Kate Toledo has slicked back pink hair and the enchanting mannerisms of a classic Hollywood film star, including the habit of calling everyone darling. As a native Kiwi transplanted to Brazil and most recently the UAE, her accent is soft and untraceable, which makes her all the more mysterious. We met as students in Chelsea College of Art’s short course on curating and I wanted to learn more about the woman who dresses in muted whites and grays, yet paints in brilliant colors and is known for her line of antiquity-inspired screen printed silk scarves.
A few months later I got my wish and was sipping sparkling San Pellegrino in Kate’s Dubai villa one afternoon, snooping through her art collection and bookshelves. When I visit someone I always go straight to their bookshelf to see what they read—I’m not even coy about it. Looking over someone’s books can be more personal than scrounging through their bathroom medicine cabinet or shoe closet. The art collected by Kate and her husband whom she affectionately calls Doc— was mainly Middle Eastern, frequently sourced from Rose Issa’s gallery, and the books, crammed two rows thick are from the library of Kate’s late father—like father, like daughter—Kate only reads historic biographies. There was also a pronounced obsession with furniture and artifacts originating from Maoist China.
Unusually enough, Kate’s own paintings and scarves were scattered throughout the living and dining rooms. Unlike most artists, who would rather be buried alive then surrounded by their own work, it doesn’t make her crazy. She confided, “Darling, the things I’m drawn to come from museums and are usually so precious and irreplaceable that I could never own them because they belong to everybody.” For this reason, her entire practice is heavily influenced by antiquities found in museum collections.
This habit of documenting and reinterpreting artifacts began twenty years ago in the soaring cathedrals of Brazil, a country she found herself transported to after a whirlwind romance culminating in marriage to Doc, a Brazilian plastic surgeon she met by chance one sun-drenched Christmas on the island of Tortola. Even though she was meant to jet back to Wellington (where she was based at the time), Kate reminisces, “I did a massive detour and stopped off in Sao Paulo” and ended up staying for Carnival. “My introduction to Brazil was dressing up as Carmen Miranda in a hat with all the plastic fruit on top, dancing samba down the main boulevard in Rio.”
It was while settling into the tempo of life in South America that she began to paint in order to make sense of her coordinates in relation to her adopted culture, eventually enrolling in three years of art school. Her work during that period was all on canvas and in response to the ornate details of Brazil’s Catholic icons.
Two daughters and several art exhibitions later, Kate and her family relocated to Dubai. Although she liked the city from the start, it took her Carnival-soaked eyes some time to adjust to the subtlety of pigments in the Middle East’s dunes and traditional coral buildings. Initially everything was sand-colored and as an artist who had always relied heavily on the rich symbolism of colors, she experienced a case of creative agoraphobia. But this period of compression eventually led her to grow, “I was forced to pay more attention the repeated patterns prevalent in Islamic architecture—beginning with the windows and doorways in the old houses of Al Fahidi (formerly known as Bastikiya). A trip to the fabled Museum of Islamic Art in Doha later, and her imagination was completely taken with a Persian 12th century incense burner shaped like a dove. She bought a copy of the catalogue and ran her manicured fingers over the artifact’s glossy image and description, turning it over and over in her mind as though it held a secret she was meant to open.
It began with quite a large painting inspired by the incense burner. Then another of a fierce lynx, and finally a pair of shining gold Syrian earrings—the kind a bride might have received as part of her dowry hundreds of years ago. Next came the visit to the 2012 Grayson Perry exhibition, “The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman” at London’s British Museum. Kate recalls, “By chance I visited the museum’s gift shop and found a scarf by the artist. I was able to purchase it and thought, well now even though I don’t have a signed work of art, I do have a bit of Grayson Perry. I’d always been painting on large canvases and I realized I could also make my art accessible to collectors who didn’t have enough space or money for the original.”
She immediately got to work adapting her paintings to screen printed scarves constructed from silk and produced in a family run workshop in Cuomo, Italy. The dove scarf came out in 2012, followed by a series of others, all of which can be found draped elegantly across the shoulders of women at art openings, or rolled and tied in loose knots around the heads of stylish 20-somethings in the city’s beachside cafes. As a garment and object of art, the scarf—whether worn as a hijab (veil) for traditional reasons or not—could not be more grounded in the every day lives of women in the Middle East. Before I caught a cab home in the boiling summer heat, Kate led me to her inner sanctum—her studio—which is a surprisingly tidy nest of paint tubes, dog eared art books. “Darling,” I wanted to say to her, “Let’s dye my hair pink, light some candles, and paint here all night.”
Photo Credits: Courtesy of Kate Toledo