Bad Woman: An Interview of Katya Grokhovsky

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text by Abbey Meaker

portrait by Katya Grokhovsky

 

Katya Grokhovsky is an interdisciplinary artist, a curator, and an educator whose process-centric art practice combines installation, performance, video, photo, and collage. Through different expressions of each media, Grokhovsky creates immersive environments and captivating characters that assertively bring to fore issues related to gender, labor, alienation, and displacement, often using her own body to create a relationship between the personal and the political. 

Recently, I came across Grokhovsky’s video work titled “Bad Woman” in which an eccentric character wearing an animal-like mask, fur coat, and high-heels struggles with a stuffed parrot affixed to her shoulder, to situate herself comfortably on a wooden chair placed in a rural environment. Watching this, I felt I were witnessing something new, something authentic- an uncanny character whose discomfort was amplified, satirized. Yet I was able to relate to and recognize in her a sense of resolve, a comfort in her own skin, a resilience. According to Grokhovsky, “Bad Woman” is exhausted; she is many of us; she is what we whisper under our breaths, daily. She gladly fails; she is not here to please anybody; she is eccentric, wild, unruly, unmade, remade, deconstructed.

On a snowy Vermont day I connected with Grokhovsky to discuss this work, her curatorial efforts, and her solo exhibition, System Failure at Martin Art Gallery at Muhlenberg College. 

ABBEY MEAKER: At what point in your life did you begin making things? Was there an inherent interest in art, or did life organically pull you in that direction? 

KATYA GROKHOVSKY: Ever since I can remember I was making something with my hands, drawing on all types of surfaces, designing costumes, writing and staging plays, deconstructing and reassembling objects. I have continuously made art in some way and have been interested in many creative disciplines ever since I was very young, including fashion, interior design, literature, theater, dance and all types of decorative and visual arts. My parents encouraged me and took me to drawing classes since I was 5 years old in the former USSR, in Ukraine, where I went on to art school for children from 10 to 14 years of age, and then onto art school in Australia, Europe and USA, and here I am, a fully-fledged adult artist. I guess I have never really stopped or truthfully grown up. Art making is the way I interpret and experience life and I can’t imagine doing anything else with my life.

ABBEY MEAKER: Of the mediums you employ – installation, performance, video, photography – would you say there is one that more holistically translates your ideas and/or an experience you aim to create for a viewer? How do they work together? 

KATYA GROKHOVSKY: I would say installation is the medium that brings it all together for me and creates the desired effect of a totally immersive environment. Video is another vehicle, which can incorporate all of my interests into one format and contain it within itself. I would love to make feature-length films one day, with a cast and a crew. In my installation work, I am able to position, compose and collage many of my works simultaneously and play with the site, size and space. I frequently include performance and video, sound, sculpture and painting, through various experimental propositions of complex situations and worlds within worlds, allowing the viewer to explore and experience a new ground, new system of being, fresh and absurd territories.

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ABBEY MEAKER: Your work has been called feminist - do you identify with this label?

KATYA GROKHOVSKY: I truly detest labels of any kind, however it is a label I do accept. In a perfect world, an artist would be an artist, not female artist or woman artist or a feminist artist, simply because she expresses strong opinions about her life experience on this planet. I am an artist, a woman and a feminist. I work with feminist themes and look at the world through this lens, so my work gets positioned as such. It is the way I live my life, the way I view the humankind and how I keep on. My views and the stances I take do affect my work and the leitmotifs I am interested in. That makes it feminist. Labels make it easier to digest, to create boundaries, to identify, to exclude and commercialize and segregate, I understand that. Being feminist lines me up historically with some of my favorite artists, writers and mentors, and that is an honor. I do wish we lived in a post-label world, where artists were simply expressing their views in different ways.

ABBEY MEAKER: What do you think 'feminist' actually means within the present context of contemporary art?  

KATYA GROKHOVSKY: I think feminist in the context of contemporary art means inclusive, equal, politically charged, questioning, rebellious, critical and non-compliant. It means not taking it lying down, it is a way of life, so it should translate into art that way as well. I am interested in challenging all notions of societal prejudice, standards, systems, hierarchies, specifically patriarchy and capitalism. Being a feminist and an artist has literally saved my life and continues to help me navigate this man’s world as a woman and a maker, so I firmly believe in both as vehicles of analysis, refusal, rage, protest, as well as acts of radical joy, acceptance and pleasure.

ABBEY MEAKER: Can you talk a little bit about the characters in your performances? I am particularly interested in Bad Woman and Bunny Bad.

KATYA GROKHOVSKY: Bad Woman is a character I initially developed for my last solo exhibition in 2017, as a post-election entity, a persona, who truly cannot handle this world anymore, and is gradually unraveling and de-conditioning herself. She is a bad woman, an angry, enraged woman. She is tired, exhausted, she is many of us. Internally, she is what we whisper under our breath daily. She is simply trying too hard, gladly fails, she is not here to please anybody. She is eccentric, wild, unruly, unmade, remade, deconstructed. Through her character, I began a lifelong project of deconditioning, feminine de-stabling, and decentralizing. Bunny Bad followed up, as the next, less gendered character, through which I am able to become a kid again, to play without any results, to explore, to be funny, grotesque, comic, stupid, uncoordinated, ugly. These characters help my own psyche and bring out the hidden creatures that live in me, and all of us, the ones we push away, or oppress, or pretend do not exist.

ABBEY MEAKER: Your installations feature prominently found objects- is the process by which you find these pieces an important part of the work? What are they meant to symbolize? 

KATYA GROKHOVSKY: I am naturally both a collector and a destroyer of objects. These traits come from a childhood in the Soviet Union, where materialism did not yet fully exist - as well as immigration, during which belongings were forever discarded and left behind. I am interested in consumerism, in greed and capitalism, where a surplus of objects of desire is not only the sign of our time, but is killing the planet, as well as personal attachment, longing and memory. Most of the objects that appear in my work come from the street; flea markets, thrift stores and online shopping. I employ both intuition and attraction and pull to a particular object as well as rigorous research, especially on the Internet. Each work requires a different approach and is catered specifically to every site and place, depending on the theme and subject matter, be it a brand-new, extremely large beach ball from Amazon Prime, symbolizing an exceptionally futile, wasteful, yet desirable and alluring object of fun, which is meant to last less than an hour, to giant, 8-foot plush teddy bears, to a discarded, old and broken musical instrument found on the streets of NYC, indicating loneliness, nostalgia and reminiscence.

ABBEY MEAKER: Do you consider your curatorial efforts a part of your art practice?

KATYA GROKHOVSKY: Yes, I consider my curatorial work to be an extension and expansion of my own art making studio practice, through which I am able to step out of my own pursuits and explore the community and art being made around me. I really enjoy going out to other artists’ studios, feeling the pulse of my city, envisioning an idea, putting works together, and designing projects. It is all a part of my existing in the world, my attempt at reaching out, at connecting the dots, facilitating for those, whose voices have often been unheard. 

ABBEY MEAKER: What are you hoping to achieve as an organizer supporting other artists?  

KATYA GROKHOVSKY: I hope to create a space for the less recognized and commercially viable works, for artists, who have traditionally been excluded and discarded by the art canon. I curate difficult to exhibit works, made by voices that are marginalized in some way. As an immigrant and a woman, I have often been excluded from the discourse myself and I simply try to correct the imbalance, one DIY project at a time. I am not very interested in the accepted, mainstream narrative, which has been fed to me all my life, that of the heterosexual white male artist. There are plenty of platforms for that, globally. I try to create an alternative that must not be alternative. 

ABBEY MEAKER: Are there certain ideas you can engage with as a curator more easily or more successfully than through your art practice?

KATYA GROKHOVSKY: Yes, I respond best to works which deal with process and are materially experimental and explore the body, as well as history, place and site. I often have a visceral response to art, including my own, so I need to be engaged not only intellectually, but bodily, somehow. I let my body speak before my head, when I am curating, but also when I make my own work. I trust my gut completely and rely heavily on my art intuition, which has never failed me yet. I am also interested in artists dealing and expressing their life experience autobiographically or through observation and research, as I do in my work. I don't respond well to extremely minimalist, or highly conceptual work without an engaging process involved in the making of it.

ABBEY MEAKER: You have a solo show titled System Failure at Martin Art Gallery at Muhlenberg College that just opened on February 14 (congrats!) What are you showing? 

KATYA GROKHOVSKY: I have been working on-site at the Martin Art Gallery as a visiting artist in residence at the college for the past four weeks and have created a new site-specific installation, comprised of found, collected and bought objects and sculpted assemblages, as well as several recent video performance works. The exhibition deals with the failure of the patriarchal system and society, through exploration of extreme overconsumption, desire and imposed stereotypes. I am interested in investigating gendered standards and structures, as well as particularly capitalist ideas of childhood, through color assignment (pink, blue), teddy bears, beach balls, inflatable unicorns and donuts, as well as plastic shop mannequins manipulated and sculpted with plaster and house paint. It is a complicated exhibition, which has evolved over a year and over the past month on site, through rigorous experimentation with materials, as well as my relationship to the place. I will perform live twice as part of the exhibition, in collaboration with students at Muhlenberg College, cast through the college-wide open all. I am interested in what the atmosphere of an academic institution brings to my work and vice versa, and am grateful to have been very generously supported by the college and the gallery with space, time and materials. 

ABBEY MEAKER: Any curatorial projects coming up you'd like to discuss? 

KATYA GROKHOVSKY: I have been appointed as lead curator of the Art in Odd Places festival and exhibition in 2018, taking place in October, the theme of which will be BODY and will be open for the first time to women, female identifying and non binary artists only. The festival is 14 years old this year and traditionally takes place along 14th street in Manhattan over four days, with performances, installations, sculptures and sound works in the public domain. This year I have also included a group exhibition at Westbeth gallery in the West Village as an extension of the festival and dialogue. I am very excited about this, as I was an artist who participated in the festival three times prior and not only do I know it well, but it is the first time an artist will curate this festival. The theme BODY stems from my own practice and curatorial pursuits and I am especially interested in the body of “other” taking up much needed space in the pubic imagination.


Katya Grokhovsky's SYSTEM FAILURE is on view through April 10th at Martin Art Gallery, Muhlenberg College 2400 Chew Street Allentown, PA 18104. The artist will be performing live in the gallery on March 14th at 5pm and at the closing ceremony on April 10th. She will also be conducting a lecture in the space on March 21st. Follow Katya on Instagram @KATYAGROKHOVSKY. Follow Autre on Instagram @AUTREMAGAZINE.


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Art In the Age of Afrogallonism: An Interview with Ghanaian Artist Serge Attukwei Clottey

There are not a lot of artists willing to get dragged by a noose through the streets of Accra, the capital of Ghana, in the name of social justice. Gallon by gallon, Ghanaian artist Serge Attukwei Clottey is returning your used plastic refuse in the form of beautiful masks and mask-like sculptures that take on haunting human expressions. In the artist’s native Ghana, yellow canisters are ubiquitous and have become a seamless part of the country’s landscape. Where these containers come from has become a source of plight for the people of Ghana and central to Clottey’s artistic practice. Originating in Europe, the containers once held cooking oil, but after a water shortage, the containers were repurposed to hold water and gasoline. Over time, though, the gallon jugs have become so plentiful that they have started to pollute the beaches and even landfills. Clottey has coined the term “Afrogallonism” to describe this exercise and it has, over the years, become his rallying cry. Indeed, there is something very punk in what the artist is trying to achieve. Many of his sculptures come from works created by Clottey for his performance collective GoLokal, which has held numerous public presentations that have to do with displacement, migration, colonialism and Africa’s place in the treacherous nexus of a vastly globalized world. A land rich with resources, but flooded with greed. Footage of Clottey being dragged through the streets by a noose while performers throw money at him was replayed multiple times a day for a week straight on the local news. Reverberations of Clottey’s message is slowly making its way westward to the States. Officially opening today, Mesler/Feuer gallery in New York presents an exhibition entitled “The Displaced” where you can experience many of Clottey’s incredible assemblages, wood installations and plastic sculptures in person. Autre caught up with Clottey during the installation of his current exhibition to discuss his own art history, his politically and socially charged performances, and his ideas of the “New Africa.”

Adriana Pauley: How did your art career start? Did you always know you wanted to become an artist?

Serge Attukwei Clottey: My dad is an artist. I drew and painted at an early age. But I wasn’t sure if I wanted to pursue art as a career. I was more interested in electronics. Growing up in Africa as a child, we got all of these electronics imported from America. I was very interested in how they functioned and in who is behind that creative process. But because my dad is an artist, he thought that I should pursue art. He was going to give me the platform to be successful in that field. So, I got chance to study art in Ghana for four years. Then, I studied in Brazil.

AP: How did you decide you wanted to study in Brazil? Was it a similar culture? Did that influence your art?  

SAC: After going through four years in art school, I wanted a way to further my education. I had a scholarship to study in Brazil for three months. I wanted to experience a different place, and how art is shaped differently in that place. Brazil actually changed my entire relationship with art. I became more experimental with materials. In art school, I learned how to paint traditionally. In Brazil, I got a sense of contemporary art. When I came back to Ghana, my approach was totally changed.

AP: Does your interest in electronics come up at some points in your work?

SAC: Yes. Electronics have been a part of my practice from childhood. Now, I combine art and electronics. I work more with performance and installation. I work more with electronic interests. It has given me a new platform to visualize those ideas with materials. It has given me a lot of exposure. It’s very new—combining art and electronics, in Ghana especially.

AP: Has art always been a big part of your life? 

SAC: Growing up with my dad, I studied how to paint even before I went to art school. I don’t feel anything special about art, because I grew up in that space. It was a very creative upbringing.

AP: You recently did a performance piece, and you have a performance collective now. What has been the response from the public? 

SAC: From the beginning, people were unsure about it. The guys who are in it are not artists actually; they are from different careers. There are a lot of creative people in the community where I was born, but they don’t have the platform to explore that. As an artist, I have that platform. I find a way to bring them together to address issues in our community. Since then, it has been very challenging. The topics we work on are very political. We have very religious subjects. We explore gender identity. Over time, people have become more understanding. We have a lot of presence in the media, in publications. We are trying to address issues such as how the politicians manipulate youth during elections. And how after, they have nothing to offer. We were very critical about that, and it was on TV the whole week before elections. It gave us a lot of publicity. It tells me that it’s possible to create that sort of a platform. I hope we can establish a company which serves as a profit for the group, and for the locals as well.

AP: Would you say, generally, that you would like to give something back to society? To educate them about certain issues?

SAC: I grew up in the community. Ghana has been my inspiration. It makes sense to extend my exposure to the community. The community has been my main collective in exploring my artistic ideas.

AP: In one of the performances you did, you traced the journeys of your family. Your ancestors used to go to the north of Ghana, and come back to the south with different Buddhist techniques. Does that spiritual aspect play into your work?

SAC: It’s played a major role in my work. I wanted to narrate my family’s journey, because we also have a migration background that no one knows about. I’m using the narrative to make a new construction relating to my present work. The idea of continents, of transporting something from one continent to another, is very interesting to me. My family would transport from one town to another, but there is no proper documentation of that history. In my artistic practice, I want to reconstruct that history for my generation. I’m interested in combining my family history in relationship to my new work.

I’m interested in the sea and how it navigates the world together. I’m also interested in finding ways to trade back to the West. All of my materials are imported from Europe or America. The trade relationship changes the value of materials. Africa has come to realize how trade has come to benefit the West. As an artist, I want to find a strategic way to trade back to the West with materials that now benefit Africa.


"Our development needs to be seen. It needs to be shown to the world. We have to acknowledge our past, but we need to develop our present, our future. I’m interested in creating a link between Africa and the people who have been displaced from Africa."


AP: Do you see any parallels between your family’s journeys and your own journeys now?

SAC: I’ve traveled a bit throughout the continent, and I’ve seen how African art is being pursued in different ways. It’s not about people struggling in Africa. I’ve shown my work in Ghana as well as all over the world. There’s a possibility for change that African art is exploring. My family background has been a guide in my artistic journey. I see how powerful my ancestors were trading on the coast. That is the spiritual aspect that has been guiding me on my journey.

AP: You use a lot of plastic, which is very important in the United States. It is important in Africa, too, but for other reasons. Do you address that issue?

SAC: I try to address where my materials come from, and how that changes the value of those materials. There is a big difference between a plastic that is made to be presentable and a plastic that is being dumped somewhere.

AP: How do you gather that material? 

SAC: We collect them on the coastal beaches, as well as at dump sites. In Ghana, because of the volume, there is no space to consume them. They find ways to dump them. We don’t have proper recycling structures. You end up seeing them on the streets and in the ocean. For me, the material plays a very significant role in my work. I take care in picking out and repurposing the plastic that has been discarded.

AP: What about colors? I know you use a lot of yellow. Do colors have a certain meaning in your work?

SAC: The dominant color is yellow because yellow is used for transporting oil. Looking at yellow in Ghana, it’s in our flag to symbolize wealth. But I want to change that. It shouldn’t be about the “New Africa.” What can we generate from this plastic? It has become part of our life. We need that to survive. Instead of getting it out, we can use them. We can’t just store them; need to take care of the environment. Once I put them together, I can build houses. We need to innovate new ways of dealing with this.

AP: Can you explain your concept of “Afrogallonism?”

SAC: Afrogallonism is a word I made up after working with this plastic for fifteen years. Over time, it has become my second skin. Every time I see a gallon, I get inspired. I realized that the top of it looks like a mask. Afrogallonism is the new Africa, the future of Africa. We have traditional masks, but this is the mask of our time. This is a relevant mask that brings up issues of water and environment. It’s a movement that I started. I want to find ways to inspire people to work with plastic. Afrogallonism is a word that came up after realizing how much time I have spent working with this material.

AP: What would you like your American audience to take away from your exhibition?

SAC: The displays are about migration and how people have been displaced all over the world. Coming from Africa, I’m interested in bringing that kind of connection—the relationship of humans and materials. I’m interested in how migration has displaced everyone. I want the audience to see that this is a New Africa. This is Africa in the 21st century. This is what we are going through. Our development needs to be seen. It needs to be shown to the world. We have to acknowledge our past, but we need to develop our present, our future. I’m interested in creating a link between Africa and the people who have been displaced from Africa. As this material comes to America, I hope to create that link. 

AP: Do you have any upcoming shows or performances planned?

SAC: Right after this exhibition, I have a performance in Ghana, just before the next election. I’m very critical. When it comes to politics, people have loud voices, but they are not heard. As an artist, together with my collective, we perform in public space. We hit the matter hard. We want to use our exposure to address that relevant issue.


Serge Attukwei Clottey's "Displaced" is on view now through November 22 at Mesler/Feuer Gallery, 319 Grand Street, 2nd Floor New York, NY. Follow Afrogallonism here. intro text by Oliver Maxwell Kupper. Interview and photographs by Adriana Pauly. Follow Autre on Instagram: @AUTREMAGAZINE