Hello Alice, let’s start from the Words Festival at Nirox. I guess it has been a special place to show off some of your recent works. Would you like to tell me something more about this exhibition?
So, for context, Nirox is an art residency in the Cradle of Humankind in South Africa, actually the area where the oldest human fossils have been discovered. It’s an amazing place. I stayed there for a month in September this year, making a body of work that was on show last weekend as part of the “WORDS” literary festival. It was incredible to have the time and space to think and make art, without being distracted by everyday life. Plus it’s in nature, so you get a break from all the noise of the city… as a result, I think these new works have a quieter feeling to them, compared to the pieces painted in urban spaces.
I believe there are many surprising aspects in your art, but your sublime technique is immediately evident for sure. Could you reveal something about how you’re able to achieve your outcome? – Which do you think is the main key of your technique?
Well, thank you. In terms of technique, I think the most important thing in any typography is an awareness of spacing. After that, it’s the letters themselves. To learn and remember the shapes, I practice a lot. And I mean A LOT! And I still have a long, looong way to go before I reach the level I’m aiming for, if I ever even do. It’s not a very glamourous answer, but I think the “key” you are asking about is just showing up consistently, and being humble about the journey, and not getting discouraged when you’re shit in the beginning.
What does it mean the drawing gesture for you? How many time do you spend every day on drawing?
I hardly ever draw anymore. I worked as a commercial illustrator for 5 years, and it totally killed drawing for me. I know I’ll get it back again, but right now I just need some space away from that mode of working. But Calligraphy is different. When I practice the repetitive “drills”, it’s a sort of therapy. I lose myself in the alphabet. I don’t get time to practice everyday, but Saturdays are non-negotiable. It’s like my Church time… I make a huge pot of coffee and listen to podcasts/audiobooks, or nothing, and just write for hours and hours, anything from the 26 letters, to quotes, to my own thoughts.
Watching at your pieces I’m pretty sure that the obsessive repetition of the gesture is an integral part of your art.
What do you feel during the production process, I mean, is it something extraneous or relaxes you? Do you listen to music to accompany your gestures?
You’re right, obsessive repetition is at the core of my work. I use calligraphy as a conceptual modality, so that labour-intensive nature of the process is critical to how the works operate. Like, if it was just about content, I’d typeset the text in some nice font and print it and paste it up. But the time-investment in these works is very deliberate… and the choice to work in an obsolete practice, especially at a time where text is becoming increasingly digital. I never listen to music when I paint/write, firstly I can’t multi-task at all, and I find it really distracting! But also, I like hearing what’s going on… especially if I am working on a public space. Most of the time I am alone and it’s important to be aware of your surroundings. Yes, especially as a woman…
I do not know if everyone can figure out how much physical and mental effort is behind an artistic production so intense as yours. Can you carve out some time for other activities, or your painting process is full time?
Full-time is the dream. Some artists are privileged enough to earn enough from their work to live. Most are not. So, here’s the thing that no one likes to talk about: Day Jobs… Sure, I wish I could write all day, but I also like food, which means I need an income. To these ends, I freelance as a “Graphic Recorder”, which is basically live visual notetaking. It’s an interesting job – I learn a lot, I meet people very different from myself, and it makes me the cash I need to make the art I want to make. It’s not my own “art” by any stretch, but it’s fun, and it’s empowering to not need to constantly ask people for funding. For years I thought it was somehow “failing” to work a day job; now I believe that the role of the artist includes that of entrepreneur. If I had one piece of advice for my younger self, it would be to tell ANYONE over the age of 14 who uses the term “sell-out” to go fuck themselves… And please feel free to quote me on this. (laughing, –en)
Don’t blame on me, but it seems to me your subjects have always something religious. Do I have to go to a therapist, or there’s something mystical you are looking for in your work?
Your question makes me happy. Religion is a really important recurring theme in all my work, although it’s not always explicit. The fonts I have been using for the “Malware Poetry/VIRUS” series is a variant of Fraktur, which is a Germanic Gothic typeface, so it has its roots in Biblical manuscripts. Visually, the letters refer to the notion of something sacred, or holy. This is seemingly at odds with the content: computer coding. But I think it opens up a space to contemplate our new Digital Gods, and asks us to consider who/what we worship and value. It also speaks to the idea that language carries power, and how this can also be used as a socio-political weapon.
You know what, I started thinking about this mystical aspect watching at your latest mural in Joburg, the “letmein” entitled piece. That’s huge buds. And you know, the picture of a single girl in front of a massive wall, has something referred to a Christian sacrifice! Seriously, let’s talk about your most recent effort, tell me some about this experience.
Haha, yeah, that wall was fucking HUGE! Like, a block long. Honestly, I really underestimated how physically intense that process was going to be. I love large-scale projects, but by the end of 5 days my body was broken… It was an amazing experience. I’m so grateful to Kalshnikovv Gallery for organising it! “letmein” (aka: Password Project) is a collection taken from the top 1000 most common online passwords, from Facebook, to LinkdIn, to Gmail, painted on the side of the Nelson Mandela Bridge, into the Johannesburg CBD (Sept, 2017). The list was supplied by a hacker friend of mine. These are the words that keep us safe; the language that we use to protect ourselves, and to keep other people at a distance. The bridge, as a primary artery into central Johannesburg, is a site of continual human flow. The project raises questions of access control, asking people to consider how historically, and still today, language has been used as a tool in the regulation human movement. There is also something semi-mystic about the words that hold this kind of power; a contemporary incarnation of the “Open Sesame” myth. What I found really striking, though, is the banality of the words… “password123”, “qwerty”, “superman” etc.
Yeah…In a way, trivial as they may seem, the words suggest that maybe we share more in common than we might acknowledge. So, it’s playing with the idea that language both unites and divides us. This mural was part of an on-going Street Art project called “Create the City”, in inner-Johannesburg, organised by Kalashnikovv Gallery and Play Braamfontein.
Let’s talk for a while about your beginnings, what do you see when you look back?
I have always been fascinated by the relationship between art and language. I studied Fine Arts, and then later I did my Masters in English Literature. I had been working in illustration for most of my twenties, but it wasn’t the kind of work I wanted to make. It has taken me years to work out how these themes overlap for me, and it was only really when I wrote my Masters on experimental and concrete poetry that things started making sense. I started experimenting with calligraphy and then I just started painting non-stop to make up for what felt like so much lost time.
Is it something you are comfortable with, or would you like to erase your earlier works?
Oh man, I have some suuuper shitty early works out there! Of course. And also, I’m sure I will feel similarly in the future about some of my current stuff. So it goes. But no, I wouldn’t erase any of them. I don’t allow myself to care too much. Growth comes from mistakes, and if I only allowed myself to make “perfect” pieces, I’d never have made anything. Some stuff works. Other stuff doesn’t. The End.
Currently the media attention to the street art scene is remarkable, it seems is possible to insert the graffiti element also in detergents tv ads. Bothers you or do you think is positive?
Neither. If you choose to put your work out into the public space, this is an inevitable part of the cultural exchange. It’s not good or bad, it just is what it is.
How do you think the scene will develop in the coming years? More and more media attention to the street art thing or do you think we have reached a saturation point?
I don’t know if I’m the right person to ask about this. The majority of street art is purely decorative; a pretty painting on a wall. And that’s fine, of course, but it’s not what excites me personally. I am far more interested in the conceptual side of the piece…whether that plays out on the street, or in a gallery, or in your bedroom, I don’t care. What does excite me is the idea of working at large scale, and confronting people with work that isn’t confined to a “safe” gallery space. I don’t think there will ever be a saturation point for that. But our world is increasingly visually congested, so I think there needs to be a sense of creative accountability. If you put your own “noise” into public space, you should aim to add some kind of value.
People who double my iQ say that at the end of each artistic research there is always “beauty”. An hidden entity that sometimes turns out in places and in the most unexpected expressions. How many times do you think you have met beauty and captured in your calligraphy?
I love how you phrase that…“met beauty”… I suppose for me, beauty is not aesthetic so much as it is a result of something honest in a work.
In my own pieces, I find moments of beauty in the process, at the times of “flow-state”, when I kind of just lose myself in the moment. It’s not so much about the final painted letters for me. Sure, I hope other people find beauty in the final product, but what they see is ultimately up to them.
Each fucking artist I interviewed in recent years, and they are many, told me “you must be in trouble with something or someone, to have enough thrust to produce art.” Fine, tell us at least one of your problems.
I think the “tortured artist” narrative is definitely a played-out cliche. I have never met a person who does not bear all kinds of scars, and some people make art about it, some don’t. But the idea that “issues” necessarily equal “interesting art” is, in my opinion, reductive and intellectually lazy.
Tell me three artists you admire at the moment, who do you think is doing remarkably well?
There are so many… Faith 47 is incredible. Swoon. Luca Barcellona, of course. Miranda July is sublime. I love Amanda Palmer. And Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer are unparalleled in my eyes. I guess that’s more than 3, sorry..
When you were 13, who did you want to become?
The answer has always been artist/writer, or April O’Neil from the Ninja Turtles.
Damn, I guess our time is finishing, but I cannot leave you without the Proust Questionnaire. Here we go:
– Your favorite virtue?
– Your main fault?
Chronic Imposter syndrome. But I’m working on it.
– Your idea of happiness?
Good wine and great conversation with people that I love.
– If not yourself, who would you be?
An astronaut, for sure.
– How you wish to die?
Old. And laughing.
– What is your present state of mind?
Grateful. 2017 has been an overwhelming year.
Thanks Alice for this chat, to conclude, tell me something about your future, tell me what would you like to achieve as goals in five months, and in five years from now.
Thank you Christie, actually, in 3 weeks time I am moving to Melbourne, Australia…so I think that the next few months are going to be quite exciting but also a bit lonely… it’s an amazing city, but I also love Cape Town and South Africa, and I am going to really miss my incredible friends over here.
In 5 years? Well, I hope to be making art full-time, writing, and doing more talks. At some point I want to run workshops that encourage visual literacy and communication skills, for kids, and adults, who haven’t had the privilege of access to formal education.