Interview: Olha Pryymak

How did you become an artist and choose the varied mediums you work in?

I am a London-based Ukrainian artist and herbal-tea maker who uses art as a tool for remembering and applying inter-generational knowledge in impactful ways. My current body of work originates in a fascination with folklore surrounding herbal tea and medicine. The interest was sparked as much by the ritualistic processes of growing, drying and consuming herbs as by their actual medicinal properties. This new area of focus has led to a dramatic expansion of the parameters of my painting practice. I recreate the elements of Eastern European, healing, tea-drinking rituals in the form of participatory performances. The exploration of the field started with a research trip to rural Latvia in 2015, followed by the expansion of the practice into relational and performance art during a residency at the Florence Trust in 2016.

Chrysanthemum, 2017, oil on canvas, 40x50cm

How has your art evolved over time?

The most wonderful experiences I have had with art were in dialogue. Early on I picked up on this connectedness and the energy generated in these dialogues. Tea performances give a heightened sense of presence. Because the best ideas germinate when there are guests for tea at the studio, the work becomes collaborative; when I have tea with another person, something in conversation sticks and gives an idea for the character image, or a gesture or the composition that embodies that idea. All the different cultural backgrounds of participants bring in certain boundaries against which I sound off and expand my ideas. This train of thought became the actual artwork I am now developing in sound, video and painting mediums. This shift of focus towards relational art and flexibility between mediums have been the most defining points in the development of my practice.

Tea Sessions at Ennismore, 2018, audience participation, 6 December 2018

In your paintings, especially in those produced during your Florence Trust residency and those showcased in the exhibition Silent Painting at the Tripp gallery, you often mix figures and portraits with floral imagery. Who are these figures and what do you explore in these paintings? Why are the context and background of the paintings left austere and empty?

Most artists ask themselves questions like ‘who am I?’, ‘where am I from?’, ‘what do I want to make my work about?’—all those natural, basic questions that you ask yourself anyway. So, my path into art evolved out of these questions.

The long lineage of women herbalists on my mother’s side of the family passed on to me the embodied knowledge of folk herbal medicine. My interest in it resurged in response to the emotional dissonance amplified by the news of the Russian invasion in Crimea and Donbas. The Eastern European peasant aesthetic, the reliance on the land for nourishment and healing, was very appealing to me. It transported me as far away from politics as one could get. In retrospect, it seemed like I had found a coping mechanism while searching for a safe space.

Lavender for depression, 2016, oil on canvas, 101.6х76.2сm

I went on to celebrate that lineage in a body of painted work, where I used myself and various plants that told each female predecessor’s story, marking birth, death and rebirth life events that those women before me went through. The austerity of the paintings’ background creates a theatrical-like stage on which I shine the light on these characters’ stories. To depart from the traditional portrait painting, with these works, I used herbs to nudge the audience to focus on less tangible space of feeling and imagination, allowing a degree of fictionalisation of these women before me. I painted my grandmother’s wedding, my great aunt’s apple orchard, but also literary and historical characters that helped me shape my appreciation for art and autonomy. So culture, nature, personal narrative, and self-invention merge together here. When the paintings encounter their audience, an opportunity for a totally new and unexpected relationship presents itself, offering a safe space for the viewer to project their own fears and desires. Thus, the paintings take on another life.

Hawthorn for insomnia, 2016, oil on canvas, 101.6х76.2сm

You have your unique art performances around the ritual of tea-making and preparing herbal remedies and beverages, as in your captivating performance, Make Me A Cup of Tea. Tell us what the performances entail?

I recreate the elements of Eastern European healing, tea-drinking rituals in the form of participatory performances. The performance has undergone several reiterations in the past two years. It took the form of studio-based conversations around a pot of tea, that later expanded into a sing-along around a campfire on the ground of the Florence Trust in 2016. In the beginning of 2018, I started to invite the audience to describe/recreate for me their personal rituals, showcasing the performance at SPACE London Creative Network in March. Kupala performances were held at Phytology, Bethnal Green Nature Reserve on the summer solstice in 2017 and 2018 and took a life of their own, influenced by the surrounding nature of the site. The most recent concept of the tea performances were held at the Old Sessions House. There I had private performances in which I served rosebay willowherb tea, formerly used as counterfeit green tea imported from Russia. It made the most sense to use that herb at the Georgian former courthouse, exploring the perceptions of tea drinking and wellness in the context of the imperial history in the last 200 years.

The performances aim at opening up a public conversation around the concepts of well-being and personal rituals. The audience participation is very important here. The performance creates a social environment in which participants come together to share an experience. I start with inviting one to three people for conversations around a cup of herbal tea. They 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’.

Make me a cup of tea, 2018, video projection, 101.6х76.2сm

What does the concept or act of ritual carry for your art? What are the significance and limitations of ‘ritual’?

Something as simple as making a cup of herbal tea before bed, or walking a dog can take on a ritual quality, complete with its own set of actions and objects loaded with meaning. With the tea performances I take something mundane and highlight it as important in an attempt to re-sensitize people to their everyday surroundings and to each other.  

By taking this intersectional approach, I blur the boundaries between the everyday and the spiritual. It gets misinterpreted sometimes. After the first Kupala performance in 2017 an article in the Ukrainian press ran a story on me, claiming that a Ukrainian artist in London had been upholding the pagan traditions. The audience who had attended the event for that reason surely had fun!

Kupala 2017

What is it that you negotiate with your audience in your performances?

When thinking about my performances I like to apply Ilya and Emilia Kabakov’s metaphor of theatre to installation art: the viewer is the actor, the artist is the director and the artwork is 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.

Who were the individuals who shaped your artistic imagination?

At some point I became obsessed with the Japanese tea ceremony and read a book by Etsuko Kato on women’s empowerment in modern Japan. She talks about the meaning of the tea ceremony for lay practitioners and how Japanese women use tea ceremonies for self actualisation, creating and expanding each other’s space in society. This social ritual made me think of my own family’s approach to drinking tea, of its cultural and medicinal value. That herbal knowledge was passively transferred to me, but not to my brother, as it was considered women’s work to forage, prepare and serve tea.

At that time, I came across Joseph Beuys’ self mythologising story of his flight from Crimea.  As Beuys famously said: ‘use what you have, don’t think you have to wait until you have found the perfect formulation’. This is how I settled on herbs and the tea performance as my artistic medium and the material that best describes me.

Where do you find inspiration?

There is always something new that keeps me curious. Looking back, it has mostly been reading that gets me going. Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita opened up the world of magical realism, then that was replaced by Angela Carter. James Frazer’s Golden Bough was one of my first glimpses into religion and culture. Currently, I am reading Emanuele Coccia’s The Life of Plants where he writes beautifully about ways of looking at our relationship with nature.

What are you working on at the moment? Any upcoming exhibitions or residencies?

I am going to spend a month in residency in Japan this summer which sounds really exciting. I am planning to bring there a reiteration of my performance. It would be fascinating to perform the elements of the Eastern European healing rituals in that specific cultural environment, as well as to explore ideas about communing practices with local artists. The work created during the residency will also go on show at gallery AIRY, Kofu.

Also, I am working on an artist zine which will contain snippets of conversations during one-to-one performances I held in the past year, set either in a gallery or at the studio. Besides the text, I am planning to include the paintings informed by these conversations.

Next month, I am showing with a group of artists at Arthouse1, where we developed the work through dialogue with one another. The show is titled This Instead of That and runs 7-30 March 2019. I’d like to invite your readers to join the informal tea performance I will be holding at the closing event, 4-6 pm on 30th March.


* IMAGES REPRODUCED BY KIND PERMISSION OF THE ARTIST. © OLHA PRYYMAK.

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