of cocoon-like base of growth, and then it emerges from that soil, from that womb, into light. I guess, in a metaphorical way we can think about the materials I use in that sense as well.

DB: Thank you for expanding on that.

My next question is how your journey to meeting your chi helps you to consider the idea of the collective unconscious. I wondered how that whole journey led you to creating the beautiful ceramic piece that you have in the exhibition.

UH: The sculpture is a dream figure that I thought of as my chi. I wanted to see it three-dimensionally. The same figure appears in two of the drawings in York (‘Ask the morning light to adjourn her ascent for a little while longer’ (2023) and ‘At the dawn of each new day’

(2022)). I was working through the drawings and I thought, I want to see what that looks like in 3D as well, and realised that I wanted it to own space within the physical as well.

You asked about meeting my chi. It’s about the idea of acknowledging that I have a guiding spirit and how that might relate to the wider public, or the collective unconscious. The way I’m telling my story, I believe, is quite unique in the sense that I’m delving into my history.

I know a lot of authors have spoken about chi. We’re talking about great literary giants such as Chinua Achebe, Chigozie Obioma, Ben Okri…they’ve all spoken about chi extensively and I wanted to do that for myself in the visual arts. I wanted to see how that permeates with me. It’s a way of sharing an experience. This is just how these ideas take hold in my psyche and sharing that with people is a way of opening up perspectives.

It’s the same way with music, the lyrics might be very personal, but you’re transported there immediately. Or, even reading a story set in 1920s Japan; just because of the way the author tells the story, you connect with it because there are recognizable patterns. There are recognizable relationships and feelings within the way that someone tells a story or writes the lyrics to a song, or arranges a piece of music.

Ultimately, they’re all about the human experience, and the human experience is something that’s personal, but by sharing a personal story you can also weave this beautiful tapestry about how we’re all connected. We’re all very different threads of the same blanket, and when you interweave them and you allow a platform for all to share, express, and tell a personal story, I think the beauty is that you realise ‘oh actually it’s a lot more universal.’ So, it’s the process of transformation from individuality to universality, if that makes sense.

DB: Beautifully said. Just thinking about what you were saying about literature, in your interview with George Vasey, you noted that words are a substantial part of your practice. You mentioned that chi is something that comes up in Chinua Achebe’s work and Ben Okri’s work, so I wondered if there are other sorts of keywords that you’re working with in your current practice?

UH: Right now, there are lots of words, but the prominent ones are ‘fire’ and ‘water’. They’re natural elements that keep coming up in my work. As I said, within the work currently in the Gallery, water is a recurring motif: water as a cleanser; water as a metaphor for flow; water and the depths of the sea and the unconscious is really fascinating.

It’s really fascinating that we know so much about space, about what’s above us, but we are still cracking the surface in terms of the depths of the water. I think that that’s also related to our unconscious. We’re constantly out there, in the consciousness, and this idea of the internal, the unconscious, still needs to be explored. That’s what water is. If we’re thinking about the story of the heroine, fire and water are the two things that propel her on her journey.

Fire is this warmth. It’s illuminating, and that’s what I want to do. I want to spread the light, to share the knowledge I’m discovering through my investigations. In terms of water, I have a thirst for knowledge and discovery, and the water is quenching that thirst. It’s also cleansing; it’s clearing thought systems that are no longer necessary. It’s a clearing away of old thinking. For example, thinking about the serpent as an energy, as opposed to the literal sense, energetically it is not direct. It’s meandering in its movement; and to me that’s akin to the unconscious. This idea that you can’t approach it directly. You have to approach it in this kind of roundabout way.

The reason I brought that up is because growing up, when [I was] reading the Bible, the first thing you encounter is this Edenic landscape, and the thing that messes everything up is the serpent. I adopted that as my belief, that the serpent and that sort of energy is negative. And then, reading up on my own history and discovering that the Royal Python is a revered animal expanded my thinking. So, the idea of washing away old ideas and allowing new ones in, creating fertile ground for new ideas to take hold, that’s what the water is for me as well. Even if we’re talking about it from a contemporary angle, we’re going through this climate crisis and we’re having to think about our resources.

When I think about Fire, I think about community. I think about ancient times when the fire was a place that was built for everyone to gather around for warmth, to share stories. Fire could also be thought of as things that really are uncomfortable. It can be interpreted as anger at the injustices in the world (so, all these things that people are experiencing, or that I’m experiencing). I’m questioning why my culture isn’t looked at as one that has beauty in it, that has sacredness in it–that annoys me. So, what am I going to do about it? I’m going to make work! That Fire, that desire to like move the story along, that’s something that sits in my stomach. It’s this frustration that can also be read as Fire.

Another word that I would add to that is ‘Divine Feminine.’ Going back again to Genesis, the serpent was responsible for leading Adam and Eve out of Eden. But I think it’s almost like a coverup because the serpent is also the Divine Feminine. The way that I arrived to that is by considering how the serpent sheds its skin, and that relates to the feminine; this idea that on a monthly basis we have this cleansing of the womb, and this ability to regenerate. I’m challenging these really subtle notions of who has knowledge and the notion that the woman is responsible for evil. When I think of divine wisdom, it’s understanding that there’s a lot of knowledge within that archetype of the feminine.


6. Creative Process and Influences. In this section, Hosten and I discuss her creative process, along with the events, authors, and artists that influence her work.

DB: Two more questions! So, these are a little different from the others. The first is just how you would describe your creative process from idea to page (for perhaps even your students who might read this and be curious)!

UH: My creative process varies quite a bit. Sometimes it feels like visions or formed ideas. For instance, in the two pieces of work that are dreamscapes (‘My mother’s decree’ and ‘My father’s decree’) where ideas are lifted directly from dreams, I was thinking about what material I was going to use, and thinking about composition. Other times, if I have several ideas before drawing, I might make small sketches to think them through.

Then, there are a few pieces where I begin with a question. Sometimes when reading—various texts including academic papers—the ideas appear quite abstract. But I feel like what I do is create my own myths. In doing that, I’m asking questions. For example, how does that show up? How can I use this as a way of telling a story? Sometimes the ideas don’t come together for months or years. I’ll just have an image of something, and I’ll keep it there in a sketchbook, or I’ll have a highlight in a book, and a question in the margins. I’m thinking of how this might permeate, in an actual situation.

Sometimes there are significant or synchronistic events that happen. Synchronicity is important; something to pay attention to. ‘My mother’s decree, see the tail of the kite’ came from a dream. The horse in that drawing initially was a found image. I finished the drawing and then went on a walk with my husband to some fields by us. We’d been to this meadow a couple of times… we walked around the corner and found a field of horses. There had been horses trotting around before, but on this particular Sunday, it felt different. One particular horse, the darkest horse out of the whole herd, walked towards the fence, and it felt very intimate; it felt like this was saying more. I even posted about it on my Instagram, but it was quite impactful because of the timing. I had just finished a drawing on the Friday, and I was thinking about what I was going to be working on to begin my week. Having this synchronistic event happen propelled me forward.

So, there’s various ways in which my creative practice unfolds. Like I said, the ideas are almost like visions, or they just come fully formed in other ways, like something that happens outside in the real world that then propels me forward to make the work.

DB: That’s intriguing. I think there’s sometimes a temptation to think art-making is a linear process; that it always goes exactly the same way. So, that’s fascinating to hear.

UH: Yeah! And again, it’s just serpent energy. This energy that is constantly weaving in and out. I see dreams as very internal; the psyche trying to tell you something, and then these synchronistic events that happen outside of me. It’s this dualistic rhythm —inside, outside–that I find very interesting.

DB: Thank you for explaining that. Last but not least, I have an art history question for you. Are there any specific artistic movements or artists that you find yourself in dialogue with while you create your works?

UH: Yeah, the artist that I’ve returned to over and over again is Betye Saar. She’s a female American artist, and I just love her way of exploring the spiritual realm. She creates these beautiful assemblages that speak about the collective nature of things. In terms of movements, definitely the Surrealists, in the way that the unconscious is taken quite seriously, and dreams are used as a source of imagery. And the use of psychology and mythology within the Surrealists’ work. I’m also in dialogue with literature as well, For example, Ben Okri. Also, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a beautiful, amazing writer who I really admire and I’m striving to be as poetic as she is in my work.

DB: Same. I think we all should.

UH: Yeah.

DB: Thank you so much for being so generous with your time. It has been wonderful to learn about you and your work through this conversation.


Ugonna Hosten is an artist based in the UK currently represented by Ed Cross Gallery. You can find more information about Hosten and her work at her website, via Instagram (@ugonnahosten), or at edcrossfineart.com/artists. Hosten’s exhibition, ‘chi: Altarpieces, Liturgy & Devotion,’ will continue to be shown at York Art Gallery until 21 April 2024.

Danae Browne is an MA student in the History of Art department at the University of York. She is currently a research scholar at the Gallery, funded by the Friends of York Art Gallery, working with Becky Gee, Curator of Fine Art.