In: Artist interview
Vanessa Lam is an emerging contemporary abstract artist based in Canada. Working with mixed media painting, Vanessa explores the relationship between unconscious, form, and space. The artist loosely uses paint to create spontaneous brushstrokes, maintaining a balance between chance and control. Expressive nature of Vanessa’s work establishes a contrast between the placement of paint and collage elements found in her work.
Recently, Vanessa won the 8th Annual BOMBAY SAPPHIRE Artisan Series award and decided to collaborate with ARTSY, the global art platform, and Bombay Sapphire to create a new public exhibition in New York City.
I spoke with Vanessa about her journey up until now, ‘There Is Another Sky’ exhibition and her future artistic aspirations.
Hi, Vanessa! Before we dive into a discussion about your new show in New York, tell me about when was the first time you realized you want to be an artist.
I always liked drawing when I was young. Pencil and paper were all that I needed to start expressing my ideas. I had taken some classes during university, but it wasn’t until over a decade later that I reconnected to art again after taking a mixed media course at Emily Carr University Art & Design. Taking this course was the turning point for me to continue exploring art. I was curious to uncover my potential. After a few more classes at Emily Carr, I decided to give myself a five-year window to pursue a fine-art practice and see where it takes me. It’s been about five years now.
What was your journey up until now?
I worked as a healthcare professional for over a decade and continue to juggle my day job with making art. I took over a small spare room in my home and painted mostly at night after work. One of my instructors became my mentor. Although I began finding other artists to connect with to build my community slowly, I still didn’t know many people in the local art world and became my teacher for the most part. For the first few years, I read a lot of books, tried to make as much work as I could and submitted work to any exhibition opportunity that presented itself. During this time, I was working very hard, but soon I found that I took on too many projects and I burnt myself out.
It was at this time that I happened to move into my current studio space. It’s a shared, open studio space in an industrial area and it turned out that it was the change that I needed. I not only had more space to grow and experiment but I had the chance to physically connect with artists from a variety of other disciplines on a regular basis. I took a break from exhibitions to enjoy my new studio space. During this time, I created work without any deadlines and pushed exploring both collage and painting.
Then, I began looking into residencies and was offered a month-long residency in Berlin last year. It was my first residency and my first time in Berlin. The combination of being in a new city and having a dedicated month to develop new ideas was extraordinary. It gave me exposure to international artists and different perspectives which helped raise my confidence in the work that I was doing. The ideas generated from this residency led to some of the new work that is in the upcoming show in New York.
I noticed color takes the main stage in your work. What inspires you?
This new body of work is a culmination of my experiences and observations translated into color and form. I take notice of textures, shapes, and colors around me, particularly ordinary objects, like a piece of rusted metal that I have walked by on the roadside. Whether I’m in the city, traveling or in the mountains, I pull from all these experiences and feelings. My process is very intuitive in how I apply paint as well as color choice.
I wouldn’t say that color is my primary focus, but it’s more the feeling I get from seeing a specific intensity or combination of colors together within the context of where I first observe it. It could be one of many jumping off points that leads to trying a new color palette. Color doesn’t often come naturally to me, so I think that is why I look for ways to experiment in this area. Overall, I’m trying to find new ways of doing things, and it’s those unexpected outcomes of those experiments that keep me motivated.
‘THERE IS ANOTHER SKY’ EXHIBITION
Tell me about your upcoming collaboration with Artsy and Bombay Sapphire.
This year I began regularly connecting with Artsy to discuss ideas for the exhibition and venue. I had only seen photos of the site, so it was a challenge to create work for a space that I had never set foot in before. I chose to create a lot of the new work on canvas given the logistics of shipping. These pieces have a lot of loose forms through the staining and pooling of paint but also contrast against more drawing and solid, hard-edged shapes. Throughout my meetings with Artsy, I was encouraged to use the opportunity to stretch myself artistically.
Some of the pieces are the largest I have ever made, one of which is an 11.5’ foot long painting. Working on this large of a scale forced me to change my process. It was a very physical process, and I immersed myself into the canvas so I can reach all the areas to paint. Also, I wanted to somehow shift painting into the three-dimensional space. The concept came from some cut-outs of paintings on canvas that I made during my residency in Berlin. I had also been experimenting with paint skins but found that it would be hard to maneuver on a large scale without some support.
This installation incorporates draped canvas which plays on the idea of dried paint skins. Layering together these shapes brings in my interest in collage and shape-making. I created another four large paintings on canvas which will be layered together over wooden frame support to create a sculptural form. I have learned so much in creating and coordinating the work for this show.
‘There Is Another Sky’ will create an immersive experience for audiences. What’s the key idea of the show?
The title of the show is from the first line of a poem by Emily Dickinson. She refers to the existence of new sky that belongs to another mysterious place which behaves and feels differently from the world that we physically see and know. The invitation to enter the garden implies a message to her brother to read her poetry and enter the world she has created.
My work makes reference to space much like the expanse of the sky, and use of ambiguous forms in space is suggestive of another “realm”. There is also an invitation to experience “entering into” the art and as well as move amongst the works in the exhibition ranging from sculpture to collage and painting. The sculptural piece was a key component in the space where I’m releasing the layers of a “painting” from the usual confines of two-dimensional rectangular structure.
ARTIST AS ENTREPRENEUR
Do you think nowadays artists need to become entrepreneurs to build and manage their brand?
I do believe it is vital for artists to be entrepreneurs. The definition of what an artist can be is so varied which offers more freedom but also can make it hard to know what direction to take. My understanding of a personal brand is that it is an extension of who you are, and generally, it’s the what and how you want to present to others. For me, I’m still figuring things out and is an ongoing process. But what I do know is that people are interested in knowing the story behind your work, who you are as a person, and the influences in your life. How I share my story is through social media, mostly Instagram.
I’m trying to find ways to connect with others, and hopefully, it will resonate with them. I recently did an Instagram takeover with Create Magazine which made me think carefully about what kind of impression I wanted to leave with people. I wanted it to feel polished, like the work I create, be reflective of my style and be authentic. The projects that I choose to take on also contribute to who I am and where I would like to go with my art practice. Everything I do has some element of risk as I don’t always know what the response will be.
I still need to try and take these risks so I can grow as an artist.
What’s next for you after ‘There Is Another Sky’?
I have some possible commissions coming up, but mostly I want to expand on some of the ideas that I created from this show as well as continue to experiment with collage and different painting techniques.
LEARN MORE ABOUT VANESSA LAM’S WORK ON HER WEBSITE
168 BOWERY, NEW YORK, NY
September 4, 2016
Anouska Beckwith, England-born and Paris-based photographer, is the artist to follow. Interested in nature and mystical, Anouska tries to capture the intrinsic relationship between the unseen natural wonders and presents her subjects in the dreamlike settings.
The founder of the World Wide Women, the collective of female photographers from all over the world, the artist searches for ways of expressing her own views on the world by means of photography, poetry and music. Her models are frequently musicians and other people from creative industries giving her photographs yet an extra layer of artistic meaning.
This September Anouska presents her second solo show (following her debut in New York last yer with the show Transcendence) and her first solo show in London called Uni~Verse at the Palm Tree Gallery. I met Anouska last year when we discussed her creative process and her inspirations to follow up her own practice and perhaps have a solo show in London. Now, when the show is finally happening, we talked again, discussing the background behind Uni~Verse and the new future ambitions.
Why did you choose the word Uni~Verse as the title for your show?
I chose the title ‘Uni-Verse’ for the show as I loved the meaning, ‘One song’ coming from the Greek origin.
I believe that despite humans, animals and nature being different from one another we are all a collection of parts that make up the whole to form ‘one song’. I felt that ‘Uni-Verse’ encompassed what I wished to express through my work, a melody in nature’s symphony.
What’s the theme/focus behind it?
‘ Women have always been the guardians of wisdom and humanity which makes them natural, but usually secret, rulers. The time has come for them to rule openly, but together with and not against men.’ – Charlotte Wolf
The theme for the exhibition looks at nature as the backdrop for the exploration of feminine archetypes and endurance throughout time. As I believe that our planet is having a rebirth of the feminine. We have been living in a patriarchal society for the past 3000 years and although we have had some incredible advancement we are now in need of a big change, which is beginning to happen. I feel that we need to encourage guardianship of the Earth and for us to realign with the natural cycles rather than go against them.
What was the inspiration behind your new projects?
I have drawn from different sources for my work, which have either been from songs that I have been listening to or books that I have been reading such as ‘Women that run with wolves’ which inspired me to create
‘The Handless Maiden’ or from the use of tarot cards which led me to create ‘ The Empress’ featuring Flo Morrissey or looking at the chaos around me after the Paris attacks all of this past year and seeing the pain and destruction in the world led me to create ‘War In Heaven’.
Your new works position models in the natural setting. Women look unprotected to the natural forces. What notions are you trying to raise in your work?
I love nature and all that it provides us with but I also respect it as it can be destructive and catastrophic in some cases. I feel that we are lucky to be here, it is a gift not a given. I think a lot of people have forgotten this and try to manipulate something much greater than we have been led to believe. Through my work I try to explore the harmony between the two. Yet the insignificance of our presence, how temporary it is in the scheme of things, overwhelms me at times and I am reminded that it is a miracle.
Who are your models?
I usually choose models for my own work that inspire me. I like working with people I know mainly as I find there is a relaxed energy when taking photographs. I photographed Macha Polivka, an amazing healer and actress who I met outside of Paris last summer at an ashram. She is very natural and beautiful. I found working with her an absolute joy as she was completely in her body. Xamira Azul I met through my good friend and fellow artist Amanda Charchian last year during a summer solstice ritual and we have become friends ever since.
Flo Morrissey is one of my best friends whom I met through World Wide Women when she performed at our Ritual Exhibition. Last year she moved to Paris, which has been a dream world for us to share. Over the past couple of years we’ve had ongoing projects together. She is also extremely adventurous! Last year we were in Ibiza and I had a whole vision of her inside this remote cave. At first she looked at me as if to say ‘really?’ but once I told her of my idea she climbed up and took position. She looked like a water goddess.
How do you choose location and subject of your work?
Usually I have an image in mind of what backdrop I would like for the photograph and then I either research a place to shoot or I stumble across something even more magical than I could have pictured. Usually choosing the subject and location come hand in hand.
Why did you decide to have your second solo show specifically in London?
I choose to have my second solo show in London as it’s where I grew up and felt that it was important for me to return to my roots. My family is from England and even though I live in Paris there will always be a part of me there.
You mostly photograph female models, why?
I mainly photograph women because I find them fascinating. The form and curve of a woman is much more interesting to me than men. There is a mystery to them that when photographed can capture a very vulnerable moment that I think only is expressed by a woman photographing another woman. A trust is formed between the two people.
How do you balance the intrinsic nature of your work with the commercial aspect of photography?
I think when you create work it should come from a place of integrity and truth. How one conducts themself is equally important. I feel that nature and beauty are two things that everyone should be exposed to as so many people live their lives in fear without hope of a brighter future. I think that offering work to inspire people as an alternative for the future is what we are in desperate need of. I am not saying that my work does this but I try to convey a message of hope and awareness of our mother earth and all her many gifts.
I use social media and I think the more people who can see ones work is always a positive if the message is truthful. Even if it affects just one person that is enough for me as one person can have a ripple effect.
What’s next for you?
I am creating a short film with a dancer in the Fall and I will be continuing shooting the ‘War In Heaven’ series as I wish to turn it into a book, as well as working on my installation room ‘ I Am The Other You’.
I will also be doing editorial work.
Uni~Verse on view at the Palm Tree Gallery September 16th – October 8th
291 Portobello Rd, London
A week ago, I found it nearly impossibly to look away from C-SPAN’s coverage of the Republican National Convention. The rowdy fanfare of the RNC appears more like a circus than a political conference. No matter how one aligns themselves politically, most people can agree that the upcoming election has been prime material for art and entertainment. Throughout history, politics have seeped their way into the art world. Often artists sneak subtle political statements into their work, or will directly address contentious political issues in very explicit ways. In the world of contemporary art, Swedish artist Johan Wahlstrom is continuing this tradition of politically themed artwork with his harrowing and provocative acrylic and ink paintings. Although Wahlstrom started out as a musician, he always painted as a hobby and after touring with a rock band for many years, he moved from Stockholm to a small village in France to pursue painting full time.
Today, Wahlstrom is based in Spain and continues to paint pieces that explore the dark underbelly of modern society and politics. Wahlstrom paints in a neo-expressionist style and cites a diverse range of artists that include Paul Klee, Jean Michel Basquiat, and Jackson Pollack as his influences. His dark inky colors and thick brushwork create portraits of modern life that are simultaneously hazy and abstract and frighteningly realistic. As a former rock musician, Wahlstrom is not afraid to provoke and rile up his audience. His paintings are dark, confrontational, and frighteningly resonant. Upon viewing his painting “Heil Trump,” I was reminded of a similar politically themed work by the German Dadaist John Heartfield, entitled “Adolf the Super Man: Swallows Gold and Spits Tin,” which is an explicit critique of Adolf Hitler. Wahlstrom’s “Vote for Me,” another portrait of Donald Trump, features the presidential candidate’s head surrounded by terrifying abstract figures, representing his loyal followers. “Punch them Hard,” an acrylic work by Wahlstrom is equally disturbing and shows Trump giving a thumbs up while chaos ensues in the background. This is a visual representation of Trump’s verbal encouragement of his followers to attack protesters. This series of Trump portraits evokes the mob mentality and frenzy of Trump’s rallies. Wahlstrom attacks other issues such as immigration in his “Aliens with Extraordinary Abilities” series, which poignantly captures the plight of immigrants and refugees.
As a former rock musician, Johan Wahlstrom is not afraid to provoke and rile up his audience. His paintings are dark, confrontational, and frighteningly resonant. His piece “Too Much Trump” in particular is an apt depiction of Trump’s pervasive presence in the media, his angry scowl taunting the viewer. Wahlstrom’s favorite piece from his body of work is “You Can’t Trust” from 2011, which he refuses to sell and hangs in his living room. Wahlstrom was so satisfied with the piece, that he took a 2 month hiatus from painting. This particular painting is his favorite because he associates it with the catharsis and satisfaction he experienced while working on it. The experience was “magical” for Wahlstrom, he felt like he was inside of his own work and not slaving away in a studio.
Despite Wahlstrom’s sinister aesthetic and disturbing subject matter, he paints with a profound passion and love for his craft. His favorite part of the creative process is conceiving the title or theme behind his work, which eventually determines what will end up on the canvas. For Wahlstrom technique is not the most crucial aspect of great art, but rather “the feeling and messages” behind the work in question.
Wahlstrom’s artist’s’ statement reads:
“I paint to keep myself insane.
I paint anxiety to be calm.
I paint war to have peace.
I paint sadness to be happy.
I paint the dark to be in the light.
I paint death to be alive.
I paint a story so that I don’t have to tell a story.”
In the future, Wahlstrom hopes “to be able to do stronger paintings with political statements, social criticism, to be part of making the world a better place for future generations.”
140 photographs from 10 different series produced by Fernell Franco between 1970 and 1996 are currently shown at the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain. CALI CLAIR–OBSCUR is a first-time-in-Europe retrospective of this curiously under-recognised Latin American photographer.
The exhibition has not failed to demonstrate Fernell Franco’s photography techniques and unique senses of vision, evidently accumulated from his rich experiences from being a fotocinero (a photographer who takes and sells portraits of people in the streets) to a photojournalist for the newspapers and a fashion photographer. Working as a photojournalist of Cali, Colombia, his sharp and close observation of the city stems from his unbreakable bonding with his native home. As highlighted by the title of the show –Cali, Clair-Obscur, Fernell Franco’s powerful, unobtrusive and yet radical works center on the light and darkness of the city’s urban life.
Since 1954, Fernell Franco had been discovering cinema and eventually became a film aficionado. He would watch several movies a day in various cinemas throughout the city. As a result, cinematic influence of Mexican cinema, film noir and Italian neorealism is significantly visible in the Billare series, presenting interior images of snooker clubs in finely designed composition, and the Interiores series, seeking to record the fast-vanishing urban areas from early 1970s where abandoned homes became slums. What I favor the most in these series is how the cinematic effects were accentuated by the artist’s retouching of colours and the emphasis on the contrast between red and green on B&W photos. Serving as a testimony of the cityscape for later generations, the Interiores series showcases the importance of Fernell Franco’s work within a broader cultural context in Cali at the beginning of the 1970s.
The Prostitutas series depicts young girls and women working in one of the last brothels in Buenaventura, Colombia. It is neither glamour nor seduction. Instead, we see realism and darkness. Uneasiness arose when I saw some of the girls in portraits look like a 12-year-old, too young to appear in such settings. The artist used experimental techniques such as toning and solarisation to enhance the contrasts, underlining the dark shadows as ‘a metaphor for forgetting and confinement’. Ironically, underscoring the contrast is the light-hearted salsa music that accompanies the exhibition. Fernell Franco wanted to recreate the joyful and enthusiastic ambiance typical of restaurants, bars, night clubs and brothels of Cali when he exhibited this Prostitutas series at Ciudad Solar, Cali back in 1972.
I like the creepy mysterious, imaginative and artistic series entitled Amarrados (translated as tied) photos taken by Fernell Franco of wrapped and tied merchandise objects left unattended overnight when he was wandering around the outdoor markets of Colombia and Latin America. According to the text description in the exhibition, these objects in peculiar forms and sizes were seen as dead human bodies.
Fernell Franco’s works, representative of Latin American photography, not only are part of the vibrant art scene in Cali since early 1970s, but also have witnessed the transformation of a Colombian city throughout the decades meandering through light and darkness.
FERNELL FRANCO | CALI CLAIR–OBSCUR
February 6 – June 5, 2016, Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris
May 23, 2016
Distinguished for his portrait paintings, South African born Ryan Hewett is a star on the rise. After his sold-out show at Unit London last year (Read our interview with Unit London co-founders Jonny Burt and Joe Kennedy), Ryan is preparing for his first solo show in the UK coming up in October this year. We caught up on a typical rainy day in London (not as sunny and bright as days in South Africa, noted by the artist) when Hewett shared his views on being an artist, creative transformation, life outside of a canvas and much more.
Do you remember when you realized you wanted to be an artist ?
Not really. It’s always been with me. I’ve been drawing since I can remember. There was never a point when the lights came on and BOOM I’m going to be an artist ! I was doing a number of jobs, but I kept drawing no matter what. I used to do pencil drawings with a very realistic approach to them. I was never a painter. But then I taught myself to paint. It was always something I enjoyed, it was my passion, and I wanted to take it further and see where it can lead me.
When was the first time you painted ?
I was about 20. It took me a while, but by 22 I sold my first work. And then I became obsessed with painting for the past 15 years.
Would you try any other medium though ?
I mostly have oil paintings, I also use spray paint and I want to start doing sculptures. I’d like to as I feel my paintings are quite sculptural. I’ve never done it before, it’s like I’m painting rocks and putting them together. I’m going to start playing with clay in a month or two and see where it goes.
I can see some of your works are so three-dimensional, you can actually see the thick layer of paint that you applied on the surface…
At the beginning, I tried to approach painting as I did with pencil work. It was very delicate and thin. I needed it to be neat and tidy, I used to put paint lids back on after I finished painting… now it’s a complete chaos (laughs). I use rollers, I throw paint on the canvas, and lids are never on now… I became more confident when approaching a painting and just letting it go. The textures are a lot thicker and juicier. But then again my new works with flat backgrounds are more textured, more thought-out. My earlier works are rough, low-detailed, these ones are more one-stroke, you lay it down and you leave it. Very clean.
Are you inspired by any artists ?
I never studied art history, so my inspiration came from books. Looking through and learning about artists as I got older made my taste change over time. There’s this artist Adrian Ghenie that influenced me in a figurative landscape sense of an artwork… But there’s so much art out there, you can get lost… I think, the art of Francis Bacon and Egon Schiele speak to me the most. Art has to be moving. It’s not always a pretty picture or a pretty face, it’s gotta hold you.
You first show was four years ago at Barnard Gallery in SA. Before that you’ve never thought of being exhibited ?
Most of my 20s and 30s I have been going through a rough time and painting was mostly a way to escape from all the troubles of the everyday life. I can’t even say who I was; it was a very unstable chapter of my life. Art was my passion and the means to get away from that dark place I was in most of the time.
Last year you had a show at Unit London called Untitled where you depicted portraits of famous historical figures. What was the idea behind it ?
The idea came around to put figures that in their own way changed the world together in one place. Winston Churchill, Oussama Ben Laden… Jesus… That body of work was meant for those people to be together in one room. In a certain way, they belonged together. Putin and Obama, which is still relevant today. Even after the show I thought I did a series of iconic people and got caught in it for a while.
What about your second UK solo show coming up in October, will we see portraits again ?
Not only. There will be landscapes … It’s so new to me. There are hints of landscape here and there in my previous works, where figures seem to be crashed into the flower field, for example, or a skyline. There will be movement away from portraits; in fact, I want to tell my personal story. It will be a great challenge, as I’ve been doing just portraits for the past 15 years.
Do you have any work ready for the show already ?
I’ve just started the first one (laughing). It’ll be based on landscapes I saw growing up in Johannesburg… quite colorful… It’s hard to explain, but I remember reading a book when I was young that was a big inspiration to me so it’s a flashback to that time in a way. Revisiting my styles, paintings that I did ages ago. Not to do with the painting but with the concept behind it, my darker past, memories… Going back to them and trying to put them on canvas is quite scary, as I haven’t done it. I know it’ll be a great challenge, but I feel like I have to do it. I want to ultimately show the journey that I’ve had.
What’s your favorite part of the artistic process ?
It takes time to have that breakthrough. But there are these moments when everything changes… A new idea or a mistake. Painting is a very technical process and I am kind of an obsessive painter. I’m always in the studio for long hours, painting and painting. But then you always stumble on something new. A painting created in a few hours or a few sessions moves you. Sometimes I remember a facial structure and I keep the reference in my mind, and then the face just comes together on a canvas in a matter of a few days. It’s done.
I used to just attack the canvas and lately I started to reflect on how and why I lay down that brushstroke. I get in a rhythm, I’ve a roller, paintbrushes in my hands, it’s quite chaotic, but I get focused and zoned into what I am doing. I don’t even put music on, just because I like to be in my head when I’m doing it. But I also know what to be in and out of rhythm, I am a very up and down artist.
Do you work on multiple canvases at the same time ?
I never used to. I used to work on just one piece at a time. I recently started to because I don’t want to fall into a routine or a pattern, when you go from A to Z. It becomes predictable. Now I jump from one canvas to the next. And sometimes when you throw paint on a canvas, let it be there for a while, come back to it a few days later, and you see something new. You can’t get bored of it. You can’t get bored of the process of mixing it up… It depends though, sometimes I can finish a piece in a few hours. I don’t like the statement “it has to be this way”, I used to and I broke this pattern. I just know that there are moments when you’re in tune with the rhythm, you just see it. Everything feels right. It’s not always like that, it’s not easy. I am not trying to imagine a picture before I get to start the painting. Though with my new body of work that’ll be focusing on my own journey, I do have a picture, a memory in my head and the challenge is to ultimately communicate the felling I had through a painting. And I get so much satisfaction just letting it go on a canvas and I not controlling the process. I don’t want to know what I’m getting. That’s the art of making.
Do you have any advice to young artists?
As a painter, spend more time on a canvas. It’s not just books and books, you’ve to get on the canvas. Don’t be afraid of it. You’ve to be able to throw a canvas on the floor and walk over it at the end of the day. You’ve to be ready to take those risks. Things happen accidentally. Mistakes happen, great mistakes. It’s hours and hours on the canvas; you can’t get away from it. Go explore.
Ryan Hewett Solo Show is coming on September 29th, 2016 at Unit London.
Born in Limassol, Cyprus in 1989, Meletios Meletiou studied Fine Arts in the Academy of Rome and worked also as an assistant professor during the academic year 2012-2013. Furthermore, he attended professional courses of interior design at the Rome University of Fine Arts as well as window dresser and visual merchandiser at the Altieri Academy of Fashion and Art. Since 2014 attending a second level Master in Visual and performing arts in Rome’s Fine Arts Academy.
Meletios developed his ideas and formulated his own thinking during his academic and pre-academic years and applying it in various ways in his work.
Artists of his nature are essential to the artistic practise, they offer a different perception of the current events, with a realistic and more humane approach.
- How did you enter the art world? How did you start creating?
I can recall my father from a relatively early age being exposed into the arts, and that was the catalyst that triggered me to go into a private art school for 8 years. As I was growing up, I realised that this was my field. The entire procedure of creating art defines me as a person.
- Can you share with us what are you doing right now? What projects are you undertaking?
Currently, I am working on three projects. The two of those begun last year and the last one was initiated few months ago. One of those projects, includes the new park that is taking its shape in Magliana, next to the Tiber River. I was chosen to create a sculpture through my university. This project was supposed to be exhibited last year, but due to some procedural decisions it was postponed. This project includes a rock made by travertine tiles and it is called “Transition”. The other project, was given to our team by the United Nations and it is based on the 17 Sustainable Development Goals to be fulfilled until 2030. The last project however is the one that stigmatised me both as a person and as an artist.
I started focusing on the refugee crisis, and most importantly to the people that were victimised from the war in Syria. It all started when I was scrutinising the entire chaotic situation in Mytilini where it was filled with people urging for a better living with no organisation whatsoever; as it was a crisis indeed. “Better Days for Moria”, a non-governmental organisation, which is volunteering in the area of Lesbos in Greece is burdened by refugees helped me to visit Lesbos to dissect the situation. The initial plan was to take some photographs that I needed for this project depicting the chaos in the area and conduct some workshops with the refugees in the entertaining section that is held by ‘Better Days for Moria’.
The project however took another take. I had to change my approach to it. You have to understand that when you have to do with people, emotions are getting involved and things cannot go according to plan. Generally, this project was related to the journey of ordinary people from Syria to Greece and then from Greece back to Europe. So this included a two-journey depiction.
- What do you want to extract and focus on in Lesbos?
At first I just wanted to go, see what is going on, help, cooperate with the people there and leave. I never thought that the impact of this visit would have altered my perception and my practise. It helped tackle art in a more humane way. Most importantly it reminded me how to be a human and not just a human being. It made me erase everything I considered in the past and create my one “Simio 0” which is the name of the project I will focus on. My ultimate aim is to create an installation that will describe the present situation in Lesbos of the victims of the war and in the same time be used as a historical evidence in the future of what was going on back then. I feel that even if the refugee crisis has gained massive exposure, it is not entirely raising the awareness needed. After all, the crisis is still there. We do not learn from history. History repeats itself, but with different standards every single time.
- How did it all start and how do you visualise the final installation project?
Few months ago, more specifically in September, I started a project that was related to the Refugee Crisis. This project was a continuation of my previous studio practise. You have to bear in mind, that I usually use symbols while creating. From 2010, I am using an everyday object, what people know as clothes hangers as a symbol to depict people that are trapped into certain situations that they cannot handle themselves. I initiated this project to depict a massive issue to create awareness and this was anorexia. I tried to portray bodies that suffer from specific nutritional turbulences. As I went along, this project developed to a generic depiction of turbulences that cause humans addictions. My aim was to actually interpret bodies that due to these experiences turn out to be lifeless. I understand that this is harsh. But my objective was to put an end to it. These bodies were hooked in what I have used as a symbol – the clothes hanger. The clothes hanger turned out to be a symbol that represented the people that are hooked by certain situations. Without it, the people would have been free.
Last year, I used this symbol of clothes hangers to represent the people that suffer and are trapped from terrorism and more specifically ISIS. I called this project ‘PortaCorpi’. Therefore, through this process, this symbol became my trademark. I relate this symbol to the refugee crisis. I relate it this symbol to the life vests that are the only safety nets people have during their journey from Syria to Greece and Greece to Europe.
I don’t know if you have seen this, but when the refugees land into Lesbos, those life vest jackets are thrown away. The irony is that those life vest jackets are the only supportive elements people have. They are not even real. They cannot save human beings. It is simply an illusion for the refugees that the life vest jacket is their own protection. But its not.
I want to create the parallel of these life vest jackets to a clothe hanger. People throw the life vest jacket as soon as they see land, to get rid of the burden. To get rid of the war crime because they feel safe at least. I don’t know how to define the burden. The people that arrive to Lesbos are bodies that were forced to leave their country. They are bodies that are trapped into a situation that they did not choose themselves. Nobody wants to leave their country and that is the only thing we can take for granted. From my perception, this is what I define to be the ‘clothes-hangers’. It is the situation that keeps the hooked embedded into a consequence that they did not choose themselves. They are forced to enter the sea with the fear of dying and Lesbos becomes their zero point where they finally feel safe. Zero point in Greek means “Simio 0” which is the name of the project. As Lesbos becomes the safe haven of the refugees their bodies are finally back on track.
From my own perception, time stops there- in the so-called “Simio 0”. I want to create an installation, with hundreds of handmade wires that will be presented as hangers. This will work as a parallel with the mountains of life vest jackets that are thrown away after the refugees reach the land. As you can imagine, the situation itself is unstable therefore, things can be subjected to transform and develop as I go along.
My plan is that I will visit Lesbos soon. This journey will definitely last longer. My aim is to conduct new workshops that will focus on the ‘imaginary friends’ that refugees may have in this journey as their shoulder. These workshops will consist of handmade wires sculptures that will represent each person’s personal perspective on the matter.
- I understand you work with concepts. Why did you choose to work with the refugee crisis? Why now?
It was not an urge. It was a building process of my previous studio practise. After the ‘PortaCorpi’ concept, this project was subsequent development. The refugee crisis, had a massive impact on me, especially after the incident in the port of Mytillini, last summer. Especially when you see all these horrific images – image is so important nowadays- you understand that you need to relate further. The orange brightness verifies a vigilant sentiment. Therefore, all these images, and the development of my studio practise made me understand that this project was essential for me as an artist.
- Based on your experience, what is the role of art in a society?
As people, we tend to forget quite easily. Art is an important source of communication between people that have a language barrier. When I was in Lesbos and I was interacting with the refugees, we were communicating through sketches. They couldn’t speak English so art was our common language. Art is a language that everyone can understand, every person in this world. Thereby, I feel that art underlines memories and interaction.
- What was the hardest thing you came across in Lesbos?
The first boat. I cannot take it off my mind. I was holding two cameras and I had no clue what I was going to see there. I saw a new-born baby getting off the boat. That was my zero point. I was dashed.
- Are you usually influenced by political/historical considerations or by artistic ones?
I tend to examine historical considerations to create something that is going on in the world right now. I don’t care about visual aesthetics to the eye that much. I care that the aesthetic of the concept will delivery the right messages to the audience or make them ask questions regarding the concept I am raising. Art needs to make people think. If it is aesthetically pleasing or not, that’s not something I focus on.
- How do you approach your work?
I sketch non-stop. I analyse my thoughts. I let myself into my thoughts and research non-stop. Lesbos was a turning-point as I said before. I have seen something that I have never seen in my entire life. It made me tackle art in a more humane way.
- Who is your favourite artist?
I never felt the urge to have a favourite artist. I examine several artists for what they are doing which many of them are influential to me in their own level.
- What is the thing that inspires you?
Humans and their surroundings.
- What are your plans in the future?
I want to feel satisfied from what I am doing in Lesbos. I want to reach a point that I will feel that I have offered something else with the project that is based on the refugee crisis. The only thing I have learnt from my experience in Lesbos is that situations are subjected to alter all the time. You cannot go according to plan.
- As a young artist, what is your advice to the younger generation that aspires to become part of the art world?
Find your own form of expression. Whatever you do, do it passionately.
February 14, 2016
Recently I had a pleasure to meet an incredibly inspirational young artist – Anouska Beckwith. Born in London, Anouska spent her early years traveling and exploring her artistic side with the help of good old photography. Moving on to pursue her degree at Speos Photographic Institute, Anouska lives and works in Paris. She is also the founder of the World Wide Women Collective. We caught up on life, art and spiritual in a pre-christmassy moody city of London that left me motivationally driven to go on and explore my inner self.
- When did you first know you wanted to be an artist?
My two Grandmother’s taught me how to knit and embroider and my mother always enoucuraged me in art classes, ceramics and photography from a young age… it wasn’t something that I decided necessarily on, but I enjoyed it a lot. Then it got to a point where I was about 22 and I wasn’t happy with what I was doing. So I thought to myself, what would make me really happy throughout my life, what is something I can do in my 80’s, or when I have a child? I live in the future, I find it quite hard to be in the present. I started taking photographs again, which I had done before but not on a specific subject, just on travels or of friends. I started looking at what I was inspired by, and by 23 I knew that was the field that I wanted to go back into. I think as a creative person, you should never say well, this is just what I am. Otherwise you get quite frustrated or have an artistic block. That’s the death of the artist, so for me I like to play with different mediums.
- So you don’t define yourself?
As just one thing, no. At the moment I’m working on two photographic series for myself, and then I’m building an installation room, which I’ve been working on with the architect, Omar Ouazzani Touhami for the past three months but I had the idea 4 years ago. Then I’m building a photographic light installation featuring my muse Flo Morrissey. The artists that I very much respect are Yayoi Kusama and Yoko Ono. Those are the people I’m very inspired by, because you look at their body of work and there’s just so much to choose from.
- Would you do performance, like Yoko Ono?
Absolutely. I would like to do a performance piece to do with dance at some point as I trained as ballerina and have always feel free when exploring that as a medium. I’ve learnt how to be in front of the camera and I’ve just done my first music video as a director for the musician Katy Rose which will be released in the next couple of months and I did a short film last year about Shakespeare’s Ophelia. It’s always about the right time and the right material, I never like to rush things. I studied photography at school, and then I studied at a Speos Institute a French school in Paris, so that was the initial starting point.
- Why did you decide to move to Paris?
I had always wanted to live there, inspired by the culture, beauty, and as a visual fantasy land, I mean, I love Tim Burton, that kind of Gothic, subtle, beautiful, but it’s not modern. Everyone still dresses like they’re from the ‘60’s or ‘70’s, and I love that style, so there’s a lot of things for me as a woman that I found very appealing. They have amazing food and culture, so I thought that if I could live in Paris and survive there with the French, I could live anywhere else in the world! I’m definitely a traveller so I like to go to different places. I believe in reincarnation, so I feel drawn to certain places that I haven’t been to, and usually if I’m desperate to go there, I end up just loving it.
- Do you get inspiration and ideas from traveling?
Absolutely, but not only traveling. I love film and literature, art and photography, poetry, I’ve got my head definitely in the stars, so I’m not somebody who’s very pragmatic, I like to be away with fairies and look at life as if its a miracle.
- Why did you decide to stay permanently in Paris?
Well I knew I wanted to move for a period of time. I’d grown up in London partly and I didn’t really ever feel very English. I’m someone who likes to see other cultures. At the end of the day if you can see as many places as you can before you die, that’s one of the most valuable gifts you can give yourself, whether or not you have a boyfriend or you’re married, or you can show your children… so I’ve definitely got the traveling bug.
- Do you just go trekking with a backpack?
It depends, if I’m going to America, no. If I go to India, I used to go with a backpack, live on a hut on the beach. Once I slept in a broom closet, I’m quite versatile with how I can travel. If somewhere is special and it’s worth going to see, I like it to be as natural as possible. I’m very lucky that I’ve had some amazing people that I’ve travelled with and who have showed me lovely places. India was an eye-opening experience from a very young age.
- Do you think the art scene is different to each other in Paris and London?
Very much. Paris is a bit behind with the art. They don’t do so many installations, they love reportage photography, so Henri Cartier-Bresson is their mecca, they’re not so into fine art, they love fashion, whereas in London, fine art, fashion, reportage, they fit all of those aspects in the same, and you have nature and geographical but that’s very specific. But me, personally, I love New York as one of the places with the best art because there are just so many art galleries, it’s just a bigger industry. But Los Angeles is definitely becoming a hubbub of contemporary artt, photography & fine art, it’s becoming quite a cool place to be an artist. You have to know where you, as an artist, are inspired. It’s about standing as an individual and developing your own voice.
- Have you found it?
To a certain degree but I think with an artist you’re always looking at your work in a way that’s slightly like torture. You’re always wanting to be better, to push yourself, and you want it to be somewhat original. We’re all slight shades of grey to begin with because we’ve had so much work in the past thousands of years that it’s quite hard to come up with an original idea. I’m not thinking that everyone’s going to like my work, that’s not the goal. It’s more to bring light and positivity and hope and beauty to people, because I think there’s a lot of darkness in the world. Sometimes I make darker work but I don’t necessarily expose it. There’s a difference with making work just for yourself or having it to show others…
- Do you remember the first time you showed your work in public?
The first work that I exposed, was when I created the collective World Wide Women, in 2012 for the ‘ Wanderer’s Eye Exhibition’ in Paris. I was quite nervous about showing work, so I set up the collective with women who were just starting out and exhibit under common themes of nature, femininity, and positivity, and the esoteric which went under the banner of the positive. It was about empowering one another and not about extreme feminism. That was the beginning of WWW and since then we’ve done eight shows in the past three years. At present we are coming up with our next theme for an exhibition and expansion for 2016-17! Then I had my first solo show Transcendance curated by Andi [Potamkin] in New York in 2015, and then I did another female exhibition at the Box Studio in East London curated by Clio Peppiatt with Female Matters. That’s been my journey so far and then next year I would like to exhibit the installation room.
- What is this installation room like?
The project’s called “I am the other you”, and it’s about human beings relationship to nature, especially trees and how important it is to preserve the rainforest and for us as humans to live in harmony with the planet. I came up with the idea four years ago after a shamanic ceremony and had the vision to do 8 rooms, called the “Infinity Series”. My good friend designer/artist Koji Tatsuno was extremely encouraging of the original idea and really pushed me to create them so I am very grateful for his belief in me.
- Where do you see yourself in the future?
I’d like to be a working artist throughout my life. I like producing work and getting it seen, promoting it through social media or having it in an exhibition or in a magazine, because part of it is to share with others, and have feedback. It’s an interaction. Everything’s so personal and subjective. I want people to tell me what they like and don’t like. That’s what’s so interesting about art – it’s so individual.
- In the contemporary art world, though, artists could be forced to create something trendy in order to sell it. Have you ever experienced this pressure?
No, that’s why I live in Paris. In London, there is that feeling of having to confrom. I think a lot of art is the emperor’s new clothes, it’s something on the wall, invisible art as an example. If you’ve got to imagine what’s on a wall… Well I can imagine what’s on a wall any time. For free. For me, nature is one of the most important aspects. I love going somewhere and finding a completely beautiful and raw backdrop and having a very simplistic form, generally it’s women because I like photographing my friends or people I’m inspired by. I’m photographing more men at the moment. I just shot the actor and musician Reeve Carney for a two projects in Dublin. After a while of having just women, it’s a bit of a challenge to take a photograph of a man or do something slightly different. So I’m always exploring other options. I like beauty, but I don’t necessarily like what commercial beauty is. I’m interested in not just the outside, but the inside as well. I’m very much a romantic person, I’m a fantasist to a certain degree. I love Dali, Klimt, Millais, John Currin and Frida Kahlo those artists take you to another place, and that’s for me what art is about.
- Do you think art is necessary in society?
100%. Personally I feel that schools try to educate people to conform to being the same as everyone else. I don’t think that’s what life’s about at all. I think life’s about being happy and finding that happiness, and if you have to work three different jobs to make your art, I think personally that’s what I’d rather do. In some countries around the world, obviously that’s not an option to even think like that, so I’m very privileged to have grown up in England where you are given the freedom to have those kinds of thoughts. I feel that art is something that you don’t have to be taught to know what the picture is about. I don’t need to be told, this is why you should like it, you either like it or you don’t. I do different Shamanic ceremonies, and I met this incredible Brazilian doctor and he was saying at the beginning of the ceremony that he used to try to define who he was, like “I’m a doctor, I’m a husband,” and he said the moment you start defining who you are, that part of you dies. And I thought to myself I can totally understand what he’s saying.
- So it’s also a power of thought?
Absolutely. I believe in manifestation, and I believe there’s a lot more to the power of mind than we’ve been given access to. Everyone likes to put everyone in a box and categorize what that person is. I think it’s a challenge not to be put into a box. I think only a small group of people can know who you really are, and those are your close friends.
- Do you remember the best advice you were ever given?
Andi was definitely very helpful. She told me to embrace my weirdness, to not be afraid of that. That’s valuable advice. I’ve not been ever one to conform, but we all like to think of ourselves as not weird, but I think to embarce the light and darker aspects of ourselves and love them rather than repress them could all do us the world of good.
- Do you have advice to young people?
You need to not give up, to keep trying, to believe in yourself.. You never know when a door shuts it will lead you to an open window. Just believing in yourself is a very important thing. Follow your dreams. Life is so short, I try to live everyday as if it’s my last, and not wishing to be doing something else. If you’re wishing to be doing something else, then you should probably be doing that. I feel very lucky that I’m at the point in my life that I can explore what I want to. Even if you’re not in that position, having hope is very important.
January 24, 2016
I had the honour to meet a great artist and, above all, a great person. Maria Aristidou is a commercial artist from Larnaca, Cyprus. Her work went viral because of her own distinctive technique: using coffee as her medium. Maria studied BA Fine Art Printmaking at the Manchester Metropolitan University, and completed her postgraduate degree in Arts Health at the University of Central Lancashire in the United Kingdom. Maria is interested in pop culture phenomena and trends and most of her pieces are influenced by movie characters and science fiction, which makes her work even more intriguing. Enjoy her words in our tete-a-tete.
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- What do you think contemporary art really is?
Contemporary art is something very personal and open. It is the opportunity of an artist to express his or her feelings so broadly using any type of medium. The exciting part of contemporary art is that it has no limits. A person that never had an experience with artistic knowledge has the opportunity to interact with any medium and create art. So contemporary art opens its doors to everyone. Contemporary art is the new world we live in. For me, the media is the new distinctive form of art. We are not depending on galleries and agents anymore. From a personal perspective – I am not implying that this is absolute – contemporary art gives the opportunity to everyone to create something masterly, creatively and cleverly and consequently, to be successful from it. It’s the evolution of the history of art.
- Where do you place yourself in the “art arena” – are you conceptual?
I was given the label of a commercial artist. So, I am a commercial artist. I do love marketing and the fact that I am commercial does not necessarily mean that I don’t belong under the umbrella of the “visual artists”. I do work with concepts if I am asked to. I am drawn into teamwork, into communicating with other artists and customers. I became known due to my concept technique, which is coffee, and I think that this is a concept itself.
- I completely agree with you. How did the coffee technique emerge?
It all started in February 2015. It was completely accidental. I was painting using watercolours, and suddenly coffee poured on my paper and when I saw the effect of coffee on my paper I said “why not?”. From that day onwards, I started experimenting using coffee as my medium. I used different coffee brands and blends. I realised that if I worked with different blends, the colour effect was altering. Subsequently, the technique I have today came out of this process of experimentation. Every coffee has a different colour effect. The Greek coffee has a very interesting effect; it is between grey and sepia. I cannot really explain it.
- Is there another ‘unconventional’ medium you would like to explore in the future?
Yes. Tea will be my next attempt.
- Do you think tea will have the same effect?
I haven’t worked with tea as my medium yet. I do have some thoughts how the effect will turn. For instance, I presume that tea will be much lighter and smoother than coffee. You can use anything that extracts colour as your medium. It is up to the artist to use those colours to make up an unconventional technique. Even ketchup would do.
- When you create, do you instantly create or do you have a specific procedure you follow?
There is a procedure. I need to observe the picture that I am painting. I have to start painting the light areas and then proceed to the bolder ones. The tricky part of coffee is that as soon as you start painting there is no way back. You cannot erase anything. So every time I start painting with coffee I am a bit restrained and then I go crazy (laughter). I start splashing, throwing and lose myself in my painting.
- Are you a coffee lover?
I am indeed!
- So basically, one day while you were painting, your coffee was poured accidentally and that was it, you went viral as a coffee artist.
Exactly. The funny part of the entire story is that the coffee that was spilled that day is not the coffee I am using today to create my pieces. I spilled my latte. I always drink latte! But now, I am not using latte as a medium. You know milk is a bit risky so I’d rather use coffee. Plain coffee. But no sugar (laughter).
- What is so special about coffee compared to other materials?
Coffee is a material that can destroy your brush easily. With other materials, if you clean it properly you can go on with the same brush for years. But with coffee, it’s completely different. Coffee can wear your brush easily. Perhaps, coffee is what draws me into a painting. Coffee gives me that vibe of roughness and toughness. Perhaps it is the entire concept of coffee. I cannot explain it. When I use watercolours the essence I get is not the same. Watercolours reflect a smoothness. It is something nice, neat and perfect. But with coffee, I can express who I really am. I simply go crazy and wild about it. It is okay to be messy with it! Perhaps it is something personal. The addictive element of caffeine probably makes me more passionate about it. I could say there is a psychological implication to it. I will never forget the day I started experimenting with coffee. It was a turning point on my own career. I can still remember one day I was asked to do a coffee portrait of Einstein and Churchill. With Churchill it was an entire different story, I was so delicate about him. But with Einstein, I went crazy. Probably, the ambiance of each personality I am painting is what alters my technique and the level of roughness I use. So I need to relate and draw with the characters I am painting.
- What is truly your source of inspiration?
My source of inspiration is social media and pop culture. Movies, celebrities, not the Kardashians though. Something that questions my mind. When I did the Star Wars series, you have to bear in mind that I am not a fanatic compared to the fanatics. What made me completely fanatical about Star Wars is the thought behind the characters, that sort of personality building process. The team, the product design, the marketing behind that character. The background story of each character is my true source of inspiration. For instance, Winnie the Pooh and Alice in Wonderland diachronically, have had a project plan, a thought behind every character and that is what excites me when I am working.
- Do you think its important for a painting to be aesthetically nice?
It is important. But I do believe that balance is the key. What is “aesthetically nice” is up to the material you are using, the concept you are deploying and most importantly how masterly an artist delivers it into a paper or canvas. Being decorative is not what makes a piece aesthetically nice.
- What are your plans in the future? Is there something that the public should not miss?
My mind is always travelling. I am working on cakes right now. I do have dreams and ideas about what I want to do in the future but I am not sure because things change all the time. The only thing that I can define as a plan is that I want to be stable. Stable not in terms of being situated in a routine. I like messiness that will help me evolve as an artist.
- As a young artist what is your advice to those that aspire to be part of the “art world?”
Just go crazy. What you do, do it perfectly and masterly. I am quoting Walt Disney: “whatever you do, do it well. Do it so well that when people see you do it, they will want to come back and see you do it again, and they will want to bring others and show them how well you do what you do.” This is my advice. And most importantly love yourself.
November 22, 2015
Power, passion, and raw, unadulterated emotion veritably oozes from the work of the relatively obscure artist, Oli Fowler.
Oli, (otherwise known by his tag name: ‘Flabby G’) has done work for Jeremy Deller, Emily Evans, Fraser Muggaridge, and LOM Architecture and Design. His work can be found in the unobtrusive exhibitions hosted at The Crown pub in Angel and Shaw’s Bookseller in Blackfriars.
Oli specialises in screenprinting and design, having mastered the mediums of illustration, photo-montage, photography, and printing. His work is nostalgic, colourful, abstract, and dynamic. It aspires to evoke sex, sassiness, and seediness. His creative process is fuelled by experimentation as he strives to ‘fuck things up a little bit, to create a bit of fun.’
Oli’s vivacious, vibrant, and furiously futuristic compositions instantly captivated me. To my delight he agreed to an interview, inviting me to the studio and gallery Print Club London. As I ambled down the dusky alleyway towards Print Club London, I was greeted by haphazardly hung fairy lights, fluttering flags, and walls scattered with street art. I found myself invading a hidden haven of creativity.
The following interview with Oli was inspirational and invigorating. Our discussion orbited not only around Oli’s career, method, and meaning, but extended to words of wisdom and guidance. Oli revealed how he shook the shackles of the service industry at tremendous risk so that he could follow his passion for creating art.
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- Could you explain your compositions and creative process to me?
Those shapes that you see in my art that are jagged and triangular, they come from me experimenting with sellotape. I like to mess it up a little, most of the time I’m completely unsure if it will turn out well, but if it doesn’t work I always save those prints and go back over them. It’s about saving money and being frugal, you don’t have to spend vast amounts of money to create art.
- What drives your art? Are you attempting to broadcast a particular message or meaning?
I’m not political so it’s got absolutely nothing to do with that. I like to do things that evoke memories. I’m currently working on a series depicting disco girls, influenced by the ’70s. I love the look of airbrushed album covers and the concept of really cool music. I’m trying to capture that coolness in my art. I’m trying to create work which I don’t want to say is nostalgic, but which recreates the sexiness of the ’70s. I want it to look cool and sassy.
- Why do you think you’re so fascinated with recapturing the ’70s?
Music inspires me. I’ve been listening to Jazz-fusion and Jazz funk disco since I was an eleven-year-old picking through my mums record collection. The more I listened the deeper I delved into it. That underground scene appealed to me. When you think of disco most people think of ABBA but it’s not like that, it’s the far out stuff that was underneath. I just think it’s got a good feeling of fun; there was so much innocence. People weren’t so serious back then, I love that.
- Bar the recreation of fun and innocence are there any other emotions you want your work to evoke?
I’m currently working on a series called Sister Power. My figures are all looking to the camera and are really hot. I want a girl who sees that work to be struck by it, to feel powerful, to be made to feel good by looking at it. I’ve also got another disco piece coming, it features people jumping and playing. I want people not to take life so seriously, to just have a good time and enjoy the moment. My metal piece of the sailor and his girlfriend is about passion. It’s about love joining two people. His feeling for her is eating her, consuming her. I want my prints to show things like that.
- What does the future hold for your forthcoming projects?
I want to play around with more typography and do massive past[e] ups. My next screen prints are based on nail bar signs. If I get hold of a wall I’m going to build a picture and people will be able recognise it. I’m always walking around being influenced by the things I see. It’s going to take time and money, a lot of money, but I’ll get there.
- What would you like to communicate through this article?
I want to say for a long time I wasn’t doing any artwork. I was doodling in my twenties and the art was there but it was just doodles on receipt paper; I couldn’t see how it could happen. Now I’m thirty-five and I’m doing great artwork. It’s never too late, it doesn’t take too long, and you just need great dedication and passion for it. You’ve just got to keep on going for it.
- Do you ever find yourself disillusioned by your choice to become an artist?
You could call me ignorant because some people are very good at marketing themselves and are very proactive in making money, but I’m currently at a point where I don’t care about making money. It’s about the art. I would prefer to go out onto the streets and hand it out for free or put it up on the walls somewhere. I’d be happy to give my stuff away or just have it hanging somewhere so people can see it.
I was working in retail for ten years and I knew I had to get out of it, then I heard about Print Club London and moved to Dalston, joined up and used my screen prints to get into university. Eventually you earn money, it’s not a lot, you don’t earn corporate money but it’s about being happy. I have to do art, I’ve got to do it, even without money I just couldn’t stop. I’d always find a way.
November 15, 2015
On a Saturday morning this November, I had my first artist interview with Poline Harbali in her cozy studio-apartment in Paris. That turned out to be a very inspiring conversation with intense exchange of deep thoughts.
Poline Harbali is of Franco-Syrian origin. Her artistic practice is constructed around the search for her identity, which is particularly difficult when she has no direct access to her family in Syria. Poline then started to work on family memories through collected photographs which are then superimposed, wrinkled, redesigned, printed on transparent or textile fabric or burned iron. Poline’s art strives to pose questions on various topics including femininity and to expand the traditional use of materials into a new context, for instance, giving new definitions of embroidery. Her embroidery work is currently being exhibited at bookshop-gallery, Violette and Co in Paris until 29 November. Her works were seen at JABAL Art Fair of Beirut in both 2014 and 2015.
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- You specialised in graphic design, photography and illustration at school, in what way have these practices influenced your art?
At the beginning, I studied Master in Philosophy for four years and I already specialised in aesthetic, and for me, it is important to put ideas into forms. At the beginning in my photography class, I was working with old pictures of my family. My father is Syrian and my mother is French, while all other family members are in Damascus in Syria, but we can’t go to Syria because of the war and all the complicated situations. Then, photography became important as a means to share the life with the family in Syria, pretending I am living with them, because my family in Syria and I would exchange photos from our life. This was the beginning of my work –I was trying to find the missing pieces of myself, my identity through photography.
- How is your family background and identity important to you as an artist?
My family background is very important because I’ve always been striving to search for an identity. There is not one thing from either my mother’s family or my father’s family that can tell me who I am, and that will always keep me wondering about my identity. As an artist, I am not very interested in giving answers to people. What I like is researching and trial and error. So wondering about who I am, who my family is and how I can interact with them has influenced the topics of my work for sure, and also the way that I am working. That is, I am not trying to communicate certain messages, but I am more questioning through my work rather than answering questions. I put questions from my mind into forms.
- It seems your artistic practice stems from your quest to discover your identity, and you started this process with photography, can you tell us more about that process, how did you go further from that?
Yes, I started with photography. I’ve been always interested in “transgression”. As I come from an Arabic family, and in Arabic perceptions, there are many norms or rules of how you should behave as a woman. I think I never felt fine with what my family told me to be. To start with, there were a lot of Syrian tablecloths which were made of specific way of Syrian embroidery called agabanee, with gold threads, in vegetal patterns like flowers and plants. This embroidery is an activity that women do a lot at home, including my grandmother. And I really feel close to all the women in my family as I felt we’re concerned about the same wondering. So I wanted to use and work with this technique but make transgression about that. It means that, originally embroidery was something to keep women at home and to just spend their time while waiting for men to come home. And I wanted to make it in the opposite way that I make embroidery because I want to embroider and to talk about myself through embroidery, such as my fears as a woman, my sexuality or my intimacy in general.
I try to make something not beautiful. That’s an important point because traditionally we always want women to make beautiful things, for decorative reasons. But I want to make something raw; sometimes mixing it with beautiful things, for example, I love using floral patterns which I superimpose with something dark and raw.
- I see. So I think that’s a way how you to try to expand the traditional use of materials into a new context. Is that what you’re doing in your art?
Yes, exactly. I think it’s very important for me to use traditional materials, like fabric, because I’m really questioning the tradition in my work. Also, I’m working with clothes in an installation project right now. I make use of homewear clothing that I got from my grandmother and then I make embroidery, drawings and prints on it. I think the materials are like a soul. For example, homewear clothing in my grandmother’s generation was something very specific that represents women’s roles in the family as a wife, a mother. There is a book that I really like called A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. I think it’s very important to always have the time and a place at home that you’re with yourself to focus on yourself, your work, your desire… So with this project, I hope to re-establish an individual space for women through these white and not decorative homewear clothes. I’m just trying to question why it’s so important for my grandmother to be a wife, to have beautiful homewear and to be always very pretty for somebody else. Also, I want to bring out all those things which are forbidden by moral norms and make women ashamed of, such as rape, abortion and other humiliations, and expose them on the outside on the homewear clothing, instead of keeping them inside women.
- Any artists who have particularly great influence on your perceptions and practices of art?
Well, there’re a lot. I really like Louise Bourgeois that I find the way she was doing her art was very interesting. What I like is that she’s not afraid of working on both more intellectual or conceptual art and raw or brutal art together. Her work is not conventional in the sense that she has plastic art skills for sure as an artist, but she’s also a conceptual artist at the same time. I’m very sensitive to her work. Two or three years ago in Berlin, it was my first time to see a work of hers in person. I saw this huge work with many drawings of red hands, which was powerful for me. I was crying.
Also, I like Kiki Smith because I find her work very seductive. She’s not trying to fit her work into something else, but she focuses more on the process than the results and I also like working this way. So she’s a big inspiration.
Then, the music of an Austrian singer called Soap&Skin who inspires me too. She has a traditional background too but she’s very experimental and contemporary. This is similar to what I do –questioning the tradition and making something new out of it.
- How do you define femininity? What do you think about women artists in the contemporary art world?
I think there should be no definition of femininity and there’re a million ways to be a feminine person. This is what is really interesting in our time. We can make the choice even if it’s not easy at all to make those choices. This is something very different from the years before. I’m not seeing myself as an angry feminist, but I think of the book King Kong Theory by a French writer Virginia Despentes. She says in our society women always define themselves from men. I think both for her and for me, a lot of people think being feminine is to be soft, kind, smart but not too smart, pretty and a bit sexy or seductive somehow. For example, there is one part of the book talking about the double standards between men and women. I always felt myself as a raw person who doesn’t like following others’ expectations. For example, if you’re not always soft or very independent, you speak in a frank way; people would think you’re like a man. And this is something bothering me a lot. I think it’s time to remove these gender stereotypes. There has been definition of femininity for a long time, but I think it’s very important to not have one.
- You exiled yourself to Nantes, Montreal and Barcelona. As I come from another culture but now living in a different one, I am very interested in your experiences of displacement, can you share your feelings about that?
I am a person with wanderlust and I like being like this because every time you move out, you have a chance to redefine yourself, to break through people’s perceptions of you. When you encounter new people, you always discover something new about yourself, and you have a broader view of what life can be or what you can be. The year in Barcelona was particularly difficult for me, but I learnt a lot about who I was and why this experience was complicated for me, so it was an important experience. Learning a new language can help to express yourself differently too. I was wandering around for almost ten years, but now I feel that I want to gather all those experiences and build something in a place. At some point, it is important for me to belong to a place for some time at least and then I can transform all the things that I’ve collected from my experiences into some forms.
- What impacts do these displacement experiences have on your artistic creation?
What can be seen in my art that is related to these experiences is that I like to experience new ways to work. I don’t define myself with embroidery or photography. In my work, I’m not only searching for subjects, but also searching for forms that I don’t even know what it is. I think I’m wandering in my art.
- So now do you see Paris as your home?
Yes, I really feel home in Paris. I’m French but I’m originally not from Paris. I’ve been living in Paris for around four years, but I really feel home here. When I went to Montreal, I really felt home there that I felt connected with that city which has my rhythm. But I thought I needed other experiences, so then I decided to go to Barcelona. I think it is possible to have different little homes and whenever I go back to Montreal from time to time, I still feel myself having nice energy there, so maybe it’s like a second home. And everyone in family comes from different origins and has been to different places too. I think it’s important to find and choose a place to be home by myself. Moving around can bring different perspectives that can make a person complicated but also very interesting. I feel lucky.
- How would you describe the art scene in France or in Paris? How do you interact with it?
I don’t really know because I don’t feel very connected with the French art, not that it’s not interesting, but it’s less related to the “questions” I ask with my art. I’ve been participating in the JABAL Art Fair in Beirut for two years. From the art fair, I can feel more connected with the Middle East art because those artists and I are concerned about similar questions, such as war, violence or women’s life. But what is different from other Middle East artists is that I use materials that are more similar to French art. For ideas, I’m more inspired by French writers.
- That’s interesting and brings me to another question: How does your art interact with the French contemporary culture?
I always like reading and I think that’s why I studied philosophy. Reading is like endless conversations with the authors. As you read, you always answer and question the writer. Conversations with people are always with certain notions or goals, but with reading, you can always question the writers, which is something very important for me and my art. I work a lot on books. When I read a good book, it always inspires me on my art somehow. I like putting a concept into a form. And I always like questioning more than answering and my art is like questions without words and can make people question themselves while I question myself. There is not any goal. I didn’t choose to do something with words like writing or cinema because words are much more definitive by nature compared to visual art. That’s why I like visual art which is more flexible and open.
I also want to talk to you about a French writer called Olivia Rosenthal that’s really inspiring me. She’s questioning the moral norms and the impacts of the family on her life. Like, she would also speak about how family secrets can influence your life a lot even if you don’t know them. So it’s mainly about the conflict between individual thinking and outside norms in the family system. Then, this is something really well done in the Turkish movie Winter Sleep. This spoke to me a lot because it’s in Turkey and my grandmother is Turkish. In this movie, you can how the family system is working and how in the Middle East, expectations from society can influence almost your every behaviours as a man. This movie is very violent for me because the tension was always kept below the calm surface. This is really in the Middle East culture and is very inspiring to me.
- What role does art play in your life?
I can’t say that I’m making art just for myself because I think when you make a form you want it to be seen. I’m making my works differently every time after some feedbacks and observing people’s interactions with my art. I think it’s always a bit political, not in the sense of defending some right, but in the sense that I’m really questioning topics like femininity, family secrets. It’s important to make art for myself for sure, but also to try to make repressed ideas visible to the world. Sometimes I just feel the need to find a good form to express what I feel. It’s very important for me to express all my colours inside me through my works. I have to create a form to get my feelings and questions out of my body so that it exists outside my body and it’s not mine anymore. Maybe it sounds weird… Maybe lots of thoughts come up to me and it’s like I need a place to deposit them, or else it may be too overwhelming. It’s important for my life and my art that at some moments I really concentrate on all my thoughts and questions and other moments I put them away.
- As a young artist, have you had some moments of feeling lost? How do you cope with that and find your own way?
I think in my creative life, there are moments when I’m more productive and other moments when I’m not doing anything. At the beginning, I would feel very anxious. I think this is normal and the beginning of the process. When I create something, I have to leave it for a while to let it grow and then get back to it to make it differently. That’s also the research part. As I also work for Le Monde as an illustrator. Illustration is more like an intellectual work because large part of the work is about finding the concept and how to link it with an image, so it’s like a philosophical work but with pencil. It’s also something important for applied art; it’s not just about looking for a good form. I’m trying to experiment with different forms from the same place, so it’s an evolution. Sometimes, it can be stressful when one week I keep working on the same thing, but the next week I don’t like it at all. It’s hard to be always satisfied with everything you do. Well, the way to cope with it is that I try to keep doing it. There is no rush. I just enjoy the process of making art, so I make it. That’s it!