Understanding deeply the world we live in to embrace it is what matters to Dominika Kowynia. Through figurative oil paintings, the Polish artist manages to share a critical vision of our times. Drawing on what surrounds her, she is not afraid of failure in order to portray what she feels is important. Her work reflects on her main inspirations coming from modern literature and her commitment to societal issues, such as animal’s welfare and feminism. By also capturing everyday life scenes referring to her personal history, Dominika Kowynia achieves brushing the midpoint between a personal and a universal experience.
Dominika, you graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in Katowice (Poland). How was the process of discovering your self-expression through oil painting like?
When I was taking my entry exam at the Academy of Fine Arts in Katowice, I’d already been able to draw and paint realistically. At the time, it was the basis for being accepted at the Academy. During my studies, I gave up on realism and started doing large abstract paintings, where some stories were hidden, invisible to the viewer but relevant to me. But after graduating, I realized I couldn’t do paintings of that size and I had to ask myself what was the real point of my artwork.
I started reducing size and expression; I painted mainly simplified black and white portraits of my relatives, done with rhythmic brushstrokes. When I mastered this imagery, I decided to get back to figurative painting – this simple kind of imaging seemed to me a sort of trap, a mindless pattern. Over the next two years, I was doing realistic paintings but something changed yet again, and in a natural way, I started combining realism with previous, more abstract techniques.
Curiously enough, when I started doing realistic paintings again, I realized how important they are, possibly due to the apparent ‘transparency’ of this kind of painting. And that’s when I started creating socially-engaged art, being a sort of empathic way to look at things. This commitment, more or less clear to the viewer, is still with me today.
Your body of work is mainly figurative. You draw inspiration from the tangible world, yet we also find some artworks that are more abstract, featuring very geometric forms and colour blocks that make the scene sort of blurred or even confusing. As you just told, you’ve been moving a bit between the two. How do you find a midpoint between figurative representation and abstraction?
This transition from realistic and figurative representations to abstract and confusing forms is intuitive. While doing a painting, which is a long process, things change, and I think about the given subject very intensely. Even if you have rational and deepened insights, sooner or later, the ‘great unknown’ pops up or seemingly opposing theories start finding common ground. In some sense, these are unexplained moments in the picture, this kind of intuitive painting, illogical for the viewer.
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What led you to become an artist? How did you develop your artistic sensitivity?
I guess my interest in art comes from trying to figure out the world I live in. It happened that when I was a kid, I wasn’t told enough about life. I would say I had bigger gaps in the knowledge of the world than the average child; for various reasons, my parents failed to tell me about life. I was away from the rest of my family: my grandmas, grandpas, aunties, and then I probably didn’t ask, just tried to gather information on my own and put it together in some logical picture of the whole.
I have a great longing for logic, and even today, I try to understand as much as possible, fishing for the absurdities of reality at the same time. Each painting is an attempt to understand the world; each one is also a failure, which is why it’s an endless job. There are new things to think about or earlier problems appear in a new light, mutate. I’ve always liked the fact that painting is a sort of ‘private’ language, a different kind of communication from the one usually functioning between people, with which earlier I did not do too well, today I do better. However, painting remains for me the best way of conversation with myself.
Both in the art and the fashion worlds, there is a sort of obsession with post-soviet aesthetics: Poland lived through a communist system/regime, do you feel it has influenced you somehow?
You may be surprised but I don’t feel communism has influenced me in any form. However, I feel influenced by the visual aspects of the world I lived in when I was a kid. I grew up in Libya; I lived there with my parents for eight years. It might have happened that some aspects of the Libyan reality were similar to the Polish ones. Undoubtedly, Gaddafi’s propaganda portraits have influenced my perception of colour and form. If one can see some visual influence of communism in my works, it must be a coincidence or something subconscious because I just didn’t mean it. I was back in Poland during the transformation period. That transitional period has had a far greater influence on the aesthetics I use than communism.
Modern literature is a big influence on your work too. What’s the relationship between your paintings and the books/texts you read?
I’m a compulsive reader, and to be honest, I find literature the most valuable achievement of humankind. If I could choose freely a talent and medium, it would surely be literature. There are some female writers who’ve been inspiring me for years, shaping the way I think about the world and awakening my imagination. Female writers influence me the most, although I also read non-female literature, of course. Virginia Woolf is the first female author I just fell in love with. I was deeply impressed by her books The Waves and Orlando. In a way, they helped me to observe, accept and appreciate my inner flow of thoughts.
At the same time, I discovered Margaret Atwood and for many years, I’ve been reading all her books available in bookstores. I was most into the books telling stories about everyday life, but I was addicted to her writing to such a degree that I didn’t even realize I started to be interested in the area of future projections and her speculative fiction. Now, I appreciate it because her visions appeared to be prophetic, and by accepting absurdities of the world created in her novels, I learned to accept reality. Doris Lessing is the last I want to mention here – a brave novelist and woman. All these writers dare to write what they think and don’t narrow down their writing to one topic. I’m attracted to that kind of writing where anything can happen. It’d be great to paint like that.
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Since you love literature so much, could you recommend us some books?
I can recommend Memoirs of the Survivor, The Golden Notebook and two toms of Lessing’s autobiography, but I can’t guarantee they impress anyone but me. Although I read a lot of contemporary literature, I like going back to writers from the pre-internet era. It’s surprising and stimulating to observe their perspective – just like any change of perspective in a way…
Through your artwork, you choose to capture daily scenes. Does it have a link with your personal and family experiences?
Yes, family photos were a sort of starting point in my painting for a long time. It was connected with working through certain topics and stories, trying to understand what happened, who was who and to organize the world. The specific photo was a portal to these processes. At the same time, in the process of painting, I was often able to move from individual history to a broader perspective, perceiving the universality of such family events. Today, I sometimes use these photos or search the Internet for photos of everyday situations.
However, now my work seems to have the opposite direction because the idea starts with a thought – a topic –, then I imagine how this problem is best illustrated and I look for photos of specific situations, most often among ordinary photographs shared by people and popping up after entering certain phrases in Google search. Based on them, I build a picture that is very different from them afterwards.
You are defending ecology and a lot of your art refers to nature. At the same time, you seem concerned about animal’s conditions too. You represent them dead through accidents or hunting, for example. Is there a sort of environmental and animal rights fight underlying these artworks? Or are they just ‘objective’ depictions of everyday life?
To be honest, it all started with animal rights and with my love for a dog, which has grown into empathy for all animal species. Many years ago, I stopped eating meat and tried to learn as much as possible about how our (human) relationships with other species look like. I was terrified, and as an enthusiastic beginner, I felt a strong desire to enlighten the rest of humankind. I signed up to an organization fighting for the rights of farm animals, and just as quickly, I gave up this activity and decided to start doing some changes in my personal life and also regularly supporting financially Otwarte Klatki – the best animal rights organization in Poland.
At the time, I was unable to isolate one problem from many others, which was problematic – for example, I couldn’t listen calmly someone telling me that for financial and time reasons, he couldn’t prepare a vegan meal for his family. My experience tells me that I am no revolutionary, I can’t technically be an authority, that’s why I support those who are up to it.
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What about the environment?
The link between my interest in animals’ rights and this topic seems to me quite simple. It’s hard not to notice how closely these situations are related, how animal husbandry affects the environment and how the destruction of nature affects not only people but also animals. I’m deeply concerned about it. The paintings you mention, for example, these two with hunting women, I created them because there are two important threads coming together: animal rights and feminism. I saw similar photos on the Internet and I read this disturbing comment: ‘how can a WOMAN do such a thing?’ Such an irritating question…
Let’s deepen into this last issue. As a female artist, are your paintings a way to defend female/male equality? Do you take any position in today’s feminism?
Yeah, I’m kind of big into women’s rights. In the past years, the Black Protest demonstrations against tightening Poland’s already restrictive abortion laws have changed my country. I’m still afraid of the direction in which this is going – not only in Poland, by the way. Looking at women's history and their long fight for the inalienable right to self-determination, listening to politicians talk about ‘the only right model’ of the family and the role of women in society can generate hysteria. I don’t want to be a part of this vision.
However, before people say yes to this vision, there’s a long-term process of shaping them through education, influencing the basic aspects of reality and everyday life. That’s why not only rebellion and disagreement make sense, but the ability of independent, flexible thinking and access to diversity in the broad sense. In my mind, patriarchy, the dramatic effects of capitalism, the ecological situation and the animals’ drama are closely related.
Being creative requires freshness. When you lack inspiration, is there a go-to place, person, book, song, etc. that helps you unblock your creativity?
I don’t have one remedy for awakening my creativity. Life is what really matters to me, life is more important than art. I need some serious thoughts, a sort of difficulty to start the process of painting. That’s why I can’t paint non-stop. At bottom, the creativity perceived in my works comes from changing my way of thinking about life. I have to know what’s going on around, talk to people, read books and even do sport. My paintings are a sort of extract from what life brings. Although I sometimes look at other artists’ works with envy, I’m ok with being an ordinary man at the same time. Starting a painting process from scratch, being aware that it may end up with a failure. It’s tricky, but so far, it’s been feeding my creativity the most.
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Social media is a springboard to get some visibility. Nowadays, anyone can share their work and become famous. What is your relationship with social media like? As an artist, how do you stand out from the others?
I have a love-hate relationship with social media. At the moment, I’m definitely in a ‘hate’ phase. Social media helped me to get my artwork noticed – Szara Gallery in Katowice started to represent me. However, you must know that I decided to put up my artwork on the Internet after twenty years of quiet, ‘no publicity’ period. I like following the profiles of other artists sharing their artwork on Facebook and Instagram, and in this regard, social media give us great access to their latest works of art. However, I have no idea how to efficiently and effectively promote my artwork on the Internet. And I hate taking selfies!
You’ve exhibited quite a lot, mainly in Poland. Do you have any plans to show abroad these upcoming months?
As far as I can tell, this year (2020), my artwork will be exhibited at two individual and a few group exhibitions in Poland. But, of course, it would be great to show my works abroad.
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