Words: Emily Carson
Kiki Na Art is a jewelry, fashion and art brand created by Dubliner Ciarna Hackett. Utilising celebrity iconography and bold patterns and shapes, Kiki Na has developed from a tiny homegrown idea into a clear and identifiable style that you might have seen adorning many of Dublin’s most fearless dressers. Ciarna returned to Dublin in the midst of the recession, choosing to set up Kiki Na as an antidote to the lack of opportunities available for artists and art teachers. Working from her cottage in Blackpitts, she creates a strong aesthetic that sits decidedly apart from intricate celtic metalwork or the recent rise of delicate, minimalist looks. Most of her pieces feature legends of fashion and art such as Frida Kahlo, David Bowie and Grace Jones but Ciarna also takes requests and creates bespoke pieces based on people’s own ideas of heroes or the personalities of their loved ones. We met her for a coffee to talk about the value of modern celebrity icons, living as an artist in Dublin and why people are asking for Brendan Gleeson earrings...
Your pieces are really unique to the typical style of jewelry at the moment, what type of people tend to buy Kiki Na stuff?
In Ireland the biggest problem I’d have is that the jewelry is really individual and a lot of people that wear it are into individuality. When you see people wearing the same pieces as you, it doesn’t feel as special so that’s why I try to make every piece different.
I am finding there are more people ordering [my pieces] who are more mainstream in their style. If someone who hasn’t seen them before sees them on somebody or on Instagram they’re fine but if they see them on a shelf they’re a little bit…For example, I was talking to a girl at a flea market which is great for market research and she said ‘oh I’m not bold enough to wear them’. So I said ‘I know you’re looking at me with a shaved head and my style and thinking that but anybody’s bold enough to wear it. Try it on and see what you think,’ and in the end she got it and she really liked it. I think a lot of people who aren’t alternative in their style would look at them and think ‘oh are they too expressive for me?’ It’s trying to find a niche. When you’re starting off in business on your own and you’re doing something unique, you think everyone will be amazed by it but people are actually quite fearful.
Can you talk a bit about your background and what led you to jewelry making?
I studied Fine Art in Galway in GMIT and finished up in 2004. Then I moved to Vietnam and became the Art and Music Project Coordinator for the Christina Noble Children’s Foundation. I wanted to travel and nobody wanted to go so I went on my own and worked for them for nearly 6 years. I met my husband there, he’s Vietnamese and an amazing painter.
I came back to Ireland during the recession in 2010. It was really bad, I couldn’t get a job anywhere so I had to make my own job, I had to figure something out. I was working from home and experimenting and trying stuff in my cottage. The back room is my studio and so I started messing about and then my sister bought me a pair of earrings with Frida Kahlo on them. I loved Joan Baez so I tried to make a pair of earrings with her on them and they were hilarious, I still have them. They’re like cardboard with sellotape around them, I keep that as my original prototype.
I started making really tiny pieces that I would charge maybe €12 for. My friends are really funny because they’re really into my jewelry, they won’t go out without it practically, they don’t feel dressed without a piece, you know? One of my friends has one of a small one of Meryl Streep and she calls it ‘original Kiki’ or ‘vintage Kiki’.
Where does the name come from?
So I worked for the charity in Vietnam and my name is Ciarna and the kids used to call me ‘Ciu-neh’ and then my friends used to call me Kiki. So it’s Kiki-neh, I kind of put the two together. It’s worked really well because I can refer to it as a different style and if it grows and people come on board I don’t have to feel so possessive of it. I’m glad I didn’t call it Ciarna Hackett because I can refer to it externally and say something is ‘Kiki style’. I love seeing the different people who wear it. Different age groups, different genders, there’s all different types of people wearing them. My Mam has one of her Mam when she was younger.
Do people come to with an image for your pieces? How do you approach that?
Well it depends on the person. If someone says to me ‘I want a Bjork piece’ oftentimes they’ll let me pick the Bjork image. Sometimes I’ll say ‘send me an image or a description of the person or a colour they like or shapes or whatever’ but if somebody comes to me specifically with an image usually there’s a story behind it or there’s a reason they’ve gone out of their way to seek out the image and not just the icon.
Have you ever gotten any strange ones?
I have a friend who ordered Brendan Gleeson. She has him on earrings because she had been listening to a radio show and he was talking about parenting and about the difficulties of parenting. She was a single parent at the time and whatever he said really resonated with her and she said she had really loved him since he had said that. There’s always little personal stories like somebody has died and they want a picture of them. I try not to do that too much because it can become a thing that I’ll continuously do but every so often I’ll do a piece like that.
Do you feel a bit weird about doing memorial pieces?
I won’t do a picture of the person now before they died, I’ll do a vintage picture of them from when they were younger. I’ll always try and capture the spirit of the person when they were younger and there’s always more celebration in that.
Do you feel superstitious about it?
I don’t feel superstitious, I just don’t find the images are interesting visually as the older images. I also think there’s a sadness around somebody when they’ve died and it’s in a recent picture whereas if you have a picture of them in their 20s you’re capturing a time in their life when they were alive and well and happy.
How did you formulate your style? Is there much Vietnamese influence?
My dad is an artist so I grew up my whole life with art around me. When I was younger my Dad ended up going back to college and my Mam supported him. He ended up becoming a teacher in Ballyfermot. When we were growing up we always had him doing big life drawing studies, I remember coming into the house with my mates and him having a big huge picture of a naked man with his willy out and me and my mates being like ‘aghhhhhhh! Get rid of that Dad!’ He was challenging us because we were teenagers being like ‘but it’s the human form, it’s natural!’ and we were like ‘that’s sick!’
Because he was a painter I was very much into paint and when I went to Vietnam I met Duc my husband and he’s an amazing painter and it was always about paint. So I was quite shocked. I always had a very illustrative, fine straight line that was very precise so even though I painted I knew I could draw. I was always drawing animations and cartoons in my schoolbooks and stuff. How I developed a style like this…..I have no idea whatsoever. I came back and I started drawing shapes and forms and every piece I do I try to come up with a new pattern which is a bit of a challenge. For me coming up with patterns are fun, I take them from everywhere like it might be the shape of a flower or architecture influences me as well.
Do you ever find anything bizarre influences you?
Not really bizarre, as such. We went away for a weekend with a load of girls and I drew the interior of the house we were staying in and that ended up on a piece and ended up inspiring a lot of pieces that were very geometric. It inspired a love for more linear stuff because my problem is that I’m not a minimalist and we live in an age where minimalism is celebrated a little bit more. Trying to find those empty spaces in pieces is very hard sometimes because I like to maximise the space so sometimes I find architecture gives me the room to allow for some breathing space in them. Whereas if it’s a floral pattern it can be quite full on. I’m definitely inspired by the fact I lived in Asia for 6 years. My husband also studied lacquerware so he varnishes them all. He definitely inspires me in what I do. My Dad had cancer last year and he painted a picture of my Dad naked in front of the mirror cleaning his stoma and he’s painted my sister nude as well. He’s seen all my mates naked and all and he’s an absolute gentleman. He’s quiet, I’m loud we’re yin and yang.
Duc with a painting of Ciarna
What made you decide to come back to Dublin?
Ah we heard about this recession! Nah, I’m slagging. I was kinda done with the Foundation because when you work for a charity for a long time you eventually become a bit immune to the sadness. I call it a giant switch, and I press that switch and I couldn’t turn it back on so I was in a bit of a fog. I’d been in Asia for 6 years and I said to him ‘let’s go for an adventure’. It’s been really hard in Ireland though because we’ve been broke, we’ve been struggling as two artists to get by. I got the back to business scheme with the dole and that really helped to push Kiki. I’ve been getting orders but I’m not getting a load every week, it’s no guarantee. Some week I’ll get none. I’m trying to push the business to a place where I could be more stable. It’s a bit tricky but I really trust the process. Loads of people are interested and I’m getting lots of great feedback but it’s been 3 years and anybody that starts a business will tell you that it takes about 2 - 3 years to kickstart it. With the Back to Business thing I haven’t been looking over my shoulder. When we came back it was very, very hard but both of us said we don’t want to go back to Vietnam because even though it’s tough here the challenges here are greater and there’s something beautiful about the challenge. We’re both creating better than we’ve ever created while we’re broker than we’ve ever been before.
We’ve decided for example not to have children. It’s been a very tough decision because I’m a very maternal person and my husband is very good with kids and teenagers. I’m at the age, I’m 35, where a lot of friends have been having babies as well. It’s been a struggle but both of us are at a place where we’re really happy and we both met in an orphanage so someday we’ll end up fostering or adopting. If that happens, it happens and if it doesn’t we’re OK as well but we both made this decision.
Is that decision financially based?
I don’t let money stress me out too much. I made a decision that if I have to pay bills and I’m a bit stressed I’m not going to let it live in my house and my mind constantly. With kids, financial pressures are part of it but look, if we were ever more financially stable we would absolutely foster without fail. We’re both artists and we both love doing what we’re doing and we’re both really challenged in what we’re doing. I feel like we’re so lucky because the time that we could have had kids we didn’t, but we had all this other beautiful, creative stuff. Art should come from difficulty, art should be commenting on something and saying something. It should be spurring on society and people. Alright, my jewelry might not be necessarily political but there is that element to it where I have icons.
In today’s society with the way things are, you can lose a lot of hope and find it difficult to see the good in humanity. When you have icons like David Bowie who are doing music and gender and allow people to have a place to express themselves, they’re like mini-superheroes in a time when things are really tough. You get people asking for really strong political people like Angela Davis or Nelson Mandela or Maya Angelou. I’ve done quite a few political figures but I’m pretty fussy, I wouldn’t be doing Maggie Thatcher or anything…
You have quire a few Frida Kahlo pieces, who speaks to you personally and gives you strength?
Well I think the reason that Grace Jones and Frida Kahlo come up a lot is that besides music or art they’re fashion icons because they’ve always been expressive with their style. The reason a lot of people like them is that they want to be more expressive with their style and when you’re wearing someone like that it’s not about the music always, sometimes it’s about the attitude, the style, the fashion. For me, the people that inspire me visually would be Grace Jones or David Bowie because the amount of photos of them that are unbelievably stunning! As an artist you want to find those images. You get people who want one of Samuel Beckett and Samuel Beckett is amazing but there are only a few images of him, whereas with Grace Jones it’s like ‘ooh, what image do I pick?’ The images allow me to experiment with the piece.
With Grace Jones she’s one of the icons I do as an older woman as well as a younger woman. This is a woman who has spanned generations and who is so full of life and vibrancy - as well as a complete eccentric - but you kinda go ‘how can I not be inspired by you?’ There’s people like that who constantly inspire visually because they’ve got some of the best photographers in the world photographing them! One of the things that people ask me about is using other people’s photography and I always say that I respect the photographers so much and if I’m using the photographers image it’s nothing but respect. However, if I get a cease and desist I will cease and desist in using the image!
What would be your ultimate aim for Kiki Na?
Rihanna wearing a piece! No, I’m messing but that would be fun. My ultimate aim is to continue to make art and continue to be inspired and inspire with what I do. I like that it is fashion and people love fashion and fashion is a way for people to show art every day. I’d like to do more sculptural pieces...I kinda think the world is my oyster and I can do whatever I want with it. I’d like to make a few bob off of it, me dreams aren’t for a mansion but a little more sustainability would be nice but I feel that coming. Stephen King said ‘talent is common as table salt, but success only comes through hard work’ and so for me I’m working hard and I’m just going to keep chipping away at what I’m doing.