Agnes Waruguru on Rituals and Connections

Creating spacial installations with sculptures and bedsheets dyed/painted with hibiscus, saffron and turmeric residues. We discuss place & connection, beadwork, collecting sounds of the wind, studio rituals, and questions about trade and labour.

Am I right in thinking you are working on fabrics instead of canvas? 

Yes I work predominantly on cotton and linen. Although I work across many mediums and techniques. 

I began by using my old bedsheets, upholstery textiles, sheers, traditional textiles from Kenya (kanga), Doilies my mum had in her house, and textiles I had in my own home once I started to move between countries. I was interested in ideas surrounding home, since I often felt displaced, so I wanted to understand what it meant to move through different spaces. I also wanted to work with materials that felt familiar and had a history. 

Since expanding my scale I am working with different types of cotton and linen which are available wherever I am. These are sometimes hand spun and other times manufactured on a large scale. I believe the works create a closeness to the viewer and feel connected to our lived experience on this substrate due to its softness, transparency and it being a material you’d encounter in other spaces. 


I am really interested in your work with hibiscus, dried flowers, saffron, salt, turmeric. Can you speak a bit about developing processes with these materials?

I use these materials across many works. Similarly to the textiles I wanted to use the things around me that reminded me of my home. I began working with hibiscus when I was in residency in Sydney. I would always share a hibiscus tea with visitors to my studio - hibiscus is  a flower also present in my mother’s garden. It was a grounding ritual, and I began to dye my table cloth with all the dried hibiscus left overs from tea. I started to cleanse my textiles in salt after doing a residency in Lamu, where I was by the Indian Ocean. I found the process of cleansing with salt water similar to how i would feel renewed when entering the ocean or cleaning a wound with salt water. It also separates the inks i use and i have less control over the final image making think of the water as a collaborator. It is a starting point for my textile works now. 

While in Amsterdam I was interested in the flower trade between Kenya and the Netherlands. I visited local markets and asked them about the origin of their flowers. I started to buy roses and lilies from Kenya to make pigment with. They often came with very interesting packaging and brought up questions of labour and trade for me. This is similar to how I think about beadwork: where do the beads come from and how does something from the west ,and which is controlled by the west, become a symbol of culture in Kenya? 

I often chose to work with materials that have a personal history which can be expanded to reflect many people’s experiences. My materials and processes often draw on colonial histories as well. 

I would love to know more about how your materials represent memory and place?

In a series of prints I made called “remnants”, I was collecting different types of nettings from my surroundings on an island called Lamu. The collection process was just about finding netting while on a 30 minute walk everyday. I proceeded to make monoprints of the nettings. They are localised, yet connected to a whole industry of construction, fishing and clothing… 

You mention that at the core of your practice is 'The materiality of objects in space ' which are 'intimately rooted in personal identity politics'.. I'd love to hear more about this

Recently I’ve been lucky to work on more spacial installations, where textiles, ceramics, writing, books, memorials and everything can exist together all at once. I’m interested in how things are functioning all together, the relationships we can draw across objects and how time can transcend their meaning. I invite everyone to look more closely and investigate what they are looking at - to notice if something is really as it appears or if it may be something else. 

I chose to work with materials that are connected to my home country and the place I'm in. I do this through reading about indigenous plants and noticing things that seem to be out of place in whatever landscape I'm in, drawing connections between the two places. 

A recent project I did was collecting sounds of wind in Amsterdam. When I was riding my bike and from a window in my house. The exercise started after I lost a friend - I was trying to listen for a sign or some communication. This led to research about traditional practices around burials in my tribe (Gikuyu). I learnt that when someone passes they are seen as an inbetween, a communicator between earth and god. This research resulted in ceramics in the shape of Kalabashes which are often used in traditional ceremonies. I turned them into a vessel you could listen to - something that felt empty but that could also amplify everything around you if you listen. 

It's amazing to see how you are glazing ceramics as if they were paintings - does your relationship with the work change working between paintings and sculptures?

I think everything comes from drawing. I think what changes is the muscles used in the brain to make something work the way you want it to, but I believe the origin is the same. I’ve always wanted to make sculpture, or work off the wall, with space. My approach has been to think of things in layers, almost like making a collage in space. I think that’s how I approached making the ceramics as well, working in multiples and then building layers on the surfaces.