Artist of the Month: Olha Pryymak

We are delighted to introduce January’s Artist of the Month, Olha Pryymak. Olha is a Ukrainian-born, London-based painter. Her body of work originates from a fascination with ancient folk medicine inspired by her research trips to rural Latvia. Acting as an alchemist, Olha aims to explore the therapeutic effects of the application of paint on canvas, incorporating tactility, dynamism of surface and the psychological effects of colour.

Olha is also the first artist to take part in the ARTIQ in Residence programme, a new programme by ARTIQ which utilises the power of art and artists to offer unforgettable and unique experiential moments for hospitality guests.

Starting in November and lasting six weeks, Olha’s Tea Sessions provided a subversive take on the traditional afternoon tea, with guests at Ennismore’s latest development, Sessions House invited to join Olha for an intimate exploration on the themes of dialogue, memory and wellness each week.

The residency culminated in an exclusive evening event hosted by ARTIQ at Sessions House, bringing together artists, creatives and friends of ARTIQ and Ennismore for an evening of art and experience featuring an immersive installation, a choral performance and an exclusive Silent Pool gin cocktail developed by Olha and ARTIQ.

We sat down with Olha to reflect on the residency and to find out more about the ideas and inspiration behind her work. Read the interview in full below and catch Olha taking over the ARTIQ Instagram channel from the 28th January – 1st February as we get an exclusive look behind the scenes. Follow ARTIQgram for more

Tell us about your journey as an artist up until now
I received social-realist foundation-level art education in Ukraine. Representational social realism education instilled the need to see what I have to paint in front, to feel it.  So when I first moved to London, making one little painting of my surroundings nearly every day helped me become grounded in the place, make it my own.

I have taken on residences at SERDE in Latvia, Dumfries House in Scotland and Florence Trust in London, which helped me get back into dedicated art making, and gave the taste for the growth and development within a community. The participatory performances were developed and tested during these residencies, and in collaboration with SPACE London Creative Network. Various reiterations of the practice were also held at Phytology, Bethnal Green Nature Reserve (2017-18) and at the ARTIQ Residency at Sessions House (2018). My paintings, informed by these performances, have exhibited at Alice Herrick Gallery (2016), The Royal Academy of Arts, London (2017), Lewisham Art House and Tripp Gallery, London (2018).

What drew you to working with herbs?
Baba Кozubyha, my mother’s grandmother knew the way of using the plants for medicinal and practical magic purposes. Her help was revered and feared and her personality came across as a slightly mischievous one. My grandmother followed her footsteps, using medicinal herbs as first aid – hospital visits were reserved for dire emergencies. My mother received her education in forest management and continued the relationship with herbs through her work and some of that knowledge passively transferred to me, but not to my brother, as it was considered women’s work to forage,  prepare and serve those remedies.

That embodied passive handheld knowledge resurrected in response to the emotional dissonance, amplified by the news of Russian invasion in Crimea and Donbas, general increase of speed of life, stress – in sum – everything that conspires against human connection. After analysing this, I guess I looked for a coping mechanism, searching for a safe space from which to recover and start over, similar to what is going on in the societies under distress, loosing faith in medicine and turn to witch doctors for help. This was how I stumbled onto the work of relational art in general and Joseph Beuys’ self mythologizing story of his flight from Crimea.  As Beys famously said: ’use what you have, don’t think you have to wait until you have found the perfect formulation.”  So I settled on herbs as my artistic medium and the material that best describes me.

Where do you find your objects/references? 
Because my work originates in a fascination with folklore surrounding herbal tea and medicine, I start making the artwork by having a cup of tea. Specifically, I recreate the elements of Eastern European healing tea drinking rituals in the form of participatory performances. The participants bring along their stories and cultural experiences. Recipes of favourite blends of herbal remedies are shared and photos and videos are snapped. I like calling these meetings over tea – ‘social sculptures’.  These encounters are recorded and serve as a launch pad for the consequent sound, video and painting work.

Do you collect/have an archive of material you can turn to? 
All the photos, sound recordings and videos are stored on my phone. My phone is the extension of my brain.  There is also the herbal tea cupboard and my mom’s attic too.

Why do you use the medium of paint?
My work is conceptually based but I choose painting to get my concept across. Both herbalism and painting imply mixing together the natural materials of herbs and water, as well as pigments and oils for transformational effect.  I aim to create a therapeutic and revelatory effect through the application of paint on canvas. Looking back to prehistoric hunter-gatherer societies–in particular, through the theories of cultural historian Joseph Campbell that tribal people executed cave paintings to represent situations they hoped would come to pass – I am evoking contemporary painting as a shamanistic ritual.  I am exploring painting’s ability to transform and heal as well as its capacity to affect its viewer.

How does nature influence your work?
My work focuses on the reconnection with oneself and others around. Without sounding too philosophical: with every breath we  take we confirm ourselves being a part of nature, participating in the greater ecosystem by taking and giving back. The metaphor of herbs highlights this relationship, bringing in the concept of interrelatedness front and central.

Who are the characters in your painting? Why do you choose them?
The consistent feature of my characters is that they are females in a state of action, resolving a conflict, etc. My characters are the representations of inner spiritual and physical needs, actively searching for the ways of dealing with their fears and desires. In a way each painting plays out a scenario. Because painting has such a rich and prominent historic value, I often employ the female archetypes often portrayed in painting, like Flora, Mary Magdalene, Hildegard von Bingen. I attempt to interpret them in the contemporary context, highlighting the elements of their story that respond to the current struggles and desires.

Tell us about your experience of holding the Tea Sessions
This was the third or fourth reiteration of the tea performances that I have done. Because of the unique history of Grade II*-listed Sessions House I decided to offer a subversive afternoon tea served with Ivan-chai/Rosebay Willowherb – which in Victorian times was exported from Eastern Europe to England as counterfeit of regular green/black tea.

I served a combination of the herbs brought from Eastern Europe, as well as those foraged in Hackney Wick, as this herb also happens to be the county flower of London. This narrative aimed at opening up the conversations about reverse colonialism, emotional geographies, ritual and perceptions of wellbeing.

Participants brought up their stories and cultural experiences. Recipes of favourite blends of herbal remedies were shared and conversations recorded. These encounters served as a launch pad for the consequent sound sculptures and video works that I made for the closing event and installation. The comment from ARTIQ’s Patrick saying that the performances “created an emotional resonance on the part of guests” really made my day.

Do you have any rituals?
I have asked this question so many times to other people. My day is punctuated with several personal tea ceremonies, forms of plant-based self-medication. First cup of the morning is the black tea, French perfumed one or – if I run out – the Turkish one from the market. When I get to the studio I make myself a cup of strong coffee. Afternoon slog is usually fixed by a pot of Rosebay Willowherb, which possesses stimulating properties without the aftereffects of the caffeine hit. If I am around the house in the afternoon, I drink sencha from Postcard Teas. At bedtime I mix a few herbs I have at hand in an old jailbreak style yellow teapot, mint and thyme usually the base of the blend plus anything else that catches fancy – we call it in the family our babushka tea, or “I-am-tired-and-going-to-bed” tea.

Tell us about some of the stories you discovered in the sessions
I got really touched by the story about the eucalyptus tree in one of my participants’ Swedish grandmother’s bathroom. The shower would run and the tree emit its pungent smell. I ran to the nearest plant shop to get myself some eucalyptus and tested it out in my bathtub. The experience indeed was sheer bliss. The painting informed by this story is still one of my favourites as it makes me relaxed by just looking at it.

What do you enjoy about artist performances? What is the challenge?
Audience participation is very important for me. I pick up on connectedness and energy generated in these dialogues. Because best ideas germinate when there are guests for tea at the studio, the work becomes collaborative; when I have a tea with a person, something in conversation sticks and gives an idea for the character image, or a gesture or the composition that embody that idea. All of the different cultural backgrounds of my collaborators also bring in certain boundaries against which I sound off, validate and expand my ideas. This train of thought becomes the actual artwork I am developing in sound, video and painting work.

What do you think artist performances can bring to people?
When thinking about my performances I like to apply an Ilya and Emilia Kabakov metaphor: compare installation art to a theatre where the viewer is the actor, the artist is the director and the artwork the stage. I hope to create with my work a stage-like environment where the stage is the threshold between the mundane and the transformational, bringing poetry into daily life.

What’s the last exhibition you saw that made an impact on you?
I was in awe with the Oscar Wilde Temple at Studio Voltaire. The artists McDermott & McGough created an immersive work of art that celebrated Wilde and contemporary LGBTQ+ martyrs and those lost to the AIDS crisis. Serving as a safe space, it was made available to celebrate marriages, memorials, etc. It’s still open until April, well worth the trip.

What artists have influenced your practice?
Working with this metaphor and my process I have discovered a massive array of artists that are preoccupied and employ similar devices, specifically Lygia Clark, Ernesto Neto, and Joseph Beuys.  But it’s the writing that makes greatest influence, Bulgakov was my original crush, and is now replaced by Angela Carter.

Tell us about your dream project
Ultimately I would love to set up a studio and project/residency space that would be available to artists for free for a set period of time to test new ideas and showcase their work.

What’s next?
At the moment I am lining up venues to bring a reiteration of my tea performances to Asia in the coming year. It would be fascinating to sound off the elements of Eastern European healer rituals against Chinese and Japanese audiences.