Passage Arts x Bissy Riva

Bissy Riva Studio Photograph

Image courtesy of the artist. (p.c. Natasha Sweeney)

Passage Arts had the opportunity to speak with Bissy Riva an interdisciplinary artist currently working in Nairobi, Kenya. Riva works at the intersection of painting, textiles, and design.

Passage Arts: Can you start by telling us a bit about yourself?

Bissy Riva: I am an abstract painter and textile artist based in Nairobi, Kenya. While originally from Hamilton, Massachusetts, I spent a few years living in London during my childhood and later lived in Boston throughout my teenage years. I moved to Nairobi about three years ago after completing my Bachelors in Fine Arts at the Rhode Island School of Design where I focused on Textile design & studies.

PA: When did you first start working as an artist?

BR: I have always loved making art; from a young age I was constantly making things with my hands. Midway through high school, when I was about 16 or 17, I began painting as a kind of therapeutic outlet. I enjoyed it so much I began creating artwork non-stop. Soon after I started selling my paintings and receiving commissions for custom pieces; I continue selling my work directly to buyers today. 

PA: What pushed you to start working with textiles?

BR: I have always been drawn to fabric. I am half Peruvian and have long admired traditional Peruvian weavings. I started collecting these woven textiles - called mantas - each time I visited Peru; over time I learned about the process and ideology connected to the fabrics and the traditions of weaving. Now I collect textiles wherever I go!

When I began art school I initially thought I would study painting. Once I learned that the foundation of most textile techniques begins with painting, I thought textile design could be a way for me to combine my interests in fine arts and fabrics. I also felt that learning a new discipline would push my creative practice past the limits of a standard canvas.

Bissy Riva, Myth of Four Maidens, 2020. Image Courtesy of the artist. 

PA: Do you find a lot of dialogue between the process of painting and creating your textile works?

BR: Definitely, I think one process informs the other. I am drawn to paintings that I can identify patterns in. That is why I like to work abstractly. When approaching textiles I like to work in a painterly manner, like using a sewing machine as a tool for drawing or sculpting.

I have found that process is really important to my personal practice. I try to think of my own process as a system of layering. I will focus on a single subject matter and then investigate the subject through a variety of paintings and textile processes. Usually after I paint the subject on canvas, I will then experiment with painting it onto fabric or even printing an image of the initial painting on fabric and then painting over it again.

PA: You said that you lived in New York briefly after you finished your degree at RISD. How have you found the transition to Nairobi? What excites you about the creative environment there?

BR: Yes, I lived in New York for a few months after graduation. I was familiar with the city because I spent the summer prior interning at a costume house and had visited many weekends but I still felt very new to New York when I arrived. Once I moved to Nairobi I still had the same post-graduation excitement and nervousness of being in a new city but I found it to be a very welcoming environment. It’s a really vibrant and energetic city. There is a very creative spirit in Kenya; whether it is in the arts and design world or the start-up scene, there are so many interesting things constantly emerging that have a new or innovative approach.

PA: I know that you spent some time working at a textile and fashion company in Nairobi, and a lot of your work revolves around wearable objects. I’m curious to hear more about your perspective on the connection between fashion/clothing and art?

BR: I think there is a direct parallel between fashion and art - they are often one in the same. I think fashion designers are inherently artists and a lot of artists may also be fashion designers. Whether a fashion designer is making prints, developing fabrics, cutting patterns, creating new garment styles, or trying to get their creative works to fit around a body, the designer is inherently crafting an art piece in the process.

PA: Of the work you’ve made up to this point, what are some of your favorite projects or pieces?

Bissy Riva Impasto Thesis Textile Art

Bissy Riva, Impasto, 2018. Image Courtesy of the artist.

BR: My thesis work at RISD, which I titled Impasto, was my biggest labor of love thus far. I was working with the concept of abstracted memory: exploring how time, distance, or other influences can alter one's perspective.

I painted brightly colored scenes of photographs I had taken in black and white 35mm film. The idea behind first photographing in black and white was that this step allowed me to remove the first layer of the subject’s reality: color. This forced me to work abstractly, as I was then crafting a color palette from memory.

I then photographed the paintings and digitally printed them onto fabric. Then I sewed what felt like thousands of textile scraps underneath the digitally printed fabric to build these kinds of non-functional wearable sculptures. Each of the three full pieces took me almost three weeks to construct. 

The final pieces acted as movable paintings, embodying the layers of distortion that may abstract one's memory over time.

PA: You mentioned the last time that we spoke that you were working on some new ideas that you were excited about. Would you mind sharing a little bit about what you’re working on?

BR: Yes I am working on a number of new ideas but they are definitely still in development! I have been playing around with stretching my own canvases using recycling remnant fabrics from local textile factories. I like the idea of working with existing materials and repurposing textiles into other areas of my practice. Sourcing the fabrics and stretching the canvas myself helps me connect to the painting further.

As a textile designer who has previously developed and produced fabrics for the fashion industry, I want to investigate the idea of sustainable consumption and explore ways in which these existing textiles can be repurposed into pieces of art. 

Bissy Riva, In Four, Her, 2020. Image Courtesy of the artist.

PA: What is an aspect of your work or your practice that you are especially proud of or excited about that you don’t often get the chance to talk about?

BR: I think abstract art can often be misperceived as random or arbitrary, but there is so much more to it. I personally like to approach a piece with a set concept or intention in mind, even if I know it may change throughout the time I spend crafting the piece. Before beginning any project I typically spend a lot of time writing; I rarely sketch an idea first since I have found writing helps me best articulate my thoughts and emotions. (However, I don’t often share the text produced in this step!)

Another part of my process that I don't typically talk about is that I have frequently gessoed over an almost-finished painting when I felt it didn’t capture my original idea. I actually never mind doing this step, as it builds up texture and allows me to restart without the intimidation of a fully blank canvas. I usually like those pieces the best!


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