Ground pigments from rock sediments, gouache, sumi ink on tea-dyed paper, 60 x 42 in
(NB: The interview was held with the artist in preparation of the colloquium Dancing beyond memories: Armenian cultural heritage & corporeality South Caucasian approaches to creative practices)
- In order to introduce yourself to our readers, could you please describe the origins of your visual practice before joining the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and how it developed after graduating from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena in 2009?
I’ve grown up in a fairly creative family. My paternal grandmother was a pianist who taught piano lessons and my paternal grandfather played the violin as a hobby aside from doing extensive research in genetics as a microbiologist. So my father grew up constantly surrounded by music, he himself played the classical guitar, but now works as an engineer at NASA. My mother is a highly creative individual with a keen eye for design, always making her surroundings beautiful and inviting. She worked as a seamstress before going back into the administrative world. My sister has always had a huge impact on my art as well. She is very in tune with the aesthetic and conceptual sectors of art. She mainly works as a ceramicist, which inspired me to create some sculptural pieces of my own for my most recent show this year. I’ve always been interested in drawing since the age of 2. It was my escape as a child up until my teens. I found solace with sitting anywhere in the house and doodling away to my heart’s content. I decided during my high school years that this is what I would pursue as my main career choice so I applied to various art schools. And here I am today!
- Before attending CalArts, artist Judy Chicago also attended Chicago Institute so I guess I am curious to know more about the content of your training there and the way it might have taught you techniques or skills you still use. What is the school ethos?
To be honest, I was never taught techniques or skills there. Only the conceptual side of art. We focused on art theory and criticism during the first year. Given that I was only there for one year, I was not able to fully immerse myself in their curriculum. Classes consisted of heavy critiques that lasted for hours. In my opinion, not fun or inspiring. I preferred the Art Center’s curriculum because they were able to implement current tools that broadened your creative process. They were practical in a sense that they helped prepare you for the art world, thinking of the business side of things, which not a lot of artists are able to do, learning time management, and the ability to talk about your work in a clear way. Overall I think it depends on the artist and their drive for their practice. If you are inspired and ready to create meaningful work people will see that and they will recognize it.
- I was introduced to your work through the spectrum of our Armenian roots which, in my opinion, seem to most definitely inform one another. Could you tell us how your cultural heritage has embedded your artistry? It took me years to realize that whatever choreographic production I was initiating, it would almost always convey a South Caucasian folklore or aesthetic that I’ve happened to properly embrace while researching my MFA final project at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music & Dance in London. I am wondering what your thoughts are in that regard, has that always been a conscious choice to link your Armenian heritage to your paintings and sculptures?
My Armenian heritage has always been the prominent focus in all of my works. I’ve felt a pull from my background, like it’s always calling me back. Even if it’s a small element in a painting that resembles something from our culture, whether it’s the woman’s eyes that I paint, her eyebrows, a plant indigenous to Armenia, a piece of jewelry, food items. It’s a way of reminding myself of the beauty that is left from our land. It saddens me that not a lot of preservation has gone into documenting and archiving our heritage, but I guess in a way I hope that my art can do that.
- It often appears that Armenian artists from the diaspora, for example Ani Javian and Theia Maldoom who are also part of the colloquium, have educated themselves on our common history through archives, books, family testimonies, documentaries, pictures etc… Did you have a similar experience while growing up as an Armenian-American woman artist?
My paternal grandmother’s side had losses during the genocide hence why they moved to Iran eventually. My mother’s side endured the Communist era and it was definitely not the most ideal environment to grow up in. You felt constantly watched and monitored by the government. Of course Russia was controlling everything and still is sadly. Russia is the big problem and we need to break away somehow.
- Could you please share your creative process with us? How do you initiate a new series and what is your research and development phase like?
I’m very pragmatic. I see things as they are and want to portray them that way because that is their true essence. I can be inspired by plants, people, food, and places. My goal is to highlight their beauty and impact on the world. Other times I can be very indirect with what I’m actually trying to say about a piece. There will be nuances, for example the way a woman is gazing onward, she can feel stoic and forlorn. Or the way she is posing her body, it can feel vulnerable. These aspects are the initiator of my creative process.
- I understand Queens of The Caucasus emerged from a trip you took to Armenia and Georgia in 2018-2019. What aspects of our motherland did you discover and how did this particular trip in the region inspire you a new series?
Whether it was a detail of a carving in a 4th century monastery to a small plant I saw on a hike. I was absorbing everything I came across. It felt surreal to finally be setting foot in my home country.
- The series portray physically strong female nudes performing all kinds of daily activities with a singular almost defiant gaze and a subtle yet specific Caucasian imagery and palette of symbols that echo a certain epicureanism (e.g. Churchkhela or K’nats). In what ways did the trip invigorate your already female led, corporeal aesthetic?
Physically seeing the women from these regions gave me a different viewpoint on what I was depicting prior to the trip. Their movements, their faces, their way of speaking. All of that made an impression on what I chose to paint in this series. They seemed softer and more approachable then what I grew up around. I felt more femininity from them.
- Nudity on stage is always an intricate, tricky matter for that it can be interpreted as a way to eroticize a piece of dance which intention is not necessarily that of sensualising bodies but instead claiming their true unveiled essence and mobility. In your articulation of nudity I see a sense of counterpointing a white colonialist male gaze and centuries of women portrayal through orientalised, sexualized, fetishized lenses. Could you talk to us about that?
My intention was to show these women as they were, with their bellies, with their thick thighs, bigger arms, thicker eyebrows, deeper set eyes. I never want to show a Western idealized version of a woman because that is not realistic to the rest of our world. It infuriates me that this is still the aesthetic of the majority of people, but yet completely unattainable by most.
- Technically, in what ways do you believe the materials you make and use to create your pieces support the organic, raw poetic that emanate from them?
The pigments I collect are from the earth, the paper I paint on is made of natural fibers and will eventually degrade over time. My hope is that they all return back into the earth. It is all cyclical.
- In your biography, we can read that the portrayal of Oriental, Eastern women are most often sanitized or romanticized for a Western audience, I would therefore be interested in knowing the various feedbacks you got from people who attended the vernissage of Queens of The Caucasus at Iris Project in Venice last January 2020 ? Would you say the receptions or interpretations of your show were different whether seen from South Caucasian or Western visitors’ eyes?
I think most people viewed the works in the same fashion. They were definitely impacted by the nudity and intensity of the women in these paintings. People from Caucasian backgrounds at the show were able to comprehend much more than the Westerners though. Especially regarding the titles of the pieces and were able to pick up on the artifacts and elements in each piece.
11. We recently saw through the release of Lady Gaga’s new single 911 – which revisited the classic 1969 Sergei Paradjanov’s film The Colour of pomegranates that your sister Nairi introduced to me while I was visiting in Los Angeles and which is a key influence to a lot of us – the limits of cultural appreciation and appropriation. I believe that part of our mission as art practitioners whose traumatic and tragic history is up to date lacking international exposure, is to find a pedagogic way to both transmit and reclaim our cultural, artistic, territorial legacy. Do you agree? If so, how do you believe we can negotiate between visual practices that are in essence representations of our personal themes we express through specific media (e.g. dance, sculpture, painting, film… ) and a militant statement that aims to revendicate what makes us who we are, simultaneously trying not to restrict our work to our Armenian identity?
I feel that Westerners especially have a hard time digesting any other culture that is not close to their own. We need to simplify and be direct with our approach otherwise it becomes misinformed and diluted. Just like Lady Gaga. Just like all of these other public figures that choose to appropriate other cultures for their own benefit, without crediting them.
To know more about Alisha Sofia’s work :