MOST of us have a favourite olfactory memory, but not everyone is transported back to childhood by the aroma of baking bread or their mother's perfume.
For Bhavni Bhakoo, it's the smell of paint and paper that takes her home to Kenya and her grandfather's printing press.
"He was the first one who taught me how to draw plants, at age three or four. He'd draw it for me and I'd have to colour it in," the Winnipeg artist recalls.
The flora of her native land inspired Bhakoo's new solo exhibition, Garden of Mothers, at cre8ery gallery & studio.
And given the bold explosion of hues, it's hard to believe that until she started working out of cre8ery (she's being mentored by owner Jordan Miller) in 2008, she'd never painted on canvas, let alone in colour.
"I was terrified. For me, canvas represented permanence and I didn't want to be identified as an artist," says Bhakoo, 49.
"But paper never lasts, and I could tear that up."
It was an arranged marriage that brought her to Winnipeg at age 19. And although she went on to earn a fine arts degree at the University of Manitoba (with a focus on figure drawing), her reluctance to fully answer her artistic calling became a non-issue after the birth of her only child, now 25 and soon to be married herself.
"I did everything else but art during those years of raising my daughter," says Bhakoo, who is ethnically East Indian and spent part of her teenage years living in England. She is divorced from, but still close friends with her husband.
It took a case of Empty Nest Syndrome and a meltdown of sorts for the parent and the painter parts of herself to make peace. During a visit home in 2004, Bhakoo, who was "consumed with self-pity," recalls how she was "dragged off kicking and screaming" to Lamu, an idyllic island off Kenya's eastern coast, by her uncle, a well-known artist and her childhood hero.
After crying for two days, Bhakoo says she "retaliated" by grabbing newsprint and a piece of charcoal from the stove, slapping on her headphones and drawing up a storm -- mostly the female figure, her specialty.
"Next thing I hear is this loud 'pop' behind me and it's my uncle popping a bottle of champagne, she recalls. "So it was definitely Kenya that brought me back to my art."
Bhakoo also lived in Toronto for two years, during which time she attended Toronto Film School and added video and photography to her repertoire.
In 2010, after a five-year absence, she returned to her birthplace, Nairobi, intending to rest and rejuvenate by communing with nature in the gardens long beloved by her mother and aunts. Suddenly, she says, it was as if she were seeing the familiar plants and flowers for the first time. She started snapping photos and sketching.
Back in Winnipeg, while studying the photos and drawings, Bhakoo says she and Miller noticed a sexual element to them, how certain patterns in the plants and leaves resembled both female and male genitalia. "This was unintentional, but then I realized there is an obvious connection between nature and sex," she says. The title Gardens of Mothers is dedicated to her mother and two aunts and is meant to honour the nurturing women in her life as well as Mother Nature, who nourishes us personally and collectively. The 59-piece, multimedia exhibition includes acrylic paintings, drawings, collages and photographs.
Although she has now technically embraced her identity as a full-time artist -- her first solo exhibition last year sold 23 of 31 pieces -- Bhakoo says she's still basically learning the language of canvas and colour.
"I say that with the last show I learned the alphabet, and with this show I'm learning how to make words."
Gardens of Mothers runs at cre8ery gallery through to Jan. 24. All proceeds will go to a charity supporting motherless children. Bhakoo is open to firstname.lastname@example.org