INTERVIEW WITH LUCY GRIGGS

What was it like living in Almaty, the former capital of Kazakstan?

It was very interesting, at times quite challenging, but ultimately rewarding and fun. The best and worst of it was that it was totally different in nearly everyway to the life I was used to in Australia. Everyday was an adventure into the unknown. This was mostly great but sometimes I craved the familiar.

Almaty is a pretty city at high altitude and at the base of the Tian Shan Mountains. We had a mountain stream pass by our apartment block. We loved living with the aesthetic of mountain ranges, streams and rooftops. That was my solace and escape.

Kazakstan is known for having vast climatic swings. How did you deal with the climate?

The climate was extreme: a maximum of +40C [Celcius] in summer and a minimum of -30C in winter. It was quite common to have weeks on end at -20C or -25C. The temperature would change by approximately 10 degrees each month. Summer was easy. The winters were challenging. Being prepared with the right gear was essential. We had some rubber covers for the base of our shoes, which gave some protection from the snow, but most importantly had small metal spikes on the bottom to prevent you slipping on the ice. On any first day of heavy snow the place would turn into a winter wonderland, which was beautiful. Some days on that snow would turn into mud and slush.

How popular is it to wear fur in winter?

I think it was traditional and essential in remote areas and most people, if not all, would wear it there. But it wasn’t fashion. Often furs would be sewn onto the inside of low-grade commercial clothing to improve the performance in the freezing weather.

Not everybody wore furs in the city, but furs and sheepskin coats, hats and scarves were much more commonplace in Kazakhstan than the West. Big fur coats were status symbols there like anywhere and people were less aware of the ethical debate around fur. Probably because falconry has been a big part of Kazakhstan’s history and identity (where trained birds like eagles and falcons would hunt and retrieve foxes, rabbits and even wolves for food and clothing).

Did you have a studio space?

Yes, in our apartment. I did have a specific room to work in, but it would sometimes be too sunny. So I’d move around and work from different rooms depending on where the sun was. I’d usually work in our breakfast room next to the kitchen during winter and the dining room during summer. The apartment had lots of windows and we had a different view from every room. It was good to mix it up for a change of scene. It was nice to see kids playing in the parks, groups of stray dogs and people tending to the gardens or walking up the stream.

You produced works that were made by placing objects on notebooks and then seeing the effect that the sun had on the colours of the notebooks. This seems to be a direct reference as to how harsh the sun and temperatures were?

Kazakhstan is famous for its year-round sunshine whether it be winter or summer. My desk was under a window facing south towards the mountains. The light, especially during winter, filled the room quite intensely. It’d be sunny despite being extremely cold (outside). In terms of the notebooks, I was drawn to them when I saw them at the markets we shopped at. They are very simple and old-fashioned with a utilitarian aesthetic and they have remained unchanged from the Soviet era (that ended just over twenty years ago). I’d noticed that these exercise books had varying shades of colour based on their exposure to sunlight, so I placed a little Joseph Beuys book on top of one and placed it under direct sunlight for a few days as an experiment to see what would happen.

Tell me about the exercise books that you have used to draw on. The books mark a sense of history that you have repurposed to illustrate your own experience of Kazakhstan’s changing identity.

They’re called Tetrad, which means notebook or exercise book in Russian and have twelve pages within covers that seem to be made with whatever paper stock is available at the time, so the colours and textures vary. Some of the everyday items you come across in Kazakhstan still have that communist era feel and these books certainly had that. (Another item that comes to mind, is the Kazakh chocolate made in the middle of town for almost a century in these fantastic old Soviet factories). You could imagine these books being made in a large centralised state-run paper factory. In that way, they’re a leftover from (and for me, symbolise) Soviet times, but continue to be produced and used today. I’d find them in supermarkets and at the markets and I’d buy a stack for less than a dollar. I suspect it won’t be long before these ‘tetrad’ are no longer in production. When I’d show local friends what I was doing with them, they’d get nostalgic about having used these notebooks when they were at school.

A lot of your drawings from Kazakhstan are taken from photographs from the perspective from the back of people. Is that a reference to your position as an outsider in this culture?

I took photographs of people from behind because early on I’d get questioned and harassed as to what I was photographing and why. People in Kazakhstan have healthy suspicion about people taking photos on the street of random things. I had to make every effort not to draw attention to myself (especially as a foreigner) and to avoid confrontation. I quickly found out that people are generally paranoid about being monitored because of their experience with the KGB, which is thought to still operate albeit through different modern guises. I also like the idea of the characters in the paintings being on a journey in time moving from the past and the present (represented by the old books) and moving forward into an unknown future.

Did you get to know other artists or locals in Almaty?

The local art scene was small and independent artists were unfunded and had no dedicated spaces to work and exhibit. The best of it while I was there was Tengri Umai Gallery. I did meet artists at openings, but there were language barriers.

We made some great friends in Almaty; locals, expats and other friends from nearby countries like Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Belarus and the Ukraine. We loved being invited over for dinner with local families or on day trips out of town.

What did you find the most restrictive thing about Almaty?

Language. Not many people speak English and my Russian is very basic. Apart from walking (which I did a lot), it was difficult for me to get around by myself. This is because there was minimal public transport and most people used gypsy taxis, which I was less comfortable with as a foreign woman.

The corruption of the local police was also a minor hazard. Shakedowns for trumped up misdemeanours were common. Icy footpaths and roads were treacherous. In terms of my art it was the lack of availability or access to stuff I wanted like art materials. Internet access was apparently monitored and innocent pages I would access would the next time be blocked. I wasn’t able to freely photocopy in the library. I had to list off all of the page numbers I wanted copied and have a photocopy person copy my pages. Again this would have been a hangover from communism when information was controlled.

How did you survive?

Life was full of ups and downs. While it was challenging it was also exciting and rewarding. I was grateful (most of the time) to have the opportunity to live in Almaty. Life got better when I learnt the Russian alphabet – it was liberating. Once I’d learnt this I could start reading the street signs (before I would use an English map and count the number of blocks I’d have to walk to get somewhere). I also loved that a lot of shop signs were English words written in Cyrillic. I required the assistance of Russian speaking friends for lots of things i.e. to translate the functions on a washing machine or to explain the amenity billing system (I had to calculate how much water and electricity was used by looking at the meters and subtracting the amounts from the previous bill and there were specific multiplication methods that I will never understand). I’d stockpile things I liked at the shops (and supply was often unpredictable). I brought my paints over from Melbourne, although being forced to use different materials and methods such as the Tetrad notebooks and sunlight was excellent – forced creativity. I’d overdose on things like avocado and sashimi when I returned to Australia.

You mentioned previously the gypsy taxi and negotiating a fare features in your Republic of Bees series. How does the gypsy taxi work?

Almost everyone with a car is a taxi. Someone will pull up if you’re standing along the street with your hand out. You tell them where you’d like to go (usually a cross street) and a minor fare will be quickly agreed. Gypsy taxis were incredibly convenient and very cheap. Rarely would you wait more than a minute to be picked up and it was hard to take a ride that cost more than A$3. It was fun traversing with drivers in broken Russian and I loved the variety of music they’d play. I think they were pretty interested in us also and may not have ever met any Australians before. Drivers would often mention any Australian references they knew, like Nicole Kidman or the Queensland floods.

Did you ever feel like you were being ripped off?

Mostly not. People were pretty honest considering. But there was one shameless guy who tried to charge us $200 rather than $20 for fruit and vegetables (thinking we wouldn’t realise). Sometimes we were charged more as foreigners for gypsy/civilian taxis, but it wasn’t much (maybe 40 cents or so), so we didn’t care. Corrupt police are rife and being asked to pay an on the spot ‘fine’, for example, for being a foreigner without your ‘documents’ or being charged extra in import duties was a constant.

Colourful balloons and Disney references feature heavily as well.

I chose the image of balloon sellers as they symbolised for me the many contradictions I saw in Kazakhstan. It’s a very romantic place – there is this whole love and romantic thing going on that we don’t experience so much here. Young couples kissing in parks, long stem red roses, and of course, the balloon sellers walking the streets. The whole concept of love is celebrated and you see lots of sweet romantic things. But there is also a dark side to that as well. The balloon sellers I felt are a part of that. It was pointed out to me that some of the balloon sellers are actually drug dealers. Young dudes walking around in Adidas trackies selling balloons and more.

There’s lightness to your style. Perhaps it’s the watercolours and the colour palette as well as the isolated figures that don’t give the work the dark context that they often come from?

Thanks. While some of the images are sad or even a bit depressing and the Soviet aesthetic can be a little dour or stoic, I did want the works to be hopeful and reflect the positive feelings I had for the place and the people.

Tell me about some of the protagonists in your works.

Adidas Tracksuit and Miniature Horse is a scene of a teenage boy leaning on his miniature horse as a slightly forlorn figure – he’s trying to get people to ride the horse on a beautiful spring day in the park and business didn’t look to be doing so well that day. I’m not sure who was less impressed, the boy or the horse. I’ve also painted groups of police and border guards who had their training centre just up the road from where we lived. High Heels depicts a young woman in an outfit people in Australia seem surprised about – they often have the misconception that the women all wear conservative Islamic coverings.

Do you think that going to Kazakhstan was a turning point in your work?

It was good timing in that in my previous show Butterflies and the human soul I started painting small figurative works with a magic realist narrative. I pretty much kept going in a similar vein but the content of the work evolved with the new world I experienced every day in Kazakhstan. The Republic of Bees, all painted in Kazakhstan, was my first show at Milani Gallery.

Being in Kazakhstan definitely made me more aware of global politics and bigger geopolitical issues and I continue to be interested in this and seek out news outside of the Australian news media. I think this interest is reflected in the show I had after returning from Kazakhstan, The Nature of Things.

Which particular artists peaked your interest while you lived in Almaty?

I was interested in what was happening in art in the region at the time of the Russian/Bolshevik Revolutions and then the ban on art other than social realism during Soviet times. Artists like Malevich, El Lissitzky and Kandinsky. Leftovers of their art can be seen in tiling, interior design and architecture today. I tried to construct my own mini-revolution and borrowed some of this imagery for The Republic of Bees.

I really liked Pavel Pepperstein’s drawings. He’s a contemporary artist making political commentary about Russia, the former Soviet Union and the hangovers from that time.

Interview Melbourne 2015