Naz Cuguoglu, writer and coordinator of maumau art residency in Istanbul, spoke to emerging Cape Town-based painter Alice Toich about the difference between copywriting and fine art, stalking strangers on Facebook and her recent residency at maumau.
This interview appears in full in the ‘Painting’s Not Dead!’ Issue (13.4) of ARTsouthAFRICA – on shelves at a store near you! You will also be able to read this exclusive content in the June Digital Issue (FREE app download here for Apple and here for Android).
Naz Cuguoglu: Hi Alice. While you are now most well known for your paintings, your formal background is actually in advertising. Why did you decide to pursue a degree in copyrighting before going on to study fine art?
Alice Toich: I guess for the same reason that a lot of the best filmmakers or writers I know studied engineering and architecture first. A big part of coming into your practice entails discovering it through other means of living. In a way, I was taking the long route to find the kind of pedagogy I wanted to engage with. Studying advertising was extremely energising and copywriting itself was a very conceptual endeavor. The practice of creating adverts is in opposition to the practice of art-making; instead of taking a seemingly simple notion and expanding it, you spend most of your time taking a complicated idea and distilling it to a concise, powerful point that can be understood by everyone. This process of making ideas and creativity accessible to everyone excited me more than a lot of the insulated, inaccessible work I have encountered in the art world.
Your final project was also your first exhibition – ‘The Stalked’ (2012) – for which you stalked strangers on Facebook and then painted their public profile pictures. What is your experience of that, and what kinds of reactions did you receive from the ‘stalked’?
In hindsight, ‘The Stalked’ proved to be such an important project for me. Although it was part of my final year studying advertising, it was an entirely art-based endeavor. The exhibition revealed the possibility for socio-commentary through painting and art-making. For me, it was a game-changer. The concept was to stalk unknowing ‘victims’ who had public profiles on Facebook, and them paint them. The whole process was nerve-wracking, I knew that I wanted to incite a sense of surprise unease and perhaps even offense or invasion – but I spent quite some time convincing myself to go through with it. In a large way, the reactions of the ‘victims’ on that night of the opening was the true artwork – it wasn’t the paintings themselves but what they provoked. It was interesting to see the way each person, taken by the shock of seeing themselves displayed, navigated the awkwardness, the sense of personal invasion and instant celebrity. It is somewhat ironic that after the exhibition, the ‘victims’ themselves shared the paintings publically and online. At the exhibition, some of them stayed and really engaged with the idea, but others took a few days to respond and two never spoke to me again. I think a few people are still pretty ‘creeped out’ but the night was magical.
You have taken part in intensive summer painting workshops in France and New York, and most recently attended maumau art residency in Istanbul – showing your works there as part of a group exhibition. Can you tell us about the artworks you produced while in residency?
Being my first residency experience, I wanted the work I created in Istanbul and at maumau to honestly express my travel and stay. This developed into a critique on my habit of consumerism. I decided to challenge myself to paint everything I bought but did not need – objects such as mementos and mass-produced travel gifts – stemming from a touristic compulsion to own, spread and be a part of something new and ‘exotic.’ This gave me the time to reflect on my often-compulsive buying habits, as well as to contemplate how these habits impact on greater socio-political and environmental systems. I styled these object paintings in the manner of traditional still-lifes and alongside them, through portraiture and scene-sketching, I investigated an alternative sense of ‘owning’ the ephemeral experience of travel and meeting new people.
As a South African artist with experiences in the United States and Europe, how do your experiences of the art world in Istanbul compare?
Istanbul is an interesting hybrid – it appears to exist and operate across the barriers of what is considered ‘European’ and ‘Asian’ or ‘developed’ and ‘developing,’ supported and ignored, censored and celebrated. I think many of the challenges we face in the South African art world, such as government support and funding, are also prevalent here. It has been interesting to see how these challenges are met – in particular, the sense of active support for small initiatives and the number of young artists forming collectives. I’ve really enjoyed attending so many openings in Istanbul over the past few weeks – there is a tangible sense that people are interested and engaged with the smaller projects and initiatives. I also attended the Mamut Art Fair and after being part of THAT ART FAIR, an emerging artist fair in Cape Town, I can certainly say we are up to scratch on that front. I’d like to see more DIY-style collectives and collective group shows happening in Cape Town in spaces that are not just galleries.
Are there any artists or shows in Istanbul that stood out for you?
Definitely – I am totally in love with the paintings of Sabo Akdağ – we were lucky enough to visit his studio with maumau.I really enjoyed the sculptural pieces by Göksu Gül at Blok Art Space and Ali Kazma’s solo show ‘Timemaker’ at ARTER has been one of my favourites. It was a treat to see Robert Montgomery’s neon sign pieces at Istanbul 74. Kutluğ Ataman’s video piece Women Who Wear Wigs at the Istanbul Modern Museum stayed with me and the Alberto Giacometti exhibition at the Pera Museum was quite special.
And lastly, what are your plans for upcoming projects?
I am really excited to get back to working in the studio in Cape Town. I have been inspired and energised by my travels so I would like to keep the momentum in full swing. Obviously engaging with the art scene in Istanbul has given me great new reference frames for how to tackle issues back home, such as creative isolation and a lack of playful art spaces. I am part of a group show, ‘Current,’ which opens at Smith Studios in Cape Town shortly after I return and there are quite a few projects in the pipeline, including video-making and cross-pollinating art and the medical field in print. I would also like to spend some time in Johannesburg in the near future.