Passionately free-spirited, Walala shares her journey
from textiles to iconic murals.
Camille Walala’s journey hasn’t been conventional – nor, as I discover, has it been easy. Walala moved to East London from the Provencal village she grew up in when she was 23, without a direction. After years of false starts, working as a waitress and selling cheese on London’s Broadway Market, her big break came when she was already in her 30s and was invited to paint a huge mural in London’s Old Street – now a local landmark. The response from the public was explosive, and she hasn’t looked back since.
Like her work, Walala (not her real name – as she divulges during our conversation) is full of energy, hardly pausing for breath and constantly on the move while we speak. Her studio in Dalston is busy, working on several major projects, but she also finds time to attend drawing classes. Her creativity is unconstrained, proved by the fact she’s not afraid to venture into almost any medium and territory she can, from massive public murals to quirky gallery installations, textile design to interiors. Here, she talks candidly about her highs and lows, money, inspirations, and what drives her practice today.
I know a bit about you and your biography, but I guess my first question is, how did you wind up studying textile design in Brighton, what put you on that path?
I think it was a bit of luck. I didn’t do anything creative until I was 28. I came to London when I was 23; I didn’t speak much English, I worked in restaurants, I was just excited to be here, to learn English. So I had a few years of going to parties and not doing anything creative. I didn’t know what to do in my life, I guess. But then when I was 27 I started going to evening classes, and I studied drawing, I took some ceramics classes, and I tried a bit of everything. Then I did a textiles foundation, and I had a really amazing teacher, and I think she encouraged me to push myself and I got a bit of confidence – I hadn’t thought I was very creative. At one point I wanted to be a fashion designer but thought I wouldn’t be good enough – and I’m glad I didn’t go into that! I didn’t think I’d be good enough to go to Central St Martins, so I ended up at Brighton doing textiles, and I really enjoyed it.
Art degrees can be confusing for creatives – what happened when you graduated, how did you feel? Did you have an idea of what you wanted to do next?
I was 32 when I finished, and I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I moved back to London, and I was selling cheese on Broadway Market, and I was trying to do my own designs – mainly cushions and wallets – and sell them at the market, but it was a bit boring, and it wasn’t working for me. I started to paint stuff in the street, and to ask people if they wanted me to paint their shop or cafe, and I think people began to see my work that way. Then I was asked to paint XOYO, in 2012 and that was an amazing opportunity – and that was the point I realised I like doing the bigger things on a big scale. I could see the effect it had on people. People were really hysterical in this nightclub!
So that was a real turning point for you?
Yeah, I travelled a bit after that – I was invited to do a big wall in Australia. Then when I came back, I was invited to do the Old Street wall, and then everyone went crazy for it – it was all over Instagram – and from there, things took off for me. That’s been the highlight for me so far, a real incredible joy.
Why do you think your work solicits such an emotional response?
I always want to create an optimistic, happy mood and I think the colour and pattern I use is a great way to do that and to brings joy – especially in a town that’s usually grey. I always try to bring out people’s inner child. The show I did at the NOW gallery last year, was an example of that – I was thinking of that over-excitement and hysteria when you go to the funfair or a hall of mirrors, I wanted to bring that feeling into the gallery space. I was emotional myself seeing how people responded to that.
Going back to those early days for a moment – before your big break with the mural on Old Street – how did you keep going when things were tough, and you were struggling to figure out what you wanted to do? How did you keep going?
It was hard. When I finished university, I was 32, and I was already ten years older than everyone else. I still didn’t know what I wanted to do in my life. I compared myself to everyone else. It was tough, yeah. I was doing so many things, at that point, as well. My parents also didn’t know what I was doing. I kept changing my mind, one day I wanted to be a psychologist, then a drummer, then a chef! But my dad, who’s an architect, told me, you know, by the time you’re 40 you should be happy in your career, and in my head, I thought “Yes! I’ve got 8 more years!” So I kept working, and I kept meeting people, and networking, without realising it – that would help me later on. I also did a lot of free work for people on the side – a wall here, or a painting. Eventually, then you start to get paid! London is a hard city, and people ask you to do free internships all the time, which I didn’t want to do. I tried to find my own way to be creative. But it was difficult. I had a studio, and I went there with no purpose. It was hard to keep going there without any deadline. There were a lot of moments of self-doubt, a lot of feeling crap about myself for many years.
It hasn’t been an easy journey.
No. I was lost. I was depressed for a year after university. My teachers there told me it takes 4 years after you graduate to find yourself and I thought, that’s ages! It took me 7.
How do you feel about that period looking back on that period, now that things are going well?
I always say I think the struggle is good. It’s worth the push. I didn’t want to compromise I did so many crap jobs when it’s 9.30am, and you’re so bored already. I don’t want to have the mentality of “Oh, it’s Monday,” or “Yay! It’s Friday”! I can work 70 hours one week, and the next do nothing. I love the freedom of working for myself. When I was younger, I knew I didn’t want to do a 9 to 5, that was the first thing I knew. But I had to wait until the time was right, it was only when I was 40 that I felt good. It takes a while for the work to be recognised, especially in a city like London.
You were also pretty tenacious.
I think it’s good to take all the opportunities that come your way. Sometimes I think, I did all those small works in the past, and it wasn’t worth it, but now I get contacted by someone for a job who saw a little painting I did in a cafe years ago. So sometimes you don’t realise how all those experiences end up connecting, and I think that makes me the creative I am today.
What motivates you today, what makes you so passionate about what you’re doing?
I’ve always been passionate, but now it’s so much bigger than I ever expected. It’s becoming quite serious! So now you have to make sure all the paperwork and meetings and other thing don’t take over and that you still have some time for that passion and creativity. I’m also at the phase I need to push myself, even more, there’s so much demand – which is amazing – but doesn’t leave too much time or space to create. At the moment I’m going to drawing classes like a 70-year-old lady, but I’ve also got someone teaching me illustrator, as I’ve never been good at things like that.
The studio is still in East London right?
Yeah, still in Dalston and I’m starting to employ some people now. I’m doing art direction for a hotel in Mauritius that’s opening in October, at the moment, so I’m working with an interior designer too. That’s starting to push the work to different levels. It’s the next step I think.
Are you open to any project?
Yeah, definitely. I love doing big, architectural projects. I used to say yes to everything – now I say no to a lot of things and only do the things I want to. I never thought it’d happen to me, and I used to be checking my email every 5 minutes!
You have to say yes until you can say no…
10 years of yes I’ve now got to the no! At the beginning, I used to work in cafes for £8 an hour for three days a week. I was lucky, I was able to work for free because I had some inheritance money that was going to be for a deposit on a house. I didn’t buy a house, I used it to help create something for my career, and it worked out.
Walala isn’t your real name, is it?
Years ago I had a boyfriend, it was ‘98 or something, and I came back from work one day, and he told me he’d opened me an email account. He said yeah it’s camillewalala@ – I said “walala?” and he said, yes because the first time I saw you, I thought, “Wa la, la!”. The name stuck.