Back Front Brain, 2016, oil, gesso and pastel on canvas, 1000 x 800mm

On Painting & Play

“Boredom, freedom and some chaos shaped my mind,” muses Auckland-based artist Anoushka Akel. “My father has a sizeable imagination and he encouraged magical thinking. My mother was a natural draughtswoman whose facility I admired. She was often working so my brothers and I were left to our devices, exploring the garden and bush, making towers around our sleeping animals, and creating sound studios to record 80s albums.”



Inspired by “Spike Milligan and his protégées”, as a child, Anoushka loved to tell stories: “So much so, that fantasy was often blurred with reality and I’d spend weeks making elaborate plans for impossible events”.



Picasso famously said that we are all artists as children, the difficulty is remaining one as we grow up. I ask Anoushka if she believes we lose our creative urges, or simply lock them away in our subconscious.



“The reading I’ve been doing around alternative education models suggests that contemporary western society is set-up to shut down creativity,” she says. “One reason being that we give more space to fear than we do to curiosity. The former inhibits the latter and unfortunately we have the balance wrong. I’d like to think that imagination is not lost. That it’s dormant and waiting for the right conditions. But, studies suggest otherwise.”



I inquire as to how time affects a working artist — does age generally come with greater skill and understanding of their craft. “Yes, generally the more an artist practises, the more they understand their craft,” says Anoushka. “But it’s not a given that the work will be more interesting. Early work can often have more risk and misunderstanding, which makes it more exciting.”



Recent motherhood has altered Anoushka’s outlook on both her life and painting. “It has changed the way I think about making art,” she tells me. “In fact, it has changed my relationship to most things. I’m much more interested in taking care of myself and my audience than I was before. By that, I mean that I’m more conscious of the ideas that I choose to spend time with and the stories that I am contributing to the cultural world.”



Anoushka also contributes through teaching. “There are large sacrifices made — it’s not easy to get used to the condition of uncertainty that being an artist brings,” she says. “Most artists I know do teaching, shop, or bar work to support their practice.” Since 2009, Anoushka has been a professional teaching fellow at Elam School of Fine Arts, where she also studied. “I believe that if there is one thing that all teachers need to be, it is encouraging,” she says. “You don’t need to be a master but you do need to be excited about the process of learning together.”



I ask if anyone can be taught art.



“From my perspective, what you can nurture in anyone is enthusiasm for art making by providing the right conditions for play and practice,” she says. “If our early experiences of materials — whether it be words, clay, paint, or pencils — are met with positivity from our teachers, we are much more likely to want to relive that experience. Each time you return, you develop knowledge about that material and it fuels further investigation and learning.”



Anoushka’s work has been exhibited throughout New Zealand, as well as galleries in Australia, and Europe (where she also served an internship at the Peggy Guggenheim Museum in Venice, Italy). “I’m always note-taking,” she says, “working out what’s possible.” Sometimes ideas carry over from previous shows, meaning there’s rarely “a clean starting and ending point”. She’s currently influenced “by a group of intelligent, empathetic women”, who are also mothers, working as artists, teachers, musicians, medical practitioners and environmental scientists.



I finish by asking Anoushka if she believes art should have a message, and she says that owing to the current climate of global instability, there is much pressure for artwork to be didactic. “But,” she adds, “I am optimistic that there is also a place for poetry.”


Words: Jamie Christian Desplaces
Images courtesy: Hamish McKay Gallery