If brightly contrasting colours, cats, and intimidating female glares appeals to you then Noemi Conan is the artist for you. The Polish figurative artist’s debut exhibition is now on show at the David Kovats gallery in London. Get there before it closes on the 1st of December! Noemi spoke to us about growing up in Poland during the shift to capitalism, her ‘squatting slavs in tracksuits’ identity, her experience in London and Glasgow as a migrant, and much more.
Hello Noemi! First of all I’d like to say congratulations on your debut exhibition at the David Kovats gallery. How are you feeling? Where are you speaking to us from?
Hello! I’m feeling good, thank you. And I’m currently in bloody London.
So the show is called Midnight Sun. I read that this was an allusion to the white nights of the North of Europe when the sun shines for 24 hours for one day. How would you say this source of inspiration manifests in the paintings in your collection?
I only started painting aged 30, before which I spent a lot of my time in the usual, low-skilled jobs that migrants do. I left Poland aged 21 and travelled around Europe, spending a year in Norway working as a flight attendant for RyanAir - legends.
During this time I was based in Oslo where it's not quite 24 hours of sunshine, but the sun would set at 11pm, it would be dark for two hours and then it would be bright again. I didn’t mind the winters so much, I guess being from the Northern Hemisphere you acclimatise to going to work in the dark and coming home in the dark. But having sunlight both day and night in the summer was extreme and really messed with my head. Over the summers I became rather neurotic but I didn’t really think about it much until later when I saw an Edvard Munch exhibition with those weird green skies. They are usually winter-scapes but the sickliness of the sky immediately transported me back to that crazy year in Norway where I wasn’t sleeping because I didn’t know how to deal with the sunlight continually blaring through the windows. It's a weird environment to be thrown into.
Am I correct in believing that your favourite artist is Edvard Munch (a Norwegian painter - for those that don’t know - perhaps most famous for his work The Scream)? If you could raise him from the dead and ask him one question, what would it be? Why?
While he is definitely one of my favourite artists it's a weird one because I feel like I shouldn’t like him. Like as a person I feel like I should have cancelled him a long time ago. He’s a difficult man. A lot of his work contains slightly demonic portrayals of women. I also quite like making women menacing, but when a man does it it suggests he has some unresolved problems. Although I must say I do think that making artwork is a better solution than being mean to ladies in the street. I guess he was just trying to funnel his pain and lack of connection to people through painting. Trying to work it out.
I find it weirdly reassuring looking at painters like Munch who revisit certain themes in their work, certain poses, or they repaint the same painting over and over again. I feel like there’s so much pressure on making new work all the time now, especially in the age of Instagram where you constantly post all of your work. It's nice to see that you can be a successful painter and paint 17 identical pieces again and again across the span of your 60 year career and it doesn't mean you don't have ideas! It's a process, in terms of Munch, of him working out his inner turmoil. I think for me at least, painting has been a massive help in dealing with my problems with depression or being a foreigner in a country that I don’t necessarily understand. People see me as white, without a thick accent, and they don’t think that I could be having cultural anxiety.
So anyway, if I was to ask him one question I’d probably want to know what his favourite dessert was! (laughs)
It would be something completely unrelated to art. I feel like he was such a strange guy, so much of his work comes from his very singular perspective on life that lots of people make fun of. I think I would try to encourage him to get out of his own head and try to make him focus on something nice for once! To focus on the sweeter things in life, like tarts.
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I understand that you migrated to the UK from Poland. Which city in Poland is home to you? Could you tell us a little bit about your experience being an immigrant? What was the biggest challenge? And how has this subsequently influenced your production of art?
I was born in Warsaw but raised in a small town in the West of Poland called Boleslawiec, also known as Bunzlau, which is quite close to the German-Czech border and is known for its distinctive ceramic decoration. It's a small town, probably 40,000 to 50,000 inhabitants. I was a teenager when Poland joined the EU and quite a lot of people left. I remember it as a town with just children, old people, and single mums because everyone else who could’ve left to work somewhere that paid better, did so as soon as it was possible. I had left Poland on occasions when I’d go to work in other European countries over the summer and then return home for school or university during the academic year. I would spend all of my summers in the Netherlands or Germany, working picking strawberries or tulips, or working in horrible cafes. But I officially moved away in 2015.
In terms of how this influenced my art, I started seeing the country I came from through more of a nostalgic lens. It has changed so much since I left and now when I return it’s almost unrecognisable to me. I grew up during the change from communism to capitalism which was quite a weird, surreal time especially since I was so far from the city centres where people knew more about what was going on. I feel like if you grew up in a small town in Poland in the 90s you felt quite forgotten and confused most of the time, no one really addressed the issues we were all experiencing. And now it's strange to go back because people who were children in the 90s don’t really have the negative connotation towards communism or socialism because we were babies; we don’t remember it. It can be quite frustrating talking to your parents or grandparents who have more of an experience of it and have a more negative reaction. Young people don’t have much of an association, however I still remember growing up and seeing the remnants of the previous system crumbling around me.
It's hard to explain my emotions when I arrived here in the UK. Polish people have this desire for their country to be perceived as normal. I remember my mother’s happiness that communism would lift Poland up to the heights of the West. ‘We’re going to be a normal country!’ she would say. ‘We’re not going to be weird anymore. We are going to rejoin the West. We’re going to have Disney Land and Coca Cola and everyone’s going to wear jeans all the time!’. It was strange coming to the UK and interacting with people who really don’t see Poles as normal. I have had people ask me if we have electricity, if we know how light switches work, if we have bears in Warsaw. I mean we do have wild boar but not bears! (laughs)  It was weird realising first-hand that there is this othering of Eastern Europeans in the West.
Polish people pride themselves on being Central European. ‘We’re not like those Eastern Europeans to the East of us!’ they would say. There were two ways that people my age would respond to this divide. One was to act super normal. To remind ourselves that Poland was a Western Christian country that speaks English really well. I full-heartedly embraced the other option. The Eastern European label. I dressed up in tracksuits, did loads of squats, started listening to hard bass music and going to raves in the woods. I embraced the squatting slavs in tracksuits iteration of pan-slavism!
In the David Kovats Press Release for Midnight Sun, it mentioned that your paintings draw inspiration from both communist and capitalist propaganda. How do the politics of your home country of Poland align with that which you have experienced here in the UK? Could you elaborate on these influences and give us an example of propaganda in your work?
It's hard to point out specific points of inspiration. There’s definitely a socialism part of it in the really strong, chunky, working women on tractors getting stuff done. In my experience, this girl-boss-you-can-do-it attitude brought with it very American neo-liberal ideologies that everyone has to depend on themselves, be strong and sometimes a bit selfish. This ideology got the older generation, that of my parents, really excited. The idea of communal property and spaces became quite strange for them. ‘Why would you care how the park looks if you could just have a beautiful house to yourself if you just work longer?’.
While I like the iconography of the girl boss, I don’t like the connotations that she must be this woman who succeeds in a cut-throat rat-race against other women in which you need to fight to the top. Growing up in a small town people usually help each other and that’s how they succeed. I wouldn’t be in London if I didn’t have the engagement of my community that I come from. My mum basically sacrificed herself for me to be in here, my aunt really supported me, and my cousins helped me out too. I come from a really big family where everyone’s really supportive, not in a monetary way but they provided me with a lot of mental support. I would like to have my work slightly ridicule this girl-boss idea. As a person from Eastern Europe, I used to get irritated when people would only mention social realism when talking about art from Poland because that was only a little blip in our art history; we also have modern art. The times when artists could only make working class posters ended in 1956!
For me, doing figurative work was a big deal. Everyone in my family thinks that real art is abstract art; they have slightly suprematist views. They think ‘Kandinsky! That’s real art! Why are you painting a lady? That's not modern art Noemi!’. But there you go. 
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Similarly to you, I also have spent a large part of my life both in Glasgow and London, so I’m curious to know how you compare the different cultures you have experienced. What you would say is the biggest difference between the experience of art school in Glasgow in comparison to that of Poland?
Glasgow was more accommodating for me. I went to London first and then moved to Scotland which was a little bit like going home in a lot of ways because I feel like Scottish people are a lot more supportive. The Glasgow art scene is not as much of a race to the top as in London, it feels more like a vertical power structure where people help each other. There’s fewer opportunities there than London I guess, but it's far more approachable. For example, you can go to the Ingleby Gallery in Edinburgh and meet the person who runs it but you’re never going to meet Larry Gagosian!
In some ways Glasgow has the same benefits and suffers from the same problems as the Polish art scene. When I was in Poland I wasn’t really interested in making art myself. Perhaps the main difference between the UK and Poland is that in Poland there is much more pressure on technical proficiency. If you’re trying to get into art school in Poland people will just tell you that your drawing isn’t good enough. There are people who apply over and over again for years and keep getting rejected because their pencil drawing of a foot isn’t 100%. It retains a quite old, academic artistic focus. The UK is more interested in ideas while Eastern European schools are more focussed on perfect execution.
That being said I do see some value in having a bit more of a structured approach, which I missed a bit in Scotland. It was so free that it became almost stifling: you can do anything and so you end up not doing anything. It's terrifying because you could get away with being in your room for two months and justify it by saying you’ve done research on your depression or something. I guess there’s no perfect system. But the Polish art system would never accept me, I’ll show them now!
Your 2023 piece Woman’s Summer is a personal favourite. I especially like how the subjects are sat in a commanding position; taking up space and asserting power - woman-spreading, if you will. What do you want your audience to take away from it?
I feel like my work makes a lot of men feel intimidated and a lot of women feel empowered. I would like men to be more okay with women taking up space and being more vocal about what they want or how they want to be perceived. I like the idea of the painting looking back at you: asserting itself. It's not passively being looked at but rather it interacts with the viewer. I would like people to interact with my painting and have a conversation with it. Personally I’m not a very confrontational person so there’s a little bit of role-play here in the amount of attitude that my paintings are serving (laughs) I’m far more confrontational in my work than I am in my normal life.
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I can’t help but ask about the delightful feline friends that pop up in the fringes of your work. I can even see one on a poster behind you on the Zoom call now! Is there a cheeky hidden meaning in the inclusion of these companions, or are you simply fond of cats?
I like both cats and dogs, I don’t discriminate. Cats are associated with lots of feminine traits and I think there's perhaps a mini-misogynist in people who don’t like cats. Cats don’t communicate directly, they’re mysterious, they’re sexy, they’re intimidating, and they know what they want. You never know what a cat is going to do!
And finally, I see that you have also participated in the group exhibition Becoming a Body of Water, a show inspired by the social experience of East-Central European migrant women and the concept of hydrofeminism. Have you got any other upcoming events that we should keep an eye out for?
I’m taking part in a charity auction called Samhain that opened on November 1st, through the Purslane charity. The profits from the sale of work by nine participating artists, including me, will support the Azahar Foundation. I’m also taking part in the Untitled Art Fair in Miami in December. I mean I’m not going to Miami but my work’s going to be in America and that’s pretty great!
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