In this time of global crisis, much of what’s happening in the contemporary art world seems to remain considerably detached from what’s going on outside of its bubble. But there is a rare exception to be found: the work of the punk rocker and painter Ella Tillema
I’ve said this to you before, but part of what I like about your work is how bold you are about your world views. You’ve never shied away from being political and setting things straight in a heavy- hitting fashion.
“The political exists, of course, and I suppose you tend see much more in illustrated comic art, but we seem to be living in very anxious times, where we are afraid to do things that can be contested and could be deemed not to be the ‘right’ or ‘appropriate’ thing to do. There’s a reluctance to do anything, in case you become excluded. But then again, the media climate is so cutthroat today – there is so much to lose in the public eye. People are hating, left and right, in whatever channel and forum.”
“When you think of political art, it’s so easy to address things that get you a pat on the back from everyone. Take solidarity, anti-racism or even capitalism. What you rarely see is artists making themselves the focus and looking critically at the social group to which they belong – the middle class scrutinising the middle class, for example. you say I’m bold, but sometimes I wish I were bolder. It’s easy to cop out when things are so polarised, with no room to move along the grey scale.”
One of the most ingenious artworks I saw of last year was your poster YOLO, which you made to highlight the situation of the refugee boats crossing the ocean towards Europe.
“When I did it, I felt that, as a whole, our society finds it so difficult to emotionally relate to those who are running away from horror. That scared me and still does. It’s so hard for us to think beyond numbers and start thinking of people as moms, dads and hipsters and the like. These people have no choice. And I thought, ‘How better to express this in a way that gets through to my own peers than by using language that is symbolic for my generation?’ The term YOLO in the Western world refers to guilty pleasure and just giving in to the moment – such as getting drunk out of your mind or spending money. Here, YOLO signifies a real, tangible riskthat has lethal consequences, showing how worlds apart we are.”
Does your art derive from thorough concept or does it organically grow on the canvas?
“What happens is that making art, in a way, becomes my own personal therapy. It’s a way to channel my fears, feelings and reactions to things that I see going on around me in the world. It’s my way to communicate. When there’s a troubling feeling, I keep elaborating on it in my painting – exhausting it, until it’s been fully dealt with, you could say. Take, for example, when police rode over demonstrators at a rally in Limhamn in the south of Sweden [in 2014]. When I see something like that, I have to do something immediately.”
You also have a background as a punk musician. how do your two roles as a politically orientated musician and painter differ, if at all?
“Well, the audience differs and the expectations are so different. Punk music is all about giving a ‘f*** you’ to the establishment, and as a painter, you are ultimately a part of the establishment you are bashing. The punk in me wants to dare even more and kick out, while the painter in me will go, ‘Hush, hush.’ It’s like two different personalities at once.”
Something that is striking, looking at your body of work, is the existence of children, which bears a certain symbolic value in light of the matters you call to mind. I like that, and I find children to be rare in contemporary art.
“I did a project called Good Luck when I was pregnant with my son – I intended to call it One Day, All of This Will Be yours. It speaks of how I was feeling. you become a parent and you increasingly think of what world you’re bringing your child into and what you are leaving behind. And then there’s that insufferable feeling that humanity is in crisis and it will continue to be. We will just continue to ruin things for future generations and there’s not really going to be a change.”
Tell us about your current solo exhibition, No Matter Who Wins, It Will Be Us Losing, at krognoshuset, in Lund.
“It’s a very dark exhibition, not just emotionally, but also visually. Everything runs in black. I’ve long felt a disappointment about the political climate in Sweden. My family has politically always been left. When the social democrats in Sweden signed their agreement to the closure of our borders, it really felt like such a blow to the face. One angle of the show, aside from painting, is revisiting historical socialist banners – originally red, but in my rendition, they are black as a symbol for sorrow. As such, these banners are hung on the exterior of the venue and there’s even a brass band playing mellowed renditions of tunes that are meant to tell of hope. But they don’t carry that hope here. The tunes instead belt out their sadness – as to their own death, you could say.”
No Matter Who Wins, It Will Be Us Losing, until March 13; Krognoshuset, Lund
Words by Ashik Zaman
1 Den Fula Ankunge (2012)
2 YOLO (2015)
3 I Fjärran Ekar Stöveltramp … (2014)
3 UNTITLED ( Jag Vill Inte Kvävas Av Luften Jag Andas) (2013)
4 Havet ligger blankt (2015)
5 En Dag Ska Allt Det Här Bli Ditt (2013)
6 Vem Som än Vinner är Det Vi Som Förlorar (2015)
7 Landskap (2015)