The War Back Home: An Interview with Creative Polymath Nina Ljeti

Nina Ljeti is prolific. She is a writer, filmmaker, actress, and musician. Just a few of her many projects include: starring in films directed by and alongside James Franco; co-writing and co-directing the feature length film Memoria with Vladmir de Fontenay (which is out in theaters now); performing in her band, Nani; and shooting a biopic about Jerry Garcia. She has the creative output young artists have wet dreams about. But Nina Ljeti is prolific in another sense of the word. She is the daughter of Bosnian immigrants (who came to Canada at the start of the Bosnian Revolution) and a high school punk stoner; a film buff who loves Titanic and Coppola alike. Her richness isn't just in practice; it's in spirit and history as well. We got to ask Ljeti about memory, filmmaking, ghosts, and getting to play Patti Smith. Read it here.

Autre: You were born in Bosnia and Herzegovina just before the Bosnian War. Do you have any memories of that time? Did you grow up there? What was that like? 

Nina Ljeti: No. We left in 1992 when I was still a baby. We immigrated to Canada- my parents had never been there before and they didn't know the language. They were in a completely foreign setting, and they left everything they had and worked for to start a new life for me. I remember the daily struggle my parents dealt with just so we could eat and survive. And I remember them watching TV every night for any news of the war back home.


Autre: When did you know that you wanted to act and make films? Was it acting or filmmaking first? 

Ljeti: I started off wanting to be an actress/singer in high school, but I was also making films at the same time. I made my first movie when I was 14. They went hand-in-hand for me. As a kid, I was also writing a lot- poetry and short stories, mostly. I don't really act so much anymore- I'm primarily a director now. 

Autre: You've written and directed a number of films as well as acting, including co-writing and co-directing for Memoria. What's it like to be behind the camera? Do you prefer writing and directing to acting, or is it nice to be holistic in that way? 

Ljeti: I enjoy directing way more. The only time I really perform as an actress is if I'm collaborating on a project with James. My true passion is writing and telling stories- I love writing scripts and songs.  All I do in my spare time is read and write.  

Autre: What was it like co-directing and co-writing Memoria with Vladimir de Fontenay? 

Ljeti: I love Vlad. When we made Memoria he was much more experienced than I was as a director, so it was wonderful to learn from him and he was very supportive of me. He's my baguette. 



Autre: Memoria seems like your classic bilungsroman - a teenage guy struggles to find meaning amongst friends and family that "just don't get him." Did you find this was your connection to the film as well? Did you empathize with Ivan? What is your coming-of-age story? 

Ljeti: I connect with Ivan a lot. I wrote the script and a lot of the characters in the film are based on kids I knew in high school. My coming-of-age story is pretty classic. I got bullied a lot. I liked punk and thrash. I was overly sensitive and always skipped class to hang out with kids who 'understood me better.' I wrote a lot in my diary and smoked pot everyday at lunch but still got the best grades. I was also really depressed and sad all the time but, who wasn't? 
Memoria also has a great deal to do with memory (hence, the title) - is elusiveness and subjectivity.

Autre: What connections do you see between memory and writing, or memory and filmmaking?  

Ljeti: As a writer and filmmaker,  I draw from my memories as the main source for my work.  I always notice that small details will change in how I remember something---- I think to keep the feeling I felt in that moment alive so I never forget (i'm talking about memories of love) and then this memory will replay in my head over and over even after I've used it (and this part is torture).  

Autre: You've worked with James Franco on Rebel, Memoria, and the upcoming film Zeroville. How did you two meet, and why do you think so work so well together? 

Ljeti: We met at NYU seven years ago. It's really rare to meet someone who shares your passion for creating and exploring. He's the only person I met who is as curious as I am. I think that's why we continue to work together- there's always something new to try. 

Autre: In Zeroville, you play Patti Smith. That's amazing. Did you do anything to try to get into her head? 

Ljeti: I was just performing on stage as her, so I really just tried to emanate her performance technique. This bit of study did help me a lot with performing in my band (that I sing and write the lyrics for).  

Autre: Zeroville deals with the ghosts of cinema, how they can haunt us despite their fictions and weave their magical thread into our daily lives. Have any films affected you in that way? 

Ljeti: Titanic. I watched it when I was 6 and it set a very unrealistic standard of love for me. Also Coppola's Dracula. I wish vampires were real. And I wish Disney movies were life. And that Marlon Brando could live forever.

Autre: Along that same vein, Hollywood can be kind of this ghostly, mythical place. Have you found that in your time in Los Angeles? 

Ljeti: No, I haven't found any ghosts in Los Angeles. All the ghosts I've seen are back in New York. That's where my heart is. 

Autre: What projects are you working on now? 

Ljeti: My next film is the biopic of Jerry Garcia, which I wrote and will be shooting this July. I also have a band called Nani, and we're going to be releasing our first EP sometime this year. 


Memoria, written and directed by Nina Ljeti and Vladimir Fontenay,  is out now in select theaters. Text and interview by Keely Shinners. photographs by Kevin Hayeland. Follow Autre on Instagram: @AUTREMAGAZINE


Exalting The Maîtresse: An Interview With Allen Jones

Portrait by Eamonn McCabe

text by Oliver Maxwell Kupper

Allen Jones is a living legend. To this day, his iconic furniture sculptures literally stand, kneel and hunch over, as life-like remnants of not only the pop art movement, but also the sexual revolution of the 1960s. When Jones’ trademark fornophillic work, Hatstand, Table and Chair was unveiled in 1970, it was met with both praise and militant protest. Indeed, the work is combustible and tears down some of the tallest walls we have built around our understanding of figurative art. But if you ask Jones if he is a rebel, as we did in the following interview, he will tell you that he is only carrying the torch that many artists have carried before him and not using the torch to burn down the institution. If you’ve seen Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of the novel A Clockwork Orange, you’ve seen interpretations of Jones’ oeuvre in the famous Korova Milk Bar. Kubrick asked Jones if he would recreate some of his furniture sculptures for the film, but the artist politely declined.

A few years later, the film industry came knocking again. This time commissioning him to design the poster for Barbet Schroeder’s film Maîtresse, about an obsessive romance between a small time crook and a professional dominatrix. The film stars Gérard Depardieu and Bulle Ogier. A young Karl Lagerfeld designed the costumes. When the American distributor for the film commissioned Jones for the poster, the artist was given a private viewing in a theater in Paris. The film has been banned almost everywhere else. Hesitant about the film’s extreme and controversial subject matter, but also taken by the film’s heroine, Jones accepted the job. The poster, featuring a leather-clad woman with a come-hither glance behind an orange curtain holding a bullwhip would become a recurring theme in Jones’ paintings and drawings.

Indeed, the Maîtresse Cycle as it would come to be known, would take many shapes and forms over the course of the artist’s career. In February of 2016, Jones will see the opening of Maîtresse, a solo exhibition at the Michael Werner gallery in Mayfair London featuring the original paintings for the film, which have never been exhibited before. The artist kept the originals for himself, luckily, or else they might have been destroyed. The paintings offer a unique insight into Jones’ obsession with the figure, and thrilling erotic subject matter. Later in 2016, Jones will have what may be one of his biggest retrospectives to date, where his beautiful and electric obsessions will be on full display.   

In the following interview, we got a rare chance to speak with Jones over the phone from his studio in Oxfordshire, England.

OLIVER KUPPER: You once said in an interview that you wanted to kick over the idea that figurative art wasn’t tough. What do you think made you such a rebel?

ALLEN JONES: Well I don’t think I was a rebel at all of course. I mean one was carrying what’s a grand tradition in art with a very long history to it. I wouldn’t use the word rebel and I doubt anyone I’m close with would either. In terms of the climate of the avant-garde art scene, I suppose when I was a young man, abstraction was really the way forward. That led into colorful painting and minimalism and so on. At that time, you actually were going against the grain to try and find ways of still dealing with the figure.

KUPPER: Sure.

JONES: The problem was that around the same time we’re talking about, with the advent of abstract expressionism, the traditional configuration had run out of steam - hit the buffers. There was no formal invention in the work. So I suppose I was part of a generation that sort of had to find a new language, a new way of presenting the figure. Pop art in a way certainly did that.

KUPPER: I mean there’s something rebellious about pop art, but it was more a turning of the tides in a way.

JONES: You were still coming out of the post war period, certainly as far as living in Europe and London was concerned. So after the austerity of the immediate post war decade, the time you got into the 60s, suddenly people were more upbeat and things were opening out. The future did look promising.

KUPPER: Yeah, I mean it was the beginning of the sexual revolution, there was a sort of explosion of creativity.

JONES: Correct, that’s right. It’s a very different world today. The media of course has changed - communication and how you can do things. For young artists today the technology available is so wide spread that it doesn’t surprise me that not so many people seem to be drawing and painting, because in comparison it’s rather hard work!

KUPPER: What was your reaction to the pop art scene in New York versus the scene in London?

JONES: Well I was a very young man, I was about 24 or 25. If it had been the in the 1910s - if it had been the turn of the century, 50 years before, one would have headed to Paris. But New York was certainly seen as, and was, the center of the contemporary art world. One wanted to go there to have that experience first hand rather than feeling you were in some sort of outpost, just getting the news as it filtered through. In those days it was just the beginning of things like newspapers having cover supplements. So you would see avant-garde work, or work by a modern American artist at that time - esoteric things like the cover of Evergreen Review.

KUPPER: Oh yeah!

JONES: So you really did have to go somewhere if you wanted to see what was happening and get more than just the odd snapshot. New York in 1964 when I was first there was an incredible amount of energy. I suppose it helped to be someone out of town because usually people are much more generous with their time if it’s a visitor rather than if it’s someone on the block. The artists that I met there very quickly were really outgoing and responsive. It was a really great millennium to be thrust into. I had a recommendation from the director of the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London at the time, which was the conduit for modern art. He was the first person to really show all the grand abstract expressionism. He gave a couple of young artists, which I was one, an introduction to Robert Motherwell and Helen Frankenthaler who were good friends of his. Within weeks of being in New York I had suddenly had drinks with pretty much all, except for Jackson Pollock, the abstract expressionists group that was there.

KUPPER: That’s amazing.

JONES: It was incredibly exhilarating for a young artist. At the same time, of course, I gravitated towards what was the beginning of pop art. Leo Castelli’s gallery was showing Lichtenstein and Warhol and Rosenquist. I became friends with those guys although they were 10, maybe 15 years older than me. But it was a terrific time.

KUPPER: So you were kind of at the right place at the right time?

JONES: Yes I think that was true! Richard Feigen had just moved from Chicago, and had seen my first exhibition in London, my very first exhibition I had - he must have been passing through London and saw it - and offered me a contract. So I got on the plane. (Laughs.) That was good enough.

KUPPER: Going back a little bit, to your roots, and where your interest in art came from, your father was a factory worker right?

JONES: Correct yes, he was an engineer. He was excused military service during the war when I was a young lad because he was working in a heavy metal industry and they were making armaments and shells and things like that. So my father wasn’t absent from my former years and on Sunday afternoons, as a form of relaxation he used to watercolor. He got these books on watercolor and I would stand at his elbow and watch him practice sediment washes and things like that. I don’t know, I suppose it was in the genes in a way.

KUPPER: It might be in the genes. It’s interesting how that works out. I mean some people are born, and there’s no artists in their families, and then they find out that their great great grandmother or grandfather was an artist. It makes a lot of sense.

JONES: I think there’s someone a few generations back who may have been a professional artist. But the thing was, my folks were just salt of the earth people and they were not involved with the art world at all. My father, being a Welshman and being in exile in London, to keep up with his kind, belonged to a male voice choir. Of course the Welsh are quite famous for singing. Another part of my upbringing was my parents always playing opera records. I would go as a very young boy and sit at the back of the chapel hall where the male voice choir was practicing. So there was a suggestion that there was something else in life going on.

KUPPER: Sure, there was something creative going on.

JONES: The other thing was that we lived in the suburbs at basically the end of the underground line. So on the holidays we’d get on the underground and within half an hour we’d be at Marble Arch. For me, the bright lights and the city from a very early age represented somehow a certain glamour. So the city has been in a way a part of my notion of subject matter or inspiration since I can remember.

KUPPER: Speaking of your work, a lot of it is erotic in nature. Every young boy has sort of erotic fantasies about women and sexuality. This is sort of an extreme question - but were your erotic fantasies ever as extreme as some of the works you later explored?

JONES: I don’t think the work is very extreme, I think it’s rather sedated. I don’t think my enthusiasms as a teenager and a young man were any different than a large segment of the male population. I didn’t hone in on the female figure as a subject of painting, certainly for nearly five or six years of my professional career. I was in New York in the mid-60s and when I returned to London I started to see a kind of direct language from illustration, cartoons and advertising. In those days I still had to teach a bit for a living. What I wanted students to do was have an engagement with the subject matter, something that meant something to them. I wanted them to show me the drawings that they did at home and were too embarrassed to show anybody. Because they might be seen as childish or something like that.

KUPPER: Sure.

JONES: Also the business of Playboy Magazine, all of that was very new on the streets in the UK really. That idea of glamour and seeing the figure as more than the middle aged ladies they had in the art room. There you’d draw a figure who would be more like your aunt or something. They didn’t wish anyone to be excited by drawing the figure, kind of a Victorian idea.

So the first pictures that specifically came from erotica I suppose were my leg paintings with a shelf on them - which I did when I returned to London. There was a writer called Max Kozloff who was a very influential art critic in those days, friend of Jasper Johns and the rest of them. He noticed when all these artists came to the melting pot of New York, that they all came from these different kinds of cultures and backgrounds with their own excitements. But after they’d been in town, they all conformed to a certain kind of view of what modern art should be. He listed things like “the work always had to be hard edge” or “it had to be right colored, it had to be flat surfaced, or maybe eggshell” but you couldn’t have shiny paint. The other big deal was the idea of the integrity of the surface of the picture - that you should not violate the picture plane. So when I returned to London I thought I would try to paint a picture, which violated as many of his presets as possible.

KUPPER: Yeah! (Laughs.)

JONES: So I took a subject. It was exciting, I tried to paint it so that it was almost a barber shop sign - that it was something unequivocal and clear. It wasn’t suggesting it was dressed up in fine art language. I realized actually that if you saw the contour of the form clearly enough and experienced it visibly enough, that picture plane wouldn’t possibly collapse. The other insight was that by fixing a shelf on the picture, I thought would give some kind of physical connection. Because the legs are on the floor and you’re on the floor. Of course what happens is if you screw a three-dimensional or real object on the front of a canvas, it doesn’t matter if the painting is St. Paul’s Cathedral in the distance – it’s still going to be as flat as a pancake.

Allen Jones, Chair, 1969, painted fibreglass, resin, Plexiglas, mixed media and tailor made accessories, 78 x 96 x 57 cm, private collection, courtesy the artist and Marlborough Fine Art, London

KUPPER: Sure, that’s really interesting.

JONES: The thing really developed. By the end of this big thing I was painting volumetric figures, which I suppose I was developing a language with. It was very stylized and did come from erotic illustration. There were a lot of adult comic strips in America, certainly on 6th avenue in those days. I thought all that stuff was very interesting, because they were dealing with the figure and it was direct and exciting so I plundered some of those ideas. By the end of the 60s I thought “you know I’m trying to make these figures so real that maybe what I should try to do is make it real” - that’s when I first moved into the sculptures, which became in a way my trademark I suppose. The furniture sculptures. But they weren’t intended to be furniture – of the group the very first figure that I made was a standing figure. Which is now called “a hat stand,” but it has nothing to do with being a hat stand. 

KUPPER: Of course.

JONES: What do you do when you want to make a figure? I wasn’t interested in it sitting down or running or standing on her head. So the figure was just meant to be standing there. The arms were raised in basically an ancient form of greeting or saying “here I am.” I intended to put the figure in street clothing so that they would look a little bit like the window displays you saw on Oxford street in those days. But when I tried it I just realized it looked like some surrealist found object and that really wasn’t what I wanted to do.

So what I did was clothe the figure, but used clothing that people would know but not be familiar with - it wasn’t everyday clothing. For me it was circus or nightclub clothing. When I finished the figure I still thought it kind of looked like it was a surrealist throwback. Again from the comic strips I hit on the idea that if the figure was made to look like a piece of furniture someone looking at it would have to deal with it as though it was an everyday object. Then it would really put the viewer in a place where they had to make decisions about what they were looking at.

KUPPER: Did you expect that these pieces of art would get such a strong reaction? Or that they would even become your trademark?

JONES: At the time of course I wanted a strong reaction but I was expecting a strong reaction about whether it’s art. One was trying to kick over the traces and challenge the notions of what art could be. It never occurred to me that it would be seen as an offering of a degrading view of women. I only had daughters and a wife, I’m surrounded by women. I lived on the King’s road in the late 60s with Mary Quant and Ossie Clark. The business of the emancipation of the female body, like the invention of materials like Lycra for the sports industry, allowed the body to be displayed and yet concealed. But these people were dressing for themselves. I was looking around and getting excited and recording, in a funny way, my environment. This wasn’t something I was dreaming of in the bedroom.

KUPPER: Yeah exactly. They weren’t your fantasies they were an interpretation of your surroundings.

JONES: I mean obviously I was primed for it. A lot of people think it’s my limitation and it might be. The female figure over the years has really become the pivot for my pictorial exploration.

KUPPER: In the 60s there was a rise in the feminist movement, and I think that they were maybe responding to the idea that these figures in the sculptures were kind of submissive. They were allowing you to put your feet on them.

JONES: No no I can see it! Yeah sure. If I’d been writing for one of their magazines and I’d seen this image, I’d be the same. It’s a perfect example of a figure, it happens to be a female figure, being used as an object. There’s nothing I can do about that, it’s just coincidental. It was certainly not a conscious part of the artwork. The other thing is that the militancy of that time, the same as any radical movement is that it always starts out with having to state the extreme. The idea of no bras, no makeup, no heels - but it seems that with the passage of time women use what they want to use, at least in the urban environments of Western cities that I know. When I made those shelf paintings with high heels, the reason I used the high heels was because they were totally out of fashion. I didn’t want to paint the shoes so that someone looking at the painting would think “oh that’s last year’s model.” But of course what happens over the passage of time is people end up thinking I have a stake in shoe manufacturing. (Laughs.)

KUPPER: Interesting.

­­­

JONES: It’s quite funny. In recent years, when I have an exhibition, or once in a blue moon some kind of art talk, a lot of the people who come up and say they admire my work are women. I see that as a historic period. Even if they’re a teenager or in their 20s, they don’t have the same wars to fight. Or quite the same, maybe they do deep down, but it’s a different scene. Nevertheless, they look and they think, “Oh, that’s what that’s about.” That’s the only down side for me. It’s become a part of the work to think that there is that connotation.

KUPPER: Sure, and then you have artists like Bjarne Melgaard who sort of re-interpreted your works but with black figures. Which was interesting and takes it in a whole new arena.

JONES: I didn’t take that work very seriously actually. When I look at artwork I like to see something that really draws me out and gives me pause or makes me have to re-think ideas I had about what I’m looking at. Of course I’ve been around a long enough time that I remember the photo-realist period with Duane Hanson. I’ve only ever seen the Melgaard versions of my sculptures. I hope they mean a lot to him, but they didn’t really give me a fright at all.

Allen Jones, Table, 1969, painted fibreglass, resin, Plexiglas, mixed media and tailor made accessories, 61 x 130 x 76 cm, private collection, courtesy the artist and Marlborough Fine Art, London

KUPPER: Interesting, I think that the controversy came from that Russian collector sitting on one of them. Which was maybe intentional.

JONES: Right, she didn’t know what she was getting into. You can imagine someone buying a piece of novelty furniture, to put it at its worst, and the photographer is there to take a photograph. You can picture them saying “well it looks like a seat, why don’t you sit down?” Of course as soon as they sit down it turns out to be national women’s day or something.

KUPPER: I want to go back a little bit, [Stanley] Kubrick asked you to make sculptures for Clockwork Orange and you turned him down. But the sculptures he used in the film were very similar. What was your reaction to that?

JONES: It was great. He called me and wanted to use the furniture sculptures for his film, and I said you know, they’re not film props, but if you like it I could design something for you. So that was the plan. He sent me the script with the book, and I could see why he wanted to use my stuff. Then it fell apart because he thought I’d do it for a credit and I said it’s going to be about three months’ work - I can’t afford to work for free. Then I told him, you know you like the idea, you use it. In fact, it was most likely better than I could have done. People who design for film props and the theatre know what the camera’s looking at.

KUPPER: Sure that makes sense.

JONES: They know they just have to design the front and they don’t have to worry about the back or something like that. Where I would have used the same level of intensity on making the thing that I would an artwork. It would have been a waste of time. Anyway the amusing thing is that everyone thinks I had something to do with it but I didn’t.

KUPPER: Yeah I’ve read a few conflicting reports on what exactly happened there. There were reports that you would never talk to Kubrick again, or there were reports that you tried to sue him for stealing your work. But it’s a lot more diplomatic than that I guess.

JONES: As I just said I’ve never met the guy. We spoke on the phone, there was no real reason to meet. That was fine with me. I didn’t feel threatened by that. Of course at the time, with the work I was doing, I didn’t think it would be something that would represent me or that I’d have to be talking about it in 50 years. The reality of that moment was that I could not afford to work for three months for a credit in a movie. He said “I’m a famous director, you’ll get a lot of coverage” and I said “listen, I’m not a set designer. If you can get me an exhibition at the Louvre, I’ll do it for free.”

(Laughs.)

KUPPER: That’s the exposure you want as an artist. Moving along, what’s the one question you wish critics or journalists would ask you?

JONES: My god I hadn’t thought about that; I don’t particularly know what I want anyone to ask me about. I like the idea that you can tell when somebody connects with the work, usually because of the questions they ask. Often it’s a question, which makes you think about your work, not in a new way, but it's not something you’re talking about. Or at the time you hadn’t thought about it before. It shows that there’s actually some dimension to the work which is coming across at a slightly slower speed. All works give off the first hit - even if it’s a Donald Judd box, it seems as though everything is said in the first instant. But then if you live with the art, other things kind of come into play.

KUPPER: It seems like with a lot of artists, no matter who they are, art critics always misconstrue one thing. Or they have an idea about the artist that seeps into every single interview. So I’m always curious about what artists wish people would ask or want to learn about that no other critic has asked.

JONES: I really don’t think about that. The thing that I’m thinking about when I have a show or when someone sees the work, let alone when I’m doing it, is that you’re involved with perceptual and conceptual kind of problems which aren’t actually the subject. The decision is made that it’s going to be a figure, but how the figure actually looks depends on formal considerations. That might seem funny to say but in fact the work is not an illustration of somebody I wished I’d seen in a nightclub. I suppose over the years people might think wrongly but when I’m doing the thing, the way it actually turns out has to do with what the paint can do and what the situation is within the composition if it as a painting. Or within the formal elements if it’s a sculpture.

The big thing for me at the moment is whether to put the figure back into a box, a display box, because the 21st century was spent with artists trying to take the figure out of the display cabinet and make it share the same space as the viewer. Quite recently I’ve seen some of my works, which were displayed within acrylic clear boxes - mainly because they were in some ancient castle environment on the border of Wales in some exhibition. Because they were outdoors, the figures had to be protected, because they were plainly indoor figures. It did add another dimension to them. They looked as though they’d come from Mars or something.

KUPPER: Interesting.

JONES: It’s those type of things that are preoccupying me at the moment. I have a show coming up in London at the end of this month with Michael Werner Gallery. It’s going to do with a film poster I painted for the French movie Maîtresse in the 70s. Which was a film that didn’t get general lease in England because of its heavy-duty subject matter. But the American distributor asked if I’d do a poster for the American distribution, which I did. Anyway I never sold the painting because it started off as a poster commission so I never thought of it as a painting. But I kept it over the years and about three or four years ago I suddenly thought it might be quite fun to revisit it and say “here’s this figure standing on a shallow stage with a bullwhip who’s knocked over some of the letters that say Maîtresse.” I thought well what if she sits down? Or what if she picks the letters up or goes behind the curtain and so on and so forth. It spawned a series of paintings and little photo graphics which I’m going to show here and in Hamburg. At the moment the business is whether or not to put the sculpture in the show as well. Whether to put it inside a box.

KUPPER: My last question is where do you think we are with censorship today? Do you think we’re more conservative than we have been or do you think we’re becoming more open to ideas? 

JONES: “We” depends on where you’re living on the globe.

KUPPER: True.

JONES: That of course is a huge topic at the moment isn’t it? I suppose somehow sex is at the basis of it all, but what is okay in one place is totally unacceptable in another. I’m just very thrilled I’m not a politician to tell you the truth. I’m also quite pleased to be living in what we call the West.

KUPPER: Exactly.

JONES: You’re in one of my favorite cities after London. I spent about three years at different times living and working in Los Angeles. I have a lot of very good friends there - more than here really. But I don’t get over there that often. I have a great warm feeling for Los Angeles. Where are you?

KUPPER: We are located in the heart of downtown LA so we are right in the middle of the city. 10 years ago a lot of people didn’t live out here. You had to be sort of crazy to live in the middle of Los Angeles, everyone sort of lives in the sprawl.

JONES: So you’re near the Frank Gehry Disney Theatre are you?

KUPPER: Yes. We’re right near there, and we’re right near the new museum. There’s a lot of galleries popping up too.

JONES: I used to make prints, and there was a railway track that went down the street near the printers I worked with. This had to be in the late 60s or something, but you’re right it wasn’t a residential place. I along with the rest of humanity was down at the beach.

KUPPER: It’s probably the better place to be, but maybe not these days with the oceans and such. But there’s definitely a very strong creative environment going on in LA. and as a magazine editor that’s really exciting because there’s a lot to cover, there’s a lot of artists to meet.

JONES: That sounds really good.

KUPPER: Yeah. I grew up here and I left for a while, I was living in San Francisco and I didn’t really feel that in LA before. It feels like it’s coming back a little bit. Galleries are fostering a new environment for artists.

JONES: It’s high time I came back and paid another visit. As you said, you see the changes if you’re away for a few years. Of course I came from a different environment, a European background, and I thought that New York was exciting. Then I went to Los Angeles and I felt that was really foreign and so unrelated to the European idea of cities, let alone anything else. My feeling when I went to San Francisco, is that just as New York does, it had that kind of feeling of connection with European culture in some way, where as Southern California didn’t. There was a lot of art there, which is why I liked it. The art was totally new. I thought it was really great.

KUPPER: Yeah San Francisco is definitely one of the more European cities; it seems more sophisticated than other American cities.

JONES: One of the great privileges is to be able to travel.

KUPPER: Thank you so much for your time Mr. Jones.

JONES: You’re quite welcome.


Allen Jones "A Retrospective" is on view now at Michael Werner gallery in New York until June 4 and Maîtresse at Michael Werner gallery in London until May 6. The interview is taken from Autre's LOVE ISSUE, which is available here. Text and interview by Oliver Maxwell Kupper. Follow Autre on Instagram: @AUTREMAGAZINE


A Fashion Renegade Makes His Mark: An Interview With Designer Charles Elliot Harbison

Growing up near the Appalachian Mountains in his home state of North Carolina, New York-based fashion designer Charles Elliot Harbison was disconnected from the glitz, grunge, and all things in-between of New York fashion. Nevertheless, he still managed to find his way to aesthetics. Though it might seem surprising to the average New York cool kid, Harbison learned about style at the church. “There was propriety in it,” he says. “There was personal exhibition. There was worship. It was never thoughtless. I remember white shirts, blue blazer, bowtie, some suede bucks. That’s when I became acquainted with style.”


New York Fashion Week has solidified its position as the most commercial of all the Fashion Week’s. But as New York commerciality has reached its apex, a crop of young radical designers have emerged displaying awareness of contemporary art and pop culture and shining light back on American fashion: Eckhaus-Latta, Moses Gauntlett Cheng, Vejas, and Harbison.

But Harbison still stands out as something of a renegade even amongst this crop of wildly exciting fashion design talent. Though Harbison comes from a fine art background, having studied fine arts and painting at North Carolina State, he does not shy away from things traditionally “chic,” inspired by the luxurious approach to sportswear his mother employed when he was a child. He has leaned towards the subversive since he started his brand three years ago, employing a gender-neutral approach to his garments far before the industry jumped on the trend. But even with that, it’s not hard to imagine Park Avenue women loving to wear his modernist, color-blocked, and astoundingly beautiful clothes, allowing him a customer far wider in demographics that some of his contemporaries could ever conceive of reaching. “I don’t think [subversiveness] has to be relegated to just casual wear or crude construction,” says Harbison. “I want to do it through the filter of elegance, expense, and aspiration.”

Harbison also has some serious fashion education. Having learned about textiles and fabrics in Central Asia, studied fashion as a post-grad at Parsons, and worked for Michael Kors, Billy Reid, and Luca Luca, he has a leg up on his contemporaries with flat-out knowledge over the construction of garments. How would you describe those garments? This writer would say, “subtly striking.” They aren’t unwearable pieces of clothing architecture or tattered to shreds in the name of art. Harbison creates a form-flattering silhouette and then applies blocks of vibrant color to make the statement. They are the types of clothes that you find yourself staring at without realizing it. “Color, texture, embellishment, contrast, valence, proportion,” says Harbison. “I just wanted to be true to that when I started Harbison.”

He also has the ability to tell stories without grandiose displays of conceptual creation. Everything that Harbison presents in his shows, he sells. Much like Dries Van Noten, or even Yves Saint Laurent (minus the couture), he adheres to the tenets of ready-to-wear. And yet, he still conveys strong and discernible ideas. Patti Smith is the brand’s muse, and Harbison has also told stories centered around Erykah Badu, Aaliyah, and Nica Rothschild. The strong and cultured women that breathe in his garments has attracted the attention of Beyoncé, who wore custom Harbison to Kanye’s Yeezy Season 1 presentation (and Solangé wore the same in Paris some weeks later) and brought massive attention to the brand. “What the muse does is allow me to work them into my stories,” says Harbison.

When I meet Harbison in his small, clothes-filled office near Manhattan’s City Hall, he is in great spirits despite a busy morning. Though his brand sat out the last NYFW, he is still moving forward. His next collection will be the first “gender-neutral” collection where the clothes are cut in ways to fit a man and a woman’s body. He laughs a lot, and has an ease in explaining his ideas that is absent in a lot of creatives. We spoke at length about his history and the direction of the brand.

LEHRER: Are you still religious now?

HARBISON: I have a spiritual practice. I go to church in Harlem. It feeds me culturally as well as spiritually. It’s nice to have this whisper of my early life an hour away. [I live] in Bushwick. Every Sunday, I get to be around black people from the South.

LEHRER: Does it ever rub you the wrong way that something you’ve been doing for a while, gender-neutral collections, is now a trend and being done by like, Burberry?

HARBISON: It completely bothers me. When I launched [the brand] in 2013 it was inconceivable for the buyer to understand a man in a womenswear lookbook. They couldn’t understand seeing one coat on her and the same coat on him. From a market point of view, this is a women’s collection. But the cuts are neutral. This is how my friends and I live. When I was at Michael Kors, I would wear women’s samples as a dude. I never felt like my masculinity was compromised. Of course, I’m queer, but I saw straight guys and girls doing the same thing. By and large, America is slow to this idea. You have Selfridges with their gender-neutral merchandising.

LEHRER: They had a gender-neutral section in their store. Like, Hood by Air and J.W. Anderson.

HARBISON: Fully. You have Gucci putting dudes in pussy bow blouses. You have Jayden Smith as the face of Louis Vuitton womenswear. I feel like a lot of that gets filtered through novelty, comedy, and trend. But for me, it’s just a way of dressing that makes sense. I want to do it from a slick point of view. It makes me a better designer and marketer.

LEHRER: A lot of brands will throw dudes in a women’s lookbook or a show for a statement. You’re thinking about it in terms of the products.

HARBISON: The pant cut, we fit on a guy and a girl. The tunic cut, we do it in a way that works well on him, but it gives her tailoring options if she wants to do something more waisted. The transformability of the clothes allows them to become whatever you want them to become. It’s not just a visual statement. The shit feels good. There are a lot of clothes that are “exclusively for women,” but even that’s not true. Like, dude, it’s your life. If he wants to wear a dress, I don’t care. I just want to make cool ass shit that makes people happy.

LEHRER: Do you feel like buyers are starting to have a bigger say in what the collection is?

HARBISON: Store buyers, often, now see themselves as the end-all-be-all. It removes a lot of the excitement from the shopping and dressing process. What if someone had done that to McQueen? What if someone had done that to Galliano?

LEHRER: I shudder to think of the buyer telling Alexander McQueen what to do.

HARBISON: In the beginning, McQueen and Galliano were making crude but interesting stuff. There were problems with construction, but there was an idea there, and it was supported by the industry. It wasn’t until they got money that you saw their actual genius. Their processes were supported.

LEHRER: Color is a big part of your collections. Your brand came out three years ago, and at the time, the big predominant thing was street goth, ninja goth. Were you put off by the excessive use of black?

HARBISON: No, not put off. But I did want to offer something different. I design through the filter of art and modernism. The beginning of my arts education was in fine arts and painting. I love fine arts first.

LEHRER: When did you decide to transition from art to fashion?

HARBISON: In undergrad, I ended up weaving seventeen yards of this beautiful fabric. For me, it was like speaking to my Native American heritage. It didn’t feel right to wrap it on a canvas. So I thought to make some garments. That moment in undergrad, my junior year, was when I decided to figure this shit out.

LEHRER: You went to central Asia to study textiles. What did you learn over there?

HARBISON: I studied in Turkmenistan in undergrad – indigenous fabric construction. When I graduated, an opportunity came up to go back to the region for a year. I hadn’t found a job, so I thought, why not? I wanted to understand more about myself. There was so much mystery around that area. It’s an area that no one has really claimed. It’s former Soviet territory, but the population is South Asian, and they look East Asian in language and food. It’s influenced by the Middle East. It was also my first time out of the country, and it was the best decision I made. Fell in love with the fabrics. Spent time with students in their villages, and saw how they lived so casually amongst beautiful things.



LEHRER: And then you started working so you went to Parsons for some post-grad work, and then went to work?

HARBISON: I cut my teeth at Michael Kors Collection. 

LEHRER: Your designs are much more radical than Michael Kors. What did you learn from him?

HARBISON: I learned so much: quality, detail, fabric, merchandising, selling, and how to dress people. Michael knows his way around client connection in a really amazing way. There’s an approach to his fashion that is really respectful of the genre. Though I approach novelty and art, I wanted [my clothes] to be rooted in shapes that are classic. I don’t make a lot of conceptual pieces. I love sportswear, so being with Michael was the best place for me. 

LEHRER: You said you started your own brand by accident. What was that accident?

HARBISON: I burnt out. I was at Billy Reid and walked away. I started traveling. I had an Eat Pray Love experience. It was awesome. I read Patti Smith’s Just Kids, and that changed my life. She and Robert [Mapplethorpe] were the muses for my first capsule. I came back to New York from St. Croix. I had an interview at some collection, and when I walked in I thought, “I’ll be damned if I can do that.” Fashion week was coming up, and I didn’t want to skip a season. So I just made my own samples and shot some thing myself. Those images fell in the hands of Mark Holgate at Vogue and Virginie Smith. They said, “Do you want this to be a thing? We’ll feature you.” It’s been a hella crazy ride since.

LEHRER: I want to ask you about Patti Smith. You said she was the brand’s muse. What is it about her that you find so inspiring? Aside from, well, everything.

HARBISON: Beside everything she’s ever done? Patti walks this modern line of femininity, which I think is amazing. In her relationship with Robert, she was the stronger entity. He was the more fragile of the two. The relationship was beautiful and modern in that way. I find Patti’s lack of self-consciousness aspirational. She and Robert were vehemently sure of what they wanted in New York. That reminded me to take the risk. I was also able to touch this late ‘60s world that I love. In my mind, I feel I would have really done well in that time period touching on the modernist artists that I love. 

LEHRER: You’ve done collections based on Sade, Aaliyah, Erykah Badu. Do you always design with a specific woman in mind?

HARBISON: For example, last spring I imagined Erykah Badu singing in a Zen garden carrying a Bryce Marden painting. This story allowed me to imagine seemingly contradicting things and bring them together. That’s a challenge that I like. I want to offer things you’ve never seen before.

LEHRER: New York has gotten known of being the most commercial of the fashion weeks, but there is a whole crop of designers and brands coming on the scene who are making innovative things. Why do you think this is happening now? Has the commercialization hit a tipping point that is being rebelled against?

HARBISON: Completely. You see the evidence in the industry itself. The commerciality is no longer commercial.

LEHRER: The biggest brands are all struggling too.

HARBISON: Exactly. For younger designers, there’s no desire to make something you already see in the world. Design based on replication doesn’t feel responsible. Also, with a global market, we’re comparing ourselves to everything around the world, even things that aren’t “high fashion.” Everything becomes a reference point. Everything influences what we find fresh, new, artful, and relevant. 

LEHRER: You said you don’t want to be Ralph Lauren overnight. Would you ever want to be that big?

HARBISON: Yeah. [Laughs.] I love designing things. I feel like I have a dialogue for cars, homes, architecture. I love aesthetics. I would love to have the opportunity to configure aesthetics in different areas. As far as how big Ralph is, that is something that I think I’m still grappling with. For me, what is most valuable is having a lot of product for people to opt into. I want a lot of product in the world.

LEHRER: You sat out this fashion week. People talk about the speed of the industry – Raf leaving Dior, etc. Is that something you struggle with or not?

HARBISON: Yeah. The speed of the industry has brought me to my knees before. I think it can compromise design integrity. For me, skipping out this show season, I needed it from the business standpoint. I needed to figure out how to approach these marketing events in a way that’s more thoughtful of the business revenue. How do I give all these eyes access to the collection? You can opt out of [the traditional fashion schedule]. You don’t have to make four collections a year. You can make one. You can do this thing however you want to do it. That’s why I have so much respect for Raf and him walking away [from Dior]. It no longer worked for him, and that’s wonderful.

LEHRER: He’s supposed to be this radical, punk designer. Dior was weighing on him for a number of years. It was like he said, “Fuck that.”

HARBISON: Exactly. To be happy. How modern is that?

LEHRER: Did you have designers or artists that you looked up to when you first got into this? 

HARBISON: Yeah, Dries [Van Noten] and Azzedine [Alaia]. 

LEHRER: I was thinking about Dries when you were saying everything comes down to product. Dries has a way of telling a story only using pieces that he will sell on the racks. That’s definitely what I see with you. 

HARBISON: Thank you. That’s the goal. Dries has created a world that’s wholly his. His client base is totally devoted. My favorite pieces to wear are all Dries. I want to make that the case for Harbison. “I’m always going to go back to Harbison because it makes me happy.” I want my customers to say that


Visit Charles Harbison's website to see current collections. Text, interview and photographs by Adam Lehrer. Follow Autre on Instagram: @AUTREMAGAZINE


Through The Peep Hole: An Interview With Vanessa Prager

Vanessa Prager comes from a very talented and creative family. Most people know her sister, Alex Prager, and her larger than life cinematic portraits of people and crowds in surrealistic situations. However, the younger Prager is making a name for herself with her figurative oil paintings that verge on abstract sculptures. Faces, in a swirling, kinetic puzzle of colors and gashes of paint, seem less abstract as you pull away from the canvas. Prager’s work is currently on view as part of her first solo exhibition in New York – or outside of of Los Angeles – the Hole Gallery. The opening night of the exhibition was hosted by actor and comedian Fred Armisen, who counts himself as a fan of Prager’s work. The show, entitled "Voyeur," is interesting in that some of the works can only be viewed through a peep hole. The concept came from the artist’s thoughts about privacy, or lack thereof, in a hyper-digital world. Nonetheless, it is an interesting concept for showing figurative art in a century that has mostly abandoned the canvas as a relic of yesterday’s artists. Last Sunday, we got a chance to visit Prager’s studio in Downtown Los Angeles. As you walk through the door, the smell of oil paint is overwhelming and intoxicating. In the following conversation, we talk about her influences as an artist, her process and how Fred Armisen fits into the picture. 

OLIVER KUPPER: How did you know you wanted to become an artist? Was it partly inspired by your sister’s pursuits?

VANESSA PRAGER: Well, it was weird. I went to boarding school when I was a teenager, for high school. When I was there, I started drawing. Those were the first signs of it. Weirdly, at the same time, she was down here starting to do photography. But you know, coming back to LA after I graduated, that was when I decided I wanted to do something in the arts. There were a few parts of that. One, I realized you had to get a job in LA and have a career, which wasn’t really something I thought about before then. Also, I had learned enough about myself that I was not really conducive to taking orders, doing nine to five. At the same time, my sister started having art shows. I think I went to her first one when I was seventeen. A bunch of our friends around that time were artists and photographers.

KUPPER: There was an energy going on. 

PRAGER: Yeah. It was a really real thing. It wasn’t like we were all in Paris smoking and talking about art. I saw that there was this thing that you could do. It was a job for them. I don’t remember making a conscious decision after one specific thing. Around that time, after school, you wonder, what kind of job am I going to get?

KUPPER: So were your parents artists? Were they creative?

PRAGER: They were creative in their spirit. They’re not professional artists. My mom has been getting more into it. She's starting this vegan chocolate company. I consider a lot of things art. They definitely have the artistic mindset. That was definitely instilled into us. Art was a valuable thing for us growing up, more than objects. We didn’t have a lot of money, but ideas were important. That was one of the better things they could have given to us. It was always encouraged. When I started drawing, my mom was like, “Hey, you could sell these.”

KUPPER: So it seemed like a reality?

PRAGER: Yeah, it seemed like a reality. Alex is five years older than me, so she was already doing stuff when I was seventeen. I’m pretty active; when I get an idea I do something about it. But how you go about doing something like showing art – I know a lot of people wonder and never find out. To me, it was just looking at a lot of other people doing it.

KUPPER: Are there any other painters that you’re inspired by?

PRAGER: It’s hard, because I’m a painter, to view art without a critical eye. I definitely enjoy art, but ever since I was seventeen, I always look at art like – how did they do that? What’s going on there? You’re dissecting the thing. It’s hard for me to just purely enjoy things. Of course, I do. Whenever I see Lucian Freud for example, I’m in awe. I love somebody who can paint well. I love paintings. I’m just drawn into them.

KUPPER: Figurative art is relatively rare these days. It’s more conceptual. People aren’t sitting in front of a canvas as much anymore.

PRAGER: No. For a few years prior to doing this series, I was like, what am I doing? It really was a breakdown. I’m doing a really old-school thing in modern times, but I don’t feel old-school. I feel super modern in my being. I had to think about that. I think that’s how I came about this series. People would pose the question, “Why painting in 2016?” Why paint? Why paint with oil? There are so many things against the medium that don’t work in modern times. But then I realized my real love for it. I really took it apart. There’s something about it that I just love. That’s when I broke into this whole new thing. And I don’t paint in a classical way. I use the figure, which people do time and time again. But I do it in a way in which I feel I’m using it now.

KUPPER: Do you have any rituals before you start working?

PRAGER: I like to clean up and make the space my own. I really liked moving to this studio because it’s containable. I had a really big studio in Glendale that I shared before. It was always kind of hard to get each nook mine. Here, I like to water my plants. I get really bad when I’m in show. Things die. At the end of the month, I re-gather. I like throwing things away and cleaning out. I really like not having crap around. I’m a big fan of the trashcan.


"Life isn’t perfect. Things shouldn’t be perfect. I don’t like perfection. What is perfection anyway? History is a part of life, a part of now. The layering was a change for me to put everything together and have it all still be a part of the thing."


KUPPER: No clutter.

PRAGER: Yeah, no clutter. But there are little nooks. If I’m okay with them, then it’s okay. If I get into certain weird head space, I’ll do certain things. I’ll go walking or hiking. If I obsess over one stroke, and the rest of the painting isn’t working, I have to destroy what I’m attached to. Sometimes, it’ll pin me to a spot. Sometimes I end up making something that I love. But most of the time, I have to roll with it all and destroy it.

KUPPER: So you’ll start over completely if you feel something isn’t going in the direction you want it to go in?

PRAGER: For sure. Or I’ll just change it in a really dramatic way. If a face is going a certain direction and it’s just not working, oftentimes, I’ll turn the canvas over and do it on another thing. I always say that it’s telling me at the same time that I’m telling it what it’s going to be. I think that’s important for this kind of work. I never painted abstract before, but it totally borders on that. I can’t do it alone. It has to be an organic, flowy thing. There has to be something in the pure substances that tell me what needs to be there.

KUPPER: Your work started off much more realistic, and it became more abstract. Was that evolution natural?

PRAGER: Like I said, right before I started doing this series, I sat back and was like, why am I painting? What is that I like about it? How will it fulfill the thing that I want to get out into this world? This world, the one that we live in now, not the 1600s or the 1950s. Will it be able to interact with people? Essentially, that’s the purpose - for it to interact with people. In thinking about all that, it changed. It wasn’t quite there for it before. The style I was painting in before didn't make sense for all of those questions.

KUPPER: Your first solo shows have been happening recently. It looks like you’re just getting ready to explore that.

PRAGER: Totally. Had I gone to college, I probably wouldn’t have shown until last year. I started doing pop ups, little things here and there, in stores for one night only. While I was doing that, everyone got to see it. Good, bad, ugly, whatever - it just was. Had I been in school during that time, people wouldn’t have seen the work.

KUPPER: Or only students would have seen it.

PRAGER: Yeah, and they would have tore it to shreds, and I would have cried. [Laughs.] I equate it to that because that’s what makes sense to me. This is the work that I’m really proud of. There is a difference to me. I was still learning then. It’s a matter of figuring out how to release your feeling. Until you do that, you’re always reaching for that. I think I’ll always be exploring new ways to do stuff. That’s the job of an artist.

KUPPER: Part of that process seems like a layering. That seems to be a distinct style of yours. Is that accidental or is that part of it?

PRAGER: It’s part of it. It’s a big part of it. Life isn’t perfect. Things shouldn’t be perfect. I don’t like perfection. What is perfection anyway? History is a part of life, a part of now. The layering was a chance for me to put everything together and have it all still be a part of the thing. That’s how I see layering. I don’t use it in the classical oil-painting, glazing sense, which I’m sure some painters think is really annoying. I use it more in a sculptural sense. Topography and maps, even looking at mountains and rocks and stuff, is really inspiring to me. I use that a lot in the layering process. I enjoy painting with the skylight because it has those shadows. You see it in different lights, and everything changes.

KUPPER: Do you see yourself getting into sculpture?

PRAGER: I may. I really like sculpture. It’s just a matter of how. It’s learning another medium or hiring out. The way I envision it is kind of big. I think this is a good way of getting into that. I do like sculpture. I like the idea of it coming into three dimensions.

KUPPER: I want to talk about fans of your work. Fred Armisen is a big fan of your work.

PRAGER: He’s a pal. He’s a big fan of painting and art in general. He’s super cool and supportive. When we met, we just hit it off and chatted about art. He came over to my studio. Now, he’s hosting my show. It’s great because I think he’s so cool, and I love crossing over to new areas of art. I’m from LA, so the way that I envision having an art show isn’t necessarily classic. We have the movie industry here. Of course, I think it should be integrated. The art world shouldn’t be a separate, special area. I love anything that crosses over and opens it up to other groups of people.

KUPPER: The Hole is a great place for that. They’re really experimental in how they show their shows. And Kathy [Grayson] is a great curator.

PRAGER: She’s amazing. It was a really good fit. I’ve known her for years. She loves painting - she is a painter - but she tends to show the super conceptual work. She shows the picture of a painting, work that’s based on the pure idea. She shows less of the classic oil paintings. It was going to be interesting to see how that crossed over. But she loves oil painting. I thought it was a really good match, in the end. She brought a lot of conceptual stuff to it. The idea for “Voyeur” - we totally vibed on that.

KUPPER: Talk about that. That’s a really interesting way to present the work. A lot of the work, you can only view through a peep hole, right?

PRAGER: One of them you literally cannot get to. It’s an eight-foot painting behind a wall. You can only see it through the peep hole. Some of them you look through peep holes. Walls are set up. It’s in a maze-like fashion. In the end, you get to a painting. It has a definite flow. The idea of “Voyeur” was seeing things that you shouldn’t see. It’s messing with the fact that we have so much information these days. People can find out everything about other people before they even meet them.

KUPPER: What’s next after this series?

PRAGER: I don’t know. The show is still up. I always take a moment to relax and regroup after an opening. That was my first time showing in New York, so I had no idea what was going to happen. I just put everything into it for months. I’m going to have an empty studio. It will be a good place to start. I’ll just start making stuff. I’ll see where the next vibe takes me.


Vanessa Prager's exhibition Voyeur is on view until February 28, 2016 at The Hole NYC, 312 Bowery, New York. Text and photograph by Oliver Maxwell Kupper. Follow Autre on Instagram: @AUTREMAGAZINE


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


Noah's Arc: An Interview With Supreme's Former Creative Director Brendon Babenzien On A New Fashion Frontier

As I first walk into the flagship store for Brendon Babenzien’s Noah brand in the NoLiTa neighborhood of Manhattan, Babenzien is a little on edge. The store, beautiful in its design as it is, still smells of paint and there appears to be a credit card issue (that issue is now completely fixed). So Babenzien politely requests that we take a 15-minute recess and I poke around the store.

Staying true to the brand’s slight adherence to its beach community theme, the store stands out in the neighborhood full of high fashion boutiques with its white brick exterior and nautical logo on the glass door. Inside is something like a portal to Babenzien’s head. There is an old issue of High Times with John Lydon on the cover, a stack of records, and numerous trinkets and gadgets that would serve a variety of activity-based functions.

And then of course there are the products. Babenzien has cultivated an aesthetic with Noah; equally informed by beach community prep and skateboarding grunge; but these products have a malleability that could serve a variety of personal styles. They are also high quality and priced exactly in accordance with their qualities. A t-shirt is $48, a sheepskin jacket is $2,000. The whole point of Noah is that the customer is buying a product and not into a brand. Thus, you pay for what you get when you need it.

News launched that Babenzien would be leaving Supreme in February, and Noah was announced shortly thereafter. He is quick to say that he wasn’t unhappy at Supreme, but his daughter had just been born and that instilled in him a drive to start vocalizing his ideas about garment sustainability and smart shopping. Babenzien’s message isn’t all that different than that of say Vivienne Westwood: buy less, buy high quality, buy beautiful.

Babenzien is immediately disarming once conversation gets rolling. He has a mystical surfer guy vibe with a soft cadence to his voice that allows him to deliver philosophies without coming off as too heavy. He and I sat down at the Noah flagship to discuss the brand, sustainability, activity, and how style is everything and fashion is nothing.

Adam Lehrer: I’m really into the whole Noah concept, I grew up on Cape Cod.

Brendon Babenzien: Oh you did, nice!

AL: When I first read an interview about you, you were talking about growing up in a beach community and how that informs the brand.

BB: Did you see the reversal sweatshirt? That literally is from this memory that I had from the clammers working when I was a kid. They’d be out there in the middle of the winter and would be wearing these two-ply sweatshirts. They weren’t even wearing jackets really and they would be digging all winter. My brother would dig for clams just for easy beer money. And my version of that, or what I grew into, was surfing. You share this common experience [living in a beach community]: surfers, fisherman, and people that are just generally beachgoers.

AL: It’s a lifestyle.

BB: You all share this common physical experience: the look of the water, the smell of the water, the beach, the sounds that go with it. I’ve always loved how a surfer and a sailor doing different activities on the same body of water - they share food locations.

AL: There’s like six restaurants, four bars.

BB: I’ve always really loved that overlap. That’s an underlying constant in the brand, but it’s not a nautical brand. It’s one part of the culture. A one-dimensional brand recognizes how you’re going to work. Apple is Apple: it’s clean design. But I think with clothing, that’s influenced by culture, it can be limiting. I’m into a lot of things why can’t I express them all under one roof? If it’s from one voice, it comes off natural. Because we’re small, and the brand is singular, I think it works.

AL: Is that something you were maybe thinking about at the latter days of Supreme, that you wanted to express all the things you love as opposed to a few specific things: art music, skateboarding…

BB: Supreme already does that better than anyone. They throw all these cultures into one place and have it make sense. It wasn’t so much that they’re not doing it so I want to do it. This label is more about me growing up and my personal experiences. There are things that I wanted to say about how I see the world. The only way to do that is to put your own brand out into the culture, and to use your own words. I was only one of many people that went into making Supreme what it is, granted I was an important part of it. But it wasn’t just my voice. It was just time for [Noah], plain and simple.

AL: I’m really interested in how you talk about how the effort put into being fashionable can overrule having style. Does Noah have a specific customer or are you trying to make products that allow people to be who they are?

BB: It’s a really tricky thing. You make all this stuff in a really particular way but then you talk about people being individuals but then you are asking them to step into your box.

AL: (Laughs) Right.

BB: So for lack of a better word, it’s a fucked up situation! That’s one of the reasons that I talk about activities and what they do and what they think because that’s really the thing that gives rise to their personal styles. We’re not asking people to come in and be a “Noah person,” we’re asking them to be themselves and see if any of these products fit their lives.  If you want to run in these shorts or you decide this is the year that you’re going to buy a sheepskin jacket, and which one is it? Maybe it’s ours. Maybe it’s the Tom Ford one, I don’t know. But we really like the piece and we hope the customers can do their own things with it. So we aren’t really asking people to join this culture, it’s more how do we intersect with people.

AL: A lot of designers seem to say that they don’t buy into trends, but you’re really a trend averse designer, is that conscious or are you just trying to filter things into the world?

BB: I definitely get nervous with the designer term because I really don’t know if I am. I’m a glorified stylist: I don’t have any design training, and I couldn’t cut a pattern if I tried. I’m something else, but I don’t know what that is yet. The trend-averse thing, it’s not a thought. From the time I was 13 working at a surf shop, I’ve trusted my instincts. Sometimes that leaves you ahead of the curve. We try not to analyze it so much here. I’m not even sure we are trend averse. They are just clothes. But I feel like we sit really closely with the world and I’ve often thought that people that make things, whether it be fashion or television shows, are so closely related in their thinking. I’d love to think that we are ahead of something, but I really don’t think we are.

AL: One thing that I found interesting was that the spectrum of price points is vast, but all the products are priced exactly as they should be. A t-shirt is $45 or a jacket can go up to 2 grand. Is it important to you that the product always matches its price point?

BB: Yes. One of the things at the core of this, from the business side and maybe culturally, we produce garments that make sense and we don’t over-produce. Sometimes the price is really high because you are making a small quantity of a beautiful thing in a very expensive fabric. That is design to me. But a t-shirt shouldn’t be $200, I wouldn’t want to wear a fancy t-shirt. When you have a store, there’s an advantage to things not being ridiculously priced, because you cut out the wholesale component.

[Brendon walks over to the Noah store’s racks of clothing and motions toward a shirt] We have a cashmere shirt, and it’s expensive it’s $800.


AL: I felt it though, it’s nice.

BB: Oh, it’s incredible. If I was in the wholesale department, or I was in another brand that was in a position to buy that fabric, it would be $3,000. That’s a real thing.

AL: And I also think that brands like modern day Saint Laurent selling cut off denim skirts for 1200 dollars just to maintain brand integrity is sick.

BB: I have a hard time critiquing Saint Laurent because of all the “luxury brands” I actually think they are doing a pretty phenomenal job. The clothes are pretty normal.

AL: And that’s interesting because it does go into Yves’s philosophy of normal clothes made in the most luxurious of fabrics.

BB: There’s some stuff where you really see the rock n’ roll influence and maybe there are some people that couldn’t get it, but then they’ll have a coat that by most standards is pretty preppy.

AL: I think it’s more the styling that makes it look subversive.

BB: Yeah it’s incredible. My criticisms of the fashion world mostly have to with it pushing products on the public. Products that people might not be interested in after a year. That has to do with more of my personal consumption. If you buy my jacket you can wear it for 30 years, cool. If you buy something wear it once and throw it in to the back of your closet, we have an issue.


"We live in a fucked up world where there is no perfect answer. So what do I do? I make clothes, I understand brand culture, and I have things that I want people to see. So I open up the doors and communicate every aspect of the process. Focus on how style is style and you need not buy 100 things to look cool."


AL: What’s interesting though is that the people who aren’t smart about shopping buy so much shit, but people like me who do care about a quality product are going to trust you more as the person behind a brand, and they will want to buy Noah.

BB: You would hope. Styling is a huge component. There are things in this room that on one person might look really preppy but on another might look more mod or English punk or whatever. It depends. If I get a 50-year old guy from Naples and he buys this [double breasted jacket] he’s going to look Euro. But someone else could wear it and look like Shane MacGowan. That’s there the style component comes in.

AL: With Supreme, the only thing in front of the brand is the red box logo, has it been weird transitioning to someone who is in front of the brand, doing interviews, in some sense being the face.

BB: Yes (laughs). I’m not a huge fan, but I’m getting more comfortable with it. As a father I feel a responsibility to start communicating these ideas. I’m not good if I’m not taking the little amount of connection I have to people. If I’m not doing that, I’m kind of being irresponsible. If I can maybe open someone’s mind to buying less or starting their own business, then I need to do it. But I don’t necessarily enjoy it.

AL: I just remember when you were at Supreme one video of you came out and everyone was like, “Brendon Babenzien speaks,” it was a big deal, just to hear you speak at all. Now there’s tons of press. It has to be different.


BB: It’s a lot. I’m not stoked. Did you see how stressed I was this morning? It was pretty much because of this. I like talking to you, I like talking to people. All the writers that have come in are informed and cool and it’s a pleasure to have these conversations. But I don’t want to be fucking famous.

AL: And fame can be a by-product.

BB: Here I am trying to talk about consumption issues and buying less and I’m selling products. We live in a fucked up world where there is no perfect answer. So what do I do? I make clothes, I understand brand culture, and I have things that I want people to see. So I open up the doors and communicate every aspect of the process. Focus on how style is style and you need not buy 100 things to look cool. I would argue that people with less money and access that know how to dress are far superior creatively to people that can buy anything they want. It’s easy to buy a Celiné piece and look fresh, Celiné is incredible!

AL: It’s harder to go dig up an old Yohji Yammamoto jacket at a thrift store.

BB: Forget that even. Maybe you can’t even afford that, and you have to co-opt something. That’s why I think skateboard culture and hip-hop culture were so impressive in the early years. These kids had nothing, but they would go buy stuff at Army Navy stores and workwear and make it look fucking cool.

AL: And it’s been influencing everything ever since.

BB: That’s style. To not have to go out and buy the latest and the greatest thing.

AL: You’ve said Supreme was more about the artists, musicians, skaters, surfers, writers, and athletes, are these still your people with Noah?

BB: They’re not even separate. You can’t separate music and fashion and skateboarding and style. Think about skateboarding: the style isn’t just the fashion, it’s the doing. You watch the old Dogtown doc, they say you have to have style. How your arm sits, you land. The clothes are an extension of that. You can say the same thing about a painter or a writer, the physical action of what they do is natural. It’s a style. Because if you skip that process of skating, running, or painting, and go straight to just trying to look a certain way, there’s nothing there. There’s no substance. Shopping shouldn’t be a fucking hobby.

AL: With Supreme something everybody liked were the campaigns with people like Lou Reed, do you still want to use the brand to highlight people that you admire?

BB: Without a doubt. I don’t know that I’m in the position to do that yet, there are costs involved. We’ve already started in some way, these bandanas are from some Japanese kid who cuts up bandanas. We’ll do that, when we can.

AL: To finish up, just sitting here I see people coming in and you seem so interested in people. And stories, and you have ideas and an overall message, do you see yourself in some sense being a storyteller?

BB: I think I like people, I joke a lot that I don’t like people but I just don’t like bad people. I definitely like a good story. I don’t know if I’m the storyteller or if I like other peoples’ stories and want others to know those stories. Maybe I’m the person who spreads the story. Because you realize that there are so many people that do amazing things and don’t get noticed, maybe they don’t have connections, or can’t talk to the press, or don’t understand social media. They never get their due. It’s fucking crazy. Or these days if you aren’t into alternative music or lifestyle, you’re nothing. Why? I met these guys at a wash house the other day. They were these big MMA guys from Maine, like brawlers. And they were there getting some of their clothes washed. They have a big factory in the woods in Maine, and they make MMA fighting gear. And they were super cool, smart, fun to talk to, interested in New York. We talked for like an hour, because they were really interested in fabrics. But if you saw these huge guys walking in and they said, “Yeah I love textiles,” you wouldn’t know how that happened. I love that shit.


The Noah flagship store is now open at 195 Mulberry Street in New York. The online store will be live on October 22, 2015. Text and interview by Adam Lehrer. Images by Thomas Iannaccone. Follow Autre on Instagram: @AUTREMAGAZINE