#QueeringLockdown: Interview with Will Hughes and Robbie O’Keeffe about ‘I’m a soldier to my, Own emptiness, I’m a winner’, and about finding digital spaces to exhibit in these COVID-19 times

Will Hughes and Robbie O’Keeffe visiting Gasworks in London.

In this episode of #QueeringLockdown, a series of conversations with LGBTQIA+ creatives during quarantine, I am interviewing Newcastle-based sculptor Will Hughes and London-based painter Robbie O’Keeffe about their duo show‘I’m a soldier to my, Own emptiness, I’m a winner’. We discussed finding a digital platform to show their work in these surreal times of COVID-19, tips for self-care and coping strategies, and daily inspirations in the art community.

Francesco Ferranti: Hey Will and Robbie, can you please introduce yourself and your pronouns? 

Will Hughes: Hey, I am Will. I use They-Them pronouns. My practice is based on narrative, memory and seduction with an emphasis on repetition and being in the moment, explored through anthropomorphic shapes with a strong material importance.

Robbie O’Keeffe: Hey, I am Robbie. I use He-Him pronouns. My practice is based on painting. I describe the artistic style as ’visual music’ in which I build layers of space and colourful harmonies within an image. Although inspired by a sense of place, my work often pulls towards poetic, emotional notions.

FF: What does #QueerLockdown mean to you?

WH: Queer lockdown for me has so far been a struggle, I’m away from my home in Newcastle isolating with my family in the midlands, which means I’m away from my belongings (Make up and array of black clothing) and routine. Going back to the family home I feel my identity shift away from being the queer diva to the gay diva, unable to express my full self in these surroundings.

As someone who struggles with mental health this is a particularly difficult situation to cope with, but I do understand this will be a hard situation for everyone, especially those who struggle with mental health and eating disorders. With all this extra time on our hands it can lead the mind to places you don’t wish to linger in.

I am so grateful to have Robbie in my life to distract me and listen to me moan down the telephone. I have increasingly over the last year been writing short texts influenced by everyday activity, science, science fiction and music: this period of isolation has made this my main artistic output which is an interesting avenue for me to pursue.

RO: Queer lockdown for me has meant spending time at home in London. Adopting the lockdown regulations has left me a little pent up about not being able to do things I would usually do like visiting museums and galleries, and swimming. I’m spending the downtime watching documentaries – brushing up on art history and the theory of art rather than the practical. I am still very grateful that we can go outdoors.

I have managed to collect a few materials from the studio to work on some linocut prints at home. I’m finding a general source of inspiration from relationships with important people in my life, very much including Will as well as friends and family over the digital format.

Poster for ‘I’m a soldier to my, Own emptiness, I’m a winner‘. Courtesy of the artists.

The Exhibition:
‘I’m a soldier to my, Own emptiness, I’m a winner’

A duo show by Robbie O’Keeffe & Will Hughes on babe.hotglue.me 

‘It passes through me, an invisible energy, that touches what cannot be found. I search in this moment for why i feel this growing desire. I look for you under moonlight, as the beat returns to me. You are tangible in the rhythm but always just out of reach, a phantom in my dreams, a spectre of desire, a ghost in my peripheral vision.’

From right to left: Robbie O’Keeffe, ‘Hospital Dancer’ (2019), 30 x 42cmBlack printing ink on mount board. / ‘Moonlit Seclusion‘ (2020), 30 x 42cm, Black printing ink on plywood. Courtesy of the artists.

RO: The Exhibition title is taken from ‘Marry the Night’ by Lady Gaga. This is because my ‘Hospital dancer’ series of works are related to my recollection of the song and from my experience of visiting a cousin on a mental health ward. Will’s work explores memories of intimacy and feelings of detachment through a number of sculptural and digital works. These emotional notions are what strings our practices together. 

We originally planned to show it in Gallery North in Newcastle – upon the realisation that the physical version couldn’t exist any time soon, we have kept to the same time schedule in presenting an online alternative.

WH: We used a website platform called Hotglue to make the exhibition, ‘I’m a soldier to my, Own emptiness, I’m a winner’, which can be viewed at babe.hotglue.me until 16th April 2020. We chose this platform because of its versatility and options for layering images, text and videos. The online platform allowed us to test new ways of curation which would have been extremely costly in a gallery setting such as using a drawn motif as a background instead of a while wall. Being online it also removed the geographical constraints of the show as it can be viewed anywhere in the world. 

Most websites work on scrolling down, through much discussion between myself, Robbie and some friends we made the exhibition as much more of a plane which you traveled across, discovering the work as you explored the website. A sound track made by myself accompanies you on your journey. which is very apt in this time of isolation. 

It has been interesting to follow the popular culture references between Robbie and myself’s work. It is clear that we have different aesthetics but i feel they mesh together really well through the subject matter and the mix of material and colour. 

From right to left: Robbie O’Keeffe, ‘Yellow Car’ (2019), 10 x 15 cm, Oil Pant on wood / Will Hughes, ‘I’m just gonna dance all night, I’m all messed up, I’m so outta line’ (2020), 150 x 57 x 24cm, Silver tinsel wigs, polystyrene, window wiper motor, conduit pipe, silver tape. Title taken from ‘Dancing on my own(2010) by Robyn

This can especially be seen in the relationship of the works ‘I’m just gonna dance all night, I’m all messed up, I’m so outta line’ (2020) and ‘Yellow Car’ (2019). The movement of the swishing in ‘I’m just gonna dance all night…’ combined with the speed of the car in ‘Yellow Car’ which is moving so fast it is not confined to the painted surface and is zooming off into the distance makes for a great dialogue and conversation between the works. Added to this the sound work ‘Journey 1: ‘Peugeot 206 sport’ you are transported into another world a dreamscape of music, seduction and narrative. 

Playlist that inspired the exhibition. Courtesy of the artists.

What are your tips for self-care and coping strategies?

RO: This is such an unusual and novel time for everybody. In addition to the reality of the pandemic, it’s ok to feel unmotivated, worried or anxious. The simple pleasures are still intact like food, listening to music, baking, movies, the outdoors, home exercises. It’s daunting not knowing how long this isolation period will go on for but I’m finding that keeping sight of things I want to do and achieve on the other side of this is keeping me going.

WH: It’s OK to spend most of the day in bed, if you find yourself in this situation just make sure you do one nice thing for yourself that day like do a bit of baking or shower. This period for me has affected my creativity and drive severely. I would also like to say reduce your time on social media, instead of going on social media i have been watching woodworking and small home videos on Youtube.

Which people keep you inspired and motivated during these days of social distancing?

RO: Aside from Will, and our shared goals for the future (including a physical duo show!), my friend Geneva has been a constant source of inspiration and great friend. Seeing my friend Toby Rainbird (@toby_rainbird_art) continue his painting and drawing practice with momentum and gusto also inspires me. Unfortunately, not all artists are in the right surroundings to continue making in their usual format, but there are many that still inspire me. 

I also want to thank ‘Sweet ‘Art’ and Siân Matthews (@sianm93) for choosing my work ‘Moonlit Seclusion’ in their Sweet Quarantine competition. They are constantly dedicated to the promotion of artists.

WH: My friend Abi Charlesworth (@a.chfa) is a constant ray of light through these times. I am also very thankful to UKYA and Garth Gratix (@garth.gratix), I should have been doing Blackpool weekender with ‘The Coast is Queer’ but this has now been postponed. But they are still paying us this month and have put together a panel meeting online for us instead.

What are your future projects?

WH: I was due to take part in ‘The Coast is Queer’ this month with UKYA, Abbingdon studios, Art B&B and Garth Gratix for Blackpool weekened. This has now been moved to September and with the nicer weather in September it will be an even more pleasing experience to spend the weekend in Blackpool with other queer artists. 

I am still doing my Master of Fine Art at the BxNU Institute and I have another year ahead of that and I am looking forward to completing that next June.

RO: I was scheduled to be part of an Exhibition in my hometown of St. Albans in the newly opened St Albans museum and Gallery. This is now online instead and running until 21 June. This brings together 50 artists with a connection to Hertfordshire.

I am looking forward to continuing my painting practice in my Brixton Studio. 

FF: Any others queer projects you would like to highlight?

WH: I would like to highlight the work of Queer Voices in London who do a great job at supporting the community through engaging events. 


Robbie O’Keeffe is based in London and has a studio at ACS Studios in Brixton. He was selected for New Contemporaries in 2017 and won the John Apthorp award in 2016. Robbie’s work seeks to portray a poetic message, with a foundation in expressionism, surrealism and landscape.

Will Hughes is based in Newcastle upon Tyne and is studying for a Masters in Fine Art through BxNU. In 2018-2019 they completed a year-long studio residency at Spike Island in Bristol and in the same year won the Kenneth Armitage Young Sculptor Prize. Will’s practice is based on narrative, memory and seduction with an emphasis on being in the moment, explored through anthropomorphic shapes with a strong material importance.

Follow the artists: 

Website: willhughesartist.com / robbieokeeffe.co.uk

Instagram: @robbie.okeeffe/ @will_hughes_art_

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