Melbourne artist Kaff-eine is championing queer heroes with her interactive art project
02.10.2020

Melbourne artist Kaff-eine is championing queer heroes with her interactive art project

Audience participation at Melbourne 2020 'Infinite Thanks' chapel, photo by Kaff-eine
Words by Augustus Welby

Infinite Thanks is encouraging connection and gratitude within the LGBTQIA+ community and beyond.

Melbourne artist Kaff-eine excels at getting audiences to engage with social and political issues through her work. Kaff-eine started to gain attention as a street artist about a decade ago before moving onto solo gallery exhibitions and social impact installations. Over the last half-decade, her work has been embraced around the world, from Melbourne to Darwin and Berlin to Mexico.

Before becoming a full-time artist, Kaff-eine spent time working in legal and social policy, which she points to as the origin of the social and political advocacy that underscores her artistry. She’s long since left law behind, but her art is informed by a strong social conscience – which is by design.

“I’m always wanting to use whatever I’ve got to tell stories and support others that might not have their stories heard,” Kaff-eine says. “I hope that by now when someone sees a Kaff-eine piece, even if it looks like a pretty picture of a kid on a wall, they’ll understand that if I’ve painted it, there’s going to be some politics around why – either who I’ve chosen to paint or where I’ve chosen to paint or the timing.”

One of Kaff-eine’s most explicit social impact projects was 2015’s Happyland, which saw her paint more than 100 photorealist portraits of the residents of two Manila slums. The stunning portraits were printed onto giant waterproof tarpaulins, which were given to residents to use as shelter or to fashion into makeshift homes.

Kaff-eine also painted Australia’s first transgender street art mural, a towering portrait of Tiwi Island sistagirl and drag performer Shaniqua, which was completed for the 2018 Darwin Street Art Festival. She returned to Darwin in September 2019 to launch the evolving project, Infinite Thanks, which allows members of the LGBTQIA+ community and allies to express gratitude for their “rainbow heroes.”

“It’s always more rich if you can involve others in the experience,” Kaff-eine says. “So, whether it’s having people come and paint a wall together or whether you involve people in deciding what you paint, it’s a really nice way to connect folks.”

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Melbournians, having lived under Covid restrictions for the past 6 months, are currently in the middle of a strict #lockdown and #curfew. Many of us are feeling anxious, lonely, traumatised & disconnected. This is especially the case for some #LGBTQIA+ folks who are confined with bigoted relatives; forced back into the closet for fear of conflict; or isolated & cut off from vital support networks. . . Participants who actively collaborate in exciting public creative endeavours regularly experience positive social connections, raised self-esteem & increased mental health as a result. A conscious focus on gratitude helps people to maintain a healthy mental state during challenging or traumatic conditions. . . Given this, I’m excited to announce a new Covid-safe chapter of my #InfiniteThanks project for @fusedarebin, which begins today! . . Adult LGBTQIA+ #Darebin residents, #Melbournians & friends: collaborate with me from your own homes during lockdown. Help me create a special collection of paintings about rainbow #gratitude, #heroes, & recollections of #thankfulness, at this exceptional point in time. . . Reflect upon the rainbow people, personal/private events, & things for which you’ve been grateful during your life. Share a few sentences about these with me, via email. They can be melancholy, happy, rated G or AO, anonymous of identified. Watch me create a devotional painting from your words, then celebrate as the finished artwork becomes part of the permanent travelling Infinite Thanks collection, for all to enjoy. . . All personal/intimate stories are welcome, especially Darebin-connected contributions. Will you share celebrations of rainbow love blossoming in #NorthcotePlaza or #Northland #Bunnings? Will you send me stories about surviving top surgery at #ReservoirHospital? Will you contribute queer tales of loss or triumph during Covid-lockdown? Is there a particular rainbow hero who has helped you through lockdown? Are you an out-of-towner who wants to devote a painting to your legendary Melbourne or Darebin-based rainbow friend? . . (Further details & dates in comments)

A post shared by Kaff-eine (@kaffeinepaints) on

After launching in Darwin, Kaff-eine set up Infinite Thanks in a mobile chapel at Kensington’s Can’t Do Tomorrow festival this February. It’s back again this October as part of FUSE Darebin, only this time it’s being staged virtually.

Infinite Thanks is a highly collaborative project, with the majority of works stemming from written submissions made by members of the public, which describe moments in their individual stories that they’re grateful for.

“I wanted to create something that was community-led, so it’s going to become whatever the LGBT community wants it to be,” Kaff-eine says. “I wanted it to follow the rough traditions of the Catholic ex-voto, [which are] devotional paintings that Catholics dedicate to their saints.”

Ex-voto artworks follow a loose formula, consisting of a painting of a miraculous event along with a brief written description and a saint looking down and providing protection.

“I love that idea and I was thinking about the rainbow community and how we’ve been ostracised and shunned from a lot of religions and society, historically, and as a result, we’ve kind of created our own culture and idols and heroes and deities and saints,” Kaff-eine says.

Kaff-eine was inspired to create a collection point, not just for these icons, but also for the stories that rainbow folks are grateful for. The project is rooted in the belief that gratitude and thankfulness is a powerful tool for connecting people.

“Everybody, it doesn’t matter what your sexuality or background, understands the concepts of gratitude and thankfulness. And we’ve all had times in our life, whether they’re amazingly happy or amazingly shit – I’ve explicitly said, your gratitude and thankfulness story doesn’t have to be positive.

“One of the most powerful, simple stories I’ve gotten so far is literally two sentences, and this person is just thankful that they didn’t die when they were bashed outside of a queer club.”

For its FUSE iteration, Kaff-eine requested that people email their stories of gratitude and through the second half of October she’ll be posting updates of her progress on the new paintings. The finished artworks will be added to the Infinite Thanks travelling roadshow when that’s able to relaunch, as well as being exhibited at a gallery in Darebin next year.

“The paintings and the stories will go onto the Darebin website, but then in autumn next year when FUSE does their autumn iteration, they’ll turn up in the [Infinite Thanks] chapel and people will be able to come and see face-to-face.”

Hit up Kaff-eine via email at kaff.eine@yahoo.com.au to have your painting done.

FUSE goes down online from now until November 29. Find out more via the festival website and keep up to date with them via their Facebook and Instagram pages.

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