Evy Jokhova is a multi disciplinary artist whose main fields of study are social anthropology, architecture, philosophy and art. From drawing to sculpture, installation to sound, film to participatory events, Evy defies the status quo, allows herself to be inspired by life and passes those experiences down to others through visual and sensorial art. Coming from a multi-cultural background, Evy is a citizen of the world with an apetite for life. In Portuguese, Trema’s mother tongue, we say that someone who has traveled from place to place, met a variety of people and that lives a full life, is someone who “has world” (tem mundo). We believe this defines Evy well. Her work is that world expressed through her hands, making the artist “the lens where everything goes through”. Jokhova works on a project-by-project basis. Being her most recent “A NATURALLY FAKE SNAKE” exhibit, curated by Ana Cristina Cachola and in collaboration with Mané Pacheco, taking place in Balcony Gallery in Lisbon. Here, she goes into the study of symbolism of the snake, from the good-evil dichotomy, and the role of women in society.
We met up with Evy at her studio in Lisbon, where she kindly guided us through the exhibit works and chatted with us about her life, career, future and past projects.
Hi Evy, who are you? What do you do?
I am an artist. The work is multidisciplinary, and research based.
I work on a project-by-project basis exploring the relationship between people and architecture, and people and landscape. This format stems from my upbringing. I come from a multinational family that moved around a lot when I was a child. There was a constant readapting: renegotiating new houses, new landscapes, new streets, new towns, new town squares, new words, new languages. Because of this, a fascination with how we relate to each other and how these relationships are dictated by architecture and landscape, has stayed with me throughout.
The mediums I use are determined by my research. Since the framework is so broad, the work often takes many forms: sometimes formal sculpture that breaks out into larger installation settings, sometimes film, sometimes performance and photography. I frequently work with performers, creating objects that are to be performed or to be used. My last two exhibitions installed as theatre sets exploed the role of women in domestic architecture. Here the performer(s) engaged with objects reminiscent of domestic artifacts by moving them and performing in relationship to them.
A different example of my work is the film I made in Azerbaijan about the local people’s relationship with the mountains. My grandfather is from that region - the Caucasus. Here, I was inspired by a familiar story and the relationship with the mountains, where later I went on to do some anthropological research.
Can you elaborate about your origins?
I have Russian background, but my grandfather is from Dagestan, which is a small, autonomous regions in greater Russia on the border with Azerbaijan by the Caspian Sea. It is a mountainous region. For the last 60 years, he lived in Estonia with my grandmother who is Estonian of Russian heritage from central Russia.
Estonia is a very big part of my life. Growing up I spent most of my summer holidays there. My father’s side of the family is from Moscow. I was born in Switzerland as my parents were working there at the time. We returned to Moscow for some years when I was a small child. Afterwards we moved to Austria. I grew up in Austria and in many ways, I consider myself Viennese . As an adult I spent 15 years in London, so I identify with being a Londoner also. But my cultural foundations are Russian from the literature and stories that I grew up with and Russian is my first language.
Is your production and artistic direction influenced by these life experiences?
My past experiences help me negotiate and understand the world. When I think of the work I have made over the years, it often does not try to say anything, posing questions to the audience instead. Most of my work is of an observatory nature, it is anthropological and I am the filter that everything goes through. I form observations into questions that later position themselves as objects and material combinations. The unlikely compositions that arise attempt to create tensions, allowing the viewers to observe and pose the new questions to themselves and others.
Do you have other professional experiences?
I have had many different jobs in my 20’s: the cliché bar job as a student (I was a great barmaid and an awful waitress), with friends we ran a small curatorial collective with showing artworks in non-gallery settings and I worked as an assistant gallery manager. This was a good experience that helped me understand the business side of the art world that was not taught in art school. There are frequent complaints about the business side of things not being at art school, however, I feel this may also be a positive thing. At art school it is important to concentrate on figuring out ideas and afterwards, if there is enough drive to keep going, you make it work. It is a better approach than having a business model and fitting an art practice to that. At some point to support my practice I ran a business making set design for events and fashion. This was a chance job that started when I was trying to figure out ways of producing lightweight objects with very inexpensive materials and made display window decorations for a friend which led tome making backdrops and table decorations for fashion events, galas and style awards for a while. When I went back into education one of my former clients offered me a job in her modernist furniture design shop. This was a strong influence on my practice in that I often employ the domestic setting in my installations when experimenting with ways of displaying objects.
When my practice became more established I worked with institutions such as the British Library and Camden Art Center as an artist educator for children and through outreach programs with schools in less privileged areas of the city. I feel that everything I have ever done, has had some form of influence on my practice.
How did you end up in Lisbon ?
Through friends and by chance.
I wanted to leave London. The last few years before I left, my things lived there but I did not. I was traveling for two years from residency to residency spending three to four months at a time in different countries. I came back to London only to repack. All that traveling made me realise that I needed to move as London begane to feel to cumbersme and expensive in comparison with other places I visited. My heart was set on Istanbul and I initially wanted to move there. However, due to increasing political changes, my Turkish friends with sadness told me it was no longer a great idea. My second love is Athens. Its history and culture, the city’s air of antiquity and ancient Greek philosophy inspire my work greatly. So, I then briefly considered moving to Athens, however, being far away from London and economically unstable at the time this too seemed risky as I did not have a big support network there. I came to visit friends in Lisbon in the Autumn of 2018 and realised that like Istanbul and Athens, Lisbon too has seven hills and that I have a solid circle of friend’s here. In late February 2019 I packed up some thins and moved to Lisbon.
What do you identify yourself with, within the art world?
This is a good question, and a tricky one. Tricky in the sense that the art world is evolving all the time and so is my practice. I remember when I to study at the Royal College there were four pathways: Sculpture, Painting, Photography, and Printmaking. Just those four. I came from a background in painting, but left it to concentrate on artists’ books for a while. Printmaking may sound like the most dated from all those mediums, but it was the most open minded. Artists who worked with film, performance, and had cross-disciplinary practices joined the printmaking pathway because the department’s concept was not medium but a focus on the different forms of dissemination of art. I feel art practices in general are becoming more interdisciplinary as the world grows, changes and diversifies. For me to say what I identify myself with is tricky as what I identify myself with changes with time. This is the reason why I present my practice as research-based where the medium and presentation of the work is driven by research. What I do identify with is the notion that everything can be art.
While working, is there any specific practice that you find more enjoyable?
There is no one thing consistently. As everything evolves, my practice evolves slowly, as people do. With a research-driven practice, I am being directed into one medium or another, depending on which one is best suited to realise my ideas at the time. I get excited by each new project until its time is done. Many of my projects are recurrent and are revisited in cycles. When I was in Azerbaijan I was excited about making a film about an emotion, about love. Five years ago in London a year of my life was all about running a program of artists dinners in the form of social experiments. Food is also like a huge part of my life, and subsequently also of my practice.
Since I moved to Portugal, I became fascinated by local traditional crafts . I started working with clay and tapestry. For me learning, embracing change and accepting new influences is exciting. The project that I am currently developing is a return to food research. I am working on some experimental recipes, a lot of which are inspired by plants that grow wild on the Azores and simply spending time in nature again.
What themes inspire you?
Inspiration comes to me from life and the unexpected.
Often simple things that I encounter in daily life that make me stop and think: “What is this? Why is this happening? How come?” It can be a funny encounter with a friend, observing something completely absurd happen or seeing a beautiful stone that shows me things I've never seen before.
If the question was “what is one theme you pursue?” The answer would be…
Life. Simply, life.
Does nature play an important role in your life? And also, in your work?
It does, and it stems from the Soviet traditions I encountered in childhood. In Soviet Russia, historically and due to the frequent scarcity of food, there is a tradition of foraging. It is fun. It is something you do with your whole family. Springtime is a good season for garlic and edible flowers, the summertime brings a whole array of herbs and berries, late Summer into Autumn is mushroom season. Foraging is a huge thing! Culturally I mean. Members of my family can get very competitive as the activity lies somewhere between food gathering and sports. As a child I learnt that if I found the most beautiful porcini mushroom, the best thing to do would be to clear the grass away from it, make it more visible and try to lure my mother into that area. It may sound strange, but the inner child in my mother would be very happy if I found the biggest and most beautiful porcini, but she would be significantly happier if she had found it herself. Through nature I quickly learnt that certain compromises have to be made for social advancement.
As I mention above my current work is focusing on finding ways of bringing this traditional knowledge of the plant world back before it is lost completely in the younger generations. My aim is to bring the knowledge of finding their own food in the wild back to people through art events, dinners and performances.
Is up cycling a part of your work? And if yes, how?
In a way. Some things are made by hand, others outsourced, and some are combined with found materials. I have built up a collection of found objects that have traveled with me from country to country biding their time. For example, up cycling can be in the form of a stone that I find or something from a building shop. I remember I bought sponges in Lithuania and used them later for an installation in London. In Azerbaijan, I was accidentally gifted a piece of toast. It came in a French-style toaster that was taken out of storage where it had been for two years. When I opened the toaster, inside was perfectly preserved piece of bread delicate grid marks on it. It was strangely beautiful and reminded me of ancient artifacts. In fact to me it was an artifact, so I made a small cardboard box to transport it safely and brought it back with me first to London, then to Lisbon. Eventually it became part of a sculpture.
Are there symbols meaningful for you, can you name one?
There are several symbols that are meaningful to me and the dictionary of symbols is something that holds prominent space on my bookshelf. In my current exhibition at Balcony gallery, two symbols are present. One is the snake, often associated with witchcraft, biblical themes but also with medicine, wisdom and healing (as is still seen on some Western pharmacy signs) . The snake as a symbol of wisdom is present across many culture, in Latin cultures it is primarily associated with power and knowledge. The other symbol in the exhibition is the ensō, from Japanes caligraphy. In Zen, ensō is a circle that is hand-drawn in one or two uninhibited brushstrokes to express a moment when the mind is free to let the body create. The ensō born out of Japanese minimalist aesthetics symbolizes absolute enlightenment, strength, elegance, the universe, and mu (the void).
Do you think there is a connection between symbology, imagination and real life?
I think so. I hold a deep fascination for Japanese culture where every action is imbued with symbolism, from the ritual of one simple gesture to the navigation of space as a whole performance. For example in Japanese tradition one does not use wrapping paper, instead every gift is wrapped in a cloth using different folding techniques depending on the shape of the object. When the gift is presented, there is a symbolism to the gift giving – the gift is unwrapped and the wrapping cloth is returned to the gift giver. There is a cyclical sense of recycling to this. The action itself is the symbol. I compare this gift giving ritual to the concept of the ensō – where the symbolism is invested in the gesture of the artist. The energy that is given to make one circle and the form that holds all of this energy. For me symbolism is part of the imaginary, the spiritual and emotional simultaneously. Some symbols are over commercialized and in this lose their emotional element. When we lose the emotional connection with symbols they stop holding validity. They lose their ability to give us meaning and through this their agency and energy as well.
What are your favorite creations?
My favourite works are the results of collaborations. The sculpture that ended up having the toast from Azerbaijan incorporated into it is one of them. It consists of a handmade cushion with tassels on a steel frame that act as a supporting structure for this piece of toast. Another is a sculpture that I made in collaboration with a coder and a composer. The sculpture had motion sensors and speakers in it, and was also on wheels. Depending on how people walked around it, it would react with different sounds. The idea was to play with the concept of “control" - who controls who: does the audience control the sculpture by making it play certain sounds? Or does it control our movements by making us dance and perform specific movements, in order for it to produce sounds? I further commissioned a dancer, Flora Wellesly-Wesley to do a performance piece with the sculpture. This performance was special to me because the dancer did something very touching. She designed the performance in such a way so that she remained in the silent zone of the sculpture for half of the act, where no sensor could feel her and there was complete silence. Flora reenacted the moment of meeting a partner, whether it be a dance partner, a potential romantic partner, or a new friend for the first time. She giggled and acted vulnerable, coming close to the sculpture and then instantly running away. All of this was performed, before Flora gave into the soundscape and danced with the sculpture.
What memorable responses have you had to your work?
There have been many sweet gestures from letters to emails or things said in person by friends and strangers alike. I remember a lady who came to my studio once returned 15 minutes after her visit with flowers and said: “I really would like to give these to you. Because you made my day special.” I meet a lot of people through my work, some of these encounters hold special meaning. One of the most significant responses to me are when people start following my practice, travelling to my exhibitions from abroad, and really become part of my journey over the years.
Is artistic life lonely?
Yes, and no. For some artists it can be as many days are spent in the studio in solitude. My practice fluctuates and I do not feel it to be lonely. The nature of my work brings the opportunity to travel and meet people. Through travel and residencies new connections are made, the more complex thing is maintaining these connections as often they are with people I might not see again for a long time. As with everything it is important to have a balance, in this case between work and personal life as art has a tendency to be all consuming.
What do you pursue?
I follow my intuition - the most important thing is to keep making exciting work that is interesting to others and to myself. I am developing my practice to do more public projects in order to make the work more accessible and bring it to a wider audience.
What is your favorite place?
It is a toss up between Azerbaijan and Japan. One, a culture that is familiar to me through my grandfather, few language barriers which permits travel to remote places and integration with locals, landscapes like nothing I've ever seen – from lunar craters to the red slopes of Mars, and a atmosphere of haphazard encounters. In Azerbaijan moved around in a car that was half Skoda half Opel, driving on a mountain road that has nearly half the car’s width. This speaks to me. I like that aspect of danger as it is a gentle reminder that I only have one life. Japan, speaks to the other half of me, the half which enjoys the quiet contemplation of subtle beauty. On my first visit to Japan I had the privilege to see Japan through the eyes of a local (curtesy of a friend). Numerous new avenues for my practice and for the way I would like to live my life opened up after this trip.
Do you have a favorite place in Lisbon?
Tapada das Necessidades, especially the part with the cacti.
How would you describe Portuguese people?
Friendly! It is the people that make the country and it was the people who were instrumental in my decision to stay.
Do you have a Portuguese favorite dish?
Help us name:
- A book.
The Eyes of The Skin – Architecture and the Senses a wonderful book by Juhani Pallasmaa
- 2. A movie?
Strangers in Paradise directed by Jim Jarmush
- A song.
- Who do you admire, and why.
There are many people whom I admire including my parents. But if I had to name one, I would say Grace Jones because to me she is utterly enigmatic.
What makes you angry? And why? What pisses you off?
In the winter, the wind.
Are you a collector of anything you don't use in your art?
Yes, artist books and books in general. I am a collector of books to the point that there are books that I have bought but not yet read.
Can you name three objects that you wouldn't live without?
A ton of tomatoes, a library and an attic.
What is the best piece of advice you've been given?
One piece of advice that I found incredibly significant was from my dissertation supervisor at university. Upon reading the first draft of my essay, he said: “You write very well and your topic is interesting. You will get top marks for this essay if you continue this way, but I have been in this job for 20 years I've read it all and little will surprise me. Do something you really want, write how you want, do not comply to standard essay writing rules unless you want to.” I then wrote my dissertation as a poem and my professor’s advice I related to life in general. This piece of advice is as relevant to me now as it was then. Accepting that everything has been done several times before and that many of us have the skills and the capacity to do something well, I continually question what is necessary for me to do and how to travel my own path.
What role does the artist have in society?
In my opinion it is to make people question things. The role of the artist in society is to present alternative points of view, question life and the status quo.
Evy holding a piece she made of cement and a Trema bracelet in steel
The exhibition “UMA COBRA NATURALMENTE FALSA” or “A NATURALLY FAKE SNAKE” can be visited at Balcony Gallery from Tuesday to Saturday, between 2 pm and 7:30 pm until July 31st and in late August by appointment: email@example.com
Find more of Evy’s work here.
Interview and photographs by Vicente Leitão