The London-based artist is making waves with her political art focusing on queer and transgender issues
Rebellion runs in Aphrodite Papadatou’s blood. As the daughter of an anarchist artist and a political journalist, politics were an essential factor in the portrait artist’s upbringing. The artist fuels her rebellion through her expressive portraitures, by placing the raw social and sexual identities of her subjects as the focal points of her artwork.
Most recently, Papadatou has focused on the identities of the transgender community as seen in her most recent collaborative series with the London drag-queen collective, Sink the Pink. Most figures in her paintings possess sharp angles and are shaped in twisted contortions, creating an incredibly emotional and poignant depiction of humans.
We spoke with Papadatou to discuss the inspirations behind her artwork and being a political artist in a particularly political time.
Tell us about your process as an artist, where does your inspiration and drive come from?
I think I was born a portrait artist, and the theme of anarchy and rebellion runs strongly through my work. It undoubtedly energizes the portraits of my subject matters, my muses. So first and foremost my inspiration comes from people. People allure me! Real people I know and love; people with whom I have a spiritual connection...But what always drove me to portraiture as a means of expression is a yearning, a deep-seeded need, not only to connect with people, but also to humanize these sweeping ideas of anarchy and rebellion. To me they represent natural human tendencies for freedom and resistance from institutional structures which ultimately tend towards inequality, both social and psychological. We naturally strive to evoke our uniqueness against these forces. These ideas, anarchy and rebellion, actually become too abstract and politicised in contemporary discourse - commodified even. But they stem from a base human need to be free, to express ourselves, to live fully and to love. Through my work I want to bring these ideas back to their human nature...So there is an obvious element of humanisation and humanism in my work, manifested as expressionism. I find that expressionism as an artistic form in all haunts of life comes naturally to me. It is my drive. It is my war cry.
How do you go about choosing your subjects, what made you create a series based upon the transgender community? what inspires you about the transgender community?
I document my friends, my lovers, social and cultural subcultures, fetishisms, all those things that spark my love and passions! I am in love with them, each in their different way. In this way there is a deep sexualised element in all my work. I previously talked about my (our) natural tendencies to gravitate towards like minded people in spaces we periodically inhabit. It is in this way I became friends with Glyn Fussell and was introduced to drag-queens of the most dynamic London club-night collective, Sink the Pink, which he co-founded with his best friend Amy from grassroots beginnings to avant garde stardom some years ago, as an antidote to London’s (specifically East London’s, where I also live) increasing gentrification and loss of identity - and this extends far beyond the club scene. It becomes a social movement. I embarked on a year-long journey of documentation of the STP queens, who of course became friends in the process. This whole process - the interaction, the muses I met with, talked, drank, and danced with - all this became the inspiration for a series of paintings - portraits of the queens - that was exhibited in East London last year. What attracted me to the community was this very ethic of punk and of anarchy which we all shared. The concepts of being transgender, of being queer, is far from just a sexual identity. Indeed sexual identity is in itself dynamic! It is to express your psyche and to resist the establishment. I found much in common with the queens, our core values. It is in this way I also see my art as queer in some ways - for me it is not about a sexual identity, It is about being strange, about being different. For me punk, anarchy - that is also being queer.
What do you hope to communicate in your work? How has your work evolved over time?
I communicate through expressing a rawness - distilled and refined. Rawness is noble. It is elemental. But it is also dreamy. When I say rawness I mean natural expression: your identity. It is to wear your heart on your sleeve. I don’t mean a brutal rawness although i don’t deny that it exists in nature and popular culture and i also don’t deny i have not ever depicted it. Above all however, quite beyond any hidden or unhidden message, I believe, aesthetics is always the backbone of all art. It is also about being a story teller, telling a story with rampant imagination and style! Art is dreamy. So in my work I communicate through my gut instinct, my own heart on the sleeve. To tell a story. And for it to look good. To evoke identity through lines, expressions. As I mentioned before, is all about identity and belonging. In this sense my art has always been, and will always I think be about identity. If I look back at the exhibitions I have done over the past three years, in East London, the West End, most recently in Berlin, I would say the evolution of my work is only aesthetic, and purely based on trying out new techniques and being under the delightful pressure of different and varied passions and influences - being in love with people and places and ideas. Being intoxicated in them in the true sense. From horror, to naturalism. From my paintings, to my drawings, dry points and mixed media prints. They are all creations of the moment of my own dynamic identity. This is what I hope to communicate: the dynamism of identity.
Would you describe yourself as a political artist? Do you believe all art to be inherently political, if so why?
Inescapably yes. Some say that politics is everywhere. I have a very strong background of anarchism in my family, especially from my late father who was an artist himself and well known figure in the 60s and 70s in Greece, in the fight against the Junta - the dictatorial regime at the time. With such upbringing, I naturally see art as interweaved with politics. My mother’s practice as a political journalist also had a big effect on me. I mentioned before, expressionism as the expression of the rebellious social and individual psyche. I grew up with posters of Soviet Realism, communist descents, left wing art. War cries. Expressions of the psyche. I dropped out of art school and studies politics and modern European history as I felt that I needed to learn so much more before I could create art that was an extension of this psyche. So consciously and unconsciously politics has influenced my art a lot, mostly not in an obvious way, to convey a clear political message, but in an abstract way, intertwined with considerations on aesthetics and proportions, of aggressive ‘in your face’ colour.Apart from my intellectual and blood heritage, the punk movement in the 70s and much of post punk is I think a clear reference in all my work. And punk is aesthetically political. In terms of its aesthetics it provoked an inherently political message of social unrest, anarchy, but also of social vulnerability and youth angst against an unpalatable and illiberal social order. An aggressive at times questioning of inegalitarian social norms and practices. I think this movement is just as relevant nowadays, bearing in mind the proliferation of global crises, which is now undoubtedly leading to the re-appropriation of the right to protest, the right of people to reclaim spaces, to fuck the failing system up, on a global level. This is what punk is about. And punk has influenced me in all its levels - its fashion aesthetics, its anarchic political message, its music, its written word. Punk never died.
What for you is the ultimate purpose of art and expression? What do you get from the process that you cannot get in any other way?
The ultimate purpose of course is being free, to fulfil your creative nature. Making art enriches my life. It gives it a primal meaning. It also produces something tangeable that people can find meaning and solace in. It is the purest form of expression, although I know poetry usually get the credit for that! For me, I have tried many forms of expression but I always return to painting. As one great artist - i think it was Frank Auerbach - said, painting is the greatest activity that humans have invented!
What for you is the most important piece of art you have ever experienced?
Since there is an abundance of forms of art, for simplicity sake let's just talk about a profound painting: The first piece of work I remember being mesmerised by is Guernica by Pablo Picasso. Our father owned a gallery in Athens bearing that name (naturally!) and there was a reproduction of the painting at the entrance – therein lay the well known Minotaur of the Guernica bombing, roaming amongst his victims. It is a most powerful anti-war. anti-fascist image that imbued strong convictions in me. Of curse as a kid it was just the strong imagery that struck me! Some years later I saw it in Madrid. It was huge in every way. Coming from a bohemian and politicised family, this image is part of my heritage – and a very topical one at that. Although it is far from my own personal style, as the influences of German and Austrian expressionism are more obvious than anything in my work, this is the first image i saw on a regular basis as a child and it vastly captured my imagination. It is the rawness I am always mesmerised by.
What do you think of the current political climate in London?
Only a few weeks ago I was in Berlin for a group show I was taking part in, and in the morning of the opening night woke up with the news of the referendum. It was a bloody tough day. I reflected that I have lived and within a broadly liberal UK for over two decades and I have to say it was the first time I felt a deep sense of disappointment and uncertainty for the future. The event symbolised something frightening. I love Britain as my own, because of her openness and cultural values and that is why I feel her citizen, as much as the Greek and a European, indeed a world citizen! It is true that I do not believe in the efficacy of political super structures, yet somehow in a society we need to live with some conventions, legal rules. to protect freedoms and rights that our generation takes for granted. It is by far true that the EU, above all, is a liberal structure - it is deeply bureaucratic and impersonal, yet it is also true that it took decades of horror, blood shed, of world wars and civil wars within Europe, to create a political union that would serve to protect these freedoms which have helped us flourish and innovate - to be artists, scientists, workers of all trades. The EU was created for this reason, in the wake of a deeply divided and traumatised Europe after WW2. For all its faults (forging an economic union being one), it has ensured the rights, and freedoms - from workers’ rights to trade laws, from sharing research, to setting education and trade standards, free movement of workers, a shared pot of subsidies, actually a plethora of freedoms that shape our daily lives. Unfortunately it is also true that in times of deep economic crisis, the rise of reactionary, illiberal politics, proliferates and democracy becomes a victim of its own virtue. This is not just true of the UK, but this is a pan European phenomenon that intensified with the rise of Isis (a western product also) and the resulting Syrian crisis and which has extended throughout the western world. The worse thing about it of course is that it has divided a whole country in across the leave/stay camps, proliferating hatred and scapegoatism mostly manifested in populist racism and nationalism. Going even beyond the experiences of increasing every day racism, it even shockingly made a martyr out of a British MP. We all thought we had truly left the cold war era! It has returned in a more vicious form.This is very frightening. I am not sure how we are going to get through this but i have faith in mankind, in our best nature. And in saying this i will bring it all back to London: In the context of a trouble UK, I am so proud to be a Londoner, to be a citizen of a city that has showed the best character, precisely because diversity is what it is made of and why it has become one of the best, most creative and free spaces in the world to live. In my own circles of artists and intellectuals, this is of course a natural way of being, and we will fight the cause of freedom, of being, of openness, of forging creative environments until the end. And I do think this period will come to an end, but we all need to keep uniting in our every day lives. I am very romantic about London - reclaiming its space inspires me and so we will always strive, to reclaim it from injustice! We own it. As my first series of paintings was named - ‘London Anarchy’. It is now more topical than ever.
What are you working on at the moment? I am really excited to be working on a project that is in a way the second phase of my work on transvestites and transgenders. The project is in collaboration with a most wonderful photographer whose work has inspired me and I deeply admire and who worked on the subject over thirty years ago! We are planning to open the show at the end of the year in a central London gallery. I think am not meant to say more than than this at this stage, but I will be so happy to tell Flaunt all about it nearer the time of course!What is your definition of beauty?
It is very simple: I find beauty in everything, even in horror. But in passing moments especially, I find beauty. In drips of sweat, wetting of lips, in sparkling eyes and in crystal clear waters. To immerse yourself in the moment of life, to swim in it; to find beauty in everything you can is, for me, its very definition. For we are only here for a short time. Feel it all and make it a good one.