Shadi Al-Atallah x Elsa RuoyIn Conversation
Shadi: In one of your interviews, you mentioned your love for art began when your Grandma would draw women in dresses and you would colour them in – I’m interested in your relationship with figurative painting, depicting bodies and figures. Have you always painted people/body parts and when how did your interest in painting the way you do rn grow?
Elsa: Yeah when I was little my Nan used to draw barbie dolls in dresses and I’d colour it in. But I used to like watching her draw it and then she’d give it to me and I’d probably butcher it. But she did really nice faces and everything, and I quite liked watching her do that. And she’d have this like, craft box whenever we’d go around, because every Friday both my parents were working so I’d go to my nans house. And in the evening, she had this craft box so we used to make stuff with them, make little figures, so that’s where I really started doing art. Which sounds so cliché, it’s like ‘when I was a child.’
Shadi: No but there’s always this moment when it clicks and you’re like, I like this.
Elsa: Yeah exactly and at school I really liked to do that and I was joking with my friend yesterday because at school I didn’t realise I wanted to do art. I went to college thinking I wanted to do fashion, but at school during GCSE I used to spend all day at the art room and really enjoy it, it just didn’t clock that that’s what I like to spend my time doing.
I think second year of college I was like wait, I don’t actually want to do fashion, I just like the painting and drawing side of it, so I was like oh!
Shadi: Have you always been inclined towards drawing people and figures?
Elsa: Yeah, I think so, I think that’s why I went into fashion. I think people are interesting, they’re so relatable really because we are them. I find drawing people interesting because the different range of emotions you can get with just a body, or feelings, or atmospheric feelings, you can get with just a body. I find it quite interesting how you can play with that. I believe it’s a good vessel to communicate more abstract ideas of self through the body and what they do. When they kind of pervert each other’s body and it’s a blending, like an intrusion into others. It’s physical but it represents parts of yourself that aren’t physical, like how parts of yourself intermingle.
Shadi: You explore these emotional states with figures that almost melt into each other, and they’re usually surrounded by bodily fluids I love these horror and grotesque elements in your work. How would you describe this relationship between sexuality, emotional states and horror?
Elsa: Well, I think, there’s a lot of it that relates to me personally. Every painting that I do, even though they’re other people, it’s always about me and it’s always about my relationship, with other people, but normally myself. I think I have a lot of thoughts that I don’t find savoury. These thoughts are quite dark and violent, like expressing a part of me that I leave quite unspoken. It’s like this idea that you’re trying to be a nice person, but inside, I don’t know if I actually am a nice person. I don’t know what a nice person is. And sometimes it bothers me, this idea that, I feel like there’s this thing inside of me that’s not so savoury as the world or society would like it to be. That’s where the violent aspect comes out in my work. These grotesque women are this representation of me and how I feel about myself.
Shadi: Is it also to do with how, I guess humans present themselves as civil and advanced creatures but we’re actually pretty violent and primal.
Elsa: Yeah, we’re violent. And I always joke that everything we do is just a primal instinct but we think about it too deeply and we make it into something serious.
Shadi: we just dress it up.
Elsa: I was talking to my mate about having things in your bedroom and you’re just like ‘look at my things’ and you line them all up to one side and people are like ‘ah nice things!’ It’s like when birds have little things and they show it to their mates and they’re like ‘look at what nice things I’ve found, do you want to mate me now?’ It’s just as simple as that really isn’t it?
Shadi: yeah like home décor is just an extravagant mating call
Elsa: Or like before I get my period I always get this urge to clean and make my house really nice and it’s like when animals get fertile and they do this nesting thing, but our brains just think about it too deeply. Everything we do is just weird primal instinct.
Shadi: It makes me think of the film Zootopia, have you seen it?
Elsa: No I haven’t.
Shadi: I really like it, it’s a pixar film and part of it is about predators have let go of their primal violent instincts to fit into this metropolitan civil society. It’s really funny because when you boil everything down we’re just animals pretending to not be animals. It’s cool because it deals with these themes that a lot of horror movies also address, the dark parts of ourselves that we have and what would happen if we didn’t have to supress them because of the societies we’ve created.
Elsa: It’s kind of like the Babadook, that’s about her mental illness isn’t it? In the end the son is like ‘when can I see the Babadook’ and she’s like ‘when you’re older.’ What you’re saying is he’s gonna get a mental illness when he’s older, basically.
But yeah, it is interesting. I think horror movies are interesting, but not when they’re stupid. I watched one the other day, I think it was a BBC one. You know when it’s a proper BBC horror movie, it quite interesting because it was about people’s relationships with themselves.
I also watched another one, a really funny one the other day, it was a horror comedy, slasher movie. It’s called Prevenge and it’s about this woman who’s pregnant and her boyfriend died and her baby talks to her and tells her to kill people inside her stomach, so she goes on killing sprees, it’s really funny. The whole thing was filmed in two weeks and the actress was really pregnant when it was filming. Even though it’s funny in some parts, I think it’s about mental illness, like how she was spiralling after the death of her husband and postnatal/prenatal depression.
Shadi: That’s my favourite genre of horror, like horror comedies that incorporate a lot of humour and don’t take themselves too seriously.
There’s actually a sense of humour and awkwardness to the figures in your work that I really enjoy. Do you find humour important in art/ do you view your work as humorous?
Elsa: There’s some of them that I think are quite serious and then there are some that I find quite funny. But yeah I think it is important, I do like humour in work, especially if they’re dealing with subjects that are quite dark because I think for myself, I don’t think that when things in life are really dark, there’s still some kind of humour to be found. Even when everything is so bad, there can still be something funny out of it, or a joke made. Especially with me and my personality, I always like making jokes. I think it’s an interesting way to talk about discourse because everything is so serious a lot of times. A lot of times in art, it’ll be about a subject and it’ll be done so seriously, which can be good and it really puts the point across. I also think these things need to be taken seriously, but by the people they affect, they don’t need to be taken so seriously. You can have this ability to laugh at it and laugh at yourself and laugh at the idea that what if it could actually be really bizarre or just unexplainable. I guess because it is bizarre – life, emotions, relationships with people.
Shadi: I agree and I think that sometimes humour can spark up a conversation about a serious issue more than presenting it seriously sometimes because I feel like people are afraid to have a dialogue when it is.
When I come across really serious work I find it harder to speak about it
Elsa: Yeah, I feel like I can’t talk to the artist about their work because I don’t want to say something and then it’s like – because it’s so serious, it doesn’t leave room for interpretation, because if you get the interpretation wrong, it could be offensive. I think with my works as well, people find them offensive. But I think they’re offensive and funny. You can have an opinion on them which is offensive and funny.
Shadi: You describe this idea of a monstrous woman. I’d love to hear more about it. Is it describing how sexual desire especially in women is seen as something obscene and taboo? Also how does your queer identity translate if at all, into these ideas?
Elsa: Yeah I think so - my queer identity is something that I’m still not completely to grips with, I feel like it’s a process and I’m only 21, I think that I only realised I liked girls when I was like 16. It’s still kind of progressing from there. I find it difficult to talk about it in a way because I don’t really know where I stand with myself and my queer identity.
And this idea of the monstrous woman, I find it quite an interesting theme because I feel like throughout my whole life, I’ve never really fit into this ideal of what a woman should be. I think a lot of people feel like that. There’s this idea of how a woman should be but then a woman doesn’t necessarily have to be a woman to be a woman. Which might not make much sense, but I mean I would identify as a woman, but my idea of what a woman is hasn’t ever fit into society’s idea. I’ve always felt this feeling of disconnect. When I was younger I used to really like characters of women that were the evil, horrible bad ones and not this perfect idea of femininity. I guess it’s this idea of alternative femininity.
I remember I used to really like the villians or the horror movie women, they’re villans and monsters but I feel like they’re not completely feminine, like they’ve had their femininity stripped of them, which makes them monstrous – and yeah I’ve always had an affinity to that. Because they were still women but they could also be hyper-feminine, I liked the ones that were hyper-feminine. The ones that had long dark hair, big boobs and really tight red dresses. They were always hyper-feminine in the way that they looked but their personality was stripped of femininity, they’re the ones that I really related to. I think that’s where I formed this idea of the monstrous woman because they’re women, but they’re not.
Shadi: Yeah like they’re feminine but not in a way that appeals to the male gaze.
I’ve noticed in your more recent paintings a shift in how you depict bodily fluid. I love your new paintings especially “The Cherry Popped As My Ears Did”, the bodily fluids in these new works feels more realistic and ‘wet’ vs the more cartoony/graphic way of painting fluids in your previous work. Are those changes intentional, or do they feel more like a natural progression?
Elsa: They feel more like a natural progression. I started doing the close-up ones because I was getting bored of doing bodies after bodies. The ideas seemed to get stale, it was the same tropes repeated – that kind of thing. It just felt like the same image different layout, and it wasn’t doing anything for me.
So, I decided to go about the close-up ones by painting parts of the body that I really struggled with – I started with an ear to see if I could paint an ear and then toe, and hair – I’ve always struggled with hair. I guess it was a craftsmanship kind of thing, just to get it better because there’s parts of paintings that I didn’t feel happy with. But after doing the close-up ones, with my newest one, when I did the body, it got a more detailed and a lot more realistic, but with the same shine and everything.
I think it works it kind of give this – well before they looked more like characters whereas now they’re more substantial and actually really there. I think more weird in a way too because before they looked like blow up fake people that weren’t real, but now having this detail, it makes it real. It emphasises this grotesque idea of it.
I think there’s a lot of changes in my life as well, and whenever I have big changes in my life my art style normally seems to switch up a bit. It’s like, ahh that’s changing, I’ll just change everything.
Shadi: Do you plan out your work before you paint it or do you just go for it?
Elsa: Yeah really roughly, with a really quick line pencil drawing and then I just draw it on and I don’t really use references, except for the one of me. When I made the painting I was like ‘ah I don’t know how to feel about this.’ I don’t know how people do self-portraits all the time. I was like why did I do that, it just makes me feel really weird – it makes me really uncomfortable seeing myself on a canvas.
Shadi: I completely get it that’s why none of my self-portraits are actually of me, because it feels really awkward to paint yourself and stare at your own picture.
Elsa: Yeah and I feel like it looks awkward as well, you can sense the awkwardness of me painting myself.
I feel like the next two I’m painting are gonna be actually quite serious. I think they’re really serious but it’s funny I feel like other people see the ones that I think are serious and don’t think they’re very serious at all.
I know my artwork is about me, but I feel like they can start a conversation with people and themselves or others. Even though they’re inherently about me, I find it funny that people are sometimes people are offended by my paintings, because they’re always about me and parts of myself. Even the ones of men, they’re still inherently about me, so people get offended, and I find it quite funny. I don’t know what’s there to get offended about – I guess they’re offended by the parts that some people might find offensive, but I think they take it personally – you’re taking my personality personally.
Shadi: Do you think the people that take offence to it don’t really understand that it’s about you and parts of yourself but instead they might think it’s just there to be shocking?
Elsa: I think so, I do think people think it’s shock value. I also think I can be a bit naïve sometimes because I’m like ‘I don’t find it offensive so nobody else will.’ But yeah, it doesn’t really bother me – I find it funny, because to think like that now, it’s very restricting.
Shadi: Do you think it’s because they box it in as political work vs personal work?
Elsa: Yeah, the work I make, I don’t make it for a political reason, but obviously ‘we live in a society’ – so yeah it’ll be inherently political. I think it’s the fact that I’m a queer woman, so they think that in itself is pretty political. I also think that women doing horror has always been a bit controversial anyway hasn’t it? I don’t necessarily see it as horror work but I think people do sometimes and I think that in itself is quite controversial, so it does become political.
I think sometimes people care more about the artist than the artwork. Obviously, it all feeds into it, but at the end of the day, I am not my artwork. I think that’s a distinction that’s not made sometimes – like, I am not all these concepts.
Shadi: It can be frustrating because if you’re not a white straight guy then you’re ‘something.’
Elsa: Yeah you’re ‘something.’ You automatically become a thing that’s not a person.
Shadi: and finally, do you have anything coming up next year?
Elsa: Yeah, I have a solo show with Guts Gallery and I want to make that one good, I’m excited about that - and I also have another project that I’m working on with a friend, but that’s more to do with my latex suits.
Using a female gaze, Rouy explore's new ways of expressing semi-autobiographical and social narratives. The work follows a discourse central to the human condition.
They have an interest in female sexual expression and the imperfect-self. Their artworks satirise immoral thoughts that are terrifying, centring around feelings of shame and guilt. To explore this, Rouy paints hedonistic, grotesque figures often of monstrous women with their sexual organs revealed. To imitate my hyperawareness of having a body Rouy subverts and delocalises depictions of female and male genitalia to form androgynous or fluid figures that resonate with the artist, while also removing identity. They use the imagery, that has historically been understood as taboo, to critique and subvert mainstream representations of women.