Cecilia Granara (b. 1992) lives and works in Paris. Interview by Maria Owen.
MO: Hi Cecilia, Thanks for agreeing to chat with me. Can you tell me a bit about your background and what led you to your current artistic practice?
CG: I was born in Jeddah (Saudi Arabia) in 1991, but I am Italian. As a family unit of four, we moved every four to five years from country to country due to my parents’ work as diplomats. After Jeddah we lived in Rome, Mexico City, Chicago, then Rome again. I ended up studying at university in London and then in Paris. I decided to try to “settle” down in Paris… but as soon as I was given the opportunity, I applied for a scholarship to pursue part of my masters at Hunter College in New York.
Studying at Hunter was a precious time for my work… I delved into reading and writing and poetry like I hadn’t in many years. This brought my painting to surprising places. The writings of Maggie Nelson, Chris Kraus , Claudia Rankine and Rumi (!) somehow conglomerated and gave me the courage to share ecstasy, pain, in the spirit of story telling through self-fiction.
But when you tell stories through paintings, the sense of narrative is different than with writing. I like that. I like the confusion and the complexity of interpretation. Images act as symbols and move us deeply, at an almost unconscious level. It’s up to us to make meaning (or not) and this is different depending on what your cultural baggage is. Someone with a Euro-centric iconographic background will relate differently to someone with one from East-Asia, for example. But the two find ways to communicate and figure each other out. I think this mirrors the multitude of narratives that complicate and make up life.
MO: Congratulations on your recent shows in Milan and Paris! It’s quite an accomplishment to have been in so many international exhibitions. Do you have any advice for artists just starting out?
CG: Thank you for your celebratory words! I am especially pleased with the show in Milan, curated by Maria Chiara Valacchi, as I left Italy at the age of 17 and this was my first solo show there, over ten years later. The opening was cancelled because of COVID, but it was the project I am most proud of to date. Even though it was barely seen, I had shared a strong creative moment with my gallerists at Studiolo Project and the handful of people who did see it. I made a large installation wall-painting of a naked, rainbow, giantess-woman diving across the gallery, and it was an affirmative moment for me. People seemed to connect to her and to the space, and this was important for me.
As for giving advice, I am not sure about accepting such a position as it would imply that I have some sort of expertise… I still feel relatively young to be dishing out advice confidently. But I am happy to offer what I tried to focus on in the last decade, and what I learned from my own mistakes and failures.
For anyone starting out, I would say be very, very patient. Work hard, but don’t stress yourself out with excessive pressure to put shows on and be immediately visible. With the advent of instagram we have a tool to share everything: that’s important and I encourage sharing work (i am often contacted through instagram to be invited to shows) but don’t spend too much time on Instagram. Do not substitute reading an article, book, or review with spending time cruising on Instagram. Read articles and critique, go to shows and talk to people in person (if and when possible, seeing the current conditions with COVID). The experience of work in person is completely different.
When you talk about your work, be honest and simple about it. Do not use language that doesn’t belong to you. If your friends invite you to exhibit in a show, make sure you return the support down the line. Always go to your friends’ openings and support them. If you feel your work (or work like yours) is not being represented, organize your own shows! Visit the galleries that interest you (not the giants but the smaller ones that support emerging artists) and be genuinely interested in what their propositions are and what their selection of artists are making. If you want to learn about running your own studio, assist an artist. You are part of a context: interact with it, take responsibility for it, help shape it.
MO: One of the things I find so magnetic about your paintings – especially your more recent work – is their dreamlike, spiritual element. This quality and the rich marks/colours remind me of illuminated manuscripts – mysterious! Where do these visions come from? And how do you go about realising them?
CG: Dreams are interesting to me because they are packed with imagery that we don’t control. The messages we tell ourselves through dreams are coded, almost allegorical. They are often emotionally packed, too. I see parallels between the spaces that we dream in and the spaces painting can offer.
I have studied and looked at a lot of Italian Medieval and Renaissance art! So you must have picked up on that. I am extremely drawn to art in religious spaces of all cultures. I traveled to India twice and each time I was blown away by the way architecture and art are constructed to impact our bodies, put us into trances, ease us, make us wonder. Flowers, incense, rituals, prayers…at the age of 13 I stopped believing in the Catholic God that I had been educated to believe in, but I didn’t stop looking at the art that religion produced and respecting our need for rituals, and our need to face existential questions throughout different cultures.
I think making art is in part a response to our collective fear of death. We can face our mortality and use our painful consciousness of death to transform our day-to-day into an aesthetic experience that consoles us and others around us. Recently I have been focusing on goddesses, researching the images of women deities spanning matriarchal cultures as far back as Neolithic Eras. I am thinking of ways to infuse the magic of these objects into my image-bank.
The paintings emerge from this day-to-day activity of writing, living my ordinary life, sketching, trying to draw and find images that correspond to the feelings and thoughts I am going through.
If I feel that what I am drawing is synchronized with what I am feeling, it will feel honest, and that is attractive even if it’s not fully comprehensible. Life is so sad and difficult, I always have my spectators in mind and try to think of ways that I can share moments of joy. Recently i’ve been thinking about how to depict violence. This can be tricky as I don’t want to contribute to the already incredibly rich repertoire of violent images that exist in the world and sadden us further. But I believe it could be cathartic to question who tells the stories of violence and how: whether painting can transform violence into a cathartic, healing experience.
MO: You say that you “see parallels between the spaces that we dream in and the spaces painting can offer.” I think many people can connect to this. Dreams and paintings don’t have to “make sense” in the same way some other environments do. Can you tell me a little about the allegories of your dreams and how they might show up in your work?
CG: For one reason or another, we keep so many emotions and personal stories suppressed and untold to the world or to ourselves. I think dreams try to give us information about these secrets, and their form is very peculiar.
What I find so fascinating about dreams is that even within your own subconscious, meaning will be delivered to you in an allegorical form. It almost seems as though we are given a choice: you can sew the elements together into a narrative that makes sense, or you can choose to see the elements as random, dispersed, meaningless units.
I don’t directly paint the allegories in my dreams. But I am inspired by how images and meaning are constructed in dreams. Here is an example. Last month I was participating in four group shows and simultaneously going through a very sad and painful break up.
I dreamt that a thin candle was floating in mid-air against a bright blue, luminous sky. A little cloud with a «stressed» face emoji was hovering just underneath the candle. There was a small rainbow arching above the scene. I woke up very suddenly, thinking quite clearly : if the candle burns out, the wax will drip onto the emoji face and hurt it.
I thought about the symbols. The candle represented me; the rainbow was all my creative endeavors, the emoji was signaling my emotional state. It was a moment where my work was bright and energetic, but I was exhausted and raw. The dream was an allegory warning me not to « burn out », like the candle.
Everyday expressions and images (like emojis or the phrase « burning out » ), can pop up in our subconscious like that, and give birth to these image/emotion collages. Poetry works in a similar way, unlocking the deep ways that image and language influence each other. When I am painting or drawing a composition, I can enter a very particular state of attentiveness. It’s not like sleeping, but there’s something about the way I pour together the images that is tangent to dreaming. I make choices … but I’m not completely in control of them either. I will be working on a surface or a shape and what I would venture to call intuition or emotion will drive me to make decisions. It’s a different type of intelligence. I am clearly awake, but there is a part of me sourcing composition and color from somewhere I can’t quite name. That’s why I make a parallel with dream spaces. We experience them, but can’t necessarily explain them. It’s all quite mysterious.
At the end of the day what this all means to me is that I can be quite surprised by my own paintings. It also means painting can show you things, or bring you places that you aren’t necessarily ready to understand. This can be sometimes confusing or painful. I like to joke that my paintings are smarter than me, in that I don’t always have explanations for them, but I know on some level they are full of truth(s).
MO: Also – your note on the abundance of violent images is very apt – which stories of violence are you particularly interested in rewriting?
CG: What we would call “rape culture” today, has been a genre in art for so long that many have been desensitized to its content. The stories of rape have been mythologized, have been painted so sublimely, have been repeated so often, that the content in rape scenes goes almost unrecognized in some works of art. For more on this you can consult Jerôme Delaplanche’s book, Ravissement: Les représentations d’enlèvements amoureux dans l’art, de l’Antiquité à nos jours. He traces the subject of the kidnapping of women right before they are raped, (devilishly re-named « ravissement » or « ravishments » !) from antiquity to contemporary art.
I’ve been making some drawings about the experience of rape from a woman’s point of view, but as you can imagine it’s difficult, painful, very challenging, enraging, and very sad. In terms of responsibility towards the emotional wellbeing of spectators, I don’t know where that places me. I might be triggering some people. But I might be offering an experience of catharsis and transformation for others. It’s like when I am in front of Miriam Cahn’s work. Such violence! Yet I feel liberated. I am glad a woman’s voice is screaming for all the silent ones.
A very different type of violence I have been thinking of representing is giving birth. I haven’t given birth yet but from what I read and hear it seems to be quite a violent, intense corporeal experience. There have been many representations of pregnant women of course, so many our eyes could fall out, but not as many depicting the specifics of birth: crowning, pushing out the baby, umbilical chords…i want to see more! So I should make more.
MO: Finally, what is next for you? Tell me a little about your current work and what to keep an eye out for.
CG: My next big project is a solo stand at the FIAC with Exo Exo, an artist run space in Paris that has been supporting my work for a year now. Everything I’ve spoken about in this interview is the material that I’ve been simmering in. I hope to be able to use painting as a transformative force that addresses anger and violence and beauty. I will also be participating in my first institutional show curated by Ekaterina Shcherbakova at Art Center of Parc Saint Léger, and an exciting group show at Derrouillon gallery on the canons of female beauty in November! I am looking forward to seeing my work in those contexts.
Discover more of Cecilia’s work