One to Watch

Inside the Colorful World of Emily Kirby


Inspired by the raw emotion and movement of animal wildlife, Emily Kirby’s figurative work is a deep dive investigation of color and form. Her boldly fragmented and color-blocked works are influenced by her roots and ongoing trips to Africa. Emily has exhibited internationally with shows in cities including London, Lusaka, Dubai, New York, Prague, and Valladolid. In 2012, Emily was awarded The Chairmans Ngoma Award for Visual Artist in the Diaspora by the Zambian Arts Council.

1. Tell us about who you are and what you do. What’s your background?

I’m a figurative painter. I set up my first studio whilst living in Stone Town, Zanzibar, back in 2008. I’ve been working as a full-time painter since then. I was born in a rural part of Zambia in the early ’80s and like to think my color palette is influenced by these early years out there. I later grew up and studied in the UK. I now regularly return to Zambia to visit family and paint. My work is often exhibited at the 37d Gallery in Lusaka. Hove is currently home having recently returned to the UK after living in Spain for the past four years. A lot of my paintings are heavily influenced by the different places I’ve lived and traveled in.

2. What does your work aim to say? What are the major themes you pursue in your work? Give examples of specific that demonstrate this.

My work often uses a single figure as a point of focus. I paint people and wildlife that are in the midst of some form of struggle.  Climate change and species extinction are both topics that are currently informing my practice. The equal rights movement for women has also been a subject that has driven a recent collection of nudes. I enjoy the challenge of addressing these subjects and trying to transmit an expression of these struggles through the use of multi-layered figurative painting. It is subtle, but the idea is to allow the paint to tell a story for the viewer to interpret. I like to think of the figures in my work as vessels through which I can attempt to express my ideas and reactions to the world around me.

3. Can you walk us through your process for creating work from beginning to end?

I usually have an archive of photographs I’ve taken that I use to source a reference for a figure to represent an idea I have for painting. I also use found imagery in some cases. I then work on canvas directly to lay an initial abstract ground for the figure to be built onto. I like this approach as there is an unpredictability to it, the painting takes on a life of its own from early on that I can then respond to.

4. What series or artistic project are you working on next?

I am currently working on a series of paintings called Little Warriors. Inspired by the recent movement to highlight the climate crisis by school children from around the world. I once worked for Greenpeace in New Zealand and environmental issues have always been very close to my heart. I have huge admiration for young people who are standing up to make their voices heard in a world that is suffering from a great deal of apathy over these topics.

5. Why art?

I see art as a useful form of communication. Colors themselves are powerful triggers of different emotions. I like to use paint as a way of exploring ideas, to attempt to transmit something of depth through a 2D image.



About the Author

Monty Preston is the Assistant Curator at Saatchi Art. Need help finding art? Contact her via our free Art Advisory service at