Artist Of The Month – Bibo Keeley

‘The Wind In My Soul’

Meet Bibo Keeley, Outside In Artist of the Month for December. She talks to us about Tibetan monks, working in sculpture, performance and photography, scaring off death and rejection in a strange forest, marrying her husband in Intensive Care, cutting off her hair and singing Richard Strauss for the dead in Covid-related performances and the joy of improvised singing on Skye.

Why and when did you start making art?

In 2012 a friend of my now husband asked if I would sit for her as a model. I agreed, and as she painted me I noticed that everything about being in her studio felt absolutely right. In the stillness of the hours whilst I was sitting for her a thought slowly started to form in my head and eventually it broke out with sudden clarity. “I – am – an – artist.” It felt like a ‘revelation’.

 Subsequently I attended some local community art workshops and began to work with clay and make small sculptures. I joined the local Artist Society so that I could participate in their members-only exhibitions which I thought was great. (I left them again when the membership fee tripled). I also became an Outside In artist and was proud to create my very own online gallery. By the end of the year I had my first solo exhibition in a local culture cafe and I had also started to submit work to various open-call exhibitions across Scotland, where occasionally some of my work was accepted.  

 The very first sculpture I embarked on after ‘becoming’ an artist was a large head mask. I had seen a performance by touring Tibetan monks in Aberdeen where I live. I was totally blown away by the sounds and colours, costumes and masks. I had never seen anything like it and immediately had the impulse to create my own mask sculpture.

I loved the finished piece, but whenever I submitted it for open call exhibitions, it was rejected. This process caused me a lot of wasted and expensive trips to other cities to hand-in, and later collect, my (rejected) artwork. In addition, I would lose my submission fee each time. It occurred to me then that the fees that I was paying were actually subsidising large galleries and other organisations, as well as those artists whose work was accepted. It was a frustrating learning curve and I have never understood why this principle – where those at the bottom support those at the top – is so widely accepted in the mainstream art world.

Anyway, I was determined to see my sculpture Yamantaka in a museum and decided not to give up. In the meantime, my now husband encouraged and helped me to create my first experimental performative video piece. It included me wearing the mask in a strangely uniform forest. It felt like an act of defiance against all the rejections, hence the title Apparition Of The Rejected.

When my sculpture was finally selected for the Outside In exhibition in Perth in the following year (2013) I was overjoyed, and it felt uplifting and exciting even just to hand it in.

However, also in 2013 my newly found meaning as an artist came to a standstill, as did my whole life. My partner became critically ill following a severe heart attack and was hanging on for his life in intensive care, 150 miles from home. During these months of agonising uncertainty I stayed with him and hardly ever left the hospital or the adjacent hotel. However, I did go to the Outside In art exhibition opening in Perth. The whole event – and in particular seeing my sculpture Yamantaka in a real museum! – was a much-needed light in the very dark times I was going through, and I was extremely grateful for this.

Four weeks later, palliative care was introduced. My partner and I were married in an emergency wedding – organised in less than 24 hours – in the Intensive Care ward. I refused to believe that this would be the last thing we would ever do together. But I was scared.

Against all odds, starting on the wedding day, the condition of my now husband started to improve. He was able to be placed on the emergency transplant list, and at the beginning of November 2013 he received a life-saving heart transplant. In early 2014 he was finally able to get home. For the next year I became his full-time carer while he recovered. By autumn 2014 I was in need of respite – so I started a college course in art and design (which would later lead me on to art school). This is how I got back on track with being an artist. 

In 2015, the same Tibetan monks whose performance had inspired me to make my Yamantaka mask were back in Aberdeen, and I had the chance to meet them and express my gratitude for the inspiration they had given me. I showed them the mask, and although they didn’t speak English, they seemed very interested and were very appreciative. There was no rejection at all.

Where do you work?

When I decided to be an artist, I immediately applied for a studio space with the same organisation where the artist who had painted me was based. I was on the waiting list for years, but when a studio did finally come up out of their 50 spaces, it was the one exactly next to hers. It was perfect. We became friends; and renting from an organisation based in the Central Belt of Scotland who would occasionally share tenants’ work on their social media made me feel connected with the art world in a small way.

However, when the pandemic came along I was co-shielding with my husband (who is in the highest at-risk group due to being a heart transplant recipient), and I knew that it was out of the question to continue using my open plan studio inside a public building. It didn’t make sense either to continue paying for it and not use it – particularly since the rents had lately gone up at a significantly higher rate than the inflation rate. So I made a sacrifice and gave up my studio.

Now the front room of our flat is our dedicated creative space. I haven’t quite adapted to it, because its suitability for messy work is quite limited. However, during lockdown my husband and I also spent a lot of time in our small garden, to reflect, re-think, and to explore ways of becoming more connected with nature.

Even in ‘normal’ times nature is an important element of my work. We live in the North East of Scotland, and I am very drawn to the ‘wild’ Scottish landscapes and coast lines, and the solitude of remote locations, so they often become part of my performative work.


How would you describe your work?

My work is a companion in my life as well as a reflection on it. It is constantly evolving and focusses on different themes at different times. To retain this fluidity I do not confine myself to a single discipline or theme, although I often tend to work in sculpture and performance.

Some of my work is rooted in the understanding of the bigger contexts of the themes I seek to address. Other work is very intuitive, and has the power to provide me with a sense of creative satisfaction and positivity, or to help me to access emotions which might otherwise be out of reach. Sometimes the meaning of these works reveal themselves to me only a long time after I have made them. It’s a reversed approach from selecting a topic or concept first and then fit an artwork into that framework; but to me it feels like a natural and authentic process.


Do you follow a set process or does it vary? 

As I work in a variety of media (mainly sculpture, performance and photography) – which quite often merge into one artwork – there is no single process I can follow.

For example, I might start by making a sculptural element (a mask, cloak, or something I can interact with). I then use this in a performance. My ideas are constantly evolving and are partly formed by the environment I am in, so there is a balance between planning the action and allowing improvisation and spontaneity. As I seek to fully immerse myself in my action, I would not usually aim to perform for a live audience. Therefore documentation becomes an integral part of the realisation of my project. Photographing and recording images and sounds provide a way of sharing my work and experiences with an audience at a later time. This whole process can become quite involved, so I draw on the skills of my collaborator, artist (and husband) Brian Keeley to work with me on the documentation and recording aspect of the work.

In contrast, if I want to create a bronze sculpture, there are completely different processes involved. As it is not possible to transport a fresh clay sculpture, I would need to create it in a studio at a foundry. The moulding and casting can then be left to the experts depending on the foundry and on how complicated the shape of the sculpture is. Bronze sculpture making also involves very careful budgeting as it is extremely expensive. But I have had the opportunity to create small bronze sculptures on a few occasions and it felt really satisfying.

What inspires your work?

I am inspired by themes which resonate with me and which influence my view on the world. Nature never fails to inspire me, for example the solitude which can be found in remote Scottish landscapes and coastlines. I also find inspiration in the qualities of some natural materials – like the forlorn beauty of driftwood, or the immediacy and earthliness of clay.  And I am inspired by exploring and immersing myself into the non-verbal ways in which creating art allows me to express myself.   

Do you have any creative role models?

I don’t have a role model. However, I immediately liked Grayson Perry and his work when I came across him in a college lecture. He seemed very down to Earth and appeared to have taken the approach that he will do his own thing rather than follow trends. I found that inspirational. Besides, clay is my favourite medium.

Are there particular themes that run through your work? If so, what are they?

The underlying themes of my work are: allowing time and space for reflection and re-thinking, the appreciation of the interconnectedness of the human and the non-human natural world and the need for healing.

These manifest themselves in my work in very different ways, but are always rooted in my human experiences – for example in my compassion for nature, my emotional responses to the uncertainties of Brexit and the pandemic, or my attempt to process the lived experience of (my husband’s) heart transplantation and the trauma and changes in our lives that came with that.

‘Wolf Woman’

 What do you hope a viewer/audience gets from your work? 

I have created a few works which address very specific issues, e.g. marine pollution, and misogyny. If these could contribute even in a small way to the discourse I would regard that as something positive.

But ultimately my work is rooted in personal experience. If the viewer recognised the emotions in my artwork through connecting with their own feelings like anxiety or grief, love, or a sense of inner strength, that would be as much as I could hope for.

 What is your favourite work of art (by another artist)?  

There is a bronze sculpture in the Scottish coastal town of Eyemouth which I find very moving. It’s called Widows And Bairns and commemorates the women and children left behind in the local community after Britain’s worst fishing disaster, in 1881. Many of them helplessly witnessed from the shore as the boats sank and the men drowned just outside the harbour. The artist Jill Watson created an exact number of small figures to represent each real woman and child of that time. She placed them on her own harbour wall – a five metre long very narrow bronze plinth. When I saw the sculpture in situ the scale really drew me in – I had to get up close to see the villagers who look like they have hastily gathered in the storm, and are huddling together in terror. It was very powerful.

Is there an artwork that you are most proud of/ favourite piece?  

The favourite piece of my own work is a bronze sculpture. It is a female figure which is half human and half bird. Her head and torso look distinctly human, although the markings on the surface remind you of feathers. Instead of arms she has wings. The covering of her upper legs could be read as clothing or feathers, but her tail and her lower legs are clearly those of a bird. She has strong feet which give her a firm grip, and some scratch marks around the area where she stands are reminders of the power of her eagle-like talons. She has turned her curious attention to a little creature which she is holding on the inside of her wing which she has turned up like the palm of a hand. It is another hybrid between a bird and a human, but less defined. As they are holding eye contact, its mouth is open – suggesting an infinite array of possibilities of what it might be trying to communicate.

‘Nurture 3’

 I modelled this 65cm tall sculpture in clay at a foundry where they welded an armature for me, going by a rather crude drawing I had made. From there it was a fairly intuitive process. (When it came to the moulding, casting, welding and coating, they took over again.) I loved everything about the process and the atmosphere at the foundry, and I love the finished sculpture.

Tell us about the performance pieces you have created during Lockdown…  

During lockdown my husband and I were shielding. At the beginning there were a couple of weeks when we didn’t know how to get access to basic food, which left us with a feeling of insecurity and vulnerability which we had never experienced before. The daily news was intense. The NHS staff were suddenly dubbed ‘heroes’ who were working ‘on the front line’ – as if they had signed up for military service and were willingly accepting life-threatening working conditions; and as if we should regard it as normal that they were making so many sacrifices. Meanwhile the UK government’s handling of the crisis was disconcerting and resulted in the UK having the highest Covid-19 mortality rate in Europe. There was (and still is) so much human loss. The situation felt overwhelming. It triggered fears, memories and sadness of another time when a sudden disruption (my husband’s critical illness) had brought my life to a standstill – and of losses of loved ones which I have experienced in my own life. This is the backdrop against which I created my performances.

“A New Normal” is a radical act of parting from something personal; maybe as a sacrifice, a symbol of solidarity, or in a bid to gain control by letting go of what is non-essential for survival. At the same time, it is an act of determination and liberation.

(The specific way in which I tied up my hair was determined by the requirements for hair donation so that I could later send it to a charity which provides free wigs for young people with cancer.)

 In “Lament For Over 40,000” I sing Allerseelen (All Souls Day) by my favourite composer Richard Strauss. German is my first language and his poetic way of expressing the longing for being reunited with a deceased loved one deeply resonates with me.

When I use singing as part of my art practice, I do not regard this as a musical performance but an expression of emotion.  I could not have created the videos without the expertise of my collaborator, husband and Outside In artist Brian Keeley.

What has been the standout moment for you as an artist so far?

In 2018 I received an award for an artist residency on the Isle of Skye with a subsequent solo exhibition in Glasgow. It was completely free to choose what I wanted to do, without the restrictions of having to follow somebody else’s brief. Prior to my residency I created two sculptural artworks to use on location: a ‘Cloak Of Love And Hope’ as a symbol for being conscious of the need for human and non-human healing and a ‘Looking, Listening and Responding Device’. On Skye I then created a series of meditative performance actions. I took the time to stop, look and listen – and made the effort to be present in the natural world, to actively appreciate our interconnectedness – and occasionally I responded to nature by the means of  improvised singing.

‘The Wind In My Soul’

It felt good to be able to share this experience – in the form of photo and video documentation, ‘artefacts’ and the sculptural elements I had used – in Glasgow – because cities are environments in which we can easily forget our connection with nature.

What are your hopes for the future?

My hopes for the future in general are that we will fully embrace the interdependence of the human and the non-human natural world for the sake of mutual well-being and survival.

In respect of my future as an artist I would like to share a quote with you which I came across somewhere: “Don’t die with your music still in you.” For me this music is my art; and my hope would be that, as I continue on my journey, I will find opportunities to set this music free.

Video performance pieces are filmed and edited by Brian Keeley

2 Comments about this

  1. fiona carruthers

    Really enjoyed exploring your work and reading about your story, Bibo.

    Reply moderated
  2. Bibo Keeley

    Thank you for your kind words, Fiona, and for taking the time to leave a comment.

    Reply moderated

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