A conversation between artist Joana Kohen and Ruba Al-Sweel
Your work is marked by self-referential irony, ‘It Girl’ disregard and unabashed autobiographical vulnerability. You chronicle your experience as a woman navigating certain societies. Could you explain how this came to be and why it is important to tell this story?
I am not sure if it is entirely personal. The system pushed me to explore alternative spaces and express myself in this way, I assume. It’s really as simple as that for me.
The earthy colors and minimalism in your latest Next Life Series is a slight aesthetic diversion from what we are used to seeing from you. There is a return to the elemental forces of nature that are both destructive and regenerative like allusions to carnivorous plants and reproductive organs. Could you elaborate further on this phase in your practice?
How I express my art in my drawings and paintings were always a bit primitive, in a way very much as if someone drew them from the prehistoric era or simply a child who is probably around 5-6 years old. For a while, I felt stuck in that time but now I can see that it is evolving into something completely different – something is growing in me and it’s rooted in this unconscious ancient setting where I am in a dangerous place full of eerie creatures I create, such as Freud’s vagina dentata inspired figurines to self-eating predators with its own reproductive organs, mixing all with memories from my childhood. These things shaped me. And now where the destruction takes place, even if not so overtly, is the sense of destruction in my brush strokes. This is renovation, remaking and retelling the story.
How has sci-fi found a place in your latest series?
I think it took a long time to settle with what I want to show in an artistic way. I was always interested in ancient civilizations, extraterrestrial life forms, H.R. Giger’s human-machine hybrids, Haeckel’s aquatic organisms, symbols of endless suffering such as Prometheus and other figures representing eternal damnation. I do find it quite inspiring portraying various celestial realms and symbolic imagery, but finding the right visual language takes time. I am still in a questioning phase, even though there are some scientific explanations out there. I am very much interested in the form of life and death and its reflection in nature. Recently, I’ve found myself in this surreal, fantastical phase. I also include so many other elements such as my figurines with no arms or legs, inspired by A Zed & Two Noughts from Peter Greenaway’s film, where the lead character loses her limbs. I guess the unconcerned and sophisticated attitude of the female protagonists inspire me – every time I draw my figures, they remind me of the scenes of this film.
There is a strong doomsday narrative permeating the series. One that cautions of a future in which mutants will take over. Especially with phrases like “How do you HUMANS avoid mating with the wrong species?” – is this inspired by the pandemic at all? If not, please explain your line of inquiry here.
The never-ending stress and excessive demands of modern life, current pandemic, alienation and loss of deeper meaning of life. These things shape the way I think now most probably. But I’ve got to be honest, I was always interested in the dark side of evolution. “How do animals avoid mating with the wrong species?” was the first question for me and then it evolved into “how do humans actually avoid mating with the wrong species?” It’s a mystery for me and for most people. Obviously, we are not mating with other living creatures but I’m not even sure we are doing that right.
I think I am trying to reach back to my origins again, and create my own network, growing my own peace with my parasite-like flowers in a world of utter alienation.
I find that I cannot really view your music separately from your work. With tracks such as There is No Hentai in Heaven, Vodka on the Fire, Enter your Void, Stealing Your Car the same irony-poisoned undertones emerge and the desire for destruction and rebirth are palpable. How does your music complement your work, if at all?
I think art and music go hand in hand for me.
I guess it’s coherent to say that these sets are the soundtrack of my art.
Obviously, it’s evolving, there are some sets from 8 years ago when I was very much into Gothic tunes. At that time my art was also rougher, darker, more show offy and a little more immature.
I used to title my artwork and exhibition titles after the music I listened to.
It’s been almost a year or more that I haven’t uploaded any new sets on my Soundcloud. I like listening to uncomfortable silence now.
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Ruba Al-Sweel is an arts and culture writer and researcher based in Dubai with words in Art Asia Pacific, Vogue, VICE, The Brooklyn Rail, Canvas Magazine, among others. She holds a master’s degree in media and creative industries from SciencesPo, Paris, and takes particular interest in the emergence of internet subcultures and online cultural wars as manifested in earnest Twitter threads, deepfakes and memes.