Inside the Mind of Mojoko
Iran-born Steve Lawler was raised in Hong Kong, educated in Europe and has lived in Singapore since 2003. As Mojoko, he mixes Asian and Western influences with B-movie sensibility to produce art that pops and dazzles the eyes. Interview by Julia Roxan.
Mojoko – real name Steve Lawler – had quite the global journey before moving to Singapore. Born in the Iranian capital of Tehran, the Brit spent 16 years in Hong Kong before studying graphic design at the University of Brighton.
In 2000, he moved to northern Italy to attend Benetton Group’s prestigious Fabrica art residency in Treviso before kickstarting his interactive design career with a year at the Diesel headquarters.
Moving to Singapore in 2003, he climbed through the creative ranks as an artist, designer, curator and creative director. He established the Kult studio in 2007, later adding a magazine of the same name and opening a gallery before leaving the company after almost a decade, having built a reputation for curation, installation, interactive design and fine art.
Having worked with a global network of over 600 artists, designers and animators, Mojoko is currently the Creative Director of The Unusual Network, an international collection of creators, and Head of Creative at EYEYAH!, which he co-founded in 2017.
As a Brit raised in Hong Kong, can you explain why the city has had a lasting influence on your art?
Hong Kong was an overload on the senses. The neon lights, the volume of people, the sights and smells were intense. The energy is infectious and the juxtaposition of Western and Asian culture was everywhere – Chinese movies with English subtitles, Rambo movie posters with Chinese typography. I found it fascinating and still do.
There is definitely an air of nostalgia about it for me, but it was so futuristic and still feels like one of the most exciting cities in the world.
Alternative and obscure movies have had a big influence on Mojoko
Do you still feel British, having lived in Asia for so long?
I think I have a British sense of humour, but I’m not particularly patriotic about the UK. I still look to it as a benchmark for creativity and quality content, but I do enjoy a global perspective on all things art, music and film.
Who has most inspired you in your path as an artist?
During my second year at university, we had a film module led by Dr Chris Mullen. He introduced me to the visual telling of stories and world of alternative cinema. He was the most knowledgeable person across so many subjects and has one of the largest, most comprehensive archives of imagery online.
Lawler at work in his studio; Photo: Brilliant Prints
Mojoko sounds funky and rather universal, like it could come from Japan, Indonesia or Nigeria. When did you adopt this artist name and where did it come from?
Actually, the name comes from the printing process CMYK. I was playing with colour values on my computer and I noticed M=0 Y=0 K=0. It just resonated with me, and yes, it felt like it could be African or Japanese or Indonesian, so I loved that versatility of the moniker.
Your art is strongly inspired by B-movies, trash TV and alternative culture. When did it all begin?
I think it was born by rejection of the mainstream. I always hated pop music and big Hollywood films. I found alternative music and culture much more exciting and unusual. For example, in a VHS video rental store, I was much more glamoured by the graphics and titles of the weird sections than the blockbuster films. They were much more intriguing and explicit.
Silkscreen on ceramic tiles in antique redwood frames, created for Art Stage 2017
Has collage always been at the core of your creative process?
Everything I do has an element of collage. It’s the interplay between two separate ideas which create a spark. The creative process is very much started by linking two previously unlinked ideas. This idea multiplies with more and more elements, so the trick is to try and control or guide it so that your concept or theme is understood.
Tell us more about your collection of comic books, advertisements and B movie posters.
I must have started collecting around the late 1990s, everything from Rave flyers, typography, vintage catalogues and stuff like that. It just became a habit to seek out the obscure things in flea markets and jumble sales.
I used to make scrapbooks and then anything that wasn’t cut up was put into a kind of filing system. I keep on searching for new (old) things. That’s what keeps me going and triggers inspiration. And yes, online has become a valuable resource for finding things, but in Asia there is very little 1960s and 1970s pop culture documented online. You have to dig for that the old-fashioned way.
Tell us about The Secret Room, your recent show in Singapore.
The Secret Room delved into the mystery and intrigue of the past, but with a modern twist: deconstructed antiques, traditional paintings and objects infused with contemporary internet culture. The installation featured over 20 new artworks in varying traditional mediums, such as rosewood furniture, lanterns, ceramics and glass, but with a modern twist.
What are your thoughts on Singapore’s art and design scene?
I think the biggest problem is, and will continue to be, that artists can’t afford spaces to create and show work. The scene is primarily gallery driven, which means non-commercial work has very little opportunity to grow its influence. Artist-run spaces are always where you see the most progressive work and we should recognise and try to nurture that.
The Secret Room exhibition in Singapore
Having worked in the likes of Singapore, Tokyo and Taipei, are there any other big cities you’d like to work and exhibit in?
I’d be happy to have more shows in Europe – Paris, London, Amsterdam, for example. I’ve sold works and have some great buyers there, but never had the opportunity to showcase there. I look forward to that.
Are there other countries in Asia that appeal to you because of their artistic scene?
I’ve always loved the visual power of work from the Philippines and Indonesia. They would be my favourite Southeast Asian countries, closely followed by Thailand. However, I’d have to say Korean art has excited me the most over the years. Always pushing forward, a real thrust for originality seems to be a driver there in terms of medium and subject matter. Their harnessing of kinetic sculpture and craft is most impressive.
Artwork displayed on the artist’s website mixes west and east, classic and modern
You’re popular among many art collectors across the region, but is any of your work displayed in museums?
I’ve had a number of works featured in museums, but most of them were temporary. The Singapore Art Museum has been the biggest Patron, commissioning a mix of digital installations and sculptures over the years. I have some museum projects in the pipeline, but they are still under wraps for now.
Where can people see your work online?
The most up to date place to see what I’m up to is Instagram (@mojokoworld) and if you are looking for archive projects and prints, it’s best to visit mywebsite.
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