An Interview with Vasileia M. Anaxagorou, Artist

Vasileia M. Anaxagorou in her studio, image courtesy of the artist.

If it’s true what they say about artists being restless spirits then Vasileia is, by definition, one. Art teacher at daytime? Check. PhD Student? Check. Art teacher in the afternoon? Check. Actively producing new work and having a practise? Check. Add to that a very successful exhibition going on at the moment, and there you have it: a person who lives and breathes art. 

But it wasn’t always the case. Right after she graduated school, Vasileia studied Politics and History in the United Kingdom. Her studies followed a switch of mindset, which made her even more determined to follow her gut and live by her choices no matter what that meant. So, she left for New York City where she attended the School of Visual Arts (and graduated as the top student of her department) in BFA Fine Art. She continued her studies at the University of Oxford where she obtained an MFA in Fine Art with distinction. She’s no stranger to a job well done.

Her most recent exhibition, The Carnivalesque as a Social Commentary: 2021, launched on the 10th of May at The O Gallery in Larnaca, and will be open to the public until the 28th of May. Based on Bakhtin’s theory of the Carnivalesque and in conjunction with themes from Gender and Queer theory, the exhibition includes paintings, mixed media works, performance and installations.

In his theory, Bakhtin described the carnival as people’s second life, an event organized on the basis of laughter that permitted ‘the latent sides of human nature to reveal and express themselves.’ Vasileia, in her work, argues that the carnivalesque is no longer our second life, it is now our reality. Her multi-layered social commentary allows people to interpret the carnivalesque within their lives depending on their positionality. Through vibrant colours and odd shapes that allude to grotesque bodies or figures of the carnival, Vasileia orchestrates an interplay between the ‘joyful’ atmosphere of the carnivalesque and its sinister characters, which reflects the stark (and tragicomic) reality of the state of society she’s commenting on.

We sat down with her on the last day of lockdown and talked about her journey as an artist, the relationship between her art and her research as a PhD student, and her latest exhibition.

Grotesque Bodies by Vasileia M. Anaxagorou (2021)

What made you take the leap to pursue a career as an artist? Was there a certain moment you can remember?

I originally became interested in art when I was still in school, but I grew up in a family that had quite a complex relationship to it. They would respect it, appreciate it, and support it, but it was never something they would consider as a ‘legit’ profession. As a teenager, it was hard for me to convince them otherwise. I chose to study Political Sciences because I was genuinely interested in it, and when I was younger, I wanted to change the world. (‘and still does,’ her best friend adds.)

The turning point was when I had started my studies; I told my mother, ‘I’ll finish my degree, but after that, I’m doing art.’ So, the deal was that I’d finish my first degree, do a postgraduate degree that could secure me a job, and then I could do whatever I wanted. When I graduated in 2013, it was a year when the future was looking bleak for everyone who was starting their career, so I thought I might as well be an artist. It was a moment of realisation. I felt like I had nothing to lose, that I was starting from zero.

‘Get yourself a studio and just work. Connections, clients will come eventually. The common denominator of all the advice I got as a student in New York, even from established artists, was ‘just work.’ Put effort into your work, study it, and it will do the rest itself.’

Your recent exhibition is named ‘social commentary.’ Which aspects of the current news/political landscape did you feel the need to comment on with your work? 

My work is almost always a social commentary. As a person, I’m quite a ‘commentator’ myself, in the sense that nothing that happens around me goes unnoticed. This time I associated my work with the Carnivalesque because I felt that its meaning has now changed. The meaning of the Carnivalesque comes from the theory of Bakhtin, but it has transcended beyond theory. We are now living in it. According to Bakhtin’s view, the Carnivalesque was something we would have fun with; it was our getaway, our second life. Now it’s our life, and we are no longer spectators; we can watch, but we are part of it; we live in it. 

I also wanted to do an interplay on how you can manipulate someone visually. With vivid colouring, the colour blocking that’s quite prominent in the work, the shapes, the forms – some of which are figures of the carnival themselves. I wasn’t trying to be ironic. I was trying to be sarcastic, not because I do not understand the seriousness of the situation but precisely because the situation itself is now carnivalesque, as it was never taken seriously. And why is that? Because while the situation itself was beyond belief, we witnessed even more inconceivable things happening. 

An example is the ‘free pass’ to hunters to continue hunting while we were in lockdown. People were permitted to go out and hunt or rather “kill” for leisure when families could not drive to the countryside and take a break from their confinement.

There was also this massive exposure about what was happening behind the scenes in the Arts (mostly theatre), which if it weren’t for COVID-19, the lockdown, theatres remaining closed, and this rage boiling up, then perhaps none of this would come to light. 

And let’s not forget that for a whole year, when counting COVID-19 deaths, we thought it was okay to disregard the deaths of people with ‘underlying conditions” as if their lives mattered less than the rest of us. How sick and twisted is that? 

‘The Love I found in the Carnivalesque’ by Vasileia Anaxagorou (2021)

What was the process of exploring these issues through the work itself, and what kind of messages did you try to articulate?

The process unfolded itself through the social commentary by observing what was happening. When I first started the work, I didn’t understand the impact of the pandemic on my life and practice. Artists constantly work in isolation, but it’s very different to work in forced isolation than having the freedom to choose it. It affected me because what we were going through was not only isolation but also grief. Grief for losing the normalcy of life. That period had a significant impact on me when exploring this new ‘normalcy’ of life. I was going through it and allowed the work to develop itself.

I think the message is not something specific because when you are doing a social commentary, it is always multi-layered and depends on the positionality of the audience. Depending on where you stand, the messages will change.

Would you describe any of your work as autobiographical?

Art is always personal (and the personal is always political, may I add), and I have an intense intimacy with my art. It’s not just one job for me. I study things closely before I begin any work, so my perspective, life, and experiences will inevitably come out. There is no objective art.

‘Art is about process, practice. It’s about loving what you do.’

Image courtesy of the artist.

How much do your studies on Gender Theory affect your work as an artist?

Gender and Query theory is central to my work now. From Political Science to Social Sciences, all the ideas I have studied have stayed with me, and I feel like they have become embodied in my practice. It’s a complicated process, but as humans, we are complex beings.

My PhD study is a big part of my life – almost as if I’m married to it. So, it’s a huge part of my work.

Is there a magic recipe for making a living as an artist in Cyprus of 2021? Do you have any advice for young artists who are starting out their careers? 

I don’t know if anyone can live without doing what they love, which is a form of art itself. I was lucky enough to develop the skill of creativity that I had and make it three-dimensional and bring it to life. 

I am choosing to no longer engage in the ‘it’s too difficult to make it as an artist’ narrative; I think it is as difficult for me to survive as it is for a lawyer or an accountant today. The difficulties might not be the same, but they’re still there. When you’re doing what you love, you can find the way; there’s always a way. You have to be committed to what you do. I’m not saying that the formula I’m following is the best, but every morning I wake up at 5 A.M. and do what needs to be done. I feed my own needs. I teach, I make art, and I’m researching. I just work. For me, the main thing is hard work and determination.

If you’re starting now, you must focus on creating work that feels authentic to you. There’s not only one way to do it, and there’s never a right or wrong way to do it. I have friends who are artists and have a completely different process for their work, but it doesn’t make them more or less successful than others because they are authentic in their own way and follow what works for them.

Get yourself a studio and just work. Connections, clients will come eventually. The common denominator of all the advice I got as a student in New York, even from established artists, was ‘just work.’ Put effort into your work, study it, and it will do the rest itself. 

When people support your art, it is clear that art is less about personal relationships – because the people who’ll buy your art just to support you will only buy once. But the person who resonates with your work will come back to you again and again. And support doesn’t always have to do with people buying your work, it’s not what will make you successful. What makes an artist successful is when one leaves the studio and feels like, ‘okay, I did a good job,’ or the times when you go to sleep and say, ‘it was a good day today.’ That’s when you’re successful. Art is about process, practice. It’s about loving what you do. 

It’s great when you can support yourself through your art and make ends meet. But if you wanted to be a millionaire, you wouldn’t become an artist. You’d be selling (golden!) passports. 

Happy Birthday Mr. President by Vasileia M. Anaxagorou (2021)

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